Orthodox Christianity can seem a little exotic to Western eyes, with its incense, liturgy in Greek and Eastern languages as well as English and distinctive two-dimensional icons. But the Rev. Benjamin Huggins, who is the priest at the Holy Prophet Elijah Orthodox Mission in Durango, wants to make his denomination more approachable.
“I know it makes people feel intimidated,” he said, “coming into an environment where everyone else knows what’s going on, when to prostrate, when not to prostrate, but that’s all secondary. We’re simply here for people to have a safe place to work out their way to salvation.”
Huggins, who grew up Presbyterian and Southern Baptist before converting to the Orthodox faith in college, understands that intimidation from personal experience. So he and his fellow mission members are hosting an iconography exhibit this weekend to help the community get to know them. The icons will include about 30 hand-painted images on loan from Orthodox churches around Colorado.
Icons are generally painted on wood, which has been sanded and prepared. Then it is topped with a layer of gesso, into which the artist etches an outline of the image to be presented.
“It’s a really extensive process done with prayer and a blessing,” Huggins said. “They begin with the darkest colors first, then continue to the brightest. It mirrors our spiritual journey, from darkness to light.”
For the first 900 years or so of the Christian faith, there was only one church. In 1054, the Great Schism occurred over issues of authority and doctrine, splitting Christians into the Orthodox denominations and Roman Catholicism. There are about 225 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, making it the second largest denomination in the world. It’s a rapidly growing group in the U.S., and the local mission, which currently has about 15 members, hopes to grow also.
But for now, the important thing for Huggins is for people to learn more about them through their icons.
“Icons for us aren’t just a passive piece of art for an exhibit,” he said, “They are grace-filled. An icon is meant to engage the person praying before it, as God is not passive awaiting us to find him but is seeking us to receive his love.”
Icons date back to the beginnings of Christianity. Because of the commandment in Exodus to create no graven images, Orthodox icons are either flat or no more than three-quarter bas relief, giving them an easily identifiable style. Among those on display in this exhibit will be Christ, Mary the Theotokos (Mother of God), the warrior saints, Saint George and Saint Demetrius, the prophet Nahum and Saint Sophia and her daughters Faith, Hope and Love.
“Each one either tells about the life of a particular person or saint or a particular event,” Huggins said. “They’re a part of Orthodox liturgy and worship. The phrase we use is that they are ‘windows into heaven.’ They offer a glimpse into a reality that’s ever present with us but often not acknowledged or realized.”
While the Holy Prophet Elijah Orthodox Mission has a number of icons on its walls and iconostasis, or icon screen, it has one treasured hand-painted icon of its patron saint created for the mission by an iconographer in Pennsylvania. The icon also will be part of the exhibit and features the story of Elijah from First Kings after he has chastised King Ahab for raising a temple to the pagan god Baal. During the ensuing prophesied famine and drought, Elijah, hiding in a cave, received bread from a raven every day.
“The purpose of the icons is to direct us to the kingdom of heaven,” Huggins said, “not as some hope in the future nor as something in the sky above but as something that is presently within us. These aren’t just intellectual concepts, but they reveal to us a very present reality.”