Frederica Mathewes-Green, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, is a regular commentator for National Public Radio's Morning Edition and other media outlets, a columnist for Beliefnet, and a regular contributor to Christianity Today, which she formerly served as a columnist. Last October, Dick Staub interviewed her about her spiritual journey and her book The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation. Now she's back to talk about a kind of sequel to that volume: The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer (Paraclete Press).
We've heard the story of your journey to Christianity, and then Eastern Orthodoxy, before. But could you quickly summarize it for those who haven't?
I was raised in a nominal Roman Catholic home, but without any really strong faith there. As a teenager and a student, I totally cast away the Christian faith. I just believed it was stupid and only stupid people could believe it. I actually became an anti-Christian, and very antagonistic.
After I graduated from college, while traveling around Europe, hitchhiking, doing the tourist thing, I went into a church in Dublin. 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. And I was looking at a statue of Jesus. I can't explain it. I just was looking at the statue, and the next minute I knew I was kneeling down.
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. I am the foundation of everything in your life." And it was a big surprise. I thought I had the whole world figured out. I thought all religions were equal, and it's just this delightful garden of spiritual flowers you just stroll through. And probably Jesus was just this mythological figure people made up.
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 took me about a week—I was on my honeymoon—before I could even talk to my husband about it.
It was about six months, we had both started seminary, really as seekers, not as believers. A friend of ours said, "Had you ever taken Jesus as your Lord?" And we said, "Huh?" You know, nobody talks that way to liberal, educated people. But we all knelt down, and he helped to lead us through the prayer where we really committed ourselves.
How long was it from that time to your journey into Orthodoxy?
That was 1974, and we became Orthodox in 1993. It was kind of like a rocket ship. You have the thing that boosts you out, and then you have the next force that pulls you in. The out stage was the painful stage because my husband had been an Episcopal priest.
We were very happy and content in the renewal wing of the Episcopal Church. But a little bit more than ten years ago—history repeats itself—there was a general convention, and at that time already there were some warning signs. There were bishops who were denying the resurrection, and the Creed, and there was a resolution at this convention that said clergy should abstain from sex outside of marriage. You wouldn't think this would come up for a vote, but it did. And the resolution was defeated.
When that happened, we began to see where else could we go. My husband visited an Orthodox church and was immediately very drawn to it.
Had you had any exposure to Orthodoxy prior to that?
None at all. And I went with him to this church and I didn't like it at all. My feet hurt. Why are we standing up all the time?
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 him, the ancient quality of the worship, the moral and theological stands, [had an] appeal of truth he felt like he could rely on.
But I didn't feel a corresponding attraction to the beauty of it. It looked a little forbidding to me.
Which is why I think you're a good guide on the subject of icons, because you had the reaction to icons that a lot of our listeners have.
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.
How would you describe your early reaction to icons?
Anywhere I'd see an icon—in a magazine, or a book, or an art museum—I thought how unfriendly and forbidding they look. Usually the background is gold, and it's sort of stylized. They're not smiling. They look very severe, very serious. And in some ways it doesn't look realistic.
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 user-friendly and smiling and amiable, there's a seriousness about these images that I found very off-putting.
In fact, it didn't feel like the kind of faith that I knew. I had been in renewal movements, playing the guitar and singing the choruses for so long, and that was quite a different world from the austerity of orthodox worship and iconography. That was the first thing I had to overcome.
But the austerity isn't what many Protestants find uncomfortable about the Orthodox use of icons.
Right. The basic controversy is that this sounds like idolatry. Especially when I say we kiss and bow to them.
Are these being treated as objects of superstition? Are these idols?
The controversy came up very pointedly about the seventh and eighth century, during the rise of Islam. Up until that point, early Christians had images of the saints and Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd. It was just natural to make pictures. But as Christians saw Islam rise and to make so many military victories, and to enslave and to conquer Christian cities, the Emperor of Constantinople thought, "Maybe we're doing the wrong thing." There was an icon of Christ in the city gate, and he took it down. And this caused a big uproar because the believers in the church felt that we should stand up for our beliefs no matter what. But the government felt strategically it was time to get rid of all those icons.
That led to the iconoclast—meaning smashing of icons—controversy. Over the course of about 125 years a great many Christians died trying to defend the icons. 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.
We should not treat them as objects of magic or superstition, but that they could be seen as a physical Bible is seen.
That what's shown in an icon, usually it's like a picture Bible. You're not supposed to make anything up, you just depict things that we know happened in the Bible. You can show the angel announcing to the Virgin Mary the Virgin Birth. You don't use your imagination or embellish it, you just try to stick with what scripture says. And for a mostly illiterate people they were substitutes for the Bible. People didn't have Bibles they could take home, and mostly they couldn't read anyway.
Now, you can ask the most Bible-loving person you know, Is the Bible an idol? And they'd say, No, it's just paper and ink. But it would break their heart if you tore up their Bible or spit on it.
I was visiting some old family cemeteries at Christmastime and noticed that some graves have wreaths and decorations and some don't. If you brought anthropologists from Mars and they looked at this they would say, "Hm, humans think that dead people can smell flowers." And another would say, "No, no. They're trying to placate the dead so they won't come back and haunt them."
And they'd have all these theories about what it meant that you leave flowers on graves. 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. It's just honoring."
And that's the way that Orthodox treat icons.
Do you actually pray to the saints?
Yes. 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.
So it would be like me saying, Frederica, would you please pray for me?
That's exactly it.
And you're saying there's a host of saints, as Hebrews describes, this great cloud of witnesses that are still alive and able to pray with us.
And that was one of the wonderful joys of becoming Orthodox. Suddenly I had this huge family in heaven and on earth and stretching throughout all time.
They don't talk back to me. I don't have conversations, but I know they're out there. I feel that unseen presence, and I can always say, "St. Nina, please pray for me about this."
It's true that there was a time before the printing press and before literacy where icons were representational and a wonderful teaching aid, but now we have the Bible. Do icons in some sense within Orthodoxy replace the role of the Bible?
That's one of the things that our postmodern evangelical friends say to us—that we need to recapture the idea of story and image and not be solely restricted to word. You never lose it anyway. You, as a Christian, might believe you're only going to get your religion through printed words. Nevertheless, the world is evangelizing you in images constantly. We should have our images, as well, because we form them in our minds nonetheless.
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Frederica.com offers an excerpt from The Open Door.
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