Peace in the storm

The Stilling of the Tempest by Monika Liu Ho-Peh

This is Monika Liu Ho-Peh’s The Stilling of the Tempest, (1953). In the iconic style of her own Chinese context, she paints the familiar gospel story, taking the moment when Jesus, roused from his sleep, stands and announces “Peace, be still.

The various responses of the disciples are carefully drawn. Some maintain their efforts to control events, clutching at the sail, grasping the oars with increased desperation. Some give up, clinging to the mast or hands open to the sky. One clings to Jesus.

But Jesus himself draws all our attention. He is oddly positioned, almost above the boat, impossibly tall  and still; and his body is stretched as if he is already being crucified between earth and sky. And he speaks to the chaos in the sky and the sea, and to the storm inside the disciples’ hearts, and he says: “It is finished.

Sort of.

And when our storms rage -political storms, rages of fear and doubt, storms of anxiety- he still sleeps, unconcerned and genuinely curious about the feelings that threaten to swamp our sense of safety. Didn’t you know that you’d be ok, because I’m with you? “Oh ye of little faith.”

I desire peace—and not just any old peace, but the peace that Christ gives, and not just for myself, but for the world where I live.

I found this picture in an essay entitled “Disciplining our eyes with holy images.” The writer suggested it as a prayer-aid (much as previous generations of Christians would use icons) towards the contemplation of the truth of the Christ who stills the storm.

Whatever the storm looks like.

Here’s an interesting chunk of the essay. This is from  Victoria Emily Jones writes:

In his essay “The Desire of the Church,” published in The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology (InterVarsity Press, 2005), Willie James Jennings discusses the distortion of sight and desire that is the result of the Fall. The tree of knowledge, he writes, was the first unholy icon in human history—an icon in the sense of being “a point of focus that facilitates desire and guides relationships” and “nurtures our seeing and knowing,” and unholy because to look on it was to begin the journey of disobedience. Gazing on the unholy icon of the tree, Adam and Eve saw themselves refracted through it, instead of gazing on God and seeing themselves reflected. By turning their gaze off God and fixating it on something lesser, they stopped seeing themselves, each other, and their Creator rightly.

“The only way to reverse this journey of disobedience,” Jennings says, “is to establish a new point of focus.” So into humanity comes the holy icon—Jesus Christ—whose life overcomes the fracture and fragment of desire. As the image of the invisible God, he reorients our gaze back onto the holy.  

I’ve already named some of the images that function as unholy icons in my life: pictures of thin, unblemished bodies that tell me my shape and my spots are not desirable; of global travel destinations that tell me I lead a tethered, play-it-safe life; Pinterest boards that tell me my home and meals and parties need to burst with DIY flair. It’s impossible to avoid these throughout the day, but because I know I’m particularly vulnerable to their refractive influence, I try as best I can to avoid locking my heart-gaze on them. Again, they’re not intrinsically unholy; it’s only when I let them shame me or question my identity in Christ that they become so. I desire too much to be beautiful, bold, sophisticated, and creative that it sometimes diverts my focus from the One I was made to desire supremely.

If gazing on Christ is the solution to having right sight and desire restored, how, logistically, can that happen, being that he’s absent in the flesh? As Jennings says, “desiring is bound to seeing, to taking in what is before us,” suggesting that a material presence is required. Orthodox believers developed the practice of icon writing and veneration to address this question—creating physical images of Christ to mediate his presence and to serve as an anchor in daily life. The Incarnation, they say, renders icons absolutely essential to the task of knowing God.

My own Protestant theology of images owes much to the Orthodox view but deviates from it as well. Although I acknowledge the revelatory potential of images, I do not regard them, as the Orthodox do, as on a par with scripture. Another key distinction is that I admit into my devotional life a range of sacred images, not just those that fall within the rigorously guarded canon of Orthodox iconography. I use them as an aid to prayer, but I do not reverence them with actions like kissing or lifting—not necessarily because I’m opposed to such displays but more likely because I’m naturally reserved, and also I’m usually interacting with the images digitally.

I define “holy image” as any image that draws the viewer closer to Christ. The religious background of the artist is, to me, irrelevant, and what functions as a holy image to one person might not for another. You sanctify the image by letting it lead you into communion with God. Part of my private spiritual practice is to spend a little time each day gazing on a holy image. I’m particularly fond of ones of Christ. For me this gazing serves a centering function; it reorders my desires. Sitting still with an image of Christ reminds me of Whose image I bear, and I take that with me as I encounter other images throughout the day that try to tell me otherwise.

While my body doesn’t conform to the culture’s ideal and I’m not as well traveled or as skilled with my hands as I’d like to be, I have in Christ an icon of God, a mirror of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

And I am being conformed to this icon. 

(With thanks to Victoria Emily Jones)


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