Summer Books
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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

By Elizabeth Zelensky and Lela Gilbert
Brazos Press, 142 pages, $10.39
The Orthodox tradition shares its riches

Reviewed by JERRY RYAN

Mention icons today and most people will immediately think of those symbols that pop up on the computer screen as entrance points to programs and procedures; click on an icon and you enter into another world. This is really a rather genial secular extension of the symbolism of the religious icon. In Windows to Heaven: Introducing Icons to Protestants and Catholics, Elizabeth Zelensky and Lela Gilbert evoke the significance and role of icons in the Orthodox church.

This is a rambling, unpretentious little book, which, in an “unorthodox” way, manages to get its point across. Elizabeth Zelensky is Russian Orthodox, Lela Gilbert is Protestant. Their intention, as the subtitle indicates, is to present the spirituality of icons to non-Orthodox Christians not as a proselytizing tool but as a means of enriching their own outlook.

There is a bit of everything here. Each chapter begins with personal testimonies of experiences with icons. In an introductory chapter the authors outline some general aspects of the theology of icons and attempt to clarify certain popular misconceptions. The following chapters concentrate on five well-known icons and an iconostasis (the icon-laden screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave in Orthodox churches).

The book does not pretend to be an exhaustive study or even a systematic presentation. It tries to arouse interest by vignettes that mix theology, history and spirituality. The authors occasionally stress points that are distinctive of the Orthodox tradition -- such as the concept of the divine “energies” -- as opposed to views of other traditions, yet the overall perspective is ecumenical, the desire to share riches without imposing views.

Some of the book’s shortcomings are more apparent than real. There often seems to be a lack of balance in the presentation. The histories of the individual icons treated in the book at first appear irrelevant, yet they manage to convey a sense of the importance of these images to people in concrete situations. The theology can appear simplistic, but this is not necessarily a fault; often we overcomplicate and confuse things too much. There seem to be useless digressions for such a short book -- for example, the pages dedicated to Tsar Lazar and the battle of Kosovo in 1389 -- yet these digressions are an interesting read. In spite of its eclectic approach, the book succeeds. It is meant to be a simple introduction, an invitation to further study and prayer. It would be unfair to ask of the book what it does not pretend to offer.

Perhaps because the work is intended for Protestants as well as Catholics, the “sacramental” dimension of icons is not developed. As a Catholic, however, I find this category illuminating in understanding icons. For Orthodoxy, the icon represents a real presence of what is depicted. It is analogous to the presence of the Eucharist. The icon does not simply “represent”; it renders present the reality portrayed. I do not simply look at an icon; the icon also looks at me, and herein lie its power and its importance.

It is good that there are books like this where treasures and experiences are shared among different traditions. In recent years we have arrived at a more or less peaceful and tolerant coexistence among Christian churches, and this has been a positive step. The time has come to pass to a new stage of relations, which we might call “pro-existence,” existing for the other and not just alongside one another. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II wrote:

Why has the Holy Spirit permitted all these divisions? Could it not be that the divisions have also been a path continually leading the church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ’s Gospel? Perhaps some riches would never have come to light otherwise. … It is necessary for humanity to achieve unity through plurality, to learn to come together in one church even while presenting a plurality of ways of thinking and acting.

This is also implied in another often-repeated phrase of John Paul II: “The church must learn to breathe with both lungs” -- that is, both Eastern and Western wisdom. To recognize the intuitions and works of grace in others does not mean one has to renounce one’s own tradition; on the contrary, this enriches us even more. In a context of pro-existence, the different Christian confessions would seek to learn from one another, to be attentive to the workings of the Holy Spirit in other contexts. This book is a healthy step in that direction.

One final remark: Pro-existence should be a two-way street. Orthodoxy has been willing to share its traditions with the West and this has been of great benefit to many who have rediscovered aspects of their own traditions in a new and invigorating light. But one wonders if the same holds true in the opposite direction, if the Orthodox church isn’t so preoccupied with defending itself that it doesn’t listen to others. There are historical reasons for this attitude of self-defense. That doesn’t take away from the fact that this limits its vision.

Jerry Ryan is a freelance writer living in Chelsea, Mass., and has worked more than 20 years as a janitor at the New England Aquarium.

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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