Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Holy Trinity and the House of Perfect Love

Icon of the Holy Trinity painted by St Andrew Rublev 
in memory of the Russian St Sergius

Genesis 18:1-8

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on--since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 

And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 

And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. 

Henri Nouwen comments:

How can we live in the midst of a world marked by fear, hatred and violence, and not be destroyed by it? When Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples he responds to this question by saying, “I am not asking you to remove them form the world but to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” 

To live in the world without belonging to the world summarizes the essence of the spiritual life. The spiritual life keeps us aware that our true house is not the house of fear, in which the powers of hatred and violence rule, but the house of love, where God resides. 

Hardly a day passes in our lives without our experience of inner or outer fears, anxieties, apprehensions and preoccupations. These dark powers have pervaded every part of our world to such a degree that we can never fully escape them. Still it is possible not to belong to these powers, not to build our dwelling place among them, but to choose the house of love as our home. This choice is made not just once and for all but by living a spiritual life, praying at all times and thus breathing God’s breath. Through the spiritual life we gradually move from the house of fear to the house of love. 

I have never seen the house of love more beautifully expressed than in the icon of the Holy Trinity, painted by Andrew Rublev in 1425 in memory of the great Russian saint, Sergius (1313-1392). For me the contemplation of this icon has increasingly become a way to enter more deeply into the mystery of divine life while remaining fully engaged in the struggles of our hate-and-fear filled world. 

. . . During a hard period of my life in which verbal prayer had become nearly impossible and during which mental and emotional fatigue had made me the easy victim of feelings of despair and fear, a long and quiet presence to this icon became the beginning of my healing. As I sat for long hours in front of Rublev’s Trinity, I noticed how gradually my gaze became prayer. This silent prayer slowly made my inner restlessness melt away and lifted me up into the circle of love, a circle that could not be broken by the powers of the world. Even as I moved away from the icon and became involved in the many tasks of everyday life, I felt as if I did not have to leave the holy place I had found and could dwell there whatever I did or wherever I went. I knew that the house of love I had entered has not boundaries and embraces everyone who wants to dwell there. 

Through the contemplation of this icon we come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle. The words of the psalm, “The sparrow has found its home at last . . . Happy those who live in your house” are given new depth and new breadth; they become words revealing the possibility of being in the world without being of it. . . . 

Andrei Rublev painted this icon not only to share the fruits of his own meditation on the mystery of the Holy Trinity but also to offer his fellow monks a way to keep their hearts centered on God while living in the midst of political unrest. The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within. As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in an intimate table conversation that is taking place between the three divine angels and to join them at the table. The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure. Through the contemplation of this icon we come to see with our own inner eyes that all the engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within the divine circle. We can be involved in struggles for justice and actions for peace. We can be part of the ambiguities of family and community life. We can study, teach, write, and hold a regular job. We can do all of this without ever having to leave the house of love . . . Rublev’s icon gives us a glimpse of the house of perfect love.

From: Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons

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Further information about the Rublev Icon:

St Andrew Rublev wrote this Icon either in 1411 or the period 1425 to 1427. It is 142 cm × 114 cm (56 in × 45 in), and can be viewed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow 

There was no fixed form for the Trinity at the time of Rublev in the 15th century. This left painters freedom in their interpretation. He was aware of the transition from Christ centered icons of the Trinity toward a more theologically correct trinitarian view.

St Andrew introduced definite changes to the pattern that immediately preceded him. The central angel no longer looks at the beholder but at an angle to the left. The angel on the left and the right cross each other so the center of gravity moves from the central angel to one on the left. The angels are of equal size. He give the central angel clothing characteristic of Christ and makes the clothing of the other two unique. The hand are no longer pointing to objects on the table which is smaller and there is now room only for a chalice in its middle containing the sacrificial lamb. Their gestures do not relate to food as in earlier icons but to one another. They represent three separate distinct persons who in intimate relation with each other.

The angel on the left is clothed in a pale pink cloak with brown and blue-green highlights. The one in the center is clothed in the customary colors of Christ. A dark red robe and blue cloak. The one on the right has a green cloak. The clear and precise colors of the central angel are contrasted with the soft hues of the other two. The colors seem to blend and harmonise unifying the three figures giving them a tranquil joyfulness. Just as in so many other icons, gold indicates the value of the image and draws us into the Kingdom of Heaven. It is as if the entire scene were suffused with light. Fitting because of the subject – no less than God himself – the same God who dwells in light unapproachable, the same God who dwells in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The table no longer looks like a dinning table but is a cube clearly recognizable as an altar with an opening for the relics. The hosts Abraham and Sarah are no longer in the picture.

He uses the biblical background but relates it to the three figures. The angel on the left is coordinated with the house, the one in the middle with a tree and the one on the right with a rock. These relationships become symbolic.

The Father

Over the head of the Father who is on the left is the house of the Father. It is the goal of our journey. It is the beginning and end of our lives. Its roof is golden. Its door is always open for the traveler. It has a tower, and its window is always open so that the Father can incessantly scan the roads for a glimpse of a returning prodigal.

He is vested in a blue undergarment which depicts his divine celestial nature. His fatherly authority is seen in his entire appearance. His head is not bowed and he is looking at the other two angels. His whole demeanor - the expression on his face, the placement of his hands, the way he is sitting - all speaks of his fatherly dignity.

The Son

Behind the center angle who symbolizes Christ is a great tree that spreads its shade in heat of the day. It is no ordinary tree. It stands above the Son in the picture, and stands above the altar-table where the lamb lies within the chalice. Because of the sacrifice this tree grows. The tree of death has been transformed into a tree of life for us.

The Son has the deepest colors; a thick heavy garment of the reddish-brown of blood earth and a cloak of the blue of heaven. In his person he unites heaven and earth, the two natures are present in him, and over his right shoulder (the Government shall be upon his shoulder) there is a band of gold shot through the earthly garment, as his divinity suffuses and transfigures his earthly being. He is inclined towards the first angel, as though deep in conversation.

The Spirit

The angel on the right symbolizes the Holy Spirit. His green mantle of the Spirit, scintillating with light, is another of Rublev’s achievements. Green belongs to the Spirit because the Spirit is the source of life. On the Feast of Pentecost, Eastern Orthodox churches are decorated with greenery, boughs and branches, and worshippers will wear green clothing. The Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit begins, “O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life…”

This sense of the Spirit as the source of life, everywhere present, filling all things, contributes to one of the distinct feaatures of Orthodox theology. That is, it is intimately bound up with daily life. There is no such thing as theology which is purely intellectual. If theology doesn’t change you, if it doesn’t flood you with light, it’s not worth your time

This icon is appreciated for its simplicity. St Andrew was successful at advancing the iconographic tradition of the Church adding depth and bringing greater clarity to a doctrine that is forever mystically clothed.

- From the website of St George’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Greenville SC, USA


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