Last Saturday was a quiet July afternoon at our ministry-which-is-the-bookstore. There had been few customers. Gradually, quietly, that changed.
A young couple and their baby-in-stroller entered the store. They were looking for a very specific icon. It was Jesus as King and High Priest. Their words and descriptions showed that they knew little about icons, but what they did know was that they needed one very specific icon. It had to be a Russian icon, not Greek. “Is this a Russian icon?’ “How can you be certain?” I am not a icon scholar, but I pointed to the lettering on the icon and asked is that text in Greek or Russian (Cyrillic)?” They didn’t know, but I suggested that it looked like Russian letters to me.
During the few minutes of their questions and my replies, as I offered them a catalog of icons with descriptions and a book about icons, as I tried to leave them alone to talk on their own, some other customers had entered the store. I became aware that we now had in the store customers who included a bishop in the United Christian Church, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, and a bishop in a conservative Orthodox Catholic church. Although this last bishop told me that he had been so overworked and tired that this was his first chance to visit our store in months, he soon gravitated to the icon shoppers. Almost immediately he engaged the couple in a teaching situation as he described the icons and their meanings.
The woman of the couple came to me to ask if there were other stores in town that had more icons than we have. I explained that most of the Russian and Greek Orthodox congregations have gift shops attached to them. Although those shops have limited shop hours of operation they are nearly always open immediately after their Sunday worship services. Not only do they have icons, they really know and appreciate their icons and would be more knowledgeable than I. I offered the name of one, St Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, certainly having a well-stocked store, although they are Greek and not Russian. “And where is it located?” Let me show you in the phone book. “Oh, I don’t use phone books. I haven’t used a phone book in five years. You have given me the name of the church and I will locate it in my computer.” “But, that is only one congregation and the phone book will list the various Russian and Greek Orthodox congregations.” “No. I don’t use the phone book and don’t want you to use it.”
Several minutes later the Orthodox bishop had stopped trying to teach them about icons. The couple had found two icons that they were interested in. One of the icons depicted Christ’s hand in one position. In the other icon Christ’s hand was in a different position. Placing both icons on the counter the couple continued to discuss them. They liked one icon, but not the depiction of Christ’s hand in that one. They preferred his hand in the other icon. Their discussion evolved to the topic of Photoshopping one icon and replacing the hand in it with the hand in the other one so that it would fit what they wanted.
By this time we all had given up trying to help the couple with the icons. It was obvious that they had no interest in the centuries of tradition and reverence for icons and iconography. They were only interested in getting a nice picture that fit what they wanted. As the bishop had earlier explained to them, icons are not pictures, they are an entry into the mystical nature of God. As I had tried to point out to them in books and descriptions of the icons in a supplier’s catalog, the specific icons have a specific history and meaning. These reproductions of the original icons refer back to the time when the “writer” of an icon would fast for 40 days, then seek permission and guidance from the bishop as to what the icon that was about to be created should manifest. Then, in all spiritual devotion, they would painstakingly attempt to create the work of spiritual art.
Nope. The couple intended to Photoshop the two icons so that they would have the one that they wanted and could put that picture of Jesus as King up in the window of their apartment.
Soon after the icon shopping couple left the store I realized that the clergy who had converged on our store had departed as well. It seems to me that the Holy Spirit was present during that event last Saturday afternoon as the clergy gathered, were present during a couple’s shopping experience, and then went away.