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The spirituality of the sundry things

Icons aren’t mere paintings waiting to be appreciated over a glass of Chablis at some snooty gallery. Instead they’re windows into another greater, more brilliant reality, one suffused with the abiding, pervasive warmth of God’s presence.

The spirituality of the sundry things

An icon of the holy family’s “household economy” in action.

There’s an icon that sits on the windowsill above my kitchen sink. It’s a portrait of the holy family, though it’s not from the standard repertoire of settings in which they’re usually depicted. It’s a picture of what Wendell Berry would call the “household economy” in action: Joseph is leaning up against a workbench, pushing a large plane along some timber. His tools hang on the wall in the background. Mary approaches from the other side of the frame, bearing a jug and a glass of milk for her husband. On a small table behind her is a bowl with a large ball of red yarn. A toddler Christ kid sits at Joseph’s feet, playing with blocks.

Icons teach such lovely theology, without a whiff of the pretensions and conceptual hairsplitting of the written, systematic variety. I often think they’d make for a marvelous Sunday school curriculum – just give the kids some icons to play with for a while, and then ask them what they see. In this one in particular, I can’t help but notice that the writer has chosen red for the colour of Mary’s yarn. Red is the colour of divinity in icons, so it’s only suitable to compose a garment for the divine child knit together in her womb. And then there’s Jesus and his blocks. What’s he building? A new temple maybe? A house with many mansions?

The whole scene plays out against a brilliant gold leaf background, which is the standard backdrop of pretty much every icon. This is of course aesthetically striking, but that’s not the primary purpose. Icons aren’t mere paintings waiting to be appreciated over a glass of Chablis at some snooty gallery. Instead they’re windows into another greater, more brilliant reality, one suffused with the abiding, pervasive warmth of God’s presence.

A reality that isn’t set aside for someday, or to be found somewhere else, but one that is ostensibly the reality I find myself in here and now. That seems a rich thought, especially at three in the morning, when my bedroom isn’t lit with a golden effulgence, but with the faint, ominous orange sodium lamplight from the auto body shop across the street. That’s the time when my own kid, not yet old enough to play with blocks, but old enough to demand attention at whatever hour, sees it fit to wake. And not wake with a gentle rustle or some delicate cooing, but with a bandsaw wail.

Is tedium the enemy?
I’ll readily confess that I’m a total novice at the whole child-rearing thing, but it seems so far to me that so much of the work of raising a child resembles the rest of the work of maintaining a household. Which is to say it’s completely unglamorous and often quite tedious. You clean out the gutters, and sometimes you clean off the changing table (and then swap war stories with your spouse like two grizzled vets down at the VFW bar). Sure, there’s the occasions when the tedium is punctured by the acquisition of a new skill – either by father or daughter – but a good deal of it seems to be diaper after diaper after diaper.

And the trouble is, tedium is the enemy, wherever it is found. At least I think that’s the message I’m getting from my culture, which romanticizes the thrill of innovation, new gadgets, early retirement, Instagrammable vacations and “creative” work done over a Macbook in a coffeeshop. Even our churches are guilty of this, redesigning worship to be ever more entertaining, and chasing down ecstatic spiritual experiences at youth conferences and such. As if those are the places where the presence of God shines most brilliantly.

Yet lately, I’ve been feeling haunted by this line from Thérèse of Lisieux: “Christ is most present not during my hours of prayer . . . but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.” And here’s a thought to go along with that (keep in mind that I’m sleep-deprived): maybe so much our contemporary unbelief and ambivalence about faith stems from the fact that we’ve been conditioned to look for God in the heights, in the ecstatic and exciting things, despite the fact that those things are fleeting by definition. I’m beginning to think my own dullness of vision can be attributed to that, and I’d love to cultivate the vision of seeing him in the sundry things that stare me in the face each day. For starters, I guess I’ve got that icon over the sink, and the little icon who sometimes hangs out in my arms at 3 a.m.

About the Author
The spirituality of the sundry things

Brian Bork, Review Editor

Brian Bork is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.