The first thing I see as I enter my study each morning are the icons displayed on the wall. As a 17-year-old Baptist, I didn’t even know the word “icon,” much less what an icon was, until I went to Crete. There I discovered that icons were an important and central part of every little Orthodox chapel, church, and family home. I was even more fascinated when I read Nikos Kazantzakis’ imaginative description of the activity of the St. Minas icon in the Cathedral of Saint Minas in Heraklion, Crete.
“On the annual holidays—Christ’s birth, death, or resurrection—all the people dressed, donned their jewelry, and forsook their houses to pour out of every lane. They were headed for the cathedral, which awaited them with gaping doors. Its great candlesticks and chandeliers had been lighted, and the knight and master of the house, (the icon of…) Saint Minas, stood on the threshold to receive his dear friends…of the city. Hearts opened, misfortunes were put out of mind, names forgotten; all became one. They were slaves no longer. Disputes and Turks did not exist, nor did death. Inside the church with the mounted Captain Minas as leader, everyone felt part of an immortal army.”
Saint Minas was the defender of the city. “Astride a gray horse, holding a red lance pointed at the sky, the saint remained motionless all day in his diminutive church, upon his icon—fierce-eyed, sunburned, with a short curly beard. All day long weighed down by the silver ex-votos—hands, feet, eyes, hearts—which the people had attached to him so that his grace might heal them, he remained immobile, pretending to be only a picture: paint on a piece of board. But as soon as night fell and the Christians gathered in their homes and the lights began going out one by one, he pushed aside paints and silver offerings with a sweep of his hand, spurred his horse, and went out for a ride through the Greek quarters… He closed whatever doors the Christians had forgetfully left open, he whistled to night owls to return to their homes, he stood outside the doorway and listened absorbedly, with satisfaction, whenever he heard singing. A wedding must be taking place, he murmured. A blessing on the happy couple, and may they bear children to swell the ranks of Christendom. Afterwards he made a tour of the ramparts which gird Heraklion, and at cockcrow, before daybreak, spurred his horse, entered the church with a bound, and climbed onto his icon. Once more he put on a show of indifference.”
Like everything, there is more to an icon (in the mind and heart of the beholder) than I ever dreamed!