If you are anything like me, your home is filled with icons of saints and photographs of loved ones. These icons and photographs greet me when I visit your homes as a priest.
I have seen different saints from various epochs that share walls and shelves with photographs of people – family members, relative, koumbari, and friends – who mean a lot to the family living in this home. I try to imagine the stories these icons and photographs hold. The stories they tell us every day. They represent unforgettable memories and important milestones for those who keep and preserve them in their homes. These are the faces of people with whom we want to share our space, our time, and our world.
There is undoubtedly a link between icons and photographs. Both these representations, either painted by hand or taken with a camera, belong to the same genre – a genre centered on the portrait of one or more persons. Yet the story, it seems to me, always goes beyond the representation of a person’s individual features on a piece of wood or paper. It is not mainly for decorative reasons that we keep icons and photographs in our homes; they also remind us of an experience of closeness, of love and warmth given to us by the people in both icons and photographs. These feelings embrace our whole body and soul when we look at them. This is because there is a personal relationship between us and our beloved saints and relatives or friends.
When I encounter icons and photographs in homes, I like to ask their owners about them. The answers I receive are not simply a name or a place or an event, but always a story – a story that begins in our hearts, a story that breaks the borders of time and space. The story moves, not only the person telling it, but me as a listener into a timeless realm where all memories become vivid and alive. These are the kind of stories that bring past and present together. Looking at these icons and photographs and hearing someone tell me about them, reveals how strong the connection is – love, closeness, a true relationship. Time and space no longer seem to be obstacles.
There are two different directions happening in these two, yet similar, modes of depiction. The first direction is from the portrait toward the icon, and the second is from the icon toward the portrait. The first direction truly destroys the idea of space and time and bridges the divide between the past and present. The story that follows this direction awakens memories and reveals relationships between the owner and those in the photograph. Yet those memories are followed by a sense of sadness and emptiness because those in the photograph may not be here with us as we look at their faces. Time and space keep us apart.
The direction from icon toward the portrait is different. It abolishes both sadness and emptiness since this direction comes from the future – from eschaton – from eternity – and comes into our present time to join future, present, and past. Through the image of a saint in an icon we feel joy, peace, and hope. Our relationship with the represented saint fulfills not only our common past but also our present, as this saint is our intercessor in front of God. Our memories are not only focused on the past, but, through our prayers in front of these icons, through reading of saints’ lives and contemplating their examples as faithful Christians, our present becomes tied with the future – with eternity.
But how about our loved ones whose photographs we keep in our homes? Direction from the icon toward the portrait brings the experience of joy and hope to us as we are all created for eternity. This is also true for the memories and legacies we keep alive with them.
Therefore, the next time I go to my own home or visit somebody else’s and see icons and photographs together, I will give thanks to the Lord and offer a prayer for all whose faces I see. I will ask for the intersession of a saint whose icon is in a home knowing that his or her life story proves that God so loves this world that he sent His own Son that everyone who believes in Him does not parish but obtain eternal life. (John 3:16)
By Rev. Father Milutin Janjic, Ph.D., Proistamenos
Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church - Santa Cruz, CA