Reading Groups: Pondering God’s mystery

by
05 January 2011

Peter McGeary on The Circle of Love by Ann Persson

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THE most important page of this book is the front cover. The icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev, painted in about 1410, is probably the most recognised icon to Western Christian eyes.

The printed page can never reproduce the luminous quality of icons, but it is good to have a clear reproduction of a decent size here. The reader needs to spend a while gazing at the cover before opening this book — and return to it fre­quently while reading the text.

The author had an eye operation some years ago, and had to remain completely immobile for a fortnight afterwards. Rather then lie face down looking at nothing in particular, she spent her time of enforced stillness looking at a reproduction of the Rublev icon, and this book is the fruit of that.

The book begins with an intro­duction to the idea of the visual in Christianity, and the place that art has in awakening spiritual sensibil­ities. That place has had a far-from-stable history, and the history of the Church has been marked by times when more austere voices have pre­vailed, who have been suspicious of the seductive powers of art.

In time, however, culminating in the second Council of Nicaea in 787, icons came to be accepted as things not to be worshipped (that belongs to God alone), but venerated. The icon was not intended to be an object of beauty or a means of instruction, but a “window opening on to the divine”.

There is a laborious process in­volved in the production of an icon, and this is described in detail. Ann Persson then tells of the trip that she and a friend took to the Tretya­kov Gallery, in Moscow, where Rub­lev’s icon now hangs, and other places associated with the artist.

The icon’s subject is the three angels described in the scene of the hospitality of Abraham in Genesis 18. Unlike other icons of this sub-ject, Abraham and Sarah are not to be seen, and the viewer’s attention is focused on the three angelic beings.

The mathematically sophisticated composition draws us in, and the viewer comes to realise that there is a space at front of the icon — a space for us. The icon is an invitation to enter into that mutual exchange of love which is the Holy Trinity. From this, the hope is that the viewer is sent back into the world, looking at it and being in it in a different way.

The Circle of Love tells the story of one person’s discovery of the history of one of the most famous icons. It also tells the story of her finding out more about how icons are painted, and what they mean. Third, it tells the story of a person allowing the message of the icon to speak to her spiritually, and allowing it to help her to enter more fully into the life of the Trinity.

Last, I think we are reminded of the significance of two important and easily neglected components of the Christian life: patience and atten­tion. It takes time to be a Christian; it takes time to pray and to learn. We need to learn anew the importance of really paying attention, to things and to people, if we are to understand them more fully. We look, but do we really see?

This book will, of course, be ideal for those whose knowledge of East­ern Orthodoxy is minimal; but even for those who think they know their Orthodoxy, it is a marvellous ex­ample of how to “read” an icon. It is for anybody who wants to take some time to focus on a particular aspect of Orthodox spirituality, and to try to understand more deeply how icons are far more than mere paintings that might be created for our delight or entertainment.

Icons exist primarily to lead those who look at them more fully into the mysteries of the Christian faith, and in so doing to transform the way that they live their lives. The way we live, with ourselves and others, is in­formed and enriched by our con­templation of the mystery of the Godhead.

Persson makes this process of understanding clear in her book: we gaze on Rublev’s icon, and we ponder more deeply the mystery of the Trinity — not just as an abstract set of ideas about the nature of God for our intellectual improvement, but also as a way by which our actions are changed for good.

“As we begin to live in closer relationship with God, his values will become ours, and those values will inform our actions. As Paul wrote, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect’” (Romans 12.2).

The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

The Circle of Love: Praying with Rublev’s icon of the Trinity by Ann Persson is published by BRF at £5.99 (CT Bookshop £5.40); 978-1-84101-750-1.

THE CIRCLE OF LOVE — SOME QUESTIONS

THE CIRCLE OF LOVE — SOME QUESTIONS

Before reading The Circle of Love, what did you know about icons? What more have you learnt?

Before reading The Circle of Love, what did you know about icons? What more have you learnt?

Have you experienced looking at something for a long time? Do you agree with Ann Persson that you gain more after staying with the image than on a quick glance?

How would you describe your experience of looking at Rublev’s icon?

Is there any other image that is particularly important to you? What does it say to you?

How would you describe the process of writing an icon?

What do the icon and the story of Abraham on which it is based convey about this quality?

“The Trinity is not just a concept or an idea. It is a way of being” (page 61). How far do you agree with this? Do you find the idea of perichoresis helpful or illuminating when it comes to the Trinity?

“Now I am beginning to realise that to pray is to seek to be where Christ already is . . .” (page 72). Is this the way you see it?

What will you remember from this book?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 February, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Help by Kathryn Stockett, published by Penguin at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-141-03928-2.

Author notes

Author notes

Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Alabama, before moving to New York City to work in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. She now lives in Atlanta, with her husband and daughter. The Help is her first book, and is currently being made into a film, due to be released later this year.

Book notes

The three women who narrate The Help are brought together when one of them, Skeeter, a wealthy white woman, decides to write a book revealing the true story of the relationships between white families in Mississippi and their black servants. The spark for her book is her return home after gaining a degree to discover that her former nursemaid Constantine has disappeared and no one will say what has happened.

Her companions are Abileen, a black maid raising her 17th white child, though she has lost her own son, and Abileen’s best friend, Minny, a cook who has been sacked many times because of her outspokenness. On the book’s publication, their town is brought face to face with difficult truths of racism and injustice.

Books for the next two months:

March: Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

April: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

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