Friday, December 10, 2010

Reflections on an Interfaith Panel Discussion on Sacred Arts

I recently hosted a panel discussion on sacred arts at Austin Community College. One of the panelists, Irene Perez-Omer, an iconographer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, wrote this wonderful reflective piece on the event. I am reprinting it here with her permission. For more information about Irene and her work, please visit

Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

I usually want to write and stop myself; partly because I don't feel like I have any authority to write anything about spiritual matters or theology; partly because I probably won't say anything new; and lastly because no one might want to read it. Today though, I will write in spite of the usual apprehensions.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a Sacred Arts Panel at the local community college. It was a nice evening shared with my co-panelists a Jewish Rabbi and a master/practitioner of Ikebana which I found out was a Japanese art of flower arrangement. We all got a chance to talk about the tradition and practice of our respective forms of sacred art. The Ikebana practitioner spoke of the meditative aspect of her work, and of the harmony of the different elements in her arrangements. Each different branch and each different species of plant represented one of the basic elements of the cosmos, each was equally necessary and important as part of a harmonious whole. She spoke of how we could learn from her art, that each element was necessary and important to sustain the harmony of the arrangement and reflecting on these relationships we could work towards an enlightened society. A society according to her philosophy, where no matter how small a person, how seemingly insignificant their job, this person was necessary and equally as important as another person having a job or function that was considered by many to be of greater importance. That we are all equally valuable in creating and maintaining harmony in the world. All of us have a place and a function to perform that is valuable for the whole, that we all deserve dignity no matter how humble our station in life.

Then, it was my turn to talk about Byzantine iconography. I have had the opportunity on several occasions to give lectures about iconography in the past. In the last year and a half, I changed the focus of my presentations from the art historical point of view which is what usually people expect, to a more direct and necessarily theological approach to understanding iconography. So, in about ten minutes I explained the Orthodox Christian doctrine of the incarnation of Christ, and how that was the sole reason and foundation for iconography. God became man and dwelt among us; so we can represent Him whom people saw, spoke to and ate with. Before the incarnation it was impossible to make images of God. Furthermore, by becoming man, Christ restored the icon of man which was made after Himself and in this way restored our fallen nature to its original beauty and stature. And by also dying a human death and rising from the dead, Christ had now effectively made possible our salvation, our return to God in His Kingdom. So by becoming human, God allowed human beings to become like god. The persons who have achieved this goal are the ones represented in iconography and whom we call Saints. I explained that we are all called to this transfiguration and even in our imperfect state we are considered icons of God as we (included here is all of humanity) are all made in God's image. In addition, I spoke about the veneration of icons, and why this is not idolatry but simply a show of respect and veneration to the persons represented on the icons, not an adoration of the materials which form part of the icon. I briefly explained some of the formal aspects of Byzantine icons (perspective, anatomy, light.) Finally, I explained how the architecture of the Church building, the iconography, the hymns, and the Faithful gathered, both formed part and supported the whole movement of the Liturgy, the ascent from this world into the Kingdom of God, the whole of the visible and invisible creation, humankind and angels, earth and heaven united to participate in this feast which culminates in the Eucharist, communion with God. .... yes, this was a lot to swallow in a little over ten minutes.

After me came the Rabbi, who had been listening with interest and I guessed amusement to what I was saying. Following a brief introduction by the moderator who revealed the Rabbi as a trained singer, musician and Hebrew theologian, the Rabbi asked us to close our eyes and started singing a wordless melody. His voice was very smooth, beautiful and the melody had an ancient sound. After a a minute or two he stopped. He then told us how in his faith, which was about 2000 years old (Hebrews after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.,) they didn't use images but music, more specifically chanting in their services. He explained how he tries to express the moment, the mood or state of mind in his synagogue through his chanting. How the word "chanteuse" comes from enchanter, someone who can transport you with sound, take you to a different place, a different state of mind. He then expressed how fleeting time is and no matter how much we try to capture the moment with still photographs, or videos that we can never relive the moment. The moment is all we have and so he tries to create an experience of the moment with his chanting during the services at the Synagogue. He explained how the Hebrew chanting relies on 8 principal modes and the chanter can improvise according to his ability and sensitivity based on those 8 modes; that it was similar to Jazz in that sense. He also referred to Byzantine chant as having different tones that function similarly as in the Hebrew style of chanting. To demonstrate how different Hebrew chanters from different cultures would chant the same mode he demonstrated the way a Hebrew chanter from Yemen would sound, one from Morocco, one from Israel and one from America. It was fascinating and at the same time familiar as I have heard Byzantine plain chant by Monks from Mt. Athos, chanters from Syria, from Palestine, from the USA and they all use the same tones but have different flourishes and cultural accents of their own. However, the Rabbi kept coming back to the subject of time, how little of it we really have in this life, how we need to make the most of it, that once a second is gone is gone forever, and how we need to really be present at each and every moment so we may live it fully.

After this, we all answered questions from the audience. We all shook hands, and told each other how much we had enjoyed each others' presentations, etc. The Rabbi mentioned that he thought my presentation was interesting or something along those lines. I can't remember at the moment. It seems to me now that there were things I said that he hadn't heard before.
What struck me about the evening and the reason why I am writing this is that a couple of days later, I kept thinking about the Rabbi and what he said about time. I finally realized that the Rabbi was really anxious about time. For two days I thought about what he had said and wondered why he is so worried about time? Why does he feel that there is no time, that time is slipping away? I wondered why I wasn't worried about it like he seemed to be? I wondered if this preoccupation with time was part of the Hebrew religious mindset or just his personal view of his faith or experience. But, why was I not worried? Was I missing something?

Then, came Sunday, and I went to Church as usual with my family. Once in Church, I lit candles, venerated the icons and with anticipation waited to hear the Priest say the words, "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." I feel joy when I hear these words at the beginning of every Liturgy. I stood there by my husband in Church, chanting along with the chanters' "Kyrie Eleisons" and looking up at the Platytera on the apse, looking at the icons of the Saints on the icon screen, and remembering what I had told the people at the Sacred Arts panel. Then, I realized why I am not concerned with time. I was in the company of the Saints, of the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven, surrounded by Angels and Archangels, and on my way to receive the Holy Eucharist, on my way to the heavenly banquet, on my way to communion with God. I was already beyond the time of this world and into the time of the eighth day. I remembered telling my audience at the presentation that the Liturgy was an eternal Liturgy going on in Heaven and on earth forever, a constant thanksgiving and praise. That's why I am not worried about time. Christ has opened the gates to the Kingdom of God and we are all called to the company of the Saints, we can all be there as sons of the most high, where time is eternal and Love is never ending.

I am so thankful for this and for my Faith which is so wise and beautiful, and for God's love in giving us eternal life.

- Irene Perez-Omer