The first time I worshipped in an Orthodox Church, I was on sensory overload. I went for a class I was taking at Fuller Seminary and it was overwhelming. We chanted, we stood for around two hours, all the time, the overwhelming scent of incense was filling my lungs. Being an artist, I was immediately enamored with the beautiful icons. I went in expecting “smells and bells,” expecting to stand, expecting to see icons, but I didn’t expect to feel so supernaturally drawn to the icon of Christ at the front of the space.
I was drawn to it, I studied it, I loved it.
I felt stuck.
In Windows to Heaven, a book on Orthodox iconography, Elizabeth Zelensky writes that in the Orthodox faith, the icon should be seen as a window that the reader looks through to see the nature of the divine. So, by looking at (or reading, more appropriately) an icon of Christ, we see not the wood and paint, but the actual divine nature of Christ. No wonder I was compelled.
Zelensky goes on to write, “It is my prayer that now and then, someone will recognize the image of Christ in me and will look through me like a window—opaque and tarnished and dusty as I am—and will fix their eyes on the realities of heaven.”
Three implications can be found in this metaphor for what it means to be a believer artist. The first is that any believer, artist or not, is created in the image of God and should be a window. Maybe this is what all of those verse cautioning women to adorn themselves are really about. Maybe we shouldn’t read them so literally that we are not to wear jewelry, but instead realize that if we make our lives and ourselves about the flash and the sparkle and the drama, will others really see through all of that to the reason for our existence: to God? Am I truly a window that others see God in? Or do they just see MY accomplishments and the selfish ME-ness of it all?
The second implication is like the first, but relates more specifically to the believer artist. The believer artist must offer themselves and their work in humility. We do this so that through the windows of our lives, Christ might be seen and glorified (John 3:30). Does the work that I create point to the beauty of Christ? Or am I too much in the way?
But here’s the good news. This metaphor of being a window implies something about our art. Any artist will tell you that art can be torture; the act of bringing an idea into fruition feels like an impossible and risky task. Many would argue that art is also supposed to be beautiful, theologically good or inherently true. I would argue that as believer artists, our vocation calls us to live out the truth of God and reflect His truth through our particular lens and creative medium.
As we create art that faithfully and humbly reflects both personal truth and God’s Truth, our work will become a window to heaven. It does not need to be overtly religious in content or theme in order to do so.
I think this might also explain why I sometimes feel stuck in other places.
- This last year alone, I have felt stuck staring out at the vastness of Lake Michigan.
- I have felt stuck in beautiful moments of worship.
- I was recently stuck staring at “Chief” by Franz Kline in MOMA.
Each of these experiences was deeply spiritual for me. It reflected God’s truth to me, and functioned as a window to heaven.
Oh, that our lives and our art would be a window to the divine. Let’s get out of the way and let God be seen through us.