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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Iconic Remembrance : Ten-Ten-Ten

In case you haven't noticed it, today's date is 10-10-10, The tenth day of the tenth month in the tenth year of this century. That fact has absolutely nothing to do with this post.

Iconic Remembrance
I have a strange gift (or curse?) of remembering where and when and why I heard a word for the first time. The more obscure the word, the more likely I am to remember the moment its meaning first took root in my head. In this case, it is a word I never needed before I learned it for a college orientation class and in the past decade it has become a word that we use casually for something quite unlike its original meaning. I used it a few minutes ago with my daughter. I was helping her with a computer task, and I said, “Now double-click on the external hard-drive icon.” She immediately knew what I meant, because for her and her generation the word icon means a small graphic symbol for a file, program, or piece of computer hardware.

But in 1974, as a wide-eyed college freshman, I was required to go on a guided tour of perhaps the single-most comprehensive collection of religious art in the United States.
In one of the galleries, I was surrounded by what the guide called icons, a word that comes from Greek εἰκών eikōn, which means image. Icons are typically painted on wood, and sometimes in three-paneled hinged form allowing them to stand freely in place. These are called triptych icons. They're common in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. That little room in the huge gallery was filled almost exclusively with triptych icons. I have not been in that room for about 35 years, but that is where I first heard the word icon.

Because I was reared in a protestant home, I must confess that iconic religious art does not move me emotionally or spiritually. By that I mean that the “image” does not bring me closer to what it represents. If I look on it meditatively (if I double-click it with my mind so to speak) it does not open my eyes to the real thing. I have no quams with those who are affected by such symbols of the real thing, so long as the icon does not become an idol or the material object of affection; so long as the icon or statue does not venerate devotion; so long as the representation of Christ (or Mary or a saint) does not become a source of “spiritual help” apart from the real thing.

It’s a fine line between iconic remembrance and idolatry. The difference is that of representation vs. relationship. It’s like a husband who claims to know and love his wife who is in the next room wanting his company, but he instead keeps his distance while looking at his favorite picture of his wife. He has a picture of his wife on his office desk, one in his wallet, one on his dashboard. He loves looking at her picture, but he does not actually spend time with his wife. Regardless of how fondly he speaks of his wife whenever people ask about the picture (the icon), if he has no intention of introducing them to the real thing, what good is the picture? It is merely represention—the relationship itself is non-existent. That is the hazard of icons and idols—rather than pointing us to the real thing, they take its place.

Having said that, I will now defend a type of icon we probably all have in our homes. They are framed photographs of loved ones. Not just the hundreds of snapshots that fill our photo albums and shoe boxes under the bed in the guestroom. I’m talking about those dozen or so “iconic photographs” that have a Norman Rockwell illustrative quality and tell part of the story of who we are. I’m thinking of a framed picture of my mom and dad getting ready to drive away after their wedding and a similar photo of the same moment after Julie’s parents' wedding. Both of those pictures are framed and displayed on the antique lampstand in our living room. They are iconic to all members of my family. I look at them and think of the real people and the real life I shared with them. I don’t worship or venerate the image. I think of the real thing. If it were possible, the picture might prompt me to pick up the phone and call them, and in the case of Julie’s parents, we often do. That is the power of iconic photographs.

We share iconic photos as a country. Think of the images: FDR with his cigarette holder rising jauntily in the air from his confident smile; Truman holding up a newspaper announcing Dewey's win; little John-John Kenedy saluting his father's passing casket; and one of  my favorites—that iconic planted kiss from a sailor to a nurse upon the news that the war was over. Those photos, happy and sad, along with many others, remind us of events that shaped us as a nation.

In the same way, every family has iconic photographs. They do not take the place of the real thing; they help us remember those who shaped us; they foster the continued relationship with either the person or the moment and meaning of a frozen fragment of time; they are not idols that interfere with our relationship with God; they trigger remembrance of those who introduced us to Him.

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