Yesterday I learned that the icons of Mary Magdalene and John Donne in Grace Cathedral had been vandalized, probably beyond repair. It seems that the desecrator was pointed out, a “tall, tattooed man” who had been hanging around the cathedral for some days. He was seen destroying the icons, and one of our sextons bravely and wisely ushered everyone away form the scene of unfolding violence until the police came.
I am sad about the loss of this sacred art, and sad about the clouded human soul that did this — both are tragedies. This news came to me while I’m at the Bishop’s Ranch on a CREDO retreat. Today, Wednesday is the feat of John of Damascus, Defender of Icons. He and other Eastern Christian theologians were able to make a way of understanding icons that honors the way God has created the universe, as deeply interconnected and suffused with love. We believe that God’s divine energies pour forth from icons, they taught us, blessing and healing the ones venerating the icon.
The fight over icons, the reason John of Damascus had to defend them, centers on confusion between the role of the saints — are they being treated like gods when we venerate icons? Are they barriers, gatekeepers between us and God — and confusion over the power of icons.
A heartbreaking story that touches the latter confusion comes from the end of the Byzantine Empire. Dwindled to a shadow of its former size and glory, with Constantinople under siege, the frightened residents of the capitol brought forth their most sacred icons and processed them around the top of the defensive walls, in vain. The enemy broached the walls and the city was raped. My hope and prayer is that while the icons did not provide physical protection, that those who pleaded for help found that their prayer was answered by the protection of accompaniment by the saints: not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from God.
The blessing and protection icons give is of a different nature than the blessing and security a worldly power can offer me.
Today I am grieved over the loss of the icons of Mary Magdalene and John Donne. My prayer is that Christ, perhaps even through this Holy Woman and this Holy Man will bless and heal the person who defaced their images. May he, and all those in whom the Divine Image is seriously clouded by suffering and sin be healed by the loved of God through the Communion of Saints. +MHA