Icon of Sophia, the Wisdom of God

I’ve recently travelled back to some of the ancient Russian centres of icon-painting: Moscow, Rostov, Yaroslavl and Vladimir. As Communism destroyed many of the churches and monasteries in these places, there was a real danger that the icons themselves would be lost. In order to protect them, a large number of them were taken from the churches, declared national treasures and ended up being preserved in local museums. Entire iconostases (icon screens), huge frescoes, ancient miracle-working icons known and beloved by the whole nation, icons by St Andrey Rubliov, Dionisios or Theophan the Greek are now gathered in these museums and galleries. I thought perhaps I should write a few lines about one or two of them, as a way to bring you with me as I continue to travel.

The first one that caught my attention is a very rare icon from Yaroslavl, representing Sophia (Holy Wisdom). We all heard something about sophiology (it’s one of those words we all know, but no one can explain), but very few of us have actually seen an icon of Sophia. Apparently, as I learnt from an explaining note in the museum, there are a several types of icons dedicated to Sophia, just as there are several types dedicated to the Mother of God or Christ. This one is a seventeenth century icon from the Church of Prophet Elijah in Yaroslavl and is currently kept in the museum of the Yaroslavl Kremlin. This particular composition is known as the Novgorod type of sophianic icons. Its first version dates to the fifteenth century and is found in the Church of Sophia in Novgorod.

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Apart from the rich visual symbolism, the icon also includes selected texts from the Scriptures relevant to its theme. Quotes from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians are joined by texts from Old Testament texts, such as the Wisdom of Solomon or the Book of Prophet Isaiah. Interestingly, and something I particularly love, along these Scriptural references the icon-painter also included texts from church services.

I like that because it underlines two central Orthodox ideas. First, it shows the unity of thought and belief among these sacred texts regardless of the context in which they were written. Secondly, it demonstrates that the revealing action of the Holy Spirit is not restricted to a certain age or time, but goes on through the centuries. Despite our sinfulness, the Holy Spirit continues to reveal Christ to our world.

At the centre of the composition is a representation of Sophia, Wisdom of God, as a crowned Angel with a face of fire and wings. Sophia is surrounded by an aura of Divine Glory and sits on a throne supported by seven pillars. Under the feet of Sophia there is a stone, as a symbol of all Creation being subdued to the Word of God. The right hand is depicted in an act of blessing, while the left one holds a sceptre.

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To the sides of Sophia, in typical Deesis composition, stand the Mother of God and St John the Baptist. The Mother of God holds the text ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…’, while St John’s text says ‘This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world…’. Both the Mother of God and St John the Baptist are represented with wings and they are wearing crowns.

Behind them follow St John the Evangelist (‘No one has seen God except His only begotten Son…’) and St John Chrysostomos. Bringing these two saints together emphasizes the same idea of an ongoing Revelation. The Evangelist and the composer of the Divine Liturgy are depicted in identical manner, with no difference of glory. This is a strong visual statement about Tradition understood as a path of ongoing Revelation as opposed to tradition reduced merely to a museum of ancient beliefs.

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Above the fiery Angel of Wisdom there is a complete representation of Christ in Glory.

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Higher still, the Lord Sabaoth sits on a throne of Cherubim and is surrounded by a choir of Seraphim. The text in his left hand has the ancient call: ‘Listen to me, my people…’. Around the glory of the Lord Sabaoth there are the typical symbolic representations of the four Evangelists (the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle), the angelic hosts, the sun and the moon.

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For comparison, I include one more version of the icon. Despite its simpler composition, it still follows the same pattern and includes most of the same elements. This icon is also from Yaroslavl, but from the museum inside the Metropolitan Palace.

Sophia 17th Metropolitan Palace

Help us choose a cover for the new booklet

We have almost finished work on the new booklet published by the Monastery. This will be our first booklet since the beginning of the year after, when we published ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. We are still grateful to Kh Frederica Mathewes-Green for writing the text for that.

The new booklet is called The Voice in Confession and is built around the podcasts on Confession recorded for AFRadio. It follows the full notes I took for those recordings, more than half of which were not developed in the podcasts.

The illustrations of this new booklet are once again created and donated to the Monastery by Dr Mihaela Schiopu, who has also painted the images we used for our booklet ‘On Prayer’. The inside of the booklet will contain ten portraits of contemporary Elders, drawn by Dr Schiopu.

For the covers, she has painted two portraits, and I find it difficult to decide which to use for the first cover (the one with the title) and which for the last cover (the back of the book).

I include both of them below. I tend to think that ‘Cover version 2’ is a better option for a first cover (the composition is more suitable for the purpose, and I’m fascinated by the power in that gaze). At the same time, though, I also love the gentleness and peacefulness in ‘Cover version 1’.

What do you think? Which one should we use for the Main Cover?

Cover version 1

Cover Version 1

Cover version 2

Cover version 2

The icons of Yaroslavl

In my travels for the Monastery or the University, I’m often asked (usually by non-Orthodox or recent converts) about iconography: what is its place in Christian worship? What are icons good for? I find it amazing that the question even exists. For me, it’s like asking what is the use of love. None, really, except love itself. Only the experience of love itself can justify love. I am convinced that the same applies to iconography – only the true experience of an icon itself can justify iconography.

Yes, an icon is a theological statement: just as depictions of God were heretical in the Old Testament, it has become heretical after God’s Incarnation to claim the impossibility of such depiction. God took on our human nature, God took on human flesh and bones – real flesh and bones, like yours and mine. As such, this human body – its shape, its colours,its consistency – can and indeed should be depicted in painting precisely as an affirmation of the reality of Christ’s body and Incarnation. An icon is a much stronger, much more direct, much more striking theological statement about Christ’s Incarnation than any written dogma.

Yes, icons are also ways to visually represent the history of our salvation. Painting can do the same thing writing does, only that it works differently. On the one hand, people who cannot read (children, the illiterate, those speaking a different language that the language of worship) can still follow the story of the Gospel through these visual depictions. On the other hand, even those who can read relate and understand things differently when these stories are represented visually through painting. It’s one thing to read a poem on a page, a different thing to hear someone recite it out-load and an entirely different experience to hear it arranged musically, as a song. The same applies here. The same story about Christ’s pain in the Garden of Gethsemane can impact you in entirely different ways when you read about it or when you see it painted in an icon.

Anyway, icons can do something else too. This is something I’ve discovered personally, through my own experience. There are people who cannot read, but there are also people who will not read. I know, because I was one of them. For these people, there is only one hope, and that hope is God’s direct intervention in their lives, and – sometimes – this intervention takes the form of a real experience of an icon. When people ask me about icons, I wish I could put them all in my pocket and just fly them to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow or the two extraordinary icon museums of Yaroslavl: the one in the Kremlin and the one in the Metropolitan Palace. To me, a monk and a priest, these museums are some of the (if not the) most transformative and holiest spaces I was blessed to visit and experience.

The icons of Yaroslavl are large, amazing ‘theses’ about the deepest Christological dogmas. They reveal ancient truths and point to new revelations. A Psalm, a hymn, a story, the history of a place, of an icon, of a saint, even a dogma – the iconographic masters of ancient Yaroslavl seem to be able to take anything and transform it into creations that are just as spectacular as works of art, as they are as theological writings. I was crushed by the intensity of these icons. I had to take long breaks between rooms, to sit down and gather strength as I moved from one section to the other. The museums are simple and unassuming buildings, sometimes almost falling apart; the light is terrible and the general aspect of these spaces is simply unfit for a museum. And yet, time after time, among these strange and imposing figures looking at me with their other-worldly eyes, I rediscover a sense of purpose to my life, a sense of reality of God’s presence. As for for the shortest second in the history of my life, I am touched by Someone and this touch both heals everything and re-opens all wounds at the same time.

Back to Ancient Rus, seventeen years later

This has little to do with our Monastery, but I feel I must write and share with you at least some of the places I get to see while I’m in Russia. I’ll be posting a few photos and a few notes from here and there, nothing much.

I’d been to Yaroslavl before. Seventeen years ago. I had a vague memory of an ancient white city, covered with show, a huge river and horse driven carriages. I also remembered the most extraordinary museum of Old-Russian icons outside Moscow. At 5.30 am on Saturday, as I was getting myself started towards the train station, I was very much afraid the reality of the city would not match my memories. Seventeen years ago, I was nineteen and that tends to turn everything into events of mythological importance.

I shouldn’t have been afraid. Almost four hours later, Yaroslavl greeted me as beautiful and ancient as I remembered it. I spent the whole day looking for that icon museum of seventeen years ago. As everywhere in the world, local people have no idea about anything in their own city. Eventually, not only did I find it, but – as I run from one place to another looking for it – I discovered a second museum, I got to visit the Kremlin and I saw some beautiful churches on the way.

Eight centuries after it was built, the Transfiguration Cathedral of the Saviour’s Monastery in the Kremlin (on the low bank of the Kotorosl River, just a few metres before it unites with the great Volva) still feels like the centre of the city. The Cathedral was built in 1215, which makes it the oldest surviving stone church in Yaroslavl. It was founded during the reign of Prince Constantine Vsevlodovich, before the Mongol Invasion. The frescoes inside the Cathedral date back to Ivan the Terrible and they are in excellent condition for that age.

The Monastery itself is one of the oldest in the ancient Rus. It was founded in the early thirteenth century. Lavrenty’s Chronicle mentions that the monastery was founded in 1216 around the new Cathedral. One year later, construction work already began for the Church of the Entry into Jerusalem, just next to the Cathedral. This explosion of buildings and the establishment of the monastery had a lot to do with the fact that Yaroslavl was by now the capital of a medieval Russian principality. As such, God’s blessing and the prayers of a monastic community had become a necessity.

The Kremlin and its churches went through a lot of changes since then. Yet despite Mongol invasions, horrible princes, Communism and indifference, they are still here. As when we get off our boats and walk on our beautiful deserted isles in Scotland, there is a lot these ancient walls have to tell us. Centuries after their moment of glory (and with no intention or desire to recreate that world) I am inexplicably attracted to these ruins. The Yaroslavl of Ancient Rus, as well as Mull and Iona of the ancient Celts share a treasure, something I (we) am supposed to grasp and re-create in my own world.

Before the fourth (and last) pilgrimage this summer

We’re now approaching the fourth and last pilgrimage to the Scottish Isles this summer. It has been such a wonderful experience, I loved everyone who came, we prayed together, we walked together, we discovered amazing places together. We even discovered things about ourselves together – some times good things, other times not so good; but that is irrelevant. We now know more about ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, so we may actually do something about it. After all, this is the real benefits of a true pilgrimage: a bit more knowledge, a bit more clarity about who we are and the direction of our lives.

Tomorrow, the last group of pilgrims will meet in Glasgow airport and we’ll be finding our way to Oban, then to the Isle of Mull by ferry. I put so much work into organising these pilgrimages, and they take so much of me, I thought I would be happy to get to the end of this summer. But the truth is that I am not. I had got used to returning to the Isles every other week; I got used to seeing our Monastery church; I got used to saying my prayers looking at the heights of Mull; I got used to celebrating the Divine Liturgy in St Oran’s Chapel on Iona, surrounded by the graveyards of all monastics who lived on this holy island since St Columba’s time; I got used to finding a quiet place on the beaches of St Brendan’s Isle and let prayer take over me; I got used to reciting St Patrick’s Breastplate in the caves on Inch Kenneth.

I shall miss all of this. I shall miss waking up early in the morning and going straight into the Divine Liturgy, as we do in our simple, improvised chapel. I shall miss the gentle rhythm of the Celtic Blessings we read every evening. I shall even miss the late, late walks I sometimes take with one pilgrim of another, talking our hearts out.

Once this last pilgrimage is over, I’ll go back to fundraising, because the aim of all this work is to finish building our Monastery. Once again, I’m going back to doing something I dread; once again, I somehow manage to go through it because of the wonderful people God sends my way.

It has been a wonderful, spiritual summer. I’m already looking forward to the pilgrimages next summer. Thank you all: for your prayer and for your love for this Monastery.

Weakness at the beginning of Lent

I am tired. I feel tired and afraid, with no control over anything. At my best moments, I realise that this is a gift – the gift of awareness, of truth. Because the truth is we are never in control over anything. We invent little worlds (our group of friends; our family; our parish; our monastery) over which we may claim some sort of dominion. We invent silly games (our careers, the rules of our society) which we can win. We upgrade or downgrade these games carefully, so that we are never pushed beyond what we feel we can control.

But look up, look beyond the borders of these silly little kingdoms where we rule. Lent is a horrid period. Year by year, Lent is when some force within me pushes me out of my comfort zones, and I find myself in a lions’ den, face to face with the beasts, utterly unprepared to fight, totally helpless, fully aware that the only possible outcome is to be slaughtered.

This is nothing new. This happens every year. Yet, I somehow survive, because the same Force that pushes me out of my self-created kingdoms, out of my self-created games – that same Force saves me from those wild beasts at the last moment.

And this changes everything.

Perhaps I should not share this with you. Perhaps it would help the monastery more if I kept my weakness to myself and pretended to be someone I am not. This would be the proper thing to do – but I have never tried to be proper; I have never cared to replace my honest, weak self with the false image of a man who is in control. Those who play this game are one step away from a type of suicide – not to allow yourself to be seen, to cover yourself under the expectations of others, to betray the feeble, yet precious being that you are out of fear that you will not stand up to the standards of others… This is the definition of hell, the betrayal of one’s deepest, most intimate self. I don’t want to leave this world having played a respectable part, yet knowing that who-I-am was never visible. What can be worse than to go though life as someone else?  What bigger failure than to sell out your own self?

If you don’t live as yourself – weak and fallen, as you are – how can you love? Whose love is it that you feel? With whose love do you embrace the world around you? Whose good deeds and whose sins are your good deeds and your sins? When you hide yourself under an image, you basically step aside and die – all that is left is the image you created. It is this image – not yourself – who loves and hates, who lives and dies. You will never experience love – your love – until you own up to your true self. You will never experience life – not even death, ultimately – until you settle down in your own life and accept yourself as you are. I don’t mean this in the sense of ‘this is who I am and there is no reason to change’, but in the sense of ‘this is who I am, this is the real starting point of any change’.

No healing is possible. No repentance is possible. No prayer is possible, until the heart that heals, repents and prays is your sinful, fallen, yet beating heart. False images do not have hearts. False images do not love. Most painful than all, false images will never reflect Christ, because there is nothing false in Christ, nothing common between Life and void. Prayer begins with pain at one’s fallen nature; it grows out of this pain, and its flowers bloom out of it.

My ‘lesser’ versions: the ill, the weak and the mortal

I have seen people die. I have seen people suffer. I have seen the anguish in their eyes. Most times, it comes from a combination of fear of the weak beings they have become, and regret for the strong being they once were. Fear of turning into something we no longer recognise as ourselves, and regret for losing something we perceived as our ‘correct’ selves.

We only think of ourselves as ‘whole’ when we fit into a wellness norm fed by the idolatric attitude we have for the society we are part of. This society – here and now – tells me that I am all right when I am healthy; therefore, I am my ‘proper’ version, I am my ‘correct’ self, I am who I am supposed to be only when I am healthy. This society tells me that illness and sadness and all forms of weakness are wrong; therefore, I am no longer my ‘proper’ version when I am ill – my ‘correct’ self has become corrupted, infested, compromised.

But society changes its mind, because it is empty, devoid of meaning, and – like any form without substance – it takes in whatever substance fits its purpose. To be healthy once meant to be chubby and live the sort of life that gave you gout. To be your true self meant at different times to die young, to suffer from melancholia, and to kill yourself in the name of honour. Things have changed. Today (and mostly here, in the West), we worship the healthy, strong, optimist being. Anything else is not properly human.

The implications are the same, though: only when we fit these norms we think of ourselves as being ‘ourselves’. Whatever does not fit these norms is not part of us, it is us being ‘someone else’, a lesser version of myself, an amputated, decayed version of myself, which either has lost things proper to my true self (‘I cannot move anymore’) or has taken over and incorporated things that are alien to my true self, things from the outside, things that entered my true self and diseased it (illness; sadness; death).

We have this perfect version of who we are supposed to be, and we define our happiness depending on the level of conformity to that ideal. We replace the living being that we are – changing, evolving and discovering oneself from all perspectives, including the ‘negative’ ones (illness; old age) – with the immobile poster-like image of the ‘healthy young man’. There is not much difference in essence between the tyranny of this healthy young idol and other tyrannies we have seen in the recent past: the arian man of the second world war, the new man of communism, the jihad man of terrorism. They all want to eradicate what they perceive as corrupted, lesser versions of humanity.

In some way, the tyranny of our idol is even more violent, because we not only enforce it upon others, but we internalise it and we end up inflicting it upon ourselves. A Nazi criminal could never become a Jew himself; his idol never reflected its hatred against himself. We, on the other hand, we all shall as some point feel weak, we all shall get sick, we all shall become old and face the reality of our mortality. To shy away from these ‘lesser’ versions of ourselves, to reject and to fight against them is to reject and fight against ourselves. To run away from them is to run away from myself. To fear and hate them is to fear and hate myself.

The hollow gaze of a beast

I am beginning to think that I am secretly a bear. I definitely have the social skills of one. I am as voluble as a bear during hibernation, and as attached to my room as a bear to its cave. In all honesty, I am continuously amazed anyone still wants to talk to me given how bad I am at keeping in touch. The simple reality is that I function in a state of amazement. I have rewritten this paragraph so many times; I can find no better way to describe this. I function like a stunned being. I go through the motions I see in other people; I do what it takes to be functional in this world. But deep down, I am paralysed.

I once saw a huge bull being taken to the slaughterhouse. I was in my monastery in Moldavia at the time. The animals know. The know perfectly well that behind that big door there is death. Many of them go wild, and desperation takes over. Some times, their hearts fail and they collapse, so they have to be dragged inside. I remember this bull: a huge, beautiful animal. I remember its stare. Its muscles had completely frozen; there was no movement at all – not a blink, not a sound. At the centre of that heard of bellowing animals, fighting to escape death, I remember that hollow, frozen gaze as the bull was pushed by three men towards the gate, inside the slaughterhouse.

I function very much like that stunned animal. When I look in the mirror (which I purposely try not to do) I recognise that gaze. There is something of that in everyone. Often times, I switch off as people talk to me about their holidays and homes and plans. I switch off and I try to recognise that frozen gaze in their eyes: beyond the noise, beyond the superficial glitter of life, that hollowness is always there. It is imprinted in us. It is part of what makes us who we are, part of what makes us human.

I suppose this is my apology for failing to always keep ‘on schedule’ with posting here, recording our podcasts and so on. I am sorry. I am aware I should be doing more, especially as many of you continue to support the monastery even through these periods of silence. Perhaps you feel something. Perhaps you yourselves recognise something in this silence.

I have prayed to make sense of this desperation. I live with a perfect hope that we shall all survive the slaughterhouse, but this hope comes with an equally perfect awareness of the hollowness of this life. I have prayed to make sense of this. I have also prayed that I loose neither the hope, nor the desperation; living with both creates an intense tension, and that tension feeds my heart. I have an intuition that this tension will lead me to Life.

If I have learned something so far, it is that I must protect and treasure this life, because the seed of Life is buried in it. The hollowness of this life, its senselessness, its pain have taught me that I myself can only get as far as the gate of the slaughterhouse. If there is any hope to make it beyond that gate, if there is any hope to survive it, it does not come from me. I cannot be my own saviour. I cannot be anyone’s saviour. This is a tough lesson to learn and impossible to fully accept without the grace of God. I am nothing without a Saviour. It is a tough lesson, but we cannot run away from it. Horrid as it feels, this is the foundation of all our hope.

Just think how different things could have been, had Adam stared into his own hollowness and accepted it, instead of collapsing at the feet of the devil. Had Adam accepted this truth, had he accepted that he cannot be his own saviour, has he reached out for a Saviour, this world would have known a different history. Perhaps this is the point of it all: to learn the lesson Adam has not; to stare into the hollowness of our being and not despair, to not collapse as he did, because we know that a Saviour has taken on the form of this hollowness and lifted it up to Life.

Someone’s asked in an email from where I get the strength to keep going

People are so beautiful it hurts. We all have this beauty in us, this otherworldly potential to be so much more than what we settle for. At times, this awareness is the only thing that makes sense of this senseless existence, its very foundation, the star calling us forward, the purpose of this flesh. Most of the times, though, it makes life ever more painful, because it throws light upon the dark truths we have spent a lifetime learning to ignore.

Someone’s asked in an email from where I get the strength to keep going. The raw answer is: fear. Fear and desperation and the knife-like breath of death I see slowly and implacably eating me from the inside, consuming the beauty within myself, the beauty within you. I look in the mirror and I see a caged animal, waiting in line to be sacrificed. I live with the awareness that none of the breaths I’ve taken, none of the things I’ve felt and done have life within themselves.

The most painful thing I live with, the heaviest weight I carry is the total, perfect knowledge that there is no memory here to preserve even the slightest trace of our sparks of life.

I look in the mirror and I see nothing that will survive death. I stare at this nothingness and life becomes a desperate attempt to outrun death. At times, this turns into pure isolation, and no island can be far enough; no darkness thick enough to cover me. Other times, for very few and rare moments, this turns into white silence. A bright blanket of silence that covers my mind like rarefied air. Up there, in those rarefied clouds, floating high above death, there is Rest, there is Peacefulness.

One photograph

This is we, the pilgrims of last summer, praying on the beach of St Columba’s Bay on Iona. When I close my eyes and think back to 2015, this is the image that captures it best: a handful of people, travelling huge distances to be here and pray for a while. I love the silence of it, the strangeness of it, I love how absorbed by prayer we were and how completely unaware of being photographed.

We took the difficult path to the Bay that morning. We had woken up very early and celebrated the Liturgy in the small chapel we improvised in the dining room. We crossed by ferry from Mull to Iona, and set out on a three hour-walk through the harsh, unpopulated heights of the island. We stopped several times to rest and take in the wild beauty of this tiny piece of earth surrounded by water. There was time to pray together, and there was time to pray alone.

We must have spent an hour or even more at the Bay. We had carried an icon of the Celtic Saints with us, which we placed it on a stone and prayed. None of us knew we were being photographed. We were simply praying, each of us trying to bring light into the story of our own life, yet somehow together.

Thank you all who have joined me last summer, and thank you all who have joined me for the longer, still ongoing pilgrimage of founding this monastery. It is not an easy walk. It sometimes gets too difficult, and we must stop for a while and pray. We are all coming from our own separate stories, yet this pilgrimage somehow connects us and makes us one.

And, as we struggle and we fall, as we take one step forward and one backwards, as we intertwine our life stories with the story of this monastery – unknown to us, it all enters God’s eternal memory, like a large, silent photograph which captures it all, so that nothing is lost and nothing is wasted.

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