“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” William Blake
For those parishioners who could not attend the parish education session which reviewed the Sunday lectionary readings for this month of June (or have not as yet picked up a copy of the session’s content) we spoke of a thing called the iconostasis – the image stand.
For those of you not familiar with Eastern Orthodox services, the iconostasis or image-stand is a high partition built between the congregation and the church sanctuary and altar. It’s designed to quasi-block the view of the congregation from the central action of the Eucharist. In other words you have to peek through its central door to see what’s going on, granted that at communion time the priest comes out to the people with the bread and wine.
It seems to resemble the set up of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem where the Holy of Holies (God’s inner sanctum) was hidden behind a veil and the altar of sacrifice itself was isolated from the courtyards of the Temple where men and women and visitors were kept at a reverent distance from the rituals at the altar.
What people do see, as they look at this iconostasis or image-stand or partition, were icons – colorful, beautiful full length paintings – panel by panel – of Mary, the mother of God, Jesus as Creator of the world, the angel Gabriel (of the Annunciation), various saints – all with eyes fixed upon the worshipers. And what eyes - wide, serious, deep, gazing into the eyes of every worshiper!
And why these stares? To communicate to each of us something of each image’s power of perception, to help us see the way Mary sees, Jesus sees, saints and angels see. To help us see all that we cannot see because of a spiritual glaucoma that dims our vision – our eyes and minds being so clouded by the news of the day, pettiness, contentiousness, distractions, prejudices. And so thus, in a way, these icons on the iconostasis do not block our vision of the Eucharist that goes on behind it but invite us toward a deeper appreciation of the breaking of the bread, cleanse us of our obstinacy, our vagueness so that Christ might gain access to our souls and bodies – as the poet William Blake once said: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
In seeing one of these Eastern Orthodox iconostases, we members of the Roman Church might feel a bit deprived, because we don’t have such a lively, colorful structure offering us a spiritual portal into the banquet of God. But as we discovered during that lectionary session, we do have our own iconostasis. It’s built around the lectionary and psalm readings that are recited before we bring forward the bread and wine and sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” as we pass on to the heart of the Eucharist. For don’t these readings “precede” the central part of the Mass? And don’t they give us a glimpse of God’s way of seeing, biblical moments of insight, miracle, words that enlighten us – deepen our powers of perception, if we but heed them? Try as time goes on to see the lectionary readings as standing, like the Greek iconostasis, between you and our communion table magnetically drawing you toward a deeper experience of God’s presence in our midst.