Thursday, April 28, 2016


Christ Pantocrator
devotional object commissioned for the author

April 15.

For readers, a recent letter to Chantal and our mutual family members:

Dear all,

Contemplating an icon- this icon- as an object of focus for prayer rather than as "art" has raised relevant questions for me about the material as opposed to the spiritual.

We usually see art as an object of one kind or another. And we speak of art largely as a question of aesthetic experience. That is, it comes, as some of us may think, from a higher level (see the below link) and represents ideas about both philosophy, order, beauty. That is to say, at the root of it is more than just an experience of personal pleasure; there is a deeper question about meaning.

The assumptions here are plural; first of all, we presume that the enterprise of art is about meaning; secondly, we presume that the search for meaning can be objectified that is, embodied by an object outside ourselves;third, that it is a worthy and valid enterprise to engage in a search for that meaning, and that the discovery of that meaning has a value to everyone, that is, it is also objective and transcends our egoistic impulse for pleasure alone.

This is perhaps an awful lot to read into the simple act of looking at an icon (or any other painting); yet it is always present within the action. And of course there is more; the complexities of human interaction with art and objects have many layers.

Taking these complicated questions into account, the simple fact is that one looks at an icon and thinks to oneself (mechanically, of course) "Oh, what a lovely piece of art." In other words, the first reaction people usually have to religious icons is that they are a form of art; and that they are "nice." [Except for those who have a demonic objection to religion, as Swedenborg would have explained it.] 

I'm sure Chantal has spent many years hearing such things about her icon painting; and if I know her –  based on my own feelings about such kinds of praise – it probably makes her cringe, since she understands that the enterprise involves "something else" much greater than how good the skill is or how "nice" the image looks.

There's an inherent difficulty here, because the icon was not created for that purpose. It's a focus for spiritual effort, that is, a material object that is meant to temporarily– that is, within time —help concentrate spiritual essence within the action of inner work. There are cosmological dimensions to that action that I can't discuss here since it would require several hundred pages. My apologies.

For me, what becomes interesting here is to see that I can't possibly understand how icons which have actually been used for practice — such as the older ones I have — represent far more than the images or the spiritual ideas. Each one has been the focus of an individual human being's spiritual practice and thus stands as an extraordinary record of inner work, which is alluded to by the existence of the piece.

These "real" icons (Icons which have actually been used for their intended purpose) are, in other words, representatives of sacred being-effort by proxy. The inner work, which took place in time (not in heaven, which has no time) has acquired a marker in the material world; and we are unable to evaluate the meaning of those markers at all unless we also engage in the same kind of effort, at which point we discover that icons have a purpose and a meaning which is entirely different than what the world of art is all about.

This is a tricky thing. It doesn't devalue art. Or the related enterprises of appreciation. It does tell us that "art" isn't the same as what icons are, and that we are mistaken to see them as such. They represent an elevation from the level of the search that art proposes— which is an outer and more material one — to an inner search of a more subtle and refined variety. When we encounter an icon, we're leaving art behind. One might say that all art of the sacred isn't art anymore; in fact, it wasn't art in the first place. This is especially true of icons; but it raises major questions about the difference between secular art, which has only temporal value, and spiritual art, which has eternal value, that is, a value that lies outside time. This is a question which I think Meister Eckhart would have well understood.

This suggests that when we look at an icon which has been used for its proper purpose, we need to use our powers of respect first, and only then our powers of appreciation; whereas with art, generally speaking, one begins with one's powers of appreciation and then, maybe, has respect.

All of this around about commentary on the difference between the spiritual and the material which Chantal mentions.

The teacher must become Christ. This was the meaning of Mr Gurdjieff's "Christmas present" offer to his followers on Christmas Eve as reported by Louise March and, eventually, presented in Frank Sinclair's book "Without Benefit of Clergy." We can acquire teachers in life, that is, other human beings, and if we are fortunate, eventually we will learn that every human being is actually a teacher if we understand that question properly. Yet all of them are proxies for Christ. This does indeed have something to do with the Holy book Christ is holding in this icon: 

"Love one another as I have loved you."

The material, in all of its forms, always serves as a proxy for the divine.

We can't "be" conscious, but consciousness can become a vehicle for expression of divinity.

This article sheds a bit of objective light on that:

I could say a great deal more about the difference between our perception about what comes from a higher level (see the first paragraph) and what actually comes from a higher level. For example, anything we can think of does not come from a higher level, but is already a proxy. Once something has identifiably embodied the name of God, it has already moved into the material.  The layman's way of putting this would be that once you can think of it, it isn't God, which relates powerfully to the via negativa. Meister Eckhart explained it by saying that people want to see God the way they see a cow.

We are all herdsman.

 This outlines the extraordinary difficulty of coming to anything spiritual, since we inevitably come to it from a lack, that is, a fundamental deficiency that arises once the conceptual mind enters the picture. Our lack begins with our conceptual framework. I'm not sure anyone in our work has discussed how this particular question relates to Madame's admonition to see our lack. this is another subject that deserves a book rather than a paragraph.

With love and warmth to all of you,


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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