Monday, November 08, 2004

The Icon of/on the Grain of the Universe

Trevor Bechtel in his sermon for Tripp’s Ordination last night used the metaphor of the "grain of the universe." The image was powerful and in conjunction with the image of the “ruins of the church” and the back drop of the ecumenical gathering that was Tripp’s ordination service it elucidated a search that is ecumenical in seeking the basis of unity and not simply the means of obliterating dividing lines. The mysticism the apophaticism of the sermon was compelling. Yet, it seemed there was an iconoclastic mysticism at work in the sermon.
As one who restores furniture and who has been raised by a woodworker and craftsman I learned early to appreciate the grain and numerous times heard my father bemoan that a piece of furniture had been painted over hiding the beautiful grain of the wood, I understand appreciating the grain of wood. I was taught early on to sand with the grain of the wood and not against it. So, I understood experientialy Trevor’s point in terms of revealing the grain of wood. Yet while varnish can cloud and get encrusted with age and weathering, varnish as my woodworking father taught me, is intended to enhance and protect the wood and its grain. So in the very least seeking the grain would not end with sanding and stripping. However, what if we are not simply dealing with furniture, what if the grain of the universe functions as a support for something else for an-other revelation? What if the grain, the nameless, is not the goal?
What if the wood in this ruined church is painted with icon’s? As an iconographer I could not help but hear, as Trevor mentioned wood encrusted with paint, gold, and jewels, the defacing and burning of icons. I do not mean to say that Trevor intended this echo (though a Mennonite might intend such a reference). However, as an iconographer “the grain of the universe” has other connotations and stripping away layers of paint to get at the grain has echoes of destruction of holy objects. So again what if this ruined church is covered in icons, whose paint is pealing whose wood is rotting?
It would be a mistake to say that an iconographer is ignorant of the grain that serves as the support for the icon. In fact in preparing the board for painting the iconographer must pay attention to the grain, as he sands to create a smooth surface over which he will lay the gesso. If the iconographer were to ignore the grain of the wood not only would he not acheive the smooth surface necessary to paint with egg tempera but he would be ignoring the materials being used. A true iconographer knows wood and respects the material and seeks to work with the grain and not against it.
Yet, perhaps to the surprise of the wood worker who seeks only to reveal the beauty of the grain, the iconographer moves from the grain as the basis, as the inner silent actuality, of the icon. The universe is more than wood, it is also pigment and shape and it is gold and light.
Iconography is a mysticism of form and light.
As an iconographer in the midst of the ruins of the church, I would implore us to strip away the peeling paint not simply to have exposed grain but in order restore the icon of/on the grain of the universe. I wish to remind us in the ruins of the church that the grain of the universe took on form and pigment, “the un-circumscribable became circumscribed”. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
There is in our time the iconoclastic temptation, the temptation of the mysticism of the formless: a temptation to seek the disembodied truth of the Other. Yet such mysticism taken to its logical conclusion in the least leads to a marginalization of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, if not its ultimate denial.