Thursday, November 20, 2008

Image, Imagination, and Icon

Yesterday evening, in response to Stacey's comment on yesterday's blog, I decided to try that photoshop technique on my own self-portrait, to see what would emerge. This is my first attempt, and I'm not too happy with it: it looks a bit like some sort of swamp monster!

But it was an intriguing exercise, because instead of just using layers of images chosen for their texture and dynamic range I found myself considering content: what is this a picture OF, and is that subject an important part of who I am? Things got pretty complicated at that point -- I even tried to see if I could somehow work in a buddha face -- and when I finally decided to stop "fiddling" with the image, I was tired, stiff, and discouraged -- which doesn't mean it wasn't an interesting exercise, or that I won't attempt it again at some point.

But then, this morning, reading again in The Cloud of Unknowing (which I have not quite finished yet) I saw this:

"Imagination is a power by means of which we make all our images of things...[and] Unless it is restrained by the light of grace in reason, the imagination never ceases, whether we are asleep or awake, to present various unseemly images of bodily creatures or else some fanciful picture that is either a bodily representation of a spiritual thing or else a spritual representation of a bodily thing. Such representations are always false, deceptive, and compounded with error."

Hmm, I thought, reading this, perhaps all this work with faces is not a good thing? Certainly my back is suffering this morning; could this be why? Is it a mistake to wander down this particular path, to invite my imagination to engage with my spiritual life?

And then, in Jesus the Teacher Within, Laurence Freeman talks about the question, "Who do you say that I am?"

"Every culture has its own images of Jesus and so no response can ever be the final answer...We can only imagine Jesus with the means provided by our cultural and personal imagination...Once we have pictured Jesus in our magination, it is tempting to enroll him in support of our opinions and prejudices...Because of the distance between the historical and the imagined Jesus, Christians often seem more concerned about promoting their Jesus in support of their moral or social opinions than in discovering who he really is...[but] According to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. How can this timeless identity be described?"

So here's the dilemma: how are we to understand Jesus without visualizing Him? And how can the Jesus we visualize ever begin to be anything more than a reflection of our own imperfect imaginations and egoic desires?

Fortunately I had time yesterday to flip over to the Oriental Orthodox blog (the one at the bottom of my blogroll to the left of this post) and happened upon this entry from Lynn Bauman:

Iconic Life

As pilgrims across the horizontal landscape of space-time, we are being summoned to an "iconic life"--to live as icons, not as egos. Egoic life is the polar opposite of iconic life, for an icon and an ego stand at opposite ends of the human spectrum.

An icon, as we know, manifests in visual form the essence of a person. Whereas an icon shines with it own unique inner light, which is the non-constructed and eternal nature that was present from its eternal origins, the ego is merely an externally constructed form made up out of the stuff of human society and manifest as the "mask" of its deepest nature.

To discover the icon in ourselves is the inner work required of us. It is our highest vocation to ourselves, but also the greatest gift we can ever give to one another.

... which somehow, for me, pulls it all together. Instead of visualizing or imagining a Jesus who is separate from ourselves -- which must inevitably mean constructing a Jesus who supports our own cultural perspectives -- we can visualize ourselves as icons of Jesus, which allows for the timeless perfection that is Jesus to shine through our own imperfect egoic selves.

If we look at it that way, then those cultural differences which lead to different imaginings of Jesus (which can then be manipulated to support our own selfish aims) are instead transformed into unique individual iconic manifestations of one whole, complete, creative and timeless truth. So then imagination, rather than constructing a Jesus who will bend to our whims, becomes a way of understanding and expressing the unique way that Jesus is working for transformation within each one of us.

It is in that context that we can begin to explore that important question: Who do you say that I am? And that, I suspect, will prove to be an amazing journey.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! A beautiful, beautiful image! I see the face of Jesus in you - purpose, kindness and a shared peace and surety. Well done! It's iconic.

Anonymous said...

Did you know that Laurence Freeman has several podcasts on iTunes, if you are interested, and they are free. I enjoy his voice.

Unknown said...

Wonderful! Thank you for sharing your process and your result with us! It seems somehow right that we would struggle to offer our own portrait icon. And further, that in the very offering of the imperfect, perhaps unfinished, image, there shines the Christ light in you.

Diane Walker said...

Many thanks to both of you -- I'll check out those podcasts, Kim! And thank YOU, Stacey, for encouraging me to take that leap...