‘Traces of the Holy’
  • Tuesday, April 29, 2014

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Rev. Warren Hicks often has a lot on his mind as rector of an urban congregation, St. Luke’s Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. He can sense when he’s wearing thin and needs a block of time alone with the God who called him into ministry.

When those moments come around about once a month, he sets off for an hour or two in the presence of the holy. He travels 12 miles up the road to the Museum of Russian Icons, where Orthodox pilgrims venerate artwork from centuries past and growing numbers of Episcopalians find their souls renewed.

The city priest has his choice of 300 displayed icons to explore at this unlikely repository of sacred art in tiny Clinton, Massachusetts. Each image awaits, ready to inspire or reveal divine mysteries in two-dimensional depictions of Christ, biblical figures, or Russian saints. The collection of nearly 1,000 icons is the largest in the United States. Only in Russia can one find more Russian icons in one place.

Hicks does not try to take in everything but concentrates on just a few icons. Lately he’s been drawn, he says, to a panel of 12 scenes from the lives of the prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha. Letting his eye wander until it’s “arrested,” he ponders the nature of mentoring, which he’s learning to do as a spiritual director.

“I try not to look at it with an analytical eye, but rather with an eye of receptivity,” Hicks said. “I think about what the cost of recovering a prophetic vision for the church is. … What is our engagement with the real stuff of the world to be?”

When the Museum of Russian Icons opened in 2006, a handful of curious Episcopalians made the trek with their respective church groups to what was then a 3,000 square-foot facility. Inside they found a fraction of what founder Gordon Lankton had collected on frequent business trips to Russia in the 1980s and ’90s. Economically desperate Russians sold him icons from family collections; sometimes deals happened on the street for a few dollars. Lankton appreciated the icons’ artistic value and bought them like hotcakes.

Now expanded to 16,000 square feet, the museum has grown in stature to match its size. About 4,000 visitors per year arrive in church groups, according to CEO and curator Kent dur Russell. About 1,000 of these are Anglicans; most of the others are Orthodox or Roman Catholic.

Though the museum is a secular nonprofit organization, the Orthodox regard it as a home of sacred treasures. Orthodox priests have blessed the collection on multiple occasions. Orthodox believers make pilgrimages to visit from points all along the Eastern seaboard. The museum allows church groups to worship on site in the presence of icons.

For Episcopalians, the art is treated largely as a resource for private prayer, Russell said. It’s also a way to engage with Christians of other traditions.

“Sometimes, with both the Episcopalians and the Roman Catholics, it needs a degree of translation,” Russell said. “For the Catholics, it’s an Aha! moment when you point out that the Stations of the Cross are icons, basically. That’s their origin.”

With Episcopalians, he added, the Aha! tends to come when they are reminded that giant icons adorn pillars flanking the entrance of Westminster Abbey.

Unlike Eastern Orthodox Christians, curious Episcopalians do not typically have much background knowledge of icons. That’s because various strains of Anglicanism diverge in how they understand the art’s spiritual value. While some see it as a portal to higher wisdom and truth, others reject it as a violation of the Second Commandment, which forbids worshiping graven images, said the Rev. Canon J. Robert Wright, an icon collector and professor emeritus of church history at General Theological Seminary.

Attitudes have shifted, Wright said, since his days as a student at General in the early 1960s, when courses paid no attention to icons. Now General students learn about icons and seek them out in visits to Armenian, Serbian, and Greek Orthodox cathedrals in New York City. In February, General hosted a three-week icon exhibit featuring Wright’s former collection.

“The icons are regarded as traces of the holy,” Wright said. “When you pray in the presence of an icon, touch an icon, or kiss an icon, you are making contact with the holy.”

New England Episcopalians now rely on the Museum of Russian Icons in part to fill gaps in their understanding of icons, Russian culture, and Orthodox spirituality. In tours tailored to group interests, docents discuss how icons are made with simple essentials: a wooden block, egg tempera paint, and prayer. For groups with advanced knowledge, docents delve into finer points of art and culture.

Through arrangements with the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, a monk will sometimes lead the Episcopal faithful in a workshop at the museum in how to pray with icons.

But amassing information is not the central point when Episcopalians visit. They come primarily for quiet retreat, and they find the art leaves them refreshed.

Groups commonly arrive during stressful seasons, when they crave reconnection with the holy. During Advent 2013, for instance, clergy from the Central and West Worcester Deanery gathered for opening prayers at Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton. Then they went next door to the museum to “complete their own liturgy of the Word among the icons,” Hicks said.

When candidates for Bishop of Western Massachusetts were in the area for meetings, they found the museum provided just the respite they needed to renew their souls.

“The candidates were able to get next door, be quiet, spend some time in prayer, and appreciate the icons,” said the Rev. William Bergmann, Good Shepherd’s rector. “Each one of the candidates said it was just the perfect opportunity to gather their thoughts and get centered in their prayer.”

Pilgrims who come for a spiritual experience often accept offers of Christian hospitality from nearby communities. For Anglicans, Good Shepherd is a staple stop. In an average month, Bergmann opens the sanctuary for two or three groups from Episcopal congregations. Usually they’re on a day trip to the museum and welcome the chance to pray or reflect in a pew, either before or after an encounter with sacred art.

“You’ll very often see people who are really intensely focused on a particular icon or a particular area,” Bergmann said. “You sense there’s some real prayer and reflection going on. People are almost treating this like church.”

Hospitality for pilgrims can also feed the ecumenical yearning that draws many to seek the holy through art from a faraway, largely unfamiliar Christian culture. Pilgrims from all denominational backgrounds are welcomed as overnight guests at St. Benedict Abbey, a Roman Catholic monastery in nearby Still River.

That a museum would become a de facto sacred site for many Christians is no surprise to museum staffers. They’re delighted to see Episcopalians using it both for education and spiritual growth.

“The opportunity to physically engage with spiritual objects that have been around since the 1400s is a profoundly moving experience,” Russell said. “It seems to be comforting that there is that continuity, that touchstone with the past, with something that has not changed.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).

Traces of the Holy


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