Recently I have taken to praying with icons. An icon is a painted image that we are not so much invited to look upon, but to see through. See through to the presence of God, perhaps even the image of God, who is also looking back through the image to see and embrace us. St. Benedict, the sixth monk who is widely regarded as the founder of Western monasticism and Christian spirituality, said the first task for monks is to listen – a very important and life giving enterprise. Orthodox Christianity, rooted in the East, first calls upon Christians to gaze. To gaze upon the icons which reflect the presence of the living Christ– in images and in faces and in lives. These animate and fixed images have the capacity to transform us – to the degree that we embody Christ’s presence and become bearers of Christ’s light. And that light invites others to see; to see beyond the darkness of their lives; and to see beyond the barriers that tragedy, prejudice, ignorance, fear and conflict inevitably put up.
One of the gifts of my new role is to see how people in the diocese bring Christ’s light into circumstances and conditions that the wider culture has trained us not to see:
- The diocesan prison ministry, a group of deeply committed people from across the diocese, brings light through thick walls and locked doors by offering the Eucharist, education and care to inmates – and by bringing the children of female prisoners for regular visits (mothers and children would literally not see each other were it not for these missions of mercy).
- A couple of Saturdays ago I joined with the clergy and some parishioners of St. Mark’s, Teaneck on their twice-weekly ministry to day laborers, who wait on a side street from dawn until midday – every day, hoping that someone will come along and hire them – if not for a day, then at least for a few hours. Not only are these Latin and South American men not easily seen (which is one of the reasons that on a good day one or two get hired), but the would-be patriots who gather around an American flag across the main street carry sandwich boards that express a very clear wish that the 50 or so men not be seen at all.
- The members of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Wantage, who describe themselves as a small congregation – nevertheless have a rather big ministry with a weekly soup kitchen, daily food pantry and twice-yearly weeklong shelter for the homeless. And in the last year they have erected a bank of solar panels (with consulting help from an environmental ministry in the diocese) which not only captures light and turns it into a source for electricity – but makes a clear – and clean!, announcement to the people in the northern triangle of the diocese that they are a congregation that takes environmental stewardship seriously.
- As I make my way across the diocese, I am seeing Gospel based, life giving ministries – among people who find themselves in society’s shadows – by circumstance or by design; and who have neither the trust or confidence to step into the light -- where we can all can more easily see the icon of Christ in one another.
- Just this week, I invited Del Glover, a member of Executive Council, and who is chief operations officer of Riverside Church in New York (and former operations officer at Trinity, Wall Street) to spend some time with most of the Episcopal House staff – for the purpose of helping all of us see how we can organize ourselves into a more cohesive and efficient team. In mid-April, the financial staff will meet individually with another outside colleague for the same purpose.
- And on March 15 Carol Gallagher and I will travel to Camp Allen in Texas for the meeting of the House of Bishops. There has been a ratcheting up of anxiety and concern – as we read it in the media and in the raft of emails on Episcopal News Service and various list-serves. No doubt there will confusion and dissension among the bishops about the Primates’ Communique – and the draft of the Anglican Covenant. Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, has clearly indicated that the bishops’ meeting will be about discussion, and not decision -- at least with respect to the escalating debate within the Anglican Communion. I go filled with the light of the many gay and lesbian clergy and laypeople whose gifts have been such a vital part of this diocese for as long as anyone can remember; and I go with the promise that there will be openings – in faces, in worship, in discussion and debate – for Christ’s light to break through and illumine hearts and minds with greater clarity and deeper commitment to justice and freedom.
Somehow, in a mysterious and wonderful way, the light of Christ shines through the prayers and poetry of Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic: “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in the grass, the world is too full to think about. Ideas, language – even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”
I think we all are committed to live in that field.