As an outsider to the Orthodox tradition, I’ve tried reading an occasional book on icons, usually with the hope that the book would help me “get” them. “I just want to know what these things mean” was my thought. nouwen

After reading Henri Nouwen’s Behold the Beauty of the Lord (Ave Maria, 1987), though, I see just how much of a mistake that was. Nouwen admits right away that for each of the four icons he writes about, his insights did not come until after months of living and praying with them. What he’s given us are meditations on the icons rather than analyses of their meaning (although there’s some overlap), and I found that Nouwen’s meditative approach was exactly what I needed from a book about icons. Reading this book is like praying with Nouwen as he prays with the icons.

The book is brief (80 pgs), with one meditation each on Rublev’s Trinity, the Virgin of Vladimir, the Savior of Zvenigorod, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. The icons are reproduced in full color and folded into the front and back of the book in such a way that you can look at the icon at the same time that you’re reading about it.

rublevNouwen draws one primary spiritual lesson from each of the icons. I was most interested in what he had to say about Rublev’s Trinity, since it was a gift from my wife a couple of years ago and has been hanging in my office ever since. Nouwen says that contemplating this icon helped him learn what it means to live in “the house of love.” Introducing this icon, he writes:

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.

Friends, Nouwen has put his finger on the exact reason I’m blogging: to find hope in the midst of fear. While at times Nouwen focuses on mystical insights he received (and I don’t have nearly enough mysticism in my life), I really appreciated his final reflection—that is, that each of the four icons is connected to the world, whether through the square in the altar in Rublev’s Trinity, representing the four corners of the earth, or the damage done to the icon of the Savior, or the king in the Descent of the Holy Spirit. These icons remind him that heaven and earth are connected, a connection that helps us live in the house of love. I imagine I’ll return to this book many times for that reminder too.