Sunday, September 18, 2011

Iconic Icons: Pantocrator

In two previous posts (here and here), I discussed the theology behind icons. Now I'm going to begin a series on some famous icons and types of icons that will be entitled Iconic Icons (yes, the pun is very much intended).

The first icon I'll cover is the basic icon: the Pantocrator (Παντοκρατωρ), which can be translated either "Almighty" or "Ruler of All." It is the icon of He who is the core of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ Himself. During the iconoclastic period of the 8th and 9th centuries (roughly), the main thing attacked was the icon of Christ. Of course, icons of the Theotokos and the saints were also attacked, but when reading the main defenses of icons, it seems like they focus most on defending icons of Christ, and then they use those arguments (expanded) to argue for icons of Theotokos and the saints. (For a good review of the debate over the icon of Christ, see Cardinal Cristoph Schönborn's book God's Human Face: The Christ-Icon.)

Due to the attacks of the iconoclasts, many of the early icons of the Church were lost. Most of the earliest icons still remaining are from Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai. Accordingly, the oldest known Pantocrator is found there (pictured below).

This icon portrays astoundingly one of the key aspects of the Pantocrator. Obviously, it is an icon of Christ, and so it depicts Him, usually from the waist up, traditionally with one hand making the sign of blessing (forming the letters ICXC, which stand for the first and last letters of "Jesus" and "Christ" in Greek -- Ιεσους Χριστος) and one hand holding the Book of the Gospels, sometimes open to a verse. These two hands are supposed to represent mercy and judgment, splitting the icon down the middle into two attributes of Christ (the split into two also represents the two natures joined in Christ).

The icon at Saint Catherine's Monastery showcases this split even better. Instead of just the hands representing the two attributes, even Christ's face does. The right eye (the eye above the sign of blessing) is an eye with a merciful gaze, and the left eye (above the Book of the Gospels) is a judgment eye gazing sharply. With this Pantocrator, one is able to cover one side of the Lord's face and see His judgmental stare, and he can see His merciful gaze when the other side is covered.

That is the key to what makes the Pantocrator such a unique icon of Christ: its depiction of the two attributes of mercy and judgment, representing the two natures of Christ. Its use is so ubiquitous that almost all Eastern chapels or churches have a Pantocrator written on their top domes (I even heard once that it was a requirement, though I am not certain of that).

In conclusion, the Pantocrator is the basic icon, and it is most likely the most well-known and recognizable icon (it even appears on the cover of Ignatius Press' popular Catholic Edition of the RSV translation of the Bible). It is extremely unlikely to find any collection of icons that does not include the Pantocrator (after all, why would you have icons to represent Mary and the saints, yet none to represent Jesus Christ, the Son of God Incarnate, the Saviour of mankind?). So, if you decide to begin a collectionf of icons to aid you in prayer, begin by acquiring a Pantocrator.

I hope you found this post helpful, and I hope you enjoy this series.

Christ the King, have mercy on us!

Nota Bene: Some information was taken from Wikipedia, particularly the page on the Pantocrator (and also a bit from the page on Saint Catherine's Monastery).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Franciscan Prayers for Study

The following are two prayers one of my professors gave us to be used before and after class. Though he usually forgets to pray the latter, we always the pray the former. They are obscure prayers translated, I think, by my professor from a 17th-century Franciscan book. Through the use of them, I hope we can all dedicate all of our work and all of our time to Christ Jesus our Lord.

Before Class

Most high God of truth,
Enlighten our minds.

Love of the Holy Trinity,

Hasten to help us.

May charity set our minds on fire,

may truth bring us to love:

so that as much as we know you,

so much may we love you.

To the praise of your glory,

Direct our studies:
So that after the course of this life

We may enjoy you in heaven.

R./ Amen.

After Class

Through you, Jesus, be directed
The work of our minds.

In you Jesus, be ended

The class of this day.

O Mary, Good Mother,
May our hearts not be cold.
But through these sacred studies,

Serve better in love.

What we have accomplished in study,

we offer to you, O Jesus,
What has been lacking in our study,

May you grant us, O Jesus.

R./ Amen.

I hope this post is helpful to you. God Bless.

St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!

Nota Bene: These prayers are from the Ritual of the Recollect Friars Minor of the Province of St. Francis in France [Rituale Fratrum Minorum Recollectorum Provinciae S. Francisci in Gallia], printed in 1630. I think they were translated by my professor, Fr. Conrad Harkins, O.F.M., Ph.D., though I could be mistaken. The icon of St. Francis was written by my friend Nathan Augustine over at Pilgrim Iconography.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Supplement on Graven Images (St. Theodore the Studite, St. John of Damascus)

I already discussed the defense of icon veneration in my post on a writing by St. Gregory Palamas, who succinctly summarized the arguments of icon defenders against iconoclasts. I just wished to add a few more thoughts on this topic taken from two of the true victors against the iconoclasts: St. Theodore the Studite, with his Refutation of the Iconoclasts, and St. John of Damascus, with his Apology Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Practice of Living in the Presence (Ven. Clara Fey)

Venerable Clara Fey, P.C.J. (1815-1884) was the foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus. One day she saw a vision of a poor child standing in front of a building asking for alms for him and his many brothers and sisters who were also poor: this child was the Child Jesus, and the building He stood in front of became the first motherhouse for the Congregation.

The point of this post is not to discuss the Congregation, but rather it is to discuss the spirituality of its founder, particularly her focus on living in God's Presence. The Lord told us to "pray always," and thus we should always keep our minds on Him: "Even while working our heart should be with Him" (90). One quote by Mother Fey sums up her teaching well:

"Our Lord does not wish to dwell in us in a transient way through Holy Communion. No, His spiritual dwelling in us should be continual. He remains in us. The same Lord Who enters our heart in the morning accompanies us with His grace throughout the whole day, and in the evening is still with us to protect us through the night" (58).

Ven. Clara Fey's teaching on living in Christ's Presence is rooted primarily in two things: one, God's omnipresence, and two, Jesus Christ as Emmanuel (God-With-Us) in the Eucharist. Her teaching is incredibly Eucharistic: all of our experience of being in God's Presence should be a continuation of Holy Communion (hence her emphasis on "spiritual communion"): "If we try to live our daily life as a continuation of Holy Communion, we will constantly find Our Lord in our heart" (63). The Eucharist, "the greatest miracle of divine Omnipotence," is how Christ enters into us and comes to live with us (18). Mother Fey sums it up beautifully in one sentence:

"Our Lord is in the Tabernacle only that He may enter our hearts" (28).

Mother Fey says how our hearts should remain "like sanctuary lamps before the tabernacle" when we cannot be physically present in adoration before the Eucharistic Lord (45). Her teaching often focuses on how we can keep these lamps burning, how we can remember Christ's continual presence with us. She offers suggestions for helping us recall His presence, such as the following:

"According to my opinion it would be very advantageous for us to have little things to remind us of the Divine Presence. Just today I was thinking that every time I hear the clock strike, I will think it is Our Lord reminding me to recollect myself and greet Him Who waits patiently for me. Whenever I hear a church bell I shall think that Our Lord is inviting me, and shall recollect myself again and speak to my Beloved. Even when the door bell rings, one generally wonders who it could be; but I have made up my mind to think that the Lord calls me within my heart to come to Him saying, 'It is I; come to Me.' This ought to be helpful because bells ring so frequently; clocks strike the hours of our life which pass by so quickly. This practice, however, must be performed calmly and without constraint" (91-92).

Another habit Ven. Clara recommends is to try to think of Christ's presence at least every half hour and to examine ourselves every noon and evening to see if we have followed this practice. If we have failed in this, we should ask Christ's pardon. Yet another habit is to make a spiritual communion by greeting the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament whenever we pass by a church. And what is the goal of this practice? That our conduct will be holy by our continual remembrance of Christ's presence. The following passage expounds on this goal and how close our connection to Christ should be:

"If your best friend, whom you admire and love, were always with you, would you do anything in his sight that might displease or offend him? Certainly not! Your Lord and God never moves from your side; therefore, how perfect your conduct should be. How pure and holy must be the thoughts you think in His Presence; how careful the words you speak; how perfect the works you do before Him…You have two eyes. With on you should pay attention to your work, the work of your state of life; but the other you should keep immovably fixed on your Divine Friend. You have two hands. With on you should perform works of mercy, but the other should embrace the Lord, to lean upon Him, and never let Him go. You have two ears. With one you should listen to the needs of your neighbor, but the other should be attuned to the voice of Your Friend, who speaks to your heart. This is how it should be!" (33-34).

Thus, by living in Christ's presence, by "praying always," we will keep our conduct pure and holy. The key here is faithfulness: as Mother Fey said, "Feelings do not count! Faithfulness is everything!" (94). We are not alone in this either: Mother Fey recommends that we learn from Mary, St. Joseph, and the other saints how to perform this practice (some who follow her spirituality call this remembrance of Christ's presence "the Practice") and that we ask them to intercede for us, that we may never leave Christ's side. She also recommends prayers to our Guardian Angels, that they may continually prod us and redirect us to Christ.

In conclusion, Venerable Clara Fey's practice of living in the presence of Christ is an attempt to fulfill the Lord's command to "pray always" (as the Jesus Prayer is in the Eastern tradition, particularly in the hesychast tradition). She thus recommends us to continually bear in mind Christ's closeness to us and how that closeness is achieved through the Eucharist. St. Faustina described Mother Fey's practice well when she wrote, "From that moment I set up a little cell in my heart where I always kept company with Jesus" (Diary #16). Let us all strive to "pray always" by remembering the continual presence of Jesus Christ in our hearts, as Venerable Clara Fey taught us.

I hope this post was helpful. God Bless!

Venerable Clara Fey, pray for us!

Nota Bene: All quotations from Mother Fey, along with the opening information about her, are taken from Heaven on Earth, edited by Rev. Joseph Solzbacher, S.T.D., translated by Sr. Mary Colman, P.C.J. The quote from St. Faustina is from Marian Press' 2011 edition of her Diary.