Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Icons and the fusion of dualities

The second article in the latest issue of Liturgy deals with a subject that Christians of the western tradition must approach with careful humility: the use of icons in Christian worship. The nature of icons, their role in the life of the worshiping community, and the meaning of human interaction with icons are all fascinating topics for western Christians, but they are also topics that are rife with the possibility of misunderstanding and miscommunication, due to the vastly different nature of the imaginative universes occupied by those on the two sides of the East/West divide.
In “The Common and the Holy: What Icons Teach Us about Performance,” Dr. Claire Maria Chambers seeks to make the place of icons in the life of communities of eastern Christians more accessible to westerners, by means of the techniques of performance studies. Chambers grounds her philosophical reflection upon the relationship between communities and icons (perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “the communities of which icons are members”) by describing first a community’s greeting of a visiting icon: the myrrh-bearing Iveron Icon from Hawaii. Later Chambers describes the encounter between iconographer and icon during the process of creation, and the first encounter of icon with community during the process of anointing and presentation.

Throughout the essay, Chambers describes a dynamic relationship in which several dualities continual enfold one another: particular/universal; mundane/holy; individual/communal. These dualities coexist within icons and the communities in which they are involved, making manifest the unity of the body of Christians in

Toronto, in Honolulu, in Greece... each individual liturgically participates in a shared cosmos through the mediation of the icon. The icon is this living relationship. The life the icon points to is its own, as each worshiper enters into a self-reflexive process of experiencing  the divine and the other through experiencing the self. And it is a liturgical relationship—it is through the work of the people together in venerating the icon that the holy things bring holy people together as one. In fusing the universal and the local, the common and the holy, iconic relationships explore the potential for encountering the divine in every object, every action, every other. All these things—the common labor of liturgy, the dynamism between local and universal, self-reflexivity, and living encounter—are what icons teach us about human performance in our everyday upkeep of identities, formal artistic practices, and everything in between. If in performance practice and theory we learn anything from the icon, the lesson that would best inform the politics and ethics of performance is the humility and openness needed to enter this living relationship and to keep re-encountering the common and the everyday as the profound particularity of the holy.

I have discovered that I kind of just assume that my thousands of readers are all western Christians, and mostly protestants at that. Who is out there? Are any of you in a relationship with icons?

Claire Maria Chambers (2013): The Common and the Holy:What Icons Teach Us about Performance, Liturgy, 28:1,30.

Dr. Claire Maria Chambers teaches twentieth-century American and British drama at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea. Her publications can be found in PerformanceResearch and Ecumenica.

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