In the article on icons, that I referred to previously from the Catholic weekly OSV, there was an interview with a Catholic iconographer named Marek Czarnecki. Czarnecki has been writing icons for fifteen years. For him, this is more than a simple job, it is his personal calling. He sometimes devotes whole periods of time to prayer and fasting before writing. The Connecticut-based artist studied iconography for ten years with a Russian Orthodox iconographer before he began his work. Here, to give you an idea of what such a writer of icons does, is a small part of that interview:
OSV: How does iconography relate to art, to theology, to prayer?
Czarnecki: People think that iconography is a style of religious art, and it’s not. It’s a whole vision of reality, but we use art as a tool to scribe that reality. . . .We say icon writing instead of icon painting because what we are making isn’t just a picture but a theological text. That theological text can in no way disagree with what is the written text or what stands in holy tradition. It’s not my job to figure those things out. The church has already decided those things. My job is just to articulate them.
OSV: When you get ready to write an icon, do you have to prepare in a spiritual way?
Czarnecki: I’ve been doing this for so long it’s just an integral part of my life. I teach, and as a group we start with a prayer of consecration and a mission statement about our work. Then, while we work, we pray. That’s just as important as the preparation you do before you start working. It’s that way with the very simple Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” [I pray the Jesus Prayer every day, all day, and into my sleep at nights.] You just repeat it over and over, and it’s like a wheel that turns in your head. What it does while you’re working is that it forces you to focus on what you’re doing. It’s a real prayer, so while you’re praying it, you’re connecting yourself with God. It acts like a metronome while you’re working, too. It gives your mind something to hold on to, and it paces you while you work so that you don’t rush through your work, you connect it with your breathing, you connect it with every brush strike. Eventually it just doesn’t stop. It’s like your heartbeat.
OSV: With icons, there are certain images that would be considered classic, but you’ve also done images of St. Maria Goretti and Faustine Kowalska and others. Is iconography something that can be both classical and contemporary?
Czarnecki: It has to be both. I think one of the classic functions of the church is to work as a treasurer keeper, and the treasures of the church are the lives of the saints. The prototypes that were created for the lives of the saints, even ancient ones, have some historical truth to them, and that’s why we don’t have permission to change them. . . . These old prototypes, some of them go back to the catacombs. The icon of the nursing Virgin is the oldest image we have of the Virgin Mary historically, and we still make an icon almost exactly like that fresco. There’s a deepness to those prototypes that we can’t even begin to approach. . . . Even if you’re going to write “new” icons you have to have a grounding and a foundation in that traditional language. There’s no way you can create new icons without immersing yourself in all of that.
I particularly note several things in this interview that intrigue me as an evangelical Protestant. While I do not invoke the saints merit on my behalf I have come to believe the saints, thus all of those who have died in the Lord, are praying and worshiping as they stand before Jesus at this very moment. They are most active in prayer and I cannot help but believe they pray for you and me. I also believe it is right we remember them in our worship and prayer given a passage like Hebrews 11. They are not dead! They are very much alive, more alive than we are really. It was D. L. Moody himself who reproached people at his death bed who felt that he was about to enter the land of the dying by saying, “No, I am about to enter the land of he living, it is you who will remain in the land of the dying.” How true. There is a great deal that we simply do not know about life after death but it seems apparent that those who die in the Lord reign with him on high right now and are as active in his kingdom as ever, more so than we on earth in one way at least. Yes, their activity is different but there are no passive bystanders in heaven. I have come to believe that it is right for us to celebrate the victorious completion of their earthly journey and to remember them in more ways than scrap-booking and biography.
Note that Czarnecki also says the church “is to work as a treasure keeper.” It seems to me that when evangelicals were pushed away from the Roman Catholic communion during the 16th century they forgot this point. We ceased being “treasure keepers” seeing this work as Roman and unbiblical. It seems that we have often forgotten much more than we can afford to forget. We despise tradition and have no collective memory of the past. So far as I can tell multitudes of evangelical Protestants will not even go back to what happened last Sunday, much less what happened in a previous century before the sixteenth. But even when we do go back we know next to nothing about any treasures of the past except those that came to us from Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards and Spurgeon. Now don’t get me wrong. I love these men, always have and always will. I have photographs of each of them around me in my library. But these are not the only great men in the treasured history of the Christian church. And this doesn’t even touch on the question of great women. Evangelical Protestants have forgotten the great women of faith even more than their Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters.
Finally, we note that in this interview Czarnecki speaks about his “not having permission” to change the old prototypes. There is a respect here for that which is ancient. Few people in my evangelical Protestant background understand this at all. It is this very kind of thinking that has deeply penetrated my own mind and heart because of my growing love for the Great Tradition of the one, holy, catholic church. May God open your minds and hearts to all of his truth, even the truth found in places you may never have expected to find it.