The Meaning of Icons

I wanted to share the video recording of a lecture we had last Wednesday at Notre Dame Seminary, where I teach. It is of Fr. Maximos Constas speaking on The Meaning of Icons. It is brilliant, as Fr. Maximos always is. He gave our last annual Catholic-Orthodox lecture on St. Maximus the Confessor, and we loved him so much we asked him to return!

He’s the only rockin’ Athonite monk I know. A genius, a linguist, a theologian, a historian, a warm human being and a connoisseur of great art. The kind of man you could speak with for hours, and forget time passed. The kind of man who, when displaying his vast knowledge of nearly any subject, doesn’t make you feel stupid, but wiser. In other words, he’s a teacher.

My son Michael recorded and edited the video (note the cool way he inserted Father’s slides!). He said to say that the video is a bit grainy because Fr. Maximos wanted the light dimmed for the Power Point slides.

‘He’ or ‘We’?

I don’t usually ever post comments I receive on my blog, though very many of them could become their own genre of spiritual reflection. They often leave me in awe. But this one left by Katy Dornbos yesterday just grabbed me in a way that warranted a posting. She caught a (not infrequent) typo in my last post, but turned it into an opportunity for a reflection that is abyssus abyssum invocat, “deep calling on deep.”

I actually met Katy for the very first time this summer in Omaha, by a crazy happenstance that has God’s fingerprints all over it. Thanks Katy, and all who leave such meaningful comments here…

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Perhaps this was intentional – either way beautiful – but I couldn’t help but notice:

“But what caught my heart most was that Jesus went out in the boat on the sea of Galilee *alone*.”

Yet later on you write “I imagined Jesus gauging the wind, adjusting the sails or rowing, steering the rudder, looking back at the shore where the people stood, while deciding where WE wanted to land the boat.”

I almost hope it was unintentional. The best slip of “we” for “he”. But even if it was intentional, this is a great instance of how and why it is so effective to use imagination while reading scripture. Because every single thing we imagine is also for US, and never “just” Jesus.

On retreat earlier this summer, I began to understand that everything *I* noticed, asked, or desired of Jesus was also something that *He* was communicating to me about myself. So even my noticing of Him is salvific for me, teaching me how I truly wanted Him.

So it’s fun to turn all your questions, Tom, to myself (or perhaps you could turn them to yourself, from Him). I’ve come to know He’s just as curious about my response as I am about His. Well, really, He’s even more curious than me. And all of a sudden, prayer becomes really fun.

“Captain of our salvation” — Heb. 2:10

The Sea of Galilee Boat or “Jesus Boat” on a metal frame in the Yigal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar, Tiberias, Israel

As I prayed today’s Gospel earlier this morning, this particular line lit up my imagination:

When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. — Matt. 14:13

There is so much in this text! Did Jesus withdraw to be alone because of His grief over John’s decapitation, after having heard from the disciples the salacious details of Herodias’ dance that purchased his martyrdom? Maybe He saw this as a presage of His own execution and wanted to be with the Father alone in prayer?  So many reasons could be adduced!

But what caught my heart most was that Jesus went out in the boat on the sea of Galilee alone. I imagine, practically speaking, it was the only way he could find solitude, find erēmon as the Greek text has it — from which we get the word eremite, hermit.

But I thought, wow, Jesus piloted the boat “by himself.” I had never imagined this before.

I imagined the scene, the quiet, the sloshing of the water against the boat as the buzzing sound of the crowds calling out to Him gradually hushed. I imagined the tilapia jumping out of the water around Him — maybe the same ones He caught and prepared for the seven disciples in John 21:9. I imagined Jesus gauging the wind, adjusting the sails or rowing, steering the rudder, looking back at the shore where the people stood, while deciding where we wanted to land the boat. I imagined Him taking a swig of water as He dripped sweat under the sun’s heat. I imagined the prayer He raised up as He sailed along, alone toward the Father.

What were His thoughts? What were His feelings? What were the words He spoke aloud in that solitude?

I myself fell in love with life on a boat as a child, joining my father and his friends in setting sail in Rhode Island’s Narraganset Bay, and out into the wider Atlantic, over countless summer weekends. But best of all for me, they had a dinghy they christened “Tommy” and I would set out alone and paddle for hours at a time far from the boat, into the blessed solitude of a jagged shoreline teeming with bird and sea life. Lost in this world with my net and rod, it became my childhood cathedral.

I must imagine Jesus loved setting out alone for similar reasons.

You have so many defects

“If you have so many defects, why are you surprised to find defects in others?” ― St. Josemaría Escrivá

My grandfather once wrote me in a letter titled, “What is a Great Man?”,

…Great men never gossip to harm another’s name and reputation. You may speak about someone in their absence, but only if you are prepared to tell them to their face the same. Gossip is when you hear something you like about someone you don’t like, and then happily pass it along. Just be aware that anyone worthy of respect will immediately lose respect for you when you gossip to them…

Why do we find such relish in passing on news of another’s failure, malice, idiocy? Is it because it makes us feel superior, distracts attention from our issues, feeds our envy or soothes our own insecurities? Or maybe it creates a sense of belonging with others because we seem to share a common loathing of some person or group? I have always found that the best litmus test for how out of touch I am with my own crap is how freely I engage in gossip about others’ crap.

Jesus directly confronted this deep-seated human tendency in the Sermon on the Mount, and prescribed the remedy:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Know thyself! Self-knowledge, explored under the light of divine grace, has unlimited potential to make us humble, compassionate and patient with others’ faults and failings. I am riddled with faults and failings, sins and vices, and when I find myself dealt with mercifully by the God who forgives and forgets, and does not gossip about me behind my back, I beg Him for the chance to practice the same toward the most irritating or offensive person I can find.

For people of faith, the premier path to such self-knowledge is prayerful reflection on one’s own life and actions in the light of the commandments, and in the light of Christ and His teaching. Christ alone reveals to us who we were made to be and does not simply canonize our mediocrity. And if you ask Him in prayer to be honest with you about you as you examine/examen your life? Well, let’s just say He loves answering that prayer.

But another indispensable path to self-knowledge is an honest and trustworthy friend, parent, sibling, spouse, mentor, confidante with whom you can be brutally honest about yourself, and to whom you grant full permission to be brutally honest right back atcha. By my lonesome, I have an unlimited capacity for self-deception and rationalization, and an even better knack for finding people who will aid and abet me in realizing this delusive capacity.

Praying the litany of humility is good, if dangerous, but even better is allowing flesh-and-blood others to lead me to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth that is real humility.

How often do you say to a trusted other, “Be totally honest, what do I need to be aware of, work on, deal with, face?” And then listen non-defensively and act proactively? When you do, please pray for that honest person whom you so desperately need, and thank God for them. And then pay it forward, with love, confidence and courage. The world will be better for it.

Goods are meant for everyone

Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone — Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Back around the year 2000, I went to a lecture series by Anglican biblical scholar, Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey. It was on the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. During the second lecture, he discussed Jesus’ radical teachings on riches, poverty and generosity to the poor by reflecting on 14:12-13:

[Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

During his reflections, I wrote down copious notes, and later mixed them with my own insights that his talks inspired. This is an excerpt from my journal:

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As he was speaking about this text from Luke, Dr. Bailey incidentally mentioned, “I was talking to a Catholic priest in Lebanon who said, ‘You know, Ken, you can talk to people about how faith impacts politics or macro-economics, and they may get hot under the collar. But you can still be on speaking terms later. But talk about the demands faith makes on their sex life or personal wallets? My Lord! You’ll find yourself stepping on landmines and may not survive…'”

“Yet,” Bailey said,  “when Jesus met Zaccaeus He, in a room full of other tax collectors and sinners, zeroed in on Zaccaeus’ overstuffed money bag. But notice Zaccaeus’ response: ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ THIS is salvation, Jesus says, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.’ In Luke it’s overwhelmingly clear that ‘being saved’ looks like wealth being transformed into justice and alms.”

Bailey further noted, “One of the most important functions of the earliest monastic communities in Egypt and Syria was to offer Christians living in the world a radical witness as to what economics might look like if Jesus laid hold of it. By their voluntary poverty, monks were to keep before the whole Church a sustained critique of lavish lifestyles, of possessiveness or envy or greed. Monks showed the joy of riches is found only in their potential to enrich many.”

Then he quoted the description of the early Christian community in Acts 2:44-45:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

“And,” he added, “if you look at church history, when the monks get rich, the whole Church suffers loss.”

Then he said,

This Lukan logic has always been present at the heart of the Eucharistic Offertory, when the bread, wine and a tithe of alms are brought forward to the Altar of Sacrifice. One’s 10% tithe was never meant to be God’s “cut” of your wealth, leaving you the other 90% to do with as you please. No! Just like the bread and wine, the tithe signified handing over of all of one’s possessions and wealth, placing everything at the feet of Christ’s whole Body as a service of worship.

Yes, you can’t serve God and mammon precisely because the ‘and’ reveals each as a mutually exclusive competitor — some for God’s ends, but the rest for my own. However, you can serve God with mammon when you acknowledge all of it belongs to God, and so all of it belongs to your neighbors. Which are one and the same thing for Jesus.

Our life mission then becomes prudently placing all we have at the service of others, for the glory of God. The God of Jesus, that is, who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ (2 Cor. 8:9).

At the end of his riff, Dr. Bailey noted,

For the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel, the principle sign of salvation is detachment from riches. A detachment that opens one to generosity animated by love for the apple of God’s eye: the poor, orphan, widow, all who live at the margins of life.

But for Jesus, salvation is not simply frugality. Misers are the most frugal of all. Salvation means a frugality that enriches generosity because it is inspired by love. Which is why Christians should regularly subject their wallets, and the wallet culture they inhabit, to a regular Gospel audit.

I’m off to Confession now….[end of journal entry]

Eating with God

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord — John 21:12

This is such a stunning scene in context of St. John’s Gospel. Breakfast being served by the now risen Jesus, only days after his horrific execution. God-made-Cook wishes to eat with his friends, with food he has prepared. The surreal transcendence of this scene is reminiscent of Moses and his companions’ dizzying experience in Exodus 24:9-11, as they were summoned up Mount Sinai to dine with God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel … they beheld God, and they ate and drank.”

This same God, who pitched his tent with Israel by becoming flesh (John 1:14), and pledged that he would feed us with his own flesh and blood (John 6:52ff), tells us in Revelation 3:24,

Behold! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

God desires intimacy with us, and again and again in Scripture it is the covenant family meal that stands at the center of that call to intimacy. Indeed, the meal perfectly frames an intimacy that is at once vertical and horizontal, bringing God close to us, and us close to each other. In middle eastern culture, the meal reigns supreme as a sign of friendship, of encounter, of trust, of love’s willingness to share life and waste time with others. As Jennifer Grant once commented,

I have a friend who lived for several years in the Middle East, in Baghdad and Dubai. He is currently at seminary, preparing to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. Last summer, as the two of us ate crusty bread and double-cream blue cheese, and drank glasses of good pinot noir, he told me that eating together, or “breaking bread,” is considered an act of worship for his Muslim friends. In the Middle East, he said, people who are merely acquaintances do not “grab lunch” together. Eating together is too intimate an act to be shared with strangers. It is too important. It is holy somehow.

This “eucharistic” view of eating and drinking, which stands at the heart of Scripture, must be seen as defining for people of faith. It should shape a Christian-inspired culture that wishes to welcome God’s ongoing desire to extend his tent-pitching Incarnation and divinize the whole of creation — through us. In every meal, humans, who are the priests of nature, ingest the created order and raise it up, as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, to God — and, in Christ, with God.

I remember when I worked at a Jewish nursing home in Connecticut back in 1989, a resident named Golda once said to me, “You know when you Catholics went all wrong? When you stopped your meatless Fridays. See, when you take God out of the kitchen and dining room, everything falls apart. It’s why we Jews are so fixated on kosher laws. It keeps us always mindful that God is in food.”

It’s why family meals are a non-negotiable for those who wish to mesh their family with divinity. It’s also why, when people want to speak with me about matters of significance, I prefer not my sterile office, but the coffee shop, the brewery, or a dining room table.

Beautiful Feet

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy,
and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said,
And they came to him, took hold of his feet,
and worshiped him.  — Matt. 28:8-9

Fear and great joy. Ran. Greetings! Took hold of his feet, and worshiped.

What a scene! Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary,” after seeing the angels and hearing their proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, sped off only to be stopped “suddenly” by Jesus greeting them. Imagine how disorienting this all must have been for them. And their reaction? To seize hold of his feet!

How tender, how human, how intimate.

The verb “to seize” used here was used in only one other place in the Gospel of Matthew: in the Garden of Gethsemane when, after Judas’ betrayal, the Temple guards seized Jesus to take him off for trial and execution (26:50).

How lovely that now Jesus’ feet, forever bearing wounds opened by betrayal, are seized by joyful love from these faithful women who never fled during the Passion (cf Matt 27:55-56). It is most fitting that they, who had come to the tomb to honor Jesus’ dead body, are the first to worship him as Risen.

Isaiah 52:7 rings through these messengers of the Messenger:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Those feet are worthy of worship, for

he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his wounds we are healed. — Isaiah 53:5

The feet of a God who came to wash his creatures’ feet, symbols of God’s extreme humility and tender love. Let us become like this Most Low God whom we worship.