A while ago I posted something about the pernicious role of iconoclasm -- and the second commandment -- in keeping humanity from direct interface with the divine. William Henry had touched upon the issue in an article on St. Francis of Assissi who developed stigmata, at least in part, because of his spiritual merging with religious iconography. I posited then that part of the motivation for iconoclasm is to keep us from the transcendent and mystical experiences that the Church has always found threatening. Direct experience of God was not something that just anyone was supposed to have.
I am currently reading Henry's Secret of Sion and he addresses the issue of icons as spiritual triggers, and the cruelty of a system that would deny them to humanity, very directly. He suggests that prior to the dark reign of the idol smashers, icons served an important and known function doing exactly what the second commandment says they shouldn't.
When the icons were made alchemy was the normal way of interacting with the world. Everything was viewed as in the process of transmutation or changing into something else -- like the acorn into the oak -- simultaneously unraveling and being reborn. Everything was transmutable, including the human body, which was viewed as a 'pupal' form of an ascended spiritual being, usually symbolized by the butterfly (earlier by the phoenix). All that was required to effect the transmutation was the Philosopher's Stone (= the pure tone or ring of the gate.) This (S)tone causes the body to emit or secrete an elixir - the Secretion of the Ages - that purifies the body, transfiguring it to light.
This is the key benefit of the Transfiguration icons. These images were designed not just to help the early Christians to teach about the Transfiguration through pretty pictures, but also to encourage them to re-shape their lives in accordance with the hope or expectation of transforming into light (something our culture does not support). Through contemplation, meditation and reflection on the icon we begin to reflect the Light experienced by Jesus in our lives.
Unfortunately, in the seventh century Byzantine Emperor Leo III banned icons (726-729) in response to criticism from adherents of the new religion of Islam who proclaimed that icon/doors were false idols (more later).
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Before the Renaissance and Reformation, holy images were treated not as "art" but as objects of veneration, which possessed codes of the intangible presence of the Holy realm.
In this way, a Transfiguration icon is the same as a computer icon and a highway sign. It is concentrated information that symbolizes or points to something beyond itself. When we click on a computer icon and a highway sign. It is concentrated information that symbolizes or points to something beyond itself. When we click on a computer icon it opens into a phenomenal inner world of enourmous potential called a program, a set of coded instructions that enables one to do work. The program's icon is not the program, but it symbolizes it and opens the way to it.
Strange as it may sound to our sensibilities, this is how devotees used icons to do the Great Work, the alchemy of the soul.
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The materials of the image become a channel or a bridge, a gate ('babel') between the two worlds. In fact, to an Orthodox Christian the images are a medium through which the energy of the Transfiguration moment can be channeled, like a two-way mirror. Devotees could enter the cosmic realm through the icon.
Henry goes on to describe the way this mirroring process essentially brings us back into oneness with the divine depicted in the icon. I would use the term merging but it amounts to the same thing. When we experientially merge with something we perceive as being outside of ourselves, the ego which separates us from all that is, momentarily dissolves.
I was just blown away by this passage -- so much so that I thought it needed a stand-alone post. It speaks precisely to my perception of religious icons as tools for becoming "transparent to the transcendent." (Joseph Campbell) But there are some other points he raises here that deeply resonate with me.
My old teacher, Cherokee Mystic Virginia Sandlin, always says that nothing changes in this reality but everything transforms. Nothing is solid. All matter is in a constant state of transformation. During a vision quest, Virginia took us through an elaborate butterfly-transformation ritual. And she made the point that the butterfly is a symbol of transformation not just because it comes out of the chrysalis dramatically different but because it so completely embodies the nature of the transformation process.
When a caterpillar goes into a cocoon, it doesn't just sprout wings, go through a few other changes, and pop out. It completely transforms and becomes a new being out of the same raw material. It secretes an enzyme and digests itself. It breaks down completely into a gelatinous goop and reforms as a butterfly, reemerging with magnificent wings.
It suddenly occurred to me as I was reading this passage that Henry's "elixir," or the "oil" he has also discussed at length, may be something similar -- an organic substance meant to break us down and transform us. What that would be I have no idea. It's been
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