1 John 1:5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.John 3:29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
One of the stranger experiences of painting icons (and I have nothing to compare it to since I have never painted anything else) is the movement from dark to light. The basic form is established in the darkest tones that will appear – and despite what you may have seen in books of reproductions, icons do not properly ever use the color black. Some other dark color has to carry that value. But at the stage of the first beginnings, when the basic shapes are established, an icon is at its darkest stage. Indeed, in painting the icon of a face, it appears quite dark, lifeless and flat.
The startling process (particularly for this neophyte) is the building up of form and content with light. Each stage is lighter than the last until at last highlights are added. But in the process what had been dead and lifeless, flat and empty, now becomes increasingly full and alive. “It is building with light,” we are told.
That, of course, is the process of painting an icon. But there is also a work of restoration and of re-creating an image that is taking place in each of us. Like the form of an icon in its darkest stage, we come to Christ and the discernable similarity to the image of God is there – but we are dark and lifeless by comparison to what we are called to be.
The Scripture verses I cited above were some that came to mind as I thought about this process today. We were told in painting: “You never create form back adding something darker.” This is true in our Christian formation as well. The movies like to add a bit of darkness to their characters for the sake of interest. Numerous writers from Dostoevsky to C.S.Lewis have noted the difficulties in creating a literary character who is interesting without at the same time being bad. But our badness, however “colorful” it may seem to some – particularly if it is nicely drawn on the screen and compared to lifeless “straw men” of goodness -is not very interesting at all. True goodness has a form and depth to it that makes anything less seem not full of character, but simple, banal and boring.
“God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” We need add no darkness to our character in order to become more like Christ. It is light that gives us form and reveals the character of Christ in us.
By the same token, St. John the Baptist’s statement, that “He must increase and I must decrease,” seems quite apt for our situation as well. The change that is to take place in us, from glory to glory, comes by beholding the face of Christ:
2 Cor. 4:6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in
the face of Christ.
The change that occurs in us does not come about because we have made a promise to make a good effort at self-improvement – to learn to behave ourselves better. It comes not because we have learned to reform ourselves by ridding ourselves of our worst habits and undergone years of psychoanalysis (I do not mean to disparage the use of medicines where needed, nor the help of physicians). But the change that occurs in us does not come by more carefully monitoring ourselves, but by recognizing that it is Christ who must increase while I am descreasing. It is not nearly so much that I need less of something as it is I need more of something, or rather, Someone. It is “Christ in you” who is the “hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Our daily labor needs to be towards Christ Himself – that He may increase in us. It is not the obliteration of what we are as it is the “light of Christ” appropriately applied that brings proper form and shape to our shapeless lives and reveals that this lump of clay was indeed created to become the image of God.
Not less of the world – but more of God. He is not destroying us in the process of saving us – but making His creation new.
“We need add no darkness to our character in order to become more like Christ.”
I have been a Christian since 17 years old and am now 40. I have never struggled with cursing or swearing since I was an unbelieving youth. I now have three teenage children and have shocked myself to find that when I get angry (even rightly) and am disciplining my 2 teenage boys (15 and 16), I find swearing and (un)”colorful” language often coming out of my mouth without even thinking. It seems that my fallen man thinks that adding the dark highlights of that language will strengthen the appearance of my authority to the boys when acutually it suggests to them that Christlike authority is too effeminate to control them and protect them and sustain them. God help me. Pray for me that I will be an icon of Christ “built with light” for them and those around me.
Thanks for the marvelous insight!
As I read the Fathers and lives of the saints, I see the light shining through in the gentleness and control that come. I particularly think of incidents in the life of Fr. Arseny — and spending short time with Fr Roman Braga. They seem to mirror what St. Paul said: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” As He shines in them, they do no lose that particular gift or charism or unique character.
My experience is that children bring out stuff in us we didn’t know were there – thus helping us in our salvation. Strangely, it seems that cursing is actually stored in a different part of the brain than usual language. Many stroke patients can continue to swear when they cannot speak. It says to me that when I swear, it’s a response not of language, but some other part of the brain, possibly tied to anger, that is being excited. It quickly becomes habit. But like all habits, 6 weeks of concerted effort and prayer, can usually make huge changes. Make a specific act of repentance before your children when you swear (that’s my suggestion) and it will help break it. It will no longer have the false manliness that we think it projects. Ask forgiveness, bow to the ground, and ask their prayers. Might work.
It seems to me that the painting of an Icon, the creation of the world from darkeness to light, conversion and transformation of a person from death to life, have basically the same effect when the “true light” is in play. Darkeness exists when it is apart from God. Yet nothing is black because God is everywhere and in all things. Is this correct theology?
Something big and good is happening. I am afraid to even mention it in public. But please pray for me and my family. There is fear and trembling, yet hope and … wonderment. What if? … I dare not say.
Ok. Muito bom !
Your post pleasantly surprised me. I had no idea that icons are painted from dark to light. I am struck by the similarities between the formation of icons and the formation of the likeness of God in us. Thank you for sharing your observations with us as you are away. You have ministered to me on many occasions.
Though I feel indebted to you already, may I ask one more thing of you? If you ever are in need of a topic to post about, could you please comment on Orthodoxy and the question of contraceptives? I would think the issue of family planning can be a barrier for some couples interested in converting. In my case, my wife and I are in our mid twenties, but I’m doing postgraduate studies abroad, which will mean we simply cannot afford children at this point. For other couples the problem may be that they already have four or five children and cannot afford more.
Thank you again for ministering to us. I hope God continues to bless you as you learn about icons.
Dear Fr Stephen,
Once again you inspire, not only with your theological insights, but also to hope that one day I too, or perhaps better my son, will have the time to channel whatever artistic bent we may have towards a formal course in icon painting, as you are doing.
But, again, more to the point, thank you for sharing your theological insights with us.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, and thank you Canadian! My teenager has caused me to “remember” more “anger” than I thought I could remember! I thought I was “done” with all that, at least to the extent it has risen its ugly head. Good advice, Fr. Stephen, on apologizing and recognizing that anger is not a necessary part of Chrisitan personality, and that prayer can work miracles also in this situation.
What a blessing this blog is!