I was sitting on a bench in the Greek Orthodox church of Agia Ekaterini (Saint Catherine) in the center of Heraklion, Crete. The 16th century church vibrated with a silent presence. Quietly contemplating, I bathed in the silence, transported far from the busy city outside, enfolded in the scent of beeswax candles and surrounded by the glowing gold framed icons: Mary with the baby Jesus, Archangels and many, many Saints – benign and watchful. Devotion filled the air.
A father came into the church holding the hand of his young daughter, maybe five or six years old. She was dressed in a pretty green dress with her dark hair tied back with a band. He led her gently up to the altar. There he kissed each icon in turn and made the sign of the cross. After his short prayer, he lifted his daughter up in his arms so she could make her kisses. They slowly completed their rounds of favorite icons. Then the father lit a candle at the back of the church and they left.
Why did the scene touch me so deeply? For me the divine presence has no image; God is the unknown, unknowable, and unimaginable. Yet this family’s devotion to icons reflected his love and dedication to the sacred – and to his daughter. I could feel its simplicity and depth.
Icons are images of the sacred. For those in the Orthodox tradition, they provide a focus for devotion, a way to connect to the presence of God as it manifests in the form of a beautiful stylized images. In that sense they are no different than a mantra or sacred text, a way to begin the inward journey towards a sacred mystery.
That father and daughter were living breathing beacons of love. The father’s reverence to the icons, his gentle guidance of the child, the simple naturalness of it all, reflected a profound loving that touched my heart. Too often in religion we think too much; our “enlightened” beliefs constrict our natural spiritual yearnings. It matters little how we connect to the sacred. We all need to find inner quiet and offer up our prayers in the childlike simplicity of our hearts.