A reflection on Psalm 27 by the Rev. Anne Fraley.
Psalm 27:1, 14 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? … Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
This past week I took part in an icon-writing workshop. This was the fourth time I have had the privilege of serving as chaplain in this annual offering by our local cathedral’s program for the arts. As in previous years it afforded me an opportunity to release the concerns of daily life to be immersed in communal silence, and in the same way that the image of my saint emerged on my canvas, some of my own soul came into focus in a new way.
The icon I wrote was St. John the Theologian dictating to St. Prochorus, an obscure biblical figure who went on to be a bishop and martyr in the early years of the Church’s development. The icon is full of details, from the position of John’s turned head to receive divine wisdom, to the elevated position of the two men in front of a cave of darkness. The mind and heart can swim with contemplation while painting layers of color, and as the image came into relief with the application of lightening layers, my soul was drawn more deeply into the ancient truths the icon is meant to reveal.
I went into this week of creative devotion fresh on the heels of reading columnist Susan Campbell’s memoir Dating Jesus, subtitled “A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl.” A self-described recovering fundamentalist, Campbell shares the story of how she wrestled with and extracted herself from a Christian tradition that extolled her adored Jesus while subjugating women through a literal interpretation of holy writ. Her narrative is familiar to us, and though her journey toward spiritual maturity bears little resemblance to mine, her pain reverberated in the corridors of my own experience. As I faced a blank canvas ready to be immersed in this ancient spiritual practice, Campbell’s courage to depart from the tradition that shaped her life so firmly and fiercely inspired me to take a modest risk with my icon. Unhappy with the patriarchal tradition of men portrayed as sole guardians of the Word, my Prochorus would be depicted as feminine, Prochora.
This was far from a scandalous act, but it was a significant choice for me as a woman and a preacher of the Word to add curling locks to the saint of old. It wasn’t just about adding a feminine image to a genre dominated by men (with the exception of the prevalence of the Holy Mother). It was a declaration that in spite of appearances and experiences to the contrary, for centuries women have been entrusted with receiving and sharing God’s wisdom and the incarnate revelation of Christ. In this icon in particular—with John’s face turned away from his scribe—the sacred trust implicit in the theologian’s posture conveys an equality of the sexes that underscores a truth that many of us have received over the years.
Such a declaration is not meant to deny or diminish the oppression of women during these same years, especially by a Church that professes to proclaim the Good News that ought to have liberated our sex and rejoiced in its equal participation. It is, instead, intended to acknowledge what has been hidden by the darkness of patriarchy. In the same way that icons are painted beginning with the darkest layers, revealing its details with successive of layers of increasing light, so is the Church in many quarters now in a place where the barriers of gender are being shed. It is a journey far from concluded, but the voices of women now heard from pulpits and shared in decision-making circles have reached a tipping point of no return. As the psalmist proclaims, with the Lord as light and salvation, there is no place for fear. Strength and courage are endowed to us through whatever waiting we endure.