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Homily for Andrei Rublev – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith NelsonToday we commemorate St. Andrei Rublev, a Russian monk who lived from 1365 to 1430. Rublev is known best as Russia’s greatest iconographer, and was canonized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. I want to offer a few reflections on what the ministry of iconographers in the Church can teach us about our common life in Christ.

What is an icon? Here are a few traditional definitions. An icon is prayer made visible. An icon is a visual re-presentation: it makes present to the faithful that which it depicts. An icon is the Word of God written in line, color, and light.  An icon is a Symbol: it unites the visible and the invisible. An iconographer is one who works with and through the visual language of Symbol, as it is passed down by orthodox tradition, to open and discover the Image of God within. Having begun this inner process by means of outer materials, he or she strives to perceive that Image in all human persons.  Icons are the fruit of that process, offered in a spirit of humility for the edification of the Church.

The writing of icons is a ministry rooted in silence and bearing fruit in silence, just as icons themselves exercise a silent ministry in the life of the Church. It is a contemplative discipline that offers a powerful antidote to two tendencies in our culture: our obsession with sense stimuli and our endless production of spoken, written, typed, e-mailed, tweeted — and preached — words. While we are unconsciously conditioned to crave an endless variety and quantity of input for the physical senses, iconographers choose a path of sensual minimalism. Sense perception is clarified and purified by silence, the way we might cleanse the palate before a sip of wine.  The iconographer’s relationship to color, shape, and texture, light and dark, posture and gesture is deepened and distilled to its essence in the silence of prayer. The resulting icons rarely dazzle or entertain the senses, but present spiritual truth that can magnetize the senses toward God, because any extraneous or merely ornamental elements have fallen away. As in liturgy, this opens a direct encounter between Symbol and the unconscious. Liturgy uses simple objects that are dense with meaning — bread and wine, water and oil, flame and incense smoke – through which the Holy Spirit touches the heart. The iconographer strives to facilitate this encounter by means of the icon. Master iconographer Vladislav Andrejev puts it this way: “We aspire to create an icon that is beautiful, so far as we are able. But more importantly, the icon must be a strong and meaningful container for the presence of the Divine within the created.”

What might it feel like to experience our lives this way? What if you were to gaze upon the icon of your own face in the mirror and say “I aspire to live a life that is beautiful, in so far as I am able. But more importantly, my life must be a strong and meaningful container for the presence of the Divine within the created.”  How would you go about creating such a container for God and with God? How might God long to use your silence as a ministry to others with equal or greater power than your words? How might a more focused engagement with your senses clarify or focus your relationship with God? How might you live an iconographic life this day and this moment?

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