This piece was published in Braided Way Magazine, February 2016.
We use that term to describe something which so perfectly embodies the ideal that it comes to represent the ideal. We often hold up individuals as iconic. Derek Jeter might be considered an iconic athlete – perfectly embodying the Ball Player. Mother Theresa was, we might say, the icon of Love; she was an exemplary physical manifestation of that ideal. Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., were icons of non-violent justice work. Many consider Lady Gaga an icon of the pop performer.
We sense that the individual in question both embodies, and is emblematic of, a larger truth. He or she is a specific, and finite, example of a universal ideal – an ideal that existed before them and lives beyond them. Every era has birthed its own iconic performers, athletes, and activists.
From Wikipedia, thank you, we learn that “the Greek word eikōn means an image or likeness that represents something else. An eikon does not necessarily imply sanctity or veneration.”
Through the centuries, Eastern Christianity has given us many beautiful icons, venerated for their representation of spiritual ideals. This example is of Gabriel, the heavenly messenger, a 12th-century icon from Novgorod, in the State Russian Museum.
The tradition continues in our own time.
Here is a statement from a contemporary iconographer, Linette Martin:
"...The pictures (icons) are not there just to be looked at as though…in an art museum; they are designed to be doors between this world and another world…"
And, a quote from an Eastern rite church website:
“…we seek to view icons as points of visual and spiritual intersection with eternal things...” http://www.stspyridons.org/ourfaith/prayingwithicons/
Now, I find this:
“A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.” Ansel Adams
What if we were to treat certain photographs as icons – to look into them, as through windows to a larger world of eternal truth?
As someone who considers photography a spiritual practice, I am intrigued by this possibility. I recently chose one of my photos and entered into dialogue with it. In this respect, I was inspired by St Francis, who spent day after day in dialogue with an icon crucifix at the broken-down church of San Damiano, down the hill from the walled city of Assisi.
I’ve called this picture “Icon of Humanity”. It is a casual portrait of a stranger, who is partially visible across the subway tracks. It strikes me as iconic of the mystery of personhood.
As I considered this picture, I asked, “What bigger truth do you point to?”
Here’s what I got back:
“I am myself. I am human. Hence, I have a body, a soul, a mind. I hunger and thirst – for food, and drink; for love and acceptance; for knowledge; for meaning. I suffer and rejoice; I feel pain and cause pain; I have ideals, fall short of them, and keep trying.
Although these are true of our shared human condition, you and I are very specific executions of that condition. You see me, only in part; you do not know me in my entirety, nor the individual particulars of my story.”
St. Francis got his answer, and turned it into action. I must do the same. For one, to look at others is not to know them. To project my own assumptions, beliefs and judgments onto others is to pretend to know them; to have decided, without data. This is not the road to compassion. To be curious seems a more fitting response.
To respect the mystery of individual personhood is another.
I am interested to know what others make of this. And so, at my next retreat (Holy Cross Monastery, May 12-15), I will ask the group to explore this very practice.
More will be revealed…
If you'd like to join us for "Loving the World: Photography as Spiritual Practice", please visit this website, and contact the Guest House:
I had a small epiphany thanks to this photograph. It helped reinforce the connection between my inner world and the outer one, an ongoing theme which drives my work.
By way of explanation, the subject is a vintage hand-painted metal serving tray. My picture captures a small part of the overall pattern.
The flower and the rust spots intrigued me, as a pair. I was drawn to the contrasts between the two – the textural differences; the intentional vs. accidental contributions to the tray’s design; the flower’s glow and the rust’s sobriety. And, they seemed surrounded by cosmic particles, as if pulled into each other’s orbits.
As I contemplated the photo, the thought eventually came to me. This depiction was an outward manifestation of what I had been contemplating for months – my own internal opposites, darkness and light as one example.
I come back to this theme on a regular basis. This particular time around, it began with Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Taylor encourages us to explore the learning edge that darkness provides, and to consider darkness (metaphorically and literally) as integral to our existence as light.
It calls to mind, for me, other twin relationships - of action and contemplation; of preparation and execution; imagining and manifesting. It includes the relationship between the “darkness” of unknowing – What to do next? How to address this issue? Where am I going? – with the small flashes of revelation that may follow.
All of these pairs thrive within the tension and dance of opposites.
I call this photograph “Relationship”. That may seem an odd or confusing choice to some. To me, it perfectly expresses what I hope to do – keep oppositional aspects in relationship and hold them together in my own cosmology. To value each for their gifts and practice gratitude for their presence.
In Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom, one conversation centers on the tension of opposites, likening it to a wrestling match. When asked who the victor is, Morrie responds, "Love wins. Love always wins."
If I take love to mean a non-dual vision where everything belongs, his answer really resonates for me. My love is the universe that embraces both the flowers and the rust.
Loving the world, one photograph at a time...
I often treat photographs as objects of contemplation.
As I spend time with a photo, it reveals more than what had originally drawn my eye.
It may give rise to ideas, memories, or emotions.
I took this picture on one of my morning walks. I was drawn to the clarity of light and the reflections carried by the water.
In pondering this particular photo - juxtaposing autumn leaves with a reflection of the stylized sculpture of a spring tulip - I am carried beyond our current autumn season into a larger construct. The tulip and fallen leaves become a manifestation of a moment in time, and of time itself. Of "now" and "not now".
And we could go so many places with that. Metaphysics; spirituality; the Lion King's "Circle of Life". :-)
The question that comes as I write this - where is my focus? On the now, or the forever; on the quotidian tasks of daily living, or the big adventure of it all?
It needs to be both, for they need each other - the macro and the micro. The moment and the continuum. The concept and the execution.
I say this to remind myself - I am drawn to concepts more than details, but I shun the details to my peril. And, when I feel buried in the weeds of minutiae, it's helpful to look up and take in the wider view.
And, what else helps my perspective?
Sometimes, these happily conspire to put me in the "now" and "not now" simultaneously .
Loving the world, one photograph at a time...