Icons and the space alien robot

My gloved fingers tapped the open commentary, my pen ready beside my Moleskine. I sipped hot water, hunched over the table. The coffee maker burbled on the counter and the books and icons kept quiet in their spaces.

This chilly morning I volunteered at Pilgrim’s Way, the bookstore in our church, as I have most Thursdays since sometime this summer. Soon after starting to attend St. John’s I asked if I might help there, seeing as reading is my favorite way to learn. Besides, there’s a bunch of icon faces to become acquainted with. I figured I could discover my own pace in greeting these folk, these new/old stories.

Icons, I’ve noticed, look sort of like cartoons. Maybe you could call them graphic pictorials, in the way we speak of graphic novels. But that would be a misleading term. And I’m an ignorant Protestant, still, even though I have joined the Church (which I also call the ancient church and Orthodoxy). What I’m coming to see, perhaps, is that through an icon I gaze intently at one aspect of reality — a significant aspect, in this case, because I was unaware of it before in my experience.

This unawareness applies as well to many aspects within and around the Church. Because I believe in this manner — that this organism is something real, but that I had no knowledge of it previously — I peruse my inner landscape and come up with analogies. Recently I thought about the body. It’s perhaps a good term, seeing as St. Paul used it, but I’m not exactly going where his analogy did. From my 21st century, abundant-information vantage point, I think about trying to describe a living human body to someone who had never encountered one. I would need to conscript a space alien life form, from a robot-ruled planet, so that she would only be familiar with what we call artificial intelligence, artificial movement, artificial life.

I suppose I’d need to be an alien robot, as well, for this to work, so say I was one. How would I give a clue to my fellow alien robot friend what I now see in reality, what I now believe? That creatures exist (okay, she already knows that); that they have arms, legs, facial features (in this analogy she and I do, too, so that’s not new); but that they have an inner design (perhaps I’d call it an inner orientation) that is like what we’re aware of but yet is so very different. My friend would rightly be skeptical.

They bleed, I would tell her. Huh? she would reply. Well, I would continue. They have this stuff they call blood that oozes from beneath their skin when it’s pierced. This blood comes from veins and arteries (don’t ask me to explain those, I’d tell her; I can’t). Inside these “more real” bodies, this blood circulates around organs that, if you were to cut the body open to examine it, would gush out into a globulous mess. But when they are inside the functioning person, the body is more than the sum of its members.

My alien robot friend’s face would contort into the expression I would well know means I’m crazy, and she would go back to her synthetic cocktail, and I would wish I could show her these beings, this organic thing that goes on with them.

Say that, in this alien robot culture, we believe in God. My friend certainly wouldn’t get why or how I think God made these other beings who are “more real” and who (somewhere in the lost annals of our past) actually “made” us and sent us off to planet Gizmo.

Icon of the Prodigal Son

Lest you think I’ve drifted from my intention with this blog post (I actually have), I will return now to icons, to the element in the Church I wasn’t aware of a year ago except as old pictures, old artwork. To me they were nothing, really, seeing as I don’t care (as much as I should, at least) for art. Today, nine months after I got the nudge to take Orthodoxy seriously, I believe that these pictures called icons are an organic element within the Body, if you will, and that they have their function within it that they were divinely designed for. Slicing the Church open (i.e., reading an Internet article or getting descriptions from just one Orthodox person) doesn’t help much in apprehending how the Body truly functions. How it might be an organic creation somehow “more real” than others we know.

At Pilgrim’s Way one warm Thursday this summer, I was dusting icons when I looked up, startled, to see a young guy staring. He looked past me at the wall of icons; his eyes held a glassy expression. I suppose he meant to look mystical. “This artwork’s wonderful,” he said. “So sacred.”

The other Orthodox people in the shop were polite to this young man (who, it turns out, was on his way with friends to the Country Fair, was a college student, was carrying plenty of money for trinkets in our store). They were courteous. But they also rolled their eyes after he left. I see these folks from the Church give sacrificially to people in the neighborhood all the time. They literally feed the hungry. But they’re not impressed by a monied person stopping in to get his sacred groove on so he can feel good about himself and go party.

If I get anything, what I’m seeing is Church people learning from the example of those whose faces gaze out from the icons on the walls. Far from being the Synthetic Way with which I’m familiar, this organic structure appears to bleed something more real.