When I think of the Iconostasis of the Church (the wall that demarcates the Holy Place) I thinkof “boundaries,” and how the definitions that exist in the Church reflect even greater realities. I believe those realities are two-fold.
The first reality is to be found within ourselves. Fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God, there is a spiritual reality to our composition and inner relationship that is far too easily overlooked in our materialistic age. It seems correct to me that we are now seeing that many components of our life have a grounding not just in the “mind” (whatever a materialist would mean by that) but in the body itself (every thought has a chemical expression). We are not angels, disembodied spirits. We are human beings who think with flesh and blood. And this is a marvelous thing.
And yet, at least in our ignorance, we cannot speak very clearly of such matters. We often have to draw on other metaphors – though we should remember that our embodied existence is just that, embodied. I wrote in the previous post of the Temple of our body, and how there are distinctions and boundaries to be found there and respected.
Much of this is the cause of our problem with “prayer of the heart.” It is interesting that the “prayer of the heart” almost always has a certain amount of physical instruction. “To pray with the mind centered the heart,” is one such admonition.
I believe it is a place that we also encounter, or can encounter icons. I have seen people literally be converted by the presence of an icon. Last year I was in Atlanta when the Icon of Our Lady of Sitka was being taken around the country. The image that came to me as I stood with the other priests and offered the Molieben (prayer service) to Our Lady of Sitka, was that of a surface that has been distorted by the weight of an object placed on it (think of a flexible surface). In such a situation, the surface on which we stand is pulled down as if in a “cone shape,” and eveything around it falls towards it.
Now that may sound strange and having just written it sounds strange to me – but that’s what I felt. It was as if something very big and very heavy were in our midst. I believe this to have been the spiritual weight of the icon itself. Thus many of the people in attendance at the service felt “drawn” to the icon. My own language would have said that I did not feel drawn, I literally felt as though I were falling towards the icon.
Perhaps I am delusional. That is always a distinct possibility, but it is clear that many people were touched by the presence of the icon that night.
One of the most famous “boundary” stories in all of Orthodoxy, is that of St. Mary of Egypt. She was a young prostitute who, on a lark, traveled to Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She came with a procession of pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where the cross was exhibited). But she discovered that when she tried to cross the threshhold of the Church she was repelled as if there were an invisible wall blocking the way. After several attempts she turned to an icon of the Mother of God beside the entrance. She prayed for help and promised to give up her life of prostitution and give herself completely to God. Then she was able to cross the threshhold.
In such an occasion I can only say that a person stands at the boundary of earth and heaven. Unable to enter heaven except by repentance they find that every human effort to press forward thrusts them backwards. Heaven opens to us only as a great gift of grace.
This same experience is something that I think exists frequently in our prayers. We frequently stand outside the door, and are all to frequently satisfied not to enter into the depths of the bridal chamber (the altar of the Church is called the Bridal Chamber during the Bridegroom Matins services of Holy Week). We stand and pray and are satisfied with a wandering mind and a hardened heart. There is a great need in our lives to press forward until we come to the place of true repentance. Then we find the doors of heaven opened to us and we enter into true prayer.
The series of prayers that a Bishop, Priest, or Deacon must offer before entering the holy altar at the beginning of any Divine Liturgy (these entrance prayers are prayed before the service of the Proskomedie). All of these prayers recognize the holiness of the altar area and the unworthiness of those who enter.
These boundaries, places and points where earth and heaven meet, are probably far more frequent in our lives than we admit. God is so gracious and merciful that He comes to us again and again. It is our fault that we increasingly secularize the world around us, and we see no boundaries, no doors.
Christ speaks of such moments in His famous parable of the Last Judgment when he tells us that all of these needy neighbors who surround us (the sick, the naked, the hungry, those in prison, etc.) were all occasions where Christ was to be encountered. They each stood before us as the Gate of Heaven and we refused to enter.
It is good when we pay enough attention to our heart that we can be aware of the generosity of God who meets us in so many ways. We need to be like Jacob of old who awakened from his dream at Bethel (the dream where he saw the ladder stretching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending). He did not wake from his dream like a secular man. A secular man would have said, “What a strange dream. I wonder what I’m worried about. Or did I eat something bad last night.” For the secular man, reality is defined only by himself. Jacob woke from his dream and said:
Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Gen. 28:16-17).
These are not the thoughts of a modern man. But, with the renewal of our mind, they can be our thoughts.