The Berkeley Lecce
At Home with Papas Nick
At Home with Papas Nick, December 6, Saint Nicholas Day
Anyone who has enjoyed the hospitality of Papas Nick will not be surprised to learn that he sees religious icons as the invitation of a generous householder to come into his home. For Papas Nick, icons are not decorations on a wall. They are doorways that never close. In Lecce’s tiny Greek Church, the exquisite St. Nicholas of Myra, he offered an exhibit of the works of religious art that are fundamental to the Orthodox Christian faith.
Visitors understood that the display belonged in a house of worship and not in a museum. The works assembled were at their best in the warmth of home. (There’s no avoiding the domestic metaphor.) They bore an aura of familiarity. Mentally fondled in prayer again and again, they had served the faithful, like an everyday household item, to enter the spiritual world. Theology said the incarnation of Christ sanctified matter and consequently their tactile quality.
Icons teach in a very special way, bringing comfort and focusing minds on the liturgy of which they are part. Their ultimate function is to bring about a closer communion with God. The uniform style of iconography allows the faithful to enter the subject depicted without hesitation. Regular viewing means there’s no need to puzzle out a situation. What’s shown, feast, saint or divine image, fits a known formula.
Icons are a structural part of an Orthodox church like St. Nicholas. The iconostasis or wall of icons at the far end of the vaulted nave shields the altar where, with dramatic effect, the liturgy is performed. For there are degrees of sacred space. Papas Nick noted how the corner of a humble home where an icon hung with a lamp before it is a special place. Icons beckon the faithful to enter a church and be at home there. Once within, the iconostasis, far from being intrusive, calls attention to the most holy space of all behind it.
Papas Nick capped his talk with a passionate explication of a beloved Christmas icon. On one level, he said, an icon, could simply refresh a worshiper’s memory of the basic tenets of his faith. But there were other levels. In the Christmas icon he pointed out the details of what was a veritable visual treatise of theology, and he did so not as a rigid theologian but with the enthusiasm of a believer marvelling in delight at his beliefs, a gracious host.