Understanding The Spirituality of Icons
Outside the spectacular views of Holy Meteora in Greece, there is a non-descript workshop and shop embedded in what can only be described as a strip mall on the side of the road.
The Pefkis Workshop of Byzantine Icoons lies within, and it was one of the most fascinating stops on my recent journey through Greece.
Father Theodore Pefkis (a Greek Orthodox Priest), his wife and sons, and various other family members are the principal artists, and with a host of woodworkers, they create their icons by hand right there on the premises.
Their icons have become so sought after that the Vatican has commissioned them to create an altarpiece.
Each frame is hand-carved from local wood – cedar, walnut, linden, or beech – then covered with a canvas made from cotton fabric and coated with a thin layer of plaster. Unlike other religious icons, those produced at the Pefkis workshop are painted on canvas rather than wood.
I got to see Father Pefkis at work alongside his wife (Orthodox priests can marry and have a family), using materials like cobalt, ochre, and egg yolks to produce the vibrant colors for the icon he was working on.
His son told me the colors could maintain vibrancy for over 600 years, which was astonishing.
During the Byzantine era of Christianity (330-1453), icons proliferated throughout the Byzantine Empire and served a unique purpose.
These icons look strange to many of us because they are two-dimensional, with a highly stylized way of depicting the subjects in the paintings. They don't look realistic; for some, they might seem almost primitive.
But when you look closely at them, you can see the intricacy, the detail, and the beauty of icons.
In the Orthodox Church, an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time, and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role.
I used to be a bit of an "iconoclast," meaning I didn't believe any of what I just wrote above. But over the years, as I have traveled the world and have had the chance to see scores of icons and learn the stories behind the saints depicted in them, I've changed my mind.
Sometimes, we need a window into another world to know how to pray. Sometimes, we must be reminded that God's reality is just on the other side of our own.
And when we read the stories of the saints who have gone before us in the Christian faith, we also find inspiration and comfort, knowing that this "great cloud of witnesses" is somehow cheering us on, longing for comfort and peace.
So when I look at the icons I have collected over the years and see the images of St. Paul, St. John, St. Nicholas, St. Mary, St. Blaise, and many more, I find a connection with them and God and a sense of belonging to something far bigger than me.
We are not alone in our often stumbling journey after Jesus. We are surrounded by a vast cloud of witnesses of the saints in light, even those of our loved ones who have passed on to God's reality before us.
I should also add that, despite what many of us may have been taught in our faith traditions, praying is perfectly fine when we gaze at an icon or a painting depicting one or more of those saints.
You might say, "Make me open and willing to do your will, God, like Mary, the mother of Jesus." Or "Make me both grateful and generous like your servant Nicholas."
And guess what? It's also perfectly fine to ask one of the saints in light to pray for you, watch over you, and cheer you on as you run your life's race. I have done this on more than one occasion.
Anyone who has gone on to God's reality is with God, so to speak. I believe that they are enveloped in God, held in God, and are wherever God happens to be, which is everywhere, all at once.
Remember that you are not alone. Not only are you surrounded by a God who loves you beyond all understanding of love, but you are also surrounded by all who are now part of the Church Triumphant.
May this bring you peace and joy. And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.