Good Letters

Christ of SinaiNote: After four and a half years working as Image’s Program Director (and, prior to that, a year as a student intern), Julie Mullins is heading off to grad school. She wrote today’s post as something of a farewell note. We’re pleased to be able to share it with you. It’s just the sort of generous gesture that we’ve come to expect from Julie. The staff remains deeply grateful for her incredible contributions to this enterprise and we wish her Godspeed.

A friend gave me an icon of the Christ of Sinai last year. Long and narrow, it hangs on the column between my bedroom windows. From my bed, I can see the dark eyes of Jesus penetrating across the room, through the wall and, I imagine, into the townhomes packed around my house, searching our hearts with its holy X-ray vision.

Sometimes I place myself before it, intercepting the gaze, and try to pray, my own eyes open. I am held by that gaze—its steadiness reassures me that I am not alone. It also encourages a hesitant, nascent desire to let myself be seen.

It’s a startling and beautiful thing, finding a face—this face—beholding your own.

I’ve been reading about icons in Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer. As a Protestant, I’ve been guilty of treating icons as static representations: flat, somber figures with excellent posture that remind us about bible stories or theological truths—a liturgical version of Sunday School flannel boards.

But as I have spent time with icons, in friends’ homes and at Taizé services, I have felt something stirring in them, an aliveness that I know countless faithful people before me have cherished.

Now the proud owner of an icon of my own, I wanted some wisdom, some inner knowledge about icons and prayer, before giving it a test drive.

In The Open Door, Mathewes-Green’s gentle intelligence and warmth help an outsider into the space of an Orthodox church, to the iconostasis where the Christ of Sinai, the Virgin of Vladimir, St. John the Baptist, and other saints dwell throughout the liturgical year. “Dwell” is the right word for it. She writes about them as dear friends or family members whose expressions and gestures have become so familiar that the need for words as a mode of communication has fallen away.

Icons, she says, tell us that we are surrounded by friends who bear us up. In some mysterious way—through humble paint and wood—icons usher us past themselves into a community of believers who, in their greater nearness to the presence of God, are more alive than we are. If icons are windows into heaven, then heaven can look back, the cloud of witnesses lifting their hearts with ours as we pray.

My heart bloomed when I read this. I am still not sure what it means to pray to a saint, to ask Mary or another holy soul to intercede on my behalf. But something feels right and enlarging about this deep communion that goes beyond death. I want that threshold to be more porous than I’ve hitherto been encouraged to believe.

This reminds me of a dream I had about a week after my grandmother, who we called Oma, died. I walked into a brightly lit, antiseptic kitchen where everything was painted white, and Oma stood at a white stove in her housedress, stirring something in a pot. As I drew up behind her, she turned, and we embraced. Her shoulders shook with sobs. I stroked her back, quieting her, and told her to save her strength for the journey.

I don’t know what her journey has been like, but the strong presence I felt in that dream leads me to believe that we were both comforted.

That deep sense of communion also makes more poignant the reality that, as I leave Image as its Program Director and move to Chicago for graduate school—a small death of its own—it is the presences that have attended me the last four and a half years that I will hold close.

The Image staff and board with whom I have done hard, good work—these are souls who have seen me at my best and at my anxious worst, and who have nurtured me with their wisdom in the things of God and beauty.

And then there are the people I have watched over for a week in Santa Fe or Florence, tending to their needs, but also reaping friendships from our mutual delight in art that gives us permission to be more fully ourselves.

I take comfort from the thought that, if death cannot divide the communion that is held together in the love of God, then distance and time apart aren’t so much.

In another icon discussed in The Open Door, one of the Resurrection, saints from the old and new testament are clustered around Jesus as he grasps Adam’s wrist and hauls him out of a boxy tomb filled with blackness. It is a busier icon than most, a dramatic scene showing Christ’s definitive action against death and sin.

I often read and drowse in bed the last minutes before I shut the light off, and a detail I had missed in that icon emerged in my dreamscape.

In the icon, fluttering up cape-like from Jesus’ back is a white piece of cloth, which in the trick of overlapping lines looks as if it is tucked between some white cliffs behind him that narrow into flat tops of pale blue. In my dream, I walked in the sun and shadows in my Oma’s backyard in Pasadena. Between the fruit trees, I found an impossibly steep trail that rose into the mountains behind her house. But they weren’t the brown, smog-clouded San Bernadinos—they were white and chalky, arranged in craggy, blunted formations that, in rapid dream time, fell away on both sides so that I was lifted onto a ridge. Water began to swell out of the ground at my feet, covering them, and I looked up and saw a roiling column of blue, milky water, like glacier ice, that appeared to come toward me yet remain ever at a distance. It churned and rotated within its oblong body, yet also seemed perfectly still and silent.

I don’t know what I’m walking toward next, but perhaps it’s not too much to hope for moments like that, of being lifted into an upwelling of something spooky and holy. Moments like the ones I’ve experienced at Image, with my good friends.

I know that I do not go alone.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

If you like Good Letters, you’ll love ImageUpdate.

Subscribe to our free newsletter here:

Pin It on Pinterest