Praying with Pictures Not Words
By: Al Gustafson
My best friend is a Jesuit priest. I will always remember his inaugural mass. It was Trinity Sunday. As he talked about preparing his first ever homily as a priest, I still clearly hear my friend’s anxious words, “What can anyone really say about the Trinity?” Perhaps the significance of the Trinity is not found in what we say about it, but rather in how we pray about it. Here is a paradox. Education offers us so many advantages, but when it comes to the spiritual life, education can become a hindrance. We pride ourselves on our ability to analyze, conceptualize and explain our experience … the skills a good education affords us. For Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity seeks to describe the very nature of God. Yet, can we ever sufficiently conceptualize and explain our God of Infinite Love? This is where our less educated Christian ancestors may have had the advantage. They prayed less with words and ideas, and prayed more with silence and images. Christian icons may seem like an unsophisticated relic of the past, but for your prayer life, they can be as powerful as the processor in your computer. In 1410, Andrei Rublev created the icon pictured here. The icon depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at the oak tree of Mamre (Genesis 18: 1-15), but over the centuries it has come to be experienced as the icon of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that the nature of God is relational. We Christians speak of God as a relationship between persons. Perhaps not surprisingly, modern science is speaking of creation as fundamentally relational also … a relationship of energies. Enter the icon. … sitting around the table, Christ in the middle, the Father to the left and the Spirit at the right. Christ wears the blue of divinity, while the brown garment speaks of the earth and His humanity. His gold stripe represents kingship, two fingers rest on the table pointing to the cup. A tree in the background calls to mind His cross. The Father is a figure at rest within Itself. The blue garment is almost hidden by a shimmering robe, suggesting His creatures cannot see the One who is Creator. Behind the figure is a house as “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” … a place is prepared there for you. The blue robe of the Spirit represents divinity and the green robe new life. The Spirit touches the table, the material world, birthing the Divine Life of God. Behind the figure is a mountain. In the scriptures, mountains are places where people often encountered God, places where heaven and earth seem to touch. The three figures can be enclosed in a circle; however, they are not closed in upon themselves … not at all There is an open-ness. They are turned towards the one looking at the icon, drawing that one into their relationship. The image is full of symbolism, designed to take the viewer into the Mystery of the Trinity. Perhaps the most evocative detail of the icon is the small rectangle just below the cup. Scholars believe this was once a mirror and as the viewer gazed at the image, she would see her face within the circle of the Trinity. Imagine Christians staring lovingly and longingly at the icon not desiring to explain it, but rather only to encounter it. What can anyone really say about the Trinity? How about if try not saying anything? Let’s gaze at the icon, open and receptive, and let the Trinity speak to us.
Al Gustafson is a Spiritual Director at Old Saint Patrick’s Church. If you would like to schedule a meeting with Al, please contact Tammy Roeder at TammyR@oldstpats.org