Icons in Israel... the icon of the Transfiguration meets the harsh reality of house demolition

Sometimes you get a clear glimpse of what God, in His Infinite Mercy, wants you to see. The past ten days have been one of those times.

I have become convinced that when an icon 'comes my way' it is there for a reason, a sparkling reflection of the Divine Will glinting in the darkness with a word for me. Yes, in the midst of a universe which seems so impersonal and at times harsh, a tender word of love, personal, resonant, beautiful.

During the past two month while I have been out here in Bethlehem I have been working on two images of the Transfiguration, one a new commission, another as part of the restoration of the Emmanuel monastery chapel. When you find yourself caught up with the same image twice over, then I think it reasonable to think that there is an important message being given.

But with the Transfiguration I could see no obvious resonance. Until this past week.

Steps in understanding

1. Whenever I work on an icon, I prepare in several ways, one of which is to research thoroughly as I am able the theological understanding of the events or saints in question and the significance of the particular theme in the iconographic tradition. The Transfiguration is the icon which, in some traditions, is the first icon a student iconographer should attempt on their own, and this indicates the importance of the theological elements in its construction, most specifically light as it is understood within the icon in general.

Here is displayed the Divine Light, Christ transfigured by the glory of God in a manifestation of the shekinah, the golden cloud which hovered over the tent of meeting during the time of Moses. This very physical manifestation of Christ's Divinity is as a light which permeates all of matter and shines more brightly than anything 'natural', and reminds us of Moses face having to be covered with a veil after he descended from the mountain of Horeb. This Light is thus a vivid reminder of the Presence of God, and is an invitation to enter more deeply into personal communion with Him through the Person of His Son. Significantly, this manifestation of God's Presence in the Person of Christ comes before Jesus explains to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem for his Passion, his suffering and death.

This transfiguring of matter in a way directly present to the senses is a fundamental tenet of the Hesychast way of prayer which has become so central to eastern Orthodox spirituality, and also of the way the icon is understood. In the icon light is an inner, luminous light, manifesting the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ and the saints.

2. Perusing YouTube for some suitable music for the time when I was painting, I came across a clip of a programme about icons. The clip opens with Romanian Metropolitan His Eminence Daneel succinctly describing the essence of the icon. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkP45-LmJuQ
This is a transcript of what he said:

"What I think is important in the icon is not only the face of Christ or of the Virgin Mary or of the saints but the light beyond. The important attitude is to remind us that we are in the presence of God and to start to speak with him also silently not just by word. And this communion of our mind with God is the beginning of a good prayer, although we are in the cities or working in the office. It is a question of desire to meet God and to let God share in our life. The prayer is not only our activity it is also the activity of God in us and especially when we see around us many people around us suffering. We feel the duty to become more and more the hands of Christ, helping those who need our help and to discover the icon of Christ in the suffering of our fellow humans." 

3. Last Sunday the newspapers were filled with stories about the massive destruction of storms across the Philippines. Millions of people literally had their lives washed away, their homes devastated together with all of their contents. The sheer scale of it was overwhelming, and its impact on so many lives incomprehensible.

Later that night I had a phone call from a Palestinian friend from Jerusalem. He was outside the police station. He was there because that morning he and his family were woken by the police and a demolition team. Within minutes they had been driven out of their home and the building, together with all its contents had been completely demolished. The house had been there from before the time Israel invaded Jordan and annexed east Jerusalem, but had been built without a permit.

I met up with him, and found a completely broken young man. They had demolished his home, without allowing them to even take their clothes, let alone the children's toys. He was the eldest at 27 of five children.  The youngest was ten, and fortunately was away visiting family with his father. Having demolished the house, they then served notice that the family was to pay for the demolition, together with the costs of the attendance of the police. This emptied his bank account, and still left him with half the amount to pay.

He was due to be married next May. He had adapted part of the house to accommodate him and his wife to be. Now the house was gone, together with the money for the wedding. It took him six years to save that, a time when he worked incredibly long hours not just to pay for his wedding and support his family, but also to put himself through university to train as a physiotherapist. It was there that I had met him, when restoring some paintings in the chapel and was suffering from intense shoulder pain. I had free treatment from him, though this necessitated being a subject for the classroom instruction. We stayed in touch. I never expected to see this motivated, hard working, well balanced young man totally broken.

4. But last Sunday that was how I found him. After his call for help I agreed to meet him but had no idea what to do. I had no words to say which would have any strength or meaning, and for sure I could not rebuild his house let alone replace all those personal things which are the priceless debris of our lives. I was totally out of my depth, in a situation I neither understood or had the capacity to comprehend. I felt my friend's pain, I saw his face age by ten years, and could only manage to just sit with him in the garden at Tantur just between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. I prayed, I prayed a lot out of the sense of total helplessness.

Tantur Garden contains an icon I wrote last year. It was the only place I could think to go. My friend was unable to face anyone. We needed a safe space, a place where he could hide, and be weak, to allow the shock to begin to surface and to allow something of the turmoil just to seep out from deep inside. It was a Christ centred space, and in the silence of the night air I felt something of Christ willing me to see Him in this friend whose face was ashen, whose life was shattered, and where hope had been extinguished. I simply needed to see Him, in order for Him to be with my friend.

5. It was only after this that I came across those words of  the Romanian Metropolitan and his profound words about the icon. I realised that is what I had lived in that time, and so the connection between the icon of the Transfiguration revealed itself. The icon was drawing me to a more profound vision of Christ,  training my eye to see Him in His more hidden disguises. Without light we see nothing. When we live with Christ in the Light then His radiant glory peels back the fear, the self-absorption, the anger, the selfishness or whatever obscures God's Presence in our souls. So our vision is enlightened, our focus changes, and we discover a world where God is much more present than we ever dared to imagine, even present in the most violent, distressing, anguished, cruel, unjust and disfiguring situations. And, perhaps most shocking of all, He is there through us, waking our hearts to love, to hope, to faith where others have lost the capacity. As my friend said, with all sincerity, I have died. This is the darkness which cannot be allowed to persist, which may not, cannot overcome the Light which is Christ.


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