Monday, August 27, 2007

On Writing Icons

At a lecture on Christian art and architecture a few years ago, I remember being intensely fascinated when the course of the discussion gradually moved to Byzantine iconography. Back then, I was as ignorant of Eastern Christianity as the average Pentecostal: I knew about the Great Schism, the markedly more mystic flavor and some customs of the Byzantines, but my knowledge stopped there. Here in the Philippines, the favored medium for religious art is, and always has been, the Spanish Baroque santo, with its face often carved from ivory, robes that rivaled the most exquisite priestly vestments, and borne aloft on the most ostentatious carozzas imaginable. Naturally, icons to me were alien and smacked of an entirely different world view than what I had grown up with.

The speaker at that lecture was an especially erudite, would-have-been Jesuit nearing eighty, who survived World War II and who now resided and worshiped at an Opus Dei center. He was a rather small man-- skinny and frail-- with the last remaining traces of ghostly white hair on his head. His glasses were thick and round; he wore battered brown sandals in place of shoes. He could recite Virgil, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius in classical Latin at the drop of a hat, and often conversed with our priests in the Roman tongue. One thing that struck me most was when he said that icons, in Byzantine thought, were not so much painted as they are written. I've written about my thoughts on Byzantine and Western religious iconography before, but one thing I still have trouble grasping was the notion of 'writing' icons.

He went on to say that an icon is essentially a revelation, and not just a hope to be realized. St. Irenaeus writes of man as the image of God on earth, a visible 'trace of His glory'. The icon then is at once a profound meditation and an even more profound apocalypse. As I was then only entering my teenage years (I was fourteen when this lecture took place), I was more fascinated with the aesthetic, rather than the theology behind them. I was especially thrilled to behold the icon of the Pantokrator, stern in manner and yet supremely personal. I knew that this was the God I wanted to serve, the God Who is at once the Lord of the universe, and the same Child wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Our speaker gradually came to talk more of his life-- and what a life! Apparently, he was born in the 1920s, a time when life was more simple and when we did not have the cares we do now thrust into our shoulders. He was a very bright student; brilliant would be an understatement. At seventeen, he decided he would join the Jesuits. He had the necessary intellectual clout, and though he did not come from the buenas familias of the day (mostly aristocratic families of Spanish descent) he more than made up for it with his genteel manners and superb breeding, indeed, even putting to shame the spoiled rich kids which were his contemporaries. However, his plans of entering La Compaña were put to a halt: he had been a sickly kid, and many in the Order did not think he would be able to survive the rigor and discipline of a scholarly Jesuit education (later on, he would admit that it was for the better).

Eventually, he came to Manila, and graduated from the Dominican college, the University of Santo Tomas, a laureled and much celebrated hero of the academe. In the years immediately after graduation, he found himself working as a professor in the premiere Jesuit university in the country, the prestigious Ateneo de Manila, which has produced many of the country's greatest minds (he would also study here, in fact, he did his masteral studies here). Back then, only the elite could gather the necessary funds to enroll their children in the university. Thus, our speaker would up teaching the children of industrialists, sugar barons, local royalty, hacenderos, politicians, business and civic leaders, the landed gentry and even the occasional parvenu or two. To give you an idea of just how small the educational elite was in those days, the university was only one building. That is how frightfully small and tight-knit Manila society was, and in many ways, still is.

The war came, and our speaker found himself a reluctant member of the Resistance. He had seen the horrors perpetrated by the Japanese; he had seen, firsthand, the lamented destruction of Old Manila: its great churches sacked and burned, tis venerable houses gutted and razed to the ground, its ancient spirit crushed and bottled up in a haze of modernity in the years after the war. On one occasion, as he was transporting medical supplies to a group of wounded soldiers, a rifle bullet hit him squarely in the back and leg (it still shows through his limp). And, as if that weren't enough, a stray bullet had hit a glass window above him, raining shrapnel and shards of heated glass down onto him (it was a miracle he survived!).

The post-war years would prove uneventful for him, with the exception of the Second Vatican Council. Now, our speaker had a very old-school Jesuit spirituality; he was the type that was unashamed and unafraid to target the children of the elite to further the ideals of Catholicism, as well as being part of one of the last generations of Jesuit-educated men with a firm grasp of being Catholic. As I've mentioned already, our speaker was a master Latinist, and could trade the most devastating tirades, barb for barb, with the most sardonic European minds. One time, in Rome, in American student once came up to him and said rather mockingly, 'I heard your people ate dogs. How uncivilized'. Without missing a beat, he countered 'At least we don't kill babies. How uncivilized'. The American student walked away rather shamefaced!

Like many old souls, he was greatly distressed by the Council. For him, Latin was about the most beautiful language you can find; and with the advent of the vernaculars, he felt as if a part of him had been ripped directly from his person. Perhaps this was why he decided to ally himself with the Work; for La Obra harbored, interestingly enough, similar positions to the SSPX in those days (they shunned people who read Dutch catechisms, criticized sharply profane instruments at Mass, etc.). In the mid-1980s, our speaker was still a professor in the university, but he was already close to retiring. An incident that finally made him leave was an encounter with a spoiled-rotten scion of one of Manila's patrician families involved in the legal profession. Now, the student was only 19, but he acted as if he owned everything in the world; and when our speaker called his attention, the student got up, walked over to him, and spat in his face.

At this point, we were all very silent. The lecture had already come close to 3 hours long, but we were still wrapped up in the old man's recollections. The incident he just narrated was one of the most barbarous I've ever heard, especially in this country, where premium is given to elders. Later on, he would narrate, how the very same student had been convicted of murder. And who was the judge? None other than the boy's very own father the Chief Justice. When the boy was sentenced, the father is noted to have said, 'I would not have pity on you because you are my son. What you did was wrong, and you deserve to pay for it'. If I recall correctly, the son is serving a life sentence.

The lecture gradually came to a close, and we applauded this frail, old man, who certainly hid stories of the most colorful and interesting variety under his frailty. I did not know what to make of those stories until fairly recently; for the most part, they just sat in my head, gathering dust but still displayed proudly and prominently. I guess it is only now that I am beginning to realize what it means to 'write' an icon; for behind the stylized gestures, the billowing robes, the golden backdrops and the mystical rapture lie very human stories. These are stories of temptation, sin, death, and gloom-- the very stuff that humanity is made of. At the core of an icon is the story of a life, and it is this life that is glorified, not for the sake of mere vanity, but as a proof and pledge of hope that something greater lies at the end of our collective experience. And this End is Truth; it is Jesus, Who is 'the way, the truth and the life'.

It is easy to overlook the temptations of the saints, but I do know for an impeccable truth the fact that these same saints who now peer down at us from the vaults of heaven were themselves human once, who knew what it was like to be tempted, to fail, to sin. As St. Macarius once eloquently said, 'The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.' The heart is a wonderful thing, and the depths of its mystery are more than enough for us to ponder on in eternity. It is the bridge that crosses the chasm from our humanity to the sublime perfection of eternal beatitude. It beats, and in every beat, there is God.

Finally, our speaker left the building. As he was exiting, he was held in the hand by one of our teachers, no doubt to help him cross the street where his driver was waiting. I reflected on his wonderful life, wishing mine were more like his. But I digress, since these parts of the story--my story-- have not yet been written. And what a wonderful thing it is, to write this story.

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