I first encountered the icon of the Old Testament Trinity – or any icon, for that matter – 25 years ago as part of my spiritual direction training with Shalem Institute.
The concept of being drawn inside a “painting” was strange to me. But this icon, created by Rublev in 1425 and popularized in our era (first by Henri Nouwen and then by Richard Rohr) did indeed draw me in.
According to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, an icon is not a piece of art painted for our enjoyment. Nor is it an idol. An icon is a window through which we approach God. It is meant to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us to the heart of God. To paint an icon or to gaze at one is an act of devotion. It is a means to a deeper spiritual reality.
This one is based on the Genesis 18 story of the heavenly visitors who came to see Abraham and Sarah at the Oak of Mamre. But for some early church fathers, those three heavenly visitors also prefigured the Trinity.
Various people have speculated about which figure is meant to convey which person of the Trinity. Following Richard Rohr, I imagine the figure on the left – with the gold filmy robe – as God the father. I imagine Jesus in the middle, wearing a deep red gown, looking at the father and pointing to the chalice. I imagine the spirit portrayed in the green of new life and growth. All of them also wear royal blue.
Their energy moves in a circle, counterclockwise. They form a circle of love, and there’s a space for me – for each of us – to pull up a stool and join their circle. The three heavenly visitors to Abraham and Sarah have become the hosts.
The little box in the middle – to which the Spirit is pointing – shows evidence of having once had a mirror attached to it, so that a person approaching this icon would see themselves reflected back as part of the circle.
Twenty five years ago it seemed almost sacrilegious to me to think in these ways. I had never thought of the Trinity as a dynamic circle before – or even as a community – and had certainly never imagined myself invited to join that circle. Yet I was amazed at the power of the invitation, and the power of sitting there, feeling the energy of the circle, directly facing Jesus….
Sometimes when I gaze at the icon, the compassionate look of Jesus draws me in, touching me in deep places. When Jesus points to the chalice, I take it as an invitation to drink. I think of this chalice as the cup of blessing. I never know ahead of time how joy and suffering mix in this cup of blessing, but it feels safe to drink because Jesus is offering, always with such a look of compassion.
At other times, it’s the circle of love with its flow of energy that draws me in. This icon continues to speak to me beyond words, to enfold me in God’s house of love, as Henri Nouwen would put it.
Nouwen’s question from 30 years ago is still relevant for us today:
“How can we live in the midst of a world marked by fear, hatred and violence, and not be destroyed by it?” His response: This circle comes with us into the life of the world where God’s perfect love casts out fear.
At a time of change years ago I wrote this in my journal:
I truly do not know how to ‘take care of’ all this.
I do know that you invite me into the fellowship of the Trinity again…still…even in the midst of all that’s going on.
You invite me into that calm, centered place.
You invite me to sit across from you as you look kindly into my face.
You put your hand gently on my shoulder with a blessing.
All this is enough. In fact, it is too much.
Questions for Reflection:
- What attracts you – if anything – to gaze at this icon? What resistance to gazing at it do you experience, if any?
- What experience do you have with praying with icons?
Next week: Favorite Advents carols