Archive for August 11th, 2007

Ex Opera and All That

Last week I taught my fourth annual Iconography Workshop at St. George’s Romanian Catholic Cathedral in nearby Canton.

I had ten students, ranging in age from 10 (my son Patric) to 88 (the lovely and youthful Margaret). My students have varied widely in natural ability and artistic experience over the years, and while not every icon is created equal, all have been beautiful and worthy of private veneration and the blessing Bishop John Michael has bestowed.

While most of my students have been Byzantine or Roman Catholic, I have taught the occasional Protestant. What was unique to this particular class was the presence of a 60ish fellow who described himself as a lapsed Catholic and an agnostic. While I believe that an iconographer should assent to the early Christian creeds and historic moral teaching, when Ted called me to discuss taking the class it seemed evident that only grace could have inspired him to desire to paint an icon and I agreed to teach him.

I had decided on Christ Pantocrator as a subject and I was curious about how his icon would turn out.

We paint quietly, with a minimum of conversation, while listening to sacred music or the quieter and more meditative pieces from the classical canon.

I had recently received, as a birthday present from my mom, a gift card to Borders and I thought I would add a CD to the small collection of liturgical music I have acquired over the years. I was looking for Orthodox chant, and I had envisioned a leisurely hour at Borders, browsing among the selections. Instead I found only one CD, called Sacred Teasures: Choral Masterworks from Russia, and not for the first time I found myself missing my trips to Tower Records in DC in the early 90s, where they would have had a vast selection of every conceivable version of  Orthodox chant, and no doubt the obscure beyond. (Chinese Nestorian chant, anyone?)

But as it turned out, Sacred Treasures, which was released on the somewhat New Agey Hearts of Space label, is almost unbearably beautiful: ethereal voices descend from the angelic heights, other bass voices rumble up from the depths, complex harmonies interwoven with stillness.

There is little to match this music for sheer mystical beauty anywhere in the world.

I had listened to it several times before I read the liner notes, and to my astonishment saw that only a couple of pieces in the compilation were sung by monastic or cathedral choirs. The bulk of the music was sung by secular choirs: the Russian State Symphony Choir, the Bulgarian National Choir, even the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir.

I realize that it is possible that many of the singers may well have been Orthodox Christians, but these choirs were in fact the creatures of the secular and even atheistic State.

Apparently this music, if performed faithfully to the composers’ score and instructions, carries within it a power of its own.

It was timely for me to realize this truth during a week when I was instructing an agnostic to paint an icon.

I have long been a critic of certain modern painters, Catholic and otherwise, who play fast and loose with the  iconographic tradition. Many of these are clearly aberrational: Br. Robert Lentz’ and Jesuit Rev. William Hart McNichols’ homoerotic images coming immediately to mind. In other cases, though, the icons themselves are traditional but the iconographers are not, as when Br. Lentz paints an icon of the Mother of God  (I find Rev. McNichols’ work disturbing even when the subject is traditional: his painting lacks a certain stillness and seems agitated). And then there is Brother Simeon of the ubiquitous Monastery Icons. The monastery in question is a shadowy entity but at various times has identified itself as Gnostic Orthodox, Hindu, and Coptic (though the Coptic Church denies any connection). Or Peter Pearson, an apostate Catholic and an Episcopal clergyman whose parish website reports that the congregation  participated in the local Gay Pride march.

But neither Brother Simeon nor Rev. Pearson, so far as I know, paint aberrational images in the iconographical style.  (Simeon has painted an image of Christ in the lotus position, but this is in the Hindu devotional style and is not presented as an icon). Both make a good part of their livelihood as painters by selling to Catholic and Orthodox parishes and individuals, and Rev. Pearson frequently offers iconography classes at Catholic parishes and retreat houses.

That there are Orthodox and Catholic believers who are incensed by this—not to mention the more outrageous images perpetuated by Lentz, McNichols and others— is understandable. Some go so far as to recommend burning icons painted by heterodox iconographers, and some have claimed—though they cite no evidence—that Monastery Icons perform some sort of gnostic incantation over their icons before shipping.

I do not go so far, though I would not knowingly purchase an icon from a heterodox iconographer. Rather, I believe that the blessing of the Church will supply whatever is lacking in the faith of the iconographer, if the image itself is orthodox.

In Roman Catholic sacramental theology there is the famous principle expressed in the Latin phrase “ex opera operato”, that is, that the effect of the sacrament is not dependent on the faith or the virtue of the priest, that he is but the conduit for the power of the Holy Spirit. The sacraments have power of their own, regardless of the inadequacies of the priest.

It is like the Soviet choir singing the Orthodox choral masterpiece: whatever the intentions of the singers, the piece itself, if performed faithfully, carries power and beauty within it.

And it is like my agnostic iconography student.

He was a taciturn fellow and didn’t say much during the week. In the few conversations I had with him it was apparent that he was doubting his doubt. He asked me once if I was familiar with The Last Temptation of Christ, and in discussing the book he was clearly more comfortable with the idea of a faltering and  hesitant Christ, one who like himself was wracked with doubt. In particular he had a hard time with the Catholic teaching that Christ was fully aware at every moment of His Divinity.

I said if he wanted to trust the version of a 20th century writer, instead of  men who actually knew Christ, that was his option. And he clearly—like many Christians— misunderstood the doctrine. I explained to him that it does not mean that the infant Christ was lying in the manger thinking back fondly on the creation of the universe or musing over the subtleties of quantum physics. Rather, the Incarnation meant that He fully embraced the limits of the human condition, beginning with the limits of infancy. If He was fully conscious of His union with the Father it was with the consciousness of an infant: intuitive, pre-conceptual, lacking the tools of vocabulary and logic. He wasn’t just playing at being a baby, after all, and as He grew, like any human child, his consciousness evolved as He developed the normal mental constructs of self-reflection and speech.

Ted took this in and seemed to muse on it and it seemed to have never before occurred to him.

As I said, first-time iconographers display a wide range of ability. Every year I am treated to one exceptional icon; this year it was the work of a young woman in her early twenties. It was hard to believe that she had never done this and had barely used a brush before. She seemed to intuitively grasp the technique and worked with precision and confidence.

Of the others, some were more primitive than others, but all were beautiful. Patric did very well, and his blessed icon now hangs on his bedroom wall.

And Ted, the agnostic?

His icon, while clearly the work of a  novice, was fine. His Christ—appropriately, I think—is scowling, but he followed instructions and his icon was blessed with the others at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday.

I don’t know if the experience moved him deeply or not; I don’t know if he grew toward faith.

Like I said, he didn’t say much.

But he did paint an icon.

Ex opera operato , and all that.

Daniel Nichols


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