Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Icons and iPads, Heretics and Humility

The other day, as I was studying with the icon in front of me (at left), a friend asked what it was.

Normally, I don't show it off. I'm usually in a study carrell or in a room by myself. That day, I was with a group but the icon was behind somebody's backpack and was only visible after that person packed up and left. (It's covered in bright red felt on the back, so once it's exposed it's hard to hide.)

My friend, a Protestant, simply said, "what's that?"

I turned it around, telling her it was an icon. She'd thought it was an iPad or some other gadget. I smiled and shook my head.

"No," I replied. And because I knew this friend was an earnest Christian I went on, "but it's sort of better. You're looking right at the Truth Himself."

I told her I carry it around so that I can look at Christ during study, a reminder of Someone I love and a little escape to reality about His constant presence. She asked if there were particular prayers I say when I look at it, and I shrugged "no," it's just to gaze at. She asked why it looks the way it does.

I told her about Mary's and Christ's outward gaze being like a conversation with the viewer, because an icon is a window to heaven. I explained Mary's three stars (she is the next-most-perfect thing to the Trinity) and the red and blue garments (Mary is human and clothed with divinity; Christ is God, clothed with humanity). I said the inclination of Mary's head indicates her role in pointing us to Christ. I showed her how the shape of Christ's hand identifies Himself (ICXC).

(If the conversation had continued about icons, I could've told her about the gold background signifying heaven, the two-dimensional features meaning that the figures are (in a way) not of our world and not in our time. I could've mentioned that icons are usually painted on wood, to use natural and durable substances for such an exalted purpose. But, there was a much more incredible conversation to be had!)

Speaking about Christ's hands I mentioned talking about the Greek Orthodox Church and the word "schism" dropped out of my mouth. She wanted to know the difference between a schism and a heresy. I told her that I'm not precisely sure, but a schismatic church can maintain valid sacraments, "and heretics usually deny something big, like the divinity of Christ."

"So," she said, "this might be an unfair question, but what was the Protestant Reformation?"

I looked at her and then at the carpet. "That would be a heresy," I said, and immediately mentally flagellated myself for such stupid phrasing and delivery of such an important thing. But somehow, she was very understanding! She's a very mature person, so she understood I was speaking about the historical event and not her, personally or even Protestantism today.

I looked it up later to make sure I'd said the right thing. Protestants are our brothers by Baptism. The merits of the Church gain salvation for all those saved. Protestants seem to meet the definition of material heretic, like many spirit-of-Vatican-II Catholics. But check out what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood:
...there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East). It is obvious that the old category of ‘heresy’ is no longer of any value. Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way. This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian. In the course of a now centuries-old history, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy. Perhaps we may here invert a saying of St. Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy. The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one. Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic. This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole. The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined. (pp. 87-88, emphasis mine)
Lessons learned:
  1. Don't mentally label people as heretics; it's not black and white. 
  2. I am so humbled by people's good character. This mature and gracious friend is not closed off in her quiet love-chase for Truth. (So pray for her!!)
  3. Icons are better than iPads (but you already knew that).


  1. Dearest Doctor,

    The Blessed Lord has given you a tremendous gift and a beautiful vocation. Never, ever give up. You are on the right path, specifically carved out for you by God. I will keep you always in my prayers.

  2. Dear Lora,
    I'm not a doctor yet! : ) (And don't hold your breath; it's going to be three more years of school before I'm officially an M.D., and four years of residency before I can hang my own shingle.) Nevertheless, this was really cheering to read. Please carry out the promise to pray for me! God reward you.