A bit of recycling... A few years ago I wrote a meditation for The Guild of St Raphael's magazine Chrism about this icon for All Saints' tide. Thought I'd share it with you for this year's feast...
It’s a very busy icon, though. No room just for ‘me and my God’. To get to the throne I need to make my way through the crowd. It’s easy to focus on the crowns, haloes and bishops’ robes some of them wear, and not see that there are many among them who are more simply dressed. I can sometimes feel nervous entering a room full people, so I think I might feel apprehensive about walking into this assembly. What will they think of me? Do I really belong there and is there room for me?
I could also ask why, if God is kind and loving, does this icon suggest it’s good to come into his presence along with others? Well, why is it that I would really like you to come with me to a hospital appointment? It’s not because I don’t trust the medical staff; it’s certainly not that I think they are ogres who need placating and so I’m scared to go on my own. It’s simply that this is important, I am anxious and I’d like some company – maybe even someone to hold my hand. And if the doctors and nurses are skilled and have empathy they will understand and encourage that.
So I begin to realise that there is something essential to my healing and wholeness about approaching God in company. Health of body, mind and spirit are so closely linked with the health of our relationships. Carl Rogers, among others, has taught us how much we need the ‘unconditional positive regard’ of others if we are to grow into the persons we have the potential to be. Of course we get it wrong. We are wounded and so are those around us; we can’t offer each other that unconditionally loving gaze, however much we wish to. But we have friends and family in heaven who can reflect God’s regard on us from so many healed eyes.
Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Eat, Pray, Love, describes the lengthy process of her toxic and acrimonious divorce. She longs for it to end, but she doesn’t believe it is right to ask God to intervene and change things. A friend encourages her to write a letter to God expressing her longing. She suggests that if she still feels doubtful she make it a petition, and think of other people who might sign it. Elizabeth does so, and suddenly realises there are many people who would support her – her parents, her sister… and then others, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and St Francis, who would surely put their names to a plea for two bitter and hurting people to find peace. She finds a whole litany pouring out of her, ‘…and I became filled with a grand sense of protection, surrounded by the collective goodwill of so many mighty souls.’
As you will know by now, a huge part of my own spiritual journey has been the study, the making and the giving to others of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Psychologist that he was, at key points in the Exercises Ignatius advises that you imagine yourself in the presence of the court of heaven – they are there to support, to accompany, to encourage; to remind you how much God loves you, and tell you so, loudly. They are ‘witnesses for the defence’ (and the prosecution, of course, is not God but our own destructive sense of shame and worthlessness). One place he does this is in the amazing exercise known as the Contemplation to Attain God’s Love at the end of the text, when you are propelled into the rest of your life in renewed wonder at the power of God’s love working around, in and through you.
It so happened that when I was making the Exercises in daily life I came to this point during a World Cup match. (If you are a follower of football, please forgive me now when I say I have absolutely no idea who was playing whom, though I strongly suspect one team might have been England…) It was a hot, still afternoon – many people were at home watching the match on television and all the houses around us had their windows open. I was looking at a postcard of this icon and trying to imagine how I could enter the scene when suddenly all around me was an enormous roar of joy! Of course what it really meant was that something wonderful like a goal must have happened (please see note above), but to me what it said was ‘It’s you! Welcome home! We knew you would make it…’
There is a final surprise in the icon. Look closely, right at the bottom where it appears the saints have drawn apart to let someone through… a tiny figure, dressed in travelling clothes and boots (perhaps he had a hard climb down those rocks). You can just make out that he’s holding a cross. Don’t forget the ‘comic strip’ quality of some icons, trying to depict eternity by showing a series of events in one picture. This is the same Christ child who sits enthroned and dressed in gold on his mother’s lap among the angels; he has also come to the foot of the mountain to be among his friends – and to welcome us in. Emmanuel: God among us. The court of heaven doesn’t stand between us and a remote God; but as the Orthodox would say we meet Christ in his saints. The icon of the Communion of Saints is also an icon of the Incarnation.