Seeing the Invisible

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This was the theme for Srodowisko events in 2011.

Project Teams

First Event (July 3-8, 2011)
Team names: Team Leone, Team Rufino, Team Angelo, Team Masseo, Team Giacomina
Second Event (July 17-23, 2011)
Team names: Team Matilda (of Hackeborn), Team Gertrude (the Great), Team Hildegard (of Bingen), Team Julian (of Norwich)
Third Event (August 7-13, 2011)
Team names: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Rome

Seeing the Invisible

We live in a world that emphasizes the visible: from television, to video, to website visibility, to your image on social networking and an overwhelming peer pressure to have "the look". Yet, as a Church we profess our belief in God Who is Maker of all things visible and invisible. We are challenged to pass from the visible world to the invisible Absolute.

How do we do this? The paradox of "seeing the invisible" is our reflection for this week.

We will create icons, which are often called a "window to eternity", and we’ll learn about this method of prayer aimed at focusing the heart on what is unseen but real. From our contemplative moments of creative personal prayer, we will turn to working together, applying the same focus and energy it takes to make an icon to our projects, using media to communicate our shared faith.

We will reflect on the Scriptures and learn that "seeing" God often means "hearing" Him first—having an open heart that allows God's grace to transform our way of seeing things and to see Him present in the events of our lives.

This week will also be a time to listen to one another and to insights gained from the journey, a time of retreat, a media workshop, a time of campfire fun, a time to be together, a time to pray alone... an experience patterned on the "srodowisko" of Pope John Paul II—vacations lived as vocation, called to grow and go deeper in God.


“An icon is not—and cannot—be created by the sheer force of will. Seek to become an instrument through which God can create something wonderful. For this to happen, you may have to suspend judgments, letting go of your need to create the best icon this world has ever seen. While you’re at it, let go the fear of creating something ghastly. Keep in mind that an icon is a prayer and only God can judge the quality of a prayer. Therefore be gentle with yourself and what you are about to create.”

During your icon writing, ask yourself:

1) What do I see in this icon?
2) What have I learned (or what am I learning) from the icon writing process?

Steps 1 to 5

While you are completing these steps, think about which image you would like to paint and for whom you will offer your work and prayer.

Why do many iconographers say that they “write” icons?

“Many iconographers use the term “writing icons” when they speak of what they do (…). With icons we proclaim God’s truth in colors and lines instead of words. Our action is similar to the monks of the middle ages who faithfully transcribed the Scriptures. (…) As I understand it, the original language spoken by Eastern Christians had only one word to express the act of marking a surface to communicate a message. In Greek this word is “graphia” and can mean either to write or to paint (in the modern sense of those words).”


“Icons aren’t meant to reflect our perceived reality. Indeed, they are purposefully rendered in a structured way that communicates that things are very different from God’s perspective. Iconography (…) strives to convey invisible reality in a visible form. The two areas where this is most evident is in the dematerialization of the figures and the use of inverse perspective.

The term “dematerialization” means rendering figures so that they’re “transparent,” almost lyrical. (…) Think, for a moment, about the stories of encounters with Jesus after the resurrection. In almost every instance, the people to whom he revealed himself didn’t recognize the risen Christ. (…) Jesus was already in the transfigured, glorified state, quite different than his friends had known him in life. Like Jesus in his glorified body, people portrayed in an icon are supposed to be—and look—different than they might have looked in real life. They are still human, but they are also transformed by the glory of God. That’s what sets an icon apart from a photograph or a portrait. (…)

In our everyday lives, the further an object is from us, the smaller it appears to be. But in an icon, this perspective is reversed; things appear to get bigger. Instead of a vanishing point out there, somewhere on the horizon, we become the vanishing point. (…) [We become] less than all that we take in. We are no longer the center of the universe—God and God’s reality are.”


Ways to put prayer into your painting:

1) Make each brush stroke an intention.
2) Link your breathing to prayer. For example:
Breathing in: Jesus,
Breathing out: mercy.

What are some other ways?


Ask the one whom you are painting to be present to you. Ask him or her for help.

“Don’t futz! Do your very best at every stage and then let it go. There will be other chances to do it better.

After all the fretting over a difficult challenge, just pick up your brush and try.

Paint as you can, not as you think you should.

The most revered icons are not necessarily the most technically perfect. Rather, they have a quality that I can only describe as ‘soul.’

Don’t compare your work with others.

Allow yourself to appreciate the beauty that has come through your hands and your heart.

Don’t point out the ‘flaws’ in your work to others; it will rob them of joy.

Skillful simplicity is the sign of a real master. The best iconographers understood that less is really more. Don’t allow embellishments and details to divert attention from the essentials.”


“One way to pray with an icon is simply to look at it. I’m referring to a particular kind of looking.

In our culture, we frequently look but don’t actually see. We give things the ‘once over,’ scanning to obtain information. We view what we’re looking at as an object, something to download, sort, define, use and eventually, delete from our files. (…)

When you come to look at an icon, give yourself entirely to the experience. Let your gaze rest on the icon until you see not just what you think you see (or want to see). (…) Gaze until you can see it, not just with eyes or intellect, but with your soul and heart as well.

You can develop this skill by spending a few moments each day, for several days or even weeks, gazing at a specific icon. Simply be willing to show up, spend the time, and sit.”

Source for this section on icons: Peter Pearson, A Brush with God: an icon workbook, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg (PA), 2005.


To see the invisible is to see God where He appears absent. We have to be able to see what others cannot—or do not know how to—see. Seeing the invisible is about seeing the paradox.

[Paradox: a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true; a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.]

Blessing passes through what appears to be a curse.

In the Old Testament, the closer Israel draws near to the fulfillment of the promise, the smaller the signs seem to get—that’s because the signs must leave space for the reality. What we see is at a minimum. It’s like this in our lives, too.

At Horeb-Sinai, the phenomena associated with the Exodus theophanies pass by Elijah, but the Lord is not in them; instead, He comes to Elijah in a “voice of impalpable silence”. This is part of the paradox of the mystery.

  • The brother of Abraham dies, but his son continues to live; thus, he continues to live. Abraham lives, but he is dead because Sara is sterile.
  • The stars, which are a sign of the blessing Abraham will receive, can only be seen in the dark.
  • Abraham is always a foreigner in the land given to him by God.
  • When Abraham extends his hand to sacrifice Isaac, Isaac continues to live, but he dies as a possession. For Abraham, Isaac is no longer “his”. Abraham must enter into true paternity—by renouncing Isaac as possession, he enters into this.
  • Jacob steals the blessing of the firstborn, and so, he must marry the firstborn, Leah.
  • In order to win, it is necessary to lose. Blessed but wounded, Jacob receives the name “God wins”. He won, but he lost.
  • God does not accept sin; instead, he transforms it into grace.
  • The burning bush does not burn—it is not consumed.
  • Moses can only see the sign that confirms his mission (that he’s been sent to lead his people out of Egypt) when he’s completed it (after they have left Egypt).
  • The Hebrew people enter the promised land without entering it because Moses remains behind. The land must be welcomed as a gift, never as conquest, so they must enter without entering.
  • The desert is a place of absence and presence.


Eikon means image, likeness, portrait. It involves a process through which the artist enters into dialogue with the prototype. (Nes, 7) The prototype is made present by the icon.

In the late 10th century, Prince Vladimir of Kiev… “We only know that God dwells there among men and that their service is fairer than the cerimonies of other nations. We did not know whether we were in heaven or earth. We cannot forget such beauty.” (Martin, 21)

St. John Damascene: “How can the invisible be depicted? How does one picture the inconceivable? How can one draw what is limitless, immeasurable, infinite? How can a form be given to the formless? How does one paint the bodiless? How can you describe what is a mystery?” The Incarnation is the reason why making images is ok.

Colossians 1:15: He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God. John 14:8-9: Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Philip wants an Exodus theophany, but he has the “eikon of the invisible God” in front of him and doesn’t realize it. We have to learn to see what’s in front of us and the reality that’s bigger than it. We have to learn a certain kind of “looking” and “seeing”.

Fourth Council of Costantinople (8th ecumenical): “What the written word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and represents through colors.” The icon is the gospel in line and color.

Christ gazes at us. He is completely present to us.

Writing Icons

See Icons.