My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Icons are strange. To an outsider, they are certainly among the most foreign aspects of Orthodox spirituality and praxis. The strangeness is only magnified by their centrality: these aren’t simply decorations or “devotional aids.” They get at something central to Orthodoxy: the intersection of the physical with the divine. The Orthodox Church devotes an entire feast to their celebration, and every other feastday, indeed every Sunday, they figure prominently. Understanding icons and why they play such a central role (especially when prayers before them touch at a fundamental divide between Orthodox Christianity and American evangelicalism) is thus key to gaining insights into Orthodoxy itself. In The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer, Frederica Mathewes-Green offers an accessible, engaging, and conciliatory glimpse into this world.
This is not a scholarly, historical, or theological treatise about icons, though those books have been written and Mathewes-Green offers references to some in a succinct list at the book’s conclusion. Instead, her work is much more a short devotional guide. Indeed, there is no introductory essay explaining or setting the context for icons in Church worship. She begins by inviting us into a church, and the book is the process of her introducing and reflecting on various famous icons (four of which are illustrated in color plates at the book’s center, whereas the rest are unfortunately black and white). The subtitle well illustrates her approach. She’s introducing the physical and spiritual space of Orthodox worship. Indeed, the book begins with a diagram of an Orthodox church, showing where the various icons are usually displayed. We’re given both a tour of the church’s interior architecture as well as the cycle of the church year itself, as some icons are fixed in space whereas others make their appearance at specific times throughout the church calendar.
The book is light reading in one sense. The chapters are short, and the book itself quite thin. But it’s not meant to be read straight through. Instead, it might function best as a devotional primer, with the reader reading and then reflecting on each individual chapter. These are images that have been vital to the life of the church for hundreds of years, in some cases over a thousand years. Each chapter is a response to an icon, accompanied by scripture, hymnology, and prayers. Certain chapters are used as vehicles for explaining church doctrine, as for instance the second chapter on the Virgin of Vladimir in which Mathewes-Green addresses and explains the Orthodox view of prayers before icons as well as to the Theotokos herself. Throughout, the tone is inclusive: she’s not writing for an Orthodox audience alone.
Icons are certainly mystical– as mystical as any truly physical thing is, a wonder of pigment and surface and reality. If you’ve ever been in an Orthodox church (or the home of an Orthodox friend) and been curious about these images and their use– not simply the theology or history behind them but looking for more of a glimpse of what may go on in the mind of the person standing before them– this book is indeed an open door.