“The one who’s in front of me.” That was the simple but profound answer the elderly mother gave when asked which of her children she loved the most. Of course, as fair-minded liberals we would want her to say that she loves all of her children equally. But love is not a right or a unit of currency. Love is not an abstraction. Love is engagement with a particular person here and now.
Iconographer Jonathan Pageau has a very interesting podcast discussion with Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman on why God is a Person and not an idea.
Pageau begins by remarking that in our experience of reality the highest thing—the richest thing we encounter—is other people. We have an inter-personal experience of the world. It is our relationships with other people that can transform us the most and make us more human.
Fr. Stephen puts a fine point on it: “We can’t ever know anything in general,” he says. “You can’t paint an icon of the divine nature—what would that look like? But we can paint an icon of Christ because he became a man. Not just man, a man.” The priest then makes an observation that both encapsulates and explodes Christian personalism and epistemology: “We discover something in the particular which unites us with what is beyond it.”
Hearing this made me think of my niece, and the child she aborted six or seven years ago. She was a very troubled girl, and I think she aborted her child to hurt her dad—a long story. But my point here is that I don’t think the poor girl saw the child within her as a child. Abortion was just a solution to a problem and a way to hurt my brother. The child was not seen and not loved. I’ve got to make sure, especially as a prolifer, that I am not making that same mistake.
My niece’s child was not just an abortion. He or she was not just an idea. I must try to get in the habit of thinking of this particular child who was aborted—my grand-niece or nephew—even though I never met him or her. I don’t really know how to do that. But there are intimations in Christian and Jewish mysticism—and our deep longing to see beyond the veil is everywhere in popular culture.
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Iconographers describe the process of writing (yes, writing) an icon not as creative, but rather as prayerful submission, letting the light of Christ shine through. To hear one of them describe the creation of an icon is to begin to see through the mystical veil. The board upon which an icon is written is called an arc, like the Arc of the Covenant, or Mother Mary, the flesh-and-blood arc of the flesh-and-blood Saviour, Jesus Christ. The egg tempera used to write the icon symbolizes the Resurrection and new life. After the brushwork is finished—but before clothing the icon in gold leaf—the iconographer breathes on it, reverencing God, who breathed life into man (Genesis 2).
To look upon an icon is to pray. But even here, we have inverted the active and the receptive. Instead, it is as if we are beheld by the icon. Our action is to allow ourselves to be beheld. Our prayer is to listen to God. And here both the listening and the still, small voice are intensely intimate and boundlessly choral.
There is a hauntingly beautiful scene in the final episode of Shtisel (a wonderful series about Ultra-Orthodox Jews living in 21st-century Jerusalem). The patriarch Shulem is sitting with his son Akiva and his brother Nukhem. All three are widowers, broken-hearted yet still clinging to life, which is God’s harrowing gift. Shulem remembers a quote from 20th-century Yiddish singer Bashevis: “The dead don’t go anywhere. They are all here. Every man is a cemetery. An actual cemetery, in whom lie all our grandmothers and grandfathers. The father and mother, the wife, the child. Everyone is here all the time.” Then, in an enchanting, soft light, the table at which they sit becomes filled with their deceased loved ones, talking and eating and sharing and smoking and interacting. They are all there.
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For some time now, the young have had an abiding fascination with zombies and the undead. At some level they know that they live among the graves of their aborted brothers and sisters, the should-have-been friends and spouses. They can’t help but hear the echoes of the transcendent. But like pagans of old, they mistakenly think it is shadowy death calling, rather than a loving God and life beyond life. My students spend their days and nights entranced by their phones. Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, and so many other venues are painstakingly calibrated to deliver the perfectly timed dopamine hit and cultivate dependency. They are drawn into fantasies that form a shiny, hollow architecture of being. So many of our children are tired and empty, even doubting their own flesh and blood. Yet they hear the haunting echo from beyond.
As a culture (and a Church), we lean too heavily on abstract rights, an almost knee-jerk habit that is neither personal nor intimate nor a loving engagement in the here and now. Our worldview is anchored in a proud empiricism and rationalism that preclude mysticism. In our willfulness, we view ourselves as acting subjects. Everywhere we look, we see reflections of ourselves. But there is much, much more awaiting our attention. Come Holy Spirit, change our hearts and open our eyes.