TO KISS AN ICON
For some twenty years this book has been a favorite traveling companion on the spiritual path. Part spiritual memoir, part travelogue, part poetry, part comedy, it is all treasure. It called to me this Lent, and I answered.
The author begins the book as a confirmed agnostic who saw no validity to traditional religion and especially none to Christianity. His wife had recently converted to Orthodoxy. They find themselves vacationing on Patmos — yes, that Patmos where St. John had the series of visions we call The Revelation — where daily they are surrounded by the culture of Orthodox Christianity. Eventually, they purchase a house there where they lived several months each year.
One evening they end up at the Monastery of Diasozousa where the entire town has gathered for the night service of the Feast of the Dormition (the falling asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary). The monastery houses a wonder-working icon, and the worshipers queue up to kiss it, something that the author has strongly resisted in the past. I quote now from the book:
A long queue of local people was waiting to kiss the wonder-working icon. Not having escaped to the fringes of the crowd, I was pulled in. We shuffled along, and as I chatted with people I knew — the electrician, the grocer, the carpenter, the plumber — I was struck by the fact that these people, practical working men with no very obvious religious slant to their lives, were doing something extremely odd. They were all patiently standing there in their best suits waiting to kiss a painting. What was really going on?
I remembered something that Philip Sherrard, an Orthodox writer whom I admired, had written about Western society’s having lost its way. Materialism had become the creed of the majority, and it was opposed not by the churches but by those who claimed a vague spiritual allegiance or inkling which they insisted had nothing to do with “organized religions.” But Sherrard pointed out that any genuine religious tradition provided for some formal discipline as a means of spiritual realization. He wrote that people who attached themselves to these modern, rather gaseous trends of New Worldism were spiritually inferior to the simple believers who practiced a faith sincerely but with only the slightest knowledge of the metaphysical principles on which it was based.
As we stood in the queue at Diasozousa, I realized that these people, by the simple act of kissing the icon, were rejecting the closed system of materialism in which most people of the West are living today. Even if the act is a formal one, done because everybody does it, to revere an icon is to perform an action which proclaims that the material world is not the end — that there is a spiritual dimension to life which we may not understand and which we may ignore in our daily business of living but which on occasions such as this we can come together and publicly acknowledge. To kiss an icon, to cross oneself, to say “an theli o Theos” (God willing), however perfunctorily or unthinkingly these actions are performed, is to strike a blow at the closed universe of the materialists.