Frederica Mathewes-Green

Well, good afternoon everybody. Our next guest has regaled us with tales of her early feminism, she’s told us about her conversion to Jesus, her journey into Orthodoxy, and a whole lot more along the way. In her newest book she invites us to tour an Orthodox church and view the icons which, for many Evangelicals are something of a stumbling block, sometimes even an offense. And as always, there’s more to the story than most of us know. And she’s more than willing to tell us the rest of the story.

Q. We welcome Frederica Mathewes-Green. Her newest book is The Open Door, published by Paraclete Press. And Frederica, as always, it’s great to have you back with us.
A. Hi Dick, it’s always good to be with you.

Q. Really quickly, for people that haven’t heard your story, many of our listeners have but not all, your conversion into the faith, as I recall, happened in Dublin, Ireland, after a kind of a journey through agnosticism, Eastern religion, and feminism.
A. Yeah, that’s right. I always say if, you know, you had a suitcase and my soul was a suitcase, it would have all those travel stickers all over it showing all the places I’d been. Yeah. Just briefly, I was raised in a nominal Roman Catholic home, not any really strong faith there. And as a teenager and a college student/high school student, I totally cast away the Christian faith, just believed it was stupid and only stupid people could believe it. And actually became an anti-Christian, you know, more than just ¢€œ

Q. Really. So you were antagonistic.
A. Right. Right, right. Very antagonistic, not just neutral on the topic. And then, so I was traveling around after I graduated from college, traveling around Europe, hitchhiking, doing the tourist thing. And I went into a church in Dublin ¢€œ at that point I was calling myself a Hindu, but even if you’re a Hindu, you’ve got to look into churches when you’re in Europe ¢€œ and I was looking at a statue of Jesus. And I-I can’t explain it. I just was looking at the statue and the next minute I knew I was kneeling down ¢€œ

Q. Wow.
A. ¢€œ and I could hear an interior voice, not with my ears, but I could like hear a voice inside speaking to me and saying, I am your life.

Q. Wow.
A. I am the foundation of everything in your life. And it was a big surprise, Dick.

Q. Oh, man.
A. I would say that was really, you know, knocked my block off because I thought I had the whole world figured out.

Q. Yeah.
A. I thought all religions were equal, and it’s just this delightful garden of spiritual flowers you just stroll through.

Q. Yeah.
A. And probably Jesus was just this mythological figure people made up.

Q. Yeah.
A. But it was like a brick to the head. It was the most bracingly real experience I’ve ever had. In comparison, the rest of life seems like a dream. It was-it was a very¢â‚¬¦ Oh, unsettling would be an understatement. And it took me about a week ¢€œ I was on my honeymoon ¢€œ I couldn’t even talk about it to my husband for a week.

Q. Now, was your-was your¢â‚¬¦ Where was your husband theologically?
A. He had¢â‚¬¦ He was on his own journey. When I met him he was an atheist, which was fine with me. He wasn’t a spiritual seeker like I was.

Q. Yeah.
A. I was exploring, he was just¢â‚¬¦ There isn’t any God, I don’t care, you know, let’s go see a movie. He just wasn’t interested. But he was taking classes from his favorite professor, a philosophy professor. And the very last class he had to take from this guy was philosophy of religion.

Q. Yeah.
A. And the first day of class the guy said, We are going to deal with original documents, so next week come in and be prepared to discuss a gospel. Read any gospel, it doesn’t matter which one.

Q. Wow.
A. So he found a Bible somewhere and he flipped through. He found out there were four gospels and quickly, you know, looked at the page numbers and figured out that Mark was the shortest. So he started reading Mark. And I still remember how distressing it was to me because, as he read it, he began to change.

Q. Wow.
A. And he started saying, There’s something about this guy Jesus. There’s something about him.

Q. Hm.
A. He has authority, he speaks with authority. And he said, If-if Jesus says that there’s a God, I know there has to be one.

Q. Really.
A. Yeah. So he was-he was not ready to become a Christian at that point but, you know, the fish hook was in and ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and like with me after this experience in the church ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ the hook was in, but we both were like mentally still really liberal.

Q. Yeah.
A. And it took us awhile to come all the way around.

Q. Wow. So-so your experience was kind of preceded by his kind of intellectual ascent to the fact that there was a God and that Jesus, there is something about this Jesus. So when you had your Dublin experience it wasn’t like totally a foreign concept to him, but you were both kind of now, kind of scared, that the-the-the comfort zones are being shattered.
A. Yeah, yeah. It was-it was such¢â‚¬¦ It was a different kind of experience for us. That is, it was quite intellectual for my husband. It was that love of truth.

Q. Yeah.
A. It was like he heard the ring of truth ¢€œ

Q. Wow.
A. ¢€œ and he just wanted to draw near it. And for me it was more ontological in a sense. It was like I realized something about existence ¢€œ

Q. Yes.
A. ¢€œ my own existence. And a person. Well, I guess both of us encountered a person, just him through the pages of the scripture, and me in this more immediate, you know, baseball-to-the-head kind of experience. And we just, you know, kept creeping along side by side, one’s ahead, the other’s ahead.

Q. Yeah.
A. It was about six months later that a friend of ours ¢€œ and we had both started seminary at that point, really as seekers, not as believers ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ about six months later a friend of ours said, Now, had you ever, though, given your life to the Lord? Had you ever taken Jesus as your Lord? And we said, Huh?

Q. Yeah. What’s that mean?
A. You know, nobody talks that way to, you know, liberal educated people. And he said, Well, you know, actually you can do this. And we all knelt down and he helped, you know, lead us through the prayer where we really committed ourselves.

Q. Yeah. Now, how long was it from that time to your journey into Orthodoxy?
A. Oh, let’s see. That was 1974 and we became Orthodox in 1993.

Q. Okay. So¢â‚¬¦
A. About 20 years.

Q. ¢â‚¬¦a lot happened between 1974 and 1993 and, as I recall, it was your husband that really moved towards Orthodoxy first.
A. Uh-huh.

Q. What was it that was compelling about Orthodoxy that-that led him first and then you to move in that direction? And for people that don’t know what we’re talking about when we talk about Orthodoxy, what exactly did you enter?
A. Sure. I guess I should define that term first. We’re talking about the Eastern Orthodox Church which, you know, in your neighborhood might be Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Romanian, Albanian, Serbian. It¢â‚¬¦ There’s just all different kinds. About a dozen different kinds of Orthodox in America.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. Now, that’s really a historical anomaly. We should have one church, we should have an American Orthodox Church because we’re Americans now, but it’s just a historical process of getting all those little divisions taken down and having everything in English, and making it one church, just a matter of time. So we’re working on that process. So this Eastern Orthodox Church is the church that we entered in January, ’93. It’s our tenth anniversary.

Q. Wow.
A. And I guess kind of like a rocketship. You have the thing that boosts you out and then you have the next force that pulls you in. And-and the out stage was the painful stage because my husband, during that period, had been an Episcopal priest.

Q. Okay.
A. And we began very happy, really very content in the renewal wing of the Episcopal church. But a little bit more than ten years ago ¢€œ kind of history repeats itself ¢€œ there was a general convention, a national convention of the Episcopal Church, and at that time already there were some warning signs. There were bishops who were denying the resurrection, denying the Creed, and there was a particular resolution at this convention ten years ago. The resolution was clergy should abstain from sex outside of marriage.

Q. Yeah.
A. You wouldn’t think this would come up for a vote, but it did. And the resolution was defeated.

Q. I’ll tell you what. We’ll pick up there when we come back.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is our guest. She has written so many wonderful, engaging books. The most recent is no exception. It’s titled The Open Door, published by Paraclete Press, Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Frederica Mathewes-Green. She is an author. Many of you have read her stuff. She’s a commentator for National Public Radio, a columnist for Beliefnet, author of Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mystery of Orthodoxy, which is a nice prelude to the book we’re discussing now. Also The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation. Her most recent is The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer.

Q. We’re talking about that-that moment almost ten years ago, just over ten years ago, when her husband and Frederica were faced with some awareness that-that the tradition in which they were currently worshiping and in which he was a priest was, in fact, moving away from-from an Orthodox Biblical position on-on certain issues, and that was kind of an expulsion out of the Episcopalian church. But then how did you-how did you move towards Eastern Orthodoxy?
A. Yeah, yeah, that’s true. And just right before the break I was saying the-the resolution was clergy should abstain from sex outside of marriage. Well, when they voted against that resolution, we knew that something was wrong and began to look around to see where else could we go. So there was the expulsion stage. And my husband visited an orthodox church and was immediately very drawn to it.

Q. Really. Now, had you had any exposure to Orthodoxy prior to that?
A. Not at all. And I went with him to this church and I didn’t like it at all.

Q. No. You had to stand up, as I recall. Your feet hurt.
A. That’s right. Yeah, my feet hurt. Why are we standing up all the time?

Q. Yeah.
A. Orthodox stand up for worship most of the time because it’s honoring the King, and you don’t sit down in the presence of a king. And for-for him the ancient quality of the worship, the fact that this was a church that had never changed on any of its standards, it still was just like the first or second century in terms of what the liturgy is like, the moral stands, the theological stands, the fact that it hadn’t changed. It was that same appeal of truth he felt like he could rely on it.

Q. Yeah.
A. But for me I didn’t feel a corresponding attraction to the-the beauty of it. It looked a little forbidding to me.

Q. Yeah. And which is why I think you’re a good guide on the subject of icons because you kind of had the reaction to icons that a lot of our listeners have, some for theological reasons ¢€œ and in a moment we’ll get to the issue of veneration ¢€œ some kind of for aesthetic reasons, as you talk about in this book. Icons actually can seem uninviting. So-so your husband’s moving towards it, you’re still kind of a little skeptical.
A. Yeah. Yeah, it took me a while to warm up. And I finally reached the point where I just had to trust that he knew what he was doing.

Q. Yeah.
A. I think one of the best principles that served us in good stead in our marriage is the person who feels the most strongly about it gets to win.

Q. Yeah.
A. And that solved a lot of problems. And most of the time that’s me. But in this case he felt so positively that we were meant to become Orthodox. I just felt kind of, Why? I don’t get it. But I went along because my feelings weren’t as strong. I wasn’t adamant against it.

Q. Yeah.
A. Once I got into it, I loved it. I just totally fell¢â‚¬¦ I got it.

Q. Now, how would you describe your early reaction to icons? When you first walked into an orthodox church ¢€œ
A. Uh-huh.

Q. ¢€œ what was your reaction?
A. Right. Or you know, anywhere I’d see an icon in a magazine or a book or an art museum, I thought how unfriendly they look. How forbidding. Now, I guess listeners, probably most of them, do have a picture of what I’m talking about when I say an icon. But I mean an ancient, an old-fashioned looking Byzantine painting of Christ or the saints. And if you picture it, like usually the background is gold, it’s sort of stylized. They’re not smiling. They look very severe, very serious.

Q. Yeah.
A. And in some ways it doesn’t look realistic.

Q. Yeah.
A. It has a stylized, other-worldly quality to it. Well, there’s a lot to not like. If you’re sort of raised in a Disneyland culture where you think everything is going to be friendly and user-friendly ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and smiling and amiable, there’s a seriousness about these images that I found very off-putting. And in fact, it didn’t feel like the kind of faith that I knew. I had been in sort of renewal movements, playing the guitar and singing the choruses for so long, and that was quite a different world from the austerity of-of orthodox worship and iconography. That was the first thing I had to overcome.

Q. Now, when you¢â‚¬¦ This book opens with the wonderful sentence, “Come in, I want you to see these icons.” And I was mentioning to you off the air having-having been in Orthodox churches, I remember my first time and second time and then subsequent times entering an Orthodox church. And I’m realizing a lot of people listening may not have actually even been in a service. And in a minute we’re going to talk about the kind of architecture and what you see when you get in there and then why the icons are there. But at the macro level, why do you want us to enter the sanctuary of icons and prayer? Why do you want those who are not Orthodox to come in and see this?
A. Oh, I guess for several reasons. One, is that I think there is an immersion experience in-in Orthodox worship and in the aesthetics of-of the Orthodox liturgical setting that can hardly be described. Once you’re there and you feel it surrounding you, especially in the course of worship as you hear the hymns that are chanted to the ancient melodies ¢€œ and these are very ancient hymns, some going back to the first and the second century ¢€œ with the flickering candlelight, of course, as they used in the early centuries of the church. Incense, as they used all through the Old Testament and the New. There’s always incense in use whenever there is formal prayer going on. And all of these things, there’s such a sense of humility and gratitude and joy in the Lord, and also solemnity.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And I think maybe that’s the thing we Western Christians miss the most. We’ve done so much to make God just a buddy that he doesn’t seem all-powerful anymore.

Q. Yeah.
A. He just seems like a pal. And if you come into Orthodoxy, I think that was the strangest and most off-putting thing to me. I was used to worship really that centered around me and my emotions.

Q. Yeah.
A. And it was all about God kind of pampering me and taking care of me, reassuring me.

Q. Yeah.
A. And it’s embracingly, may I say, a masculine approach to focus on God and on his majesty and his power and his might.

Q. Yeah.
A. And to approach that with dignity.

Q. Yeah. Well, there’s nobody with hand-held mikes and, you know, kind of singing the pop tunes with Jesus-as-my-buddy kind of thing.
A. Yeah.

Q. So-so now, for a person who hasn’t been in an Orthodox church, we walk in and-and there’s a diagram in the book, folks, and I’m just going to¢â‚¬¦ It’s a nice little volume with some really wonderful color plates and then other drawings, as well, of the icons, but there’s also a little diagram at the front of the book that kind of gives you the sense of what you’re going to see. But because people can’t look at that right now, just in general when I walk in, what are some of the things I’m going to see inside the-the Orthodox church?
A. Uh-huh.

Q. It starts with an icon stand.
A. Sure, yes. As I describe it and if you can picture this, just imagine a cube, imagine that the church building, instead of Gothic, you know, so it’s pointy and it goes way up high, instead of that it’s just a square, it’s a cube. Now, the Orthodox church in your neighborhood ¢€œ maybe they bought it from a Methodist church or a Catholic church and it won’t be this shape ¢€œ but if you build an Orthodox church from scratch, this is the style usually. It’s square. You walk in and there will be a dome overhead. And in the dome there will be a painting, an icon of Christ. And he will be what’s called Pantocrater, that is, the judge, the Ruler of All. So it’s not a scene from his earthly life, but it is-it is the face, the head of Christ. He’s holding a book, and he’s holding up his hand in blessing. And that’s up in the dome.

Q. That’s in the dome itself.
A. Uh-huh. Up overhead.

Okay. And I’ll tell you what. We’re going to continue our tour, folks, when we come back, so please stay with us. This is fascinating stuff. And then we’re going to learn about these icons themselves, what they are, what they represent. And I know some of you have real serious questions about this. We’ll try to ask some of those questions and let Frederica Mathewes-Green respond as she does in her book, The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer, published by Paraclete. We’ll be right back. Don’t go away.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. You also won’t hear a blaring saxophone and a brass section when you enter the Orthodox church. It’s not going to happen. So¢â‚¬¦ But that’s the music that we use in this feature of the show every night anyway, so I figured I’d go ahead and still use it.

Q. We’ve been looking up at the dome and there is an image of Christ in the dome, kind of looking down and-and actually kind of hovering over the-the-the altar that’s in that apse. Is that correct?
A. Well actually, this would be in the center where the person is standing.

Q. Okay. So it’s actually before you get to the holy doors then.
A. That’s right.

Q. Okay.
A. That’s right.

Q. Okay. So I look up and that’s what I see.
A. That’s right as you’re walking in.

Q. Yeah.
A. And as you look ahead of you, towards where the altar is, there is an apse in the back wall of the church.

Q. Yeah.
A. What’s an apse? It’s like a little niche like you’d put a statue in, if you can imagine that.

Q. Yeah.
A. It’s like a dugout half-circle space in the floor, and a curve, half-dome in the back wall. It’s larger, a little bit larger than that. It goes all the way up to the ceiling. That’s the apse. And in the apse there will be a painting of the Virgin Mary. And she’s holding her hands up in prayer. The orans position, like charismatic worshipers hold their hands up. It’s really very ancient. And you’ll see in the catacombs images of Christians praying with their hands up like that. On her torso there’s a circle and the infant Christ is there in that circle. And it’s meant to be her womb. So we’re looking at the pregnant Mary and seeing the infant Christ inside her womb there.

Q. Hm.
A. Now, as we look toward that we’d be looking over the altar, so the altar will be between us and that back wall there with the apse.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. In front of the altar there’s a wooden ¢€œ you can’t really call it a wall, it’s not a complete wall ¢€œ but it’s an icon stand. It’s like a framework designed to hold icons upright.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. Almost life-size icons. So as you look toward the altar, it would be in the middle. And then there’s a big icon on the right and on the left of the altar. On the right is Christ, on the left is the Virgin Mary.

Q. Yeah.
A. And then going out one more step, further to the right of Christ, would be John the Baptist. And further to the left of Mary would be an icon depicting whatever the church’s name is. If it is the Church of the Annunciation, it would be a picture of the Angel Gabriel announcing the conception of Jesus to the Virgin Mary.

Q. Okay.
A. If it was St. Peter, it would be an icon of St. Peter.

Q. Okay. And-and how does a church decide, or how is a church named after a particular character?
A. Yes. When a church is forming, a new congregation is forming, they often will pray about if they feel particularly drawn to the prayer protection of any saint or to the symbolism of any particular festival.

Q. Yeah.
A. And of course we believe that these people aren’t dead, they’re still members of our churches, we just don’t see them. They are joining us in worship all the time. They’re part of the on-going heavenly community. And it’s as if, when we’re in worship, it’s like our little church, like a spaceship, goes out into the heavens and we join them for a while. So you can feel the presence of particular saints sort of influencing you.

Q. Okay.
A. Their names keep popping up. And so they’ll pray about that and then make a request to the bishop usually saying, you know, we’d like to have this name.

Q. Okay.
A. But if there’s too many of that kind already we’ll take the next name.

Q. Now, a couple of other things just to-just to clarify. There’s also behind those four icons and to the left and the right you have this thing marked “Angel Doors.”
A. Uh-huh.

Q. What are Angel Doors?
A. Yes. Those are¢â‚¬¦ There’s, in the center, between the Christ and the Virgin Mary, there’s a door that leads to the altar.

Q. Yeah.
A. And on the far sides there are more doors that lead back to the altar. And on those doors there are images of angels.

Q. Okay.
A. St. Michael on the left and St. Gabriel on the far right.

Q. Yeah. And so there’s, as you point out in this book, there’s angels everywhere.
A. There’s angels everywhere. They’re in the icons, they’re by themselves, their own icons, they’re on either side of icon stances.

Q. Okay. Now, when I walk in the church doors you’ve described what I’m going to see up above me and away towards the apse with the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ in the womb, and these four larger icons that we’ll discuss more in just a minute here. But there’s a little box here called “The Icon Stand” right as I enter the church doors.
A. Yes.

Q. What’s that?
A. Yes. As soon as you come in the church doors, there will be a smaller stand, just big enough to hold a single icon. Maybe like an 11 by 14 size, or even smaller.

Q. Yes.
A. And as you come in, that is where worshipers will first greet the icon.

Q. Yeah.
A. You bow to the ground, cross yourself, and usually kiss the icon as just a sort of a way of saying hello.

Q. Yeah.
A. These are cultures where there’s just a lot more kissing going on.

Q. Yeah.
A. People kiss each other and they kiss the Bible, and they just kiss stuff to show a way of honoring. So if people come into the church the first thing they’ll do is to greet this icon by kissing it.

Q. Okay.
A. On that icon will be the closest feast in the church year. For example, tonight I’ve got a church service tonight and it will be an icon of John the Baptist because tomorrow is his feast day.

Q. Yeah. And in this book you go through the festal icons and kind of the feasts and the calendar year. And one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about my Orthodox listeners is that they’re constantly reminding me what-what feast we’re coming up to, and why that’s important to know and understand, and why-why feasting and celebrating, and fasting, are part of the rhythm of Christ’s life, and how they believed that the orthodox feast and even the icons that are representational of those calendar year events are such an important part of, whether you’re young or old, of inviting you into the experience of that-that aspect of Christ’s life.
A. It’s a wonderful sense of community to know that all over the world Christians are observing the same observance today, that we’re all thinking about St. John the Baptist, we’re all thinking about his example of courage when faced with immorality ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and speaking out boldly. And it unites us. So when we feast and when we fast together, there’s that paradox of timelessness and yet being caught in time.

Q. Now, in a minute we’ll talk a little bit more because there’s wonderful chapters on each of these icons. And-and I’m going to invite you to buy the book and-and read about them. But let’s¢â‚¬¦ Because you weave into the chapter on the Virgin of Vladimir. The history of there has been a battle in the church over the appropriateness of icons.
A. Uh-huh.

Q. And there was kind of in the ancient years and then Zwingli kind of reintroduced the issue. What’s the basic controversy? And-and how have you resolved it in your own mind and heart?
A. Right. And I think the basic controversy is something probably occurring to many of our listeners right now, which is this sounds like idolatry. Especially when I say¢â‚¬¦

Q. You’re kissing and bowing.
A. What? You know, you’re bowing?

Q. Yeah.
A. How can you do this? And I guess the, well, the controversy of course was are these being treated as objects of superstition?

Q. Yeah.
A. Are these idols? And the reason that it came up very pointedly about the seventh and eighth century, of course, was the rise of Islam.

Q. Yeah.
A. Up until that point, as I said, their images in the catacombs from the earliest Christians times, we do have images of the saints, we have Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd, it was just natural to make pictures. But as time went by and we saw Christians, saw Islam begin to rise and to make so many military victories ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and to enslave and to conquer Christian cities, the Emporor and Constantinople thought, maybe we’re doing the wrong thing. And there was an icon of Christ in the city gate and he took it down. And this caused a big uproar because, of course, the believers in the church felt that we should stand up for our beliefs no matter what.

Q. Yeah.
A. But the government felt, strategically it was time to get rid of all those icons.

Q. Yeah.
A. Called the iconoclast.

Q. Yes.
A. Meaning smashing of icons, controversy. Over the course of about 125 years a great many Christians died trying to defend the icons.

Q. I’ll tell you what. We’ll pick up right there.

Folks, we’re¢â‚¬¦ There’s so much to understand and that’s why the book is there. We’ll scratch the surface a bit more and then turn you over to the book itself where you can encounter more of Frederica Mathewes-Green in the book The Open Door. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. My friend, Frederica Mathewes-Green, is with us. She has written another wonderful book, The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer.

Q. We’re talking about the controversy over icons, in the historical sense, with the rise of Islam, the idea of graven images. And images became a controversial one. They were removed and people lost their lives over the right of Christians to practice as they had the use of icons. What happened then?
A. Yes. So after a great deal of trouble and strife and persecution, there was a church council called in which it was decided that there were to be guidelines in how icons were used.

Q. Yeah.
A. We should not treat them as objects of magic or superstition, but that they could be seen¢â‚¬¦ Finally, the best analogy they came up with was it should be seen as a physical Bible is seen.

Q. Okay.
A. That is, what’s shown in an icon, usually it’s like a picture Bible.

Q. Yes.
A. You’re not supposed to make anything up, you just depict things that we know happened in the Bible.

Q. Yup.
A. You can show the angel announcing to the Virgin Mary the virgin birth. You don’t use your imagination or embellish it ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ you just try to stick with what scripture says. And for a mostly illiterate people they were substitutes for the Bible.

Q. Absolutely.
A. People didn’t have Bibles they could take home.

Q. Yeah.
A. And mostly they couldn’t read anyway. But you could go in the church and look at the pictures and-and learn the stories, memorize them in your heart through these pictures. So that the way a Bible would be treated is the way an icon would be treated. Now, you can ask the most Bible-loving person you know, is the Bible an idol? And they’d say, No, you know.

Q. Yeah.
A. It’s just paper and ink. But it would break their heart if you tore up their Bible or spit on it.

Q. Well, and as you point out, even the picture of the Pope when O’Connor ripped it on Saturday Night Live ¢€œ I think it was Saturday Night Live ¢€œ
A. That’s right.

Q. ¢€œ it caused a huge stir among even non-Catholics. It just¢â‚¬¦ Visual images do represent something. Now, you also give what I thought was a very useful analogy of someone going to a cemetery and what that kind of, how that relates to what you think is happening with an icon.
A. Yeah. As I was writing this book that came to me. And I was trying to think how to make this not scary, that people treat icons with respect and to show what kind of respect. I was visiting some old family cemeteries and I noticed ¢€œ it was Christmastime ¢€œ some graves have wreaths and decorations and some don’t. And I thought, if you brought anthropologists from Mars and they looked at this they would say, Hm, humans think that dead people can smell flowers, you know. And another would say, No, no. They’re trying to placate the dead so they won’t come back and haunt them.

Q. Yeah.
A. And they’d have all these theories about what it meant that you leave flowers on graves.

Q. Yeah.
A. And we would say, You’re making it too literal. It doesn’t mean all of that, it’s just respect. It’s just love.

Q. Yeah.
A. It’s just honoring. And that’s the way that Orthodox treat icons. It’s like that. It’s like you would love your old, worn-out Bible. You might even kiss it if nobody was looking, you know?

Q. Now, because of time we’re not going to be able to get into the rich history of the-the four icons that you describe initially in the book, the Christ of Sinai with St. Catherine Monastery, which is just an incredible story in the way you talk about kind of the two-fold impact of that image, the Virgin of Vladimir, another history there, the resurrection, St. John the Baptist, rainbow-colored rings. There’s just wonderful story and imagery. For instance, of the resurrection about our imprisonment as related to Adam. And themes that are very deep and thoughtful, as you say. And then you get into all the festal icons and again, following the church calendar. In the back of your book you have a place where you can order icons. And I mentioned to you when I moved from Chicago my friend, Mitch Bright, who I refer to as Orthodox Mitch, got me an icon of Elijah, which is in the living room of our home. And he did so to remind me that God would provide for me.
A. Oh.

Q. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful way to be¢â‚¬¦ You talk about them as companions in prayer.
A. Oh, yes.

Q. And I almost always think of that icon when I think of God’s provision of my daily bread. But now, my question is, when I went to the website to-to look at the kinds of icons that are available for mere mortals to purchase, in one of the websites there was a complete alphabetic listing. And when I went to it, it had list after list of saints. And some people say, Okay, I can understand the festal icons because they represent the annunciation, the nativity, the transfiguration, the crucifixion. I can understand Christ and the Virgin and-and John the Baptist, but when I get to church saints through the ages, and I think about, you know, kissing that or bowing down to that, that feels different to me. How is it different and not different?
A. Yes, I know what you mean. I was in a Protestant church just a couple of weeks ago for a funeral, and I noticed in the big stained glass window behind the altar, you know, at the back of the church, there was images of Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Q. Yeah, in the stained glass windows you have it often.
A. That’s right. They’re heroes of the faith. And it’s the same thing with saints of any age or any nation ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ not just theologians, but people like Mother Teresa, or people who’ve been just courageous for the faith in other ways.

Q. But somebody’s asking, Yeah, but in addition to that, do you actually pray to these saints? Are people praying to-to the saint? Because the idea of Jesus as the one mediator between God and man enters their minds.
A. Yes. Yes, that’s a great question. We-we do ask the saints to pray for us. We don’t ask the saints to do miracles for us. They don’t have magic powers. But they are the same as any other Christian. And because we believe they’re not dead, we believe that we can ask them to pray for us.

Q. So it would be like me saying, Frederica, off the air, this is something going on in my personal life. Would you please pray for me?
A. Uh-huh, that’s exactly it.

Q. And you’re saying there’s a host of saints, as Hebrews describes, this great cloud of witnesses ¢€œ
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œ that are still alive and able to pray with us.
A. That’s exactly it. And that was one of the wonderful joys of becoming Orthodox, was suddenly I got this family.

Q. Yeah.
A Suddenly I had this huge family in heaven and on earth and stretching throughout all time. People that, you know, they don’t talk back to me.

Q. Yeah.
A. I don’t have conversations, but I know they’re out there. I feel that unseen presence and I can always say, you know, St. Nina, please pray for me about this.

Q. Now, somebody might be saying, Okay, it is true that there was a time before the printing press and before literacy where-where icons were representational of the stories which were a wonderful teaching aid, but now we have the Bible. And some people say, Do icons in some sense within Orthodoxy replace the role of the Bible, which has become so central in the Protestant Reformation?
A. You know, I guess that’s one of the things that our post-modern Evangelical friends would be saying to us, is we need to recapture the idea of story and image ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and not be solely restricted to word. You never lose it anyway. If you-if you, as a Christian, believe you’re only going to get your religion through words, through printed words, nevertheless the world is evangelizing you in images constantly.

Q. Right.
A. We should have our images, as well, because we form them in our minds nonetheless.

Q. One of the things that I picked up ¢€œ and I apologize for rushing, I wish we had more time ¢€œ is the balance of celebration and solemnity that is represented by the icons and even the icons themselves. I mean, the Christ of Sinai. You talk about that. It has this wonderful kind of contemplative calming aspect to it, but it also has this stern aspect to it.
A. Yeah.

Q. That is the nature of Christ, isn’t it?
A. It is. And it’s our limitations that it’s so hard for us to see both at one time. But this Christ of Sinai icon, that’s like Mt. Sinai ¢€œ and listeners can go see it on the website is called skete.com, kind of like skate, but with an “e,” skete.com ¢€œ Christ of Sinai, you’ll see that one side of the face is very stern, like he’s looking through you and he knows exactly how sinful you are probably better than you know.

Q. Yeah.
A. And the other side is so tranquil ¢€œ

Q. And warm and embracing.
A. ¢€œ and poignant and loving and listening.

Well folks, we have run out of time. But the good news is you can spend more time with Frederica Mathewes-Green. And I really recommend that you do because I think this is an enriching experience to learn about traditions of our faith. And I do think Orthodoxy is bringing something to us that we desperately need. The book is titled The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer, published by Paraclete. We’ll be back with more of the Dick Staub show right after this.

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