When we gaze at an icon there is more going on than a conversation through words and thoughts. Feelings and impulses deeper than words can emerge that range from subtle, barely conscious stirrings to strong, emotionally intense eruptions. A “conversation” with an icon can take place through these spontaneous movements of feeling. Visual images have the capacity to bypass the verbal mind and touch this affective level directly. For example, several people reported that they were touched, stunned, even moved to tears, when they first saw Sacred Bond. Their attention was immediately grabbed and held by a compelling power. Only later could they begin to put words to these spontaneous felt responses.
When I began to paint Sacred Bond I was involved in a similar conversation through feelings and forces deeper than words. A line from the poet Auden came to me which described my state: “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” I felt there were internal and external “powers” at work related to a health crisis in my family that were radically changing my everyday life. This upheaval led me to choose a portion of the Milky Way as a background for the painting. The dynamic night sky expressed for me the feeling of being “lived” by deep and mysterious forces that I could neither understand nor control.
As I worked on the stars I slowly began to discern differences between the two halves of the sky. The left half had brighter light and the stars were more tightly knit. The light seemed to pulse upward in distinct bursts. The right half was darker and its patterns seemed to be breaking apart, falling down and away. The black background of infinite space was visible through large cracks between clusters of stars. This living night sky spoke to my experience of searching for patterns and meaning in the crisis I faced. Sometimes I glimpsed light and order only to have that order break apart and insight slide into darkness again. The alternation of darkness and light, order and chaos, hope and discouragement, joy and sadness, played itself out over several months. Gradually I began to sense a larger purpose at work that was transforming my life through these movements. It was no longer a question of choosing one force over the other, but learning to walk a middle path between the forces, letting each one work on me as a greater and more inclusive whole began to form.
One does not need to be in crisis to experience such alternations of feeling while contemplating an icon. For example, the initial feeling response to the tender intimacy between mother and child in Sacred Bond might be love and joy, a sense of hope, sweet memories and tears of gratitude for being loved by God and others. These feelings may continue to bring nourishment for days or weeks. Then, unexpectedly, other feelings surface. Memories of not being loved by family members, lovers, friends, or mentors in one’s life emerge. Feelings about sacred bonds that have been broken through betrayal, estrangement or death return. Anger, hurt, and tears of grief for losses long buried arise unbidden. Wordless longings for healing are felt deep within one’s soul. Paradoxically, the beautiful image of a sacred bond of love has evoked both joy and sorrow, hope and discouragement, peace and distress. The spiritual challenge is to stay with these alternations and let this conversation of feelings and forces continue until they gradually impart a wisdom deeper than words and a peace which surpasses understanding.
The next post will explore what it means to move beyond conversation with an icon to “Communion in Wonder and Love” with the Divine Presence mediated by the icon.