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"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Friday, 8 April 2011

[Irenikon] An Icon of Hope

An Icon of Hope

(FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT) St. Mary of Egypt

Looking at her icon you can see traces of St Mary of Egypt’s former beauty.  Being neither an iconographer or even a student of iconography, I’m not sure if I’m right in this and, assuming I am correct, how common it is to see at least glimpses of a saint’s former life in her icon.  Thinking about this a bit more, however I wonder if I haven’t got things the wrong way around.
Maybe it isn’t that we catch a glimpse of Mary’s former beauty, the beauty that made her a famous and successful prostitute.  What if what I’ve taken as her former, physical beauty is itself a reminder of her original beauty and a prefigurement, of her eschatological beauty?
Let me explain.
In the Evlogitaria in the funeral service, we sing on behalf of the deceased, and ourselves,
Of old you formed me from nothing and honoured me with your divine image, but because I transgressed your commandment, you returned me to the earth from which I was taken; bring me back to your likeness, my ancient beauty.
The prayers that the Church offers on behalf of the dead ask us to look in two directions at once.  We look backwards to Adam, to his (and our) ancient or original beauty.  For the fathers of the Church this beauty was the beauty of the divine glory.  In the beginning, to be human meant to be clothed in divine light; to be human was to shine with the fire of divine glory like Christ on Mount Tabor.
Because of his sin, Adam’s lost this beauty and did so not only for himself but for all of us.  We are all bereft of our ancient and original beauty.  We are all of us in one way or another marred by sin.
And yet, though disfigured, that ancient and original beauty is not lost absolutely.  Again in the language of the fathers, while we have lost our likeness to God, we are still created in His image.  While I may not be any longer clothed in divine glory, there remains something of God in me, there is a memory, a trace of that former beauty that remains.  Psychologically at least, when I or others glimpse in me what was lost I feel shame.  This shame is for me a constant source of pain as again and again, I experience the frustration of being less than I am.
Most of those who engage in the sex trade–most of those who, like Mary of Egypt, make their living exchanging sexual favors for money, drugs, alcohol, a place to sleep, or even a kind word, do so because of a deep wound inflicted on them in childhood.  Is it so unlike that, as with so many sex workers, Mary was herself the  victim of such a wound?  Is it so hard to believe that someone used her vulnerability, her weakness, against her and so compounded Adam’s shame in her?
It is her experience of the depth of human shame that makes Mary such a good example for us as we approach not simply the end of Great Lent, but the beginning of Holy Week.  We all of us come to Christ bearing an unimaginable burden of shame.  And we all of us conceal this shame not only from others but even from ourselves.  Truth be told, scarred as I am by my own sins, I cannot bear even the memory–the vestige–of my own ancient and original beauty.
As I said, we glimpse in her icon something of Mary’s former beauty.  But it is the beauty that existed underneath her sinfulness.  We glimpse in the icon the beauty that, in her former life that she could not bear and which drove her to life as a prostitute.
This lost ancient and original beauty, however, is not the whole story for either Mary or us.  Just as we do not simply understand Christ in terms of Adam, but Adam in terms of Christ, so too we do not understand our former beauty simply by looking backwards to Adam.  We must understand ourselves as well by looking forward to Christ.
The beauty that Adam had in the Garden was itself only a foretaste, a promise, of the beauty that he would have in the life to come.  Even in sin, the trace of that ancient and original beauty remains because it is first and foremost a divine promise of what is to come.
If I’m not careful, and frankly even when I am, I lose sight of this promise in my own life and so in yours.  I think it is out of this shared forgetfulness that most, if not all, of human suffering emerges.  And I lose sight of our original beauty and the promise it contains because the constant temptation of shame is to withdraw into myself; shame bid me to close my eyes or turn my back on my neighbor, who in his suffering, makes clear and tangible to me my own.
The 20th century philosopher Gabriel Marcel says of hope is different from optimism.  The optimist looks at the hardship of life and imagines he is exempt because–for whatever reason–he is special.  Optimism is narcissistic and self-aggrandizing and comes at the expense of my neighbor.  But hope, as Marcel writes, “constitute[s] itself through a we and for a we. I would be tempted to say that all hope is at the bottom choral” (Tragic Wisdom and Beyond,  1973, p. 143).

So let me go back to what I said at the beginning.  There is in the icon of St Mary of Egypt a trace of former her beauty.  Not the beauty that the world praises, but her ancient and original beauty.  And not only that.  There is in Mary’s icon a hint of an enduring beauty, the beauty of hope



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