Icons challenge non-Russians accustomed to living in the reality of the here and now. We are used to the Andy Worholesque images of our times. Surrounded with sensory stimulants, we avoid the worship of idols and yet buy goods when prompted to by TV images.
We respond to stimuli. Icons donât work on the level of stimulus /response. They have no symbolic intent and donât embody simile or metaphor. The first time I walked into a church in the Russian countryside (just when they were allowed to reopen) I saw candles shimmering on the aklad of a single icon, and I became aware of the potency of another world perception. The icon did not exist in our notion of time. The effect was of a strange inner quietness. In front of it old women looked through it in adoration. The picture itself wasnât to evoke or convey a mood, but it unlocked years of hidden pain in the pilgrims. Tears trickled down wrinkled cheeks. The emotionless simplicity of the icon of the Mother of God holding a child-man affected some hitherto suppressed pains that were irrational and deep. My friend Marina Penkrat whispered, âWe must not intrude on their private grief. We should leave them to their prayers.â
Outside she was subdued. Marina knew tragedy. âDonât you see that the Mother of God is the highest aspect of the feminine self that you and all mankind must come to acknowledge? She is no one and everyone. She holds the world- sacrifice. These women may have washed the corpses and dug the graves of brothers and fathers and lovers. Who else but the High Holy One knows of their endured silent grief?â
The miraculous is uncomfortable.
Once, with Gaiewska the writer, on a bridge in Dimitrov, we decided to enter a church in a swamp. It had no treasures. No priest would serve the forgotten parish that had once been the site of a seemingly divinely- assisted victory against a larger French army. Women gathered and prayed for a priest to teach them to pray with songs more acceptable to God. They went outside to share a picnic. They saw a shining object floating on the river far upstream. It came closer and bumped against the jetty. It was an icon! Who had thrown a treasure into the river? I looked at it. It was worth a fortune. Ancient and archetypal. Simple and majestic. Soon, when word got round, priests wanted to be posted to the church that had been built on a foundation of barges filled with logs and sunk by Kutuzov to celebrate a victory in the reeds against Napoleon.
Iâve come to accept that there is much that canât be rationally understood. Life is miraculous. The strangest mystery is that icons when copied transfer their properties to their offspring. Just as songs when repeatedly sung assume great power, so too do icons when copied through the generations acquire an ambiance, a numinous; perhaps the accumulation of the devotion of those who have looked through them to glimpse the realm of Holy understanding.