Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Nouwen, Henri: Praying with the Icons

Book Review

Henri Nouwen: Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with the Icons, Ave Maria Press, 2008.
by Image Update May 16, 2008
Henri Nouwen's Behold the Beauty of the Lord has recently been published in a revised, pocket-sized edition by Ave Maria Press. In four chapters, Nouwen introduces readers to four of the most recognizable icons in the Christian tradition: The Holy Trinity, The Virgin of Vladimir, The Savior of Zvenigorod, and The Descent of the Holy Spirit. The book records Nouwen's reflections on each of these icons, from his first reactions (often notably unspiritual and attentive to superficial details) to his personal meditations after prayerful and prolonged encounters with the images. In his chapter on Rublev's The Savior of Zvenigorod, for example, Nouwen begins by saying simply that the first thing he saw was that Christ's face was "severely damaged," noting the cracks in the paint and the large portions missing from Christ's hair and forehead. He segues into a discussion on the unnerving but reassuring realization that through the rubble Christ's eyes are directed at him, and concludes the chapter with a reflection on the meaning of Christ's tender and loving gaze, which penetrates the brokenness of humanity. Nouwen's often profound observations heap meaning upon meaning, reminding us that icons really are something to be read. But that doesn't mean the writing is overly academic; although these reflections read like mini essays, they remain primarily a prayerful, emotional response to the four icons--an example of how one might enter into a conversation with them, but by no means a prescription. Ultimately for Nouwen, the experience of viewing an icon is summed up in the experience of seeing Christ's face in Rublev's Savior icon: it's an experience of seeing that "leads us to the heart of God as well as to the heart of all that is human. It is a sacred event in which contemplation and compassion are one, and in which we are prepared for an eternal life of seeing." This twentieth anniversary edition of the book comes with a full-color reproduction of each icon, perforated for easy removal--a practical aid to that seeing process.