Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Personal Experiences - British Orthodoxy 

Is veneration worship? // The Theology of Icons and the Incarnation of God the Logos  // Are holy icons ‘idols’? // The Icon of the Theotokos

Windows to Heaven

by Shelley Katfield (*)

Source:   Kind courtesy of the magazine "Vimothyro" by Maistros Publications



It was the icon. I was ignorant of its silent influence, working on us even as we were unaware. Silently but steadfastly, wherever we moved, the icons I collected as nice, religious works of art were the witnesses of our journey through darkness towards the light that is Orthodoxy.

I viewed them as aesthetically pleasing—the things that every good rectory should have. My art history background taught me that they were the "flat, primitive precursors of the enlightened artistic period of the Renaissance—in which art glorified man." It is no wonder that their true nature and meaning was not known to me. Nevertheless, because of that very nature, they worked on us, waited for us, patiently.

My husband, Father Chad, and I were known as "High-Church Anglo-Catholics," defenders of the Anglican Church as defined by the Oxford Movement. (This movement was started in England in 1833 by scholars and theologians who aimed to reawaken the Anglican Communion to the doctrine, worship, and spiritual life of the Church prior to the Great Schism of 1054.) All was glorious pomp—complete with smells, bells, and a highly choreographed and elaborate ritual. Every Sunday was a grand production, a staged show, to enrich and inspire the masses. It was no wonder that the congregation commented more on the lovely music than the content of the lessons or the homily. This never set well with me, and I was always searching for a deeper expression of faith. As choir director, I always felt drained by the big productions, rather than fulfilled.

Yet, I reasoned, if only we kept doing things properly and in order, if we remained faithful, somehow the glories of Anglicanism would be revived. It was our duty to fight against the heresies (such as the denial of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and the breaking down of the moral tenets of the Faith) that were raging in the Episcopal Church, and to defend our Anglican heritage. People depended on us.

From the moment my husband was ordained as priest in the Episcopal Church, he began to preach against the false doctrines that slowly but relentlessly chipped away at the foundations of the Catholic and Apostolic Faith within the church. As missionaries in southern Africa, we were aggressive Anglo-Catholic revolutionaries, reviving many who had buried their heads in the sand in silent resignation.

Needless to say, we also became the scourge of the liberal Protestant wing of the church that was seeking to rewrite Scripture and throw out Tradition, My role as a priest's wife was constantly under attack. I was referred to as a "spouse mouse" for simply holding the same views on the ordination of women as my husband did. I embraced traditional family values and understood the importance of living a spiritual life, and so I was accused of being a traitor to my sex.

We watched as many good and holy bishops, priests, and deacons crumbled under the weight that sent many to early graves, and drove others to the espousal of the heresies they could no longer fight. While discouraged, we clung to our strong convictions that it was our job to stay with the laity and fight the battle.

I remember feeling very angry at those who had already left for the Orthodox Church. How could they abandon us to fight alone? I didn't realize it at the time, but they had simply come to their senses; they knew that there was nothing left to save and nothing left to fight for. Deep down in my heart, I knew this, too, but for a time was too envious and bitter to admit it. And still, the icons remained as silent witnesses to the Truth that we had yet to see.

I became interested in iconography when I had a midlife crisis at the age of forty. After years of being the reluctant musician, directing choirs and playing the organ and piano, I finally admitted to myself that my heart wasn't in it. God called me into a new artistic realm, and I said "yes," hesitatingly but willingly.

For as long as I could remember, there had been a "little voice" inside me, encouraging me to draw, to paint, to create. Art, not music, was to become my passion. At the age of forty, with no formal art training, I almost impulsively took the plunge, enrolling in a two-year course of study in Graphic Art. I am blessed with a wonderful husband, who has that rare gift of seeing the potential in others, and with his total support, I began my life as a full-time student.

During my final year in art school, I happened upon an article written by an Anglican monk, describing his experiences at an Orthodox retreat center in Pennsylvania called the Antiochian Village. He had gone there to study iconography at the St. John of Damascus Sacred Art Academy, and his article seized me with such interest that I could think of nothing else. I wrote to the monk and asked for further information. Eventually, with the help of some of our generous parishioners, I was on my way to Pennsylvania.

I was awed by the beauty of the morning and evening services I attended at the Village. And of course, in this worship, I finally learned the true meaning of icons. They are not flat, two-dimensional, lifeless paintings, drawn by uneducated simpletons, as I had been taught in my college art history classes. Rather, they are windows to heaven—they inspire and uplift us and draw us into a deeper communion with God. My favorite definition is one that Pavel Florensky wrote: "The Icon exists as the visible manifestation of the metaphysical essence of what it depicts." That's a mouthful, but all he means is that icons help us by visually representing what we know to be true spiritual realities.

I have always identified with St. Peter. I plod along faithfully, and eventually a light clicks on. On the other hand, my husband receives the Pauline experiences of thunderbolts and visions. Yet during my stay at Antiochian Village, something profound and inexplicable was happening, something that almost rivaled Father Chad's thunderbolts. Each morning, I would walk around the camp, faithfully praying the rosary (yes, some non-Catholics do pray the rosary!), and each morning I would stop before the shrine of St. Thekla. I knew nothing about her, but somehow felt compelled to ask for her intercessions. I learned later that St. Thekla, Proto-Martyr, was a follower of St. Paul, and was the first female martyr of the Church. (I eventually took the name "Thekla" at my chrismation. It seemed only natural.)

Very early into my session at the Village—indeed, throughout my stay—I realized the first stirrings of a desire to know more about the Orthodox Church. Could it possibly be the steadfast Truth we had been seeking, or was this merely a brief inspirational moment in a lovely and holy place? Time began to make me suspect the former.

The spiritual and emotional changes I experienced were immediately apparent when I returned home, and surprised me—-not to mention my sons and husband! I had found a rest that was almost indescribable, a warmth that grows in the inner recesses of the heart, and works its way to the surface. In iconography, it is the inner Light which shines forth from within the person depicted, not a reflected light from an outside source.

In the weeks following my return from the Village, I tried to hold onto the miracle, but saw it become dimmer and dimmer in my mind as I was once again caught up in trying to survive the daily battles that raged within the Episcopal Church. Longing to recapture what I'd felt in my time away, I thumbed through the yellow pages one day and came across the number for St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Wichita. A kind and understanding priest named Father Basil answered the phone. I asked him if we could come down and see the church, and all was arranged for a meeting that was to change our lives forever.

That meeting was, in and of itself, a miracle. Not only was a bond instantly created with Father Basil (now Bishop BASIL), but also the little Orthodox spark within us began to glow. Our youngest son, Sean, and I would drive down to St. George for services, on the rare occasions that I could get away, and I remember weeping on discovering that this was the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that the Oxford Movement Fathers had sought, but never fully attained.

I also wept for sadness, for I knew that we, as the family of the Dean of an Episcopal Cathedral, could never hope to be a part of this. To leave the Episcopal Church would mean alienation, total chastisement by parishioners, loss of pensions, health insurance, and salary. It would open us up to an entire host of shattering experiences, too frightening to contemplate. When I was at St. George Cathedral, I felt like a child outside a candy store, looking in, and longing, but knowing my pockets were empty. O ye of little faith!

We kept our longings to become Orthodox quiet, although Father Chad had always been openly positive about the Orthodox Church and her theology. In time, the tensions and divisions became greater and greater. Disgruntled parishioners held secret meetings in an attempt to silence the "mad Dean." In an unholy union with the diocesan bishop, a large contingent arose to oust Father Chad. My husband answered the slanderous charges made against him as honestly as he knew how. In the end he resigned over a false accusation, and a trumped-up charge that was actually canonically illegal!

We had our opening, though not quite the way we'd anticipated. We walked away with our faith intact, although I must admit I was terrified as everything we had worked for was gone. Thirty of the faithful chose to leave the sinking ship along with us. (Someone has said that trying to reform apostate denominations is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic!) The people of the Episcopal Cathedral launched another attack in an attempt to keep the straying parishioners; this time, they branded Father Chad a cultist who had been secretly paid by the Orthodox Church to initiate the separation.

Undeterred by the rumors, on January 1, 1994, my family was chrismated and my husband was ordained by Bishop BASIL. Our dear friend helped us through the very difficult days that lay ahead, and we rejoiced that we finally could rest under the wing of a good and holy leader, one truly steeped in the Apostolic Tradition.

Thirty people were chrismated a few weeks later, and at that point we all began taking the steps to begin our growth together in God's Church. With the help, prayers, and encouragement of the people of St. George Cathedral, and the prayers of countless Orthodox parishes, we founded the Mission of All Saints, Salina, Kansas. We held our first service in the chapel of a funeral home!

During that first year as a mission parish, we all experienced the doubt and depression which results from a situation that felt uncomfortably like divorce. Many times my husband and I fought fear over what would become of us and our children, with the loss of our pension and insurance, and generally shaky state of our finances. We would ask ourselves if we were doing the right thing, and always God would reply with abundant mercy and with miracles.

Before making the leap of faith, though, we took the proper steps to insure that we would not be destitute and thrown out on the streets, thereby giving our detractors further ammunition. I immediately found a wonderful job in my field as a graphic artist. Also, there were many of the faithful who were committed to seeing the success of an Orthodox Mission through the difficult days that were to come, and who gave generously of their time and talents.

Our task was simple, really. All we had to do was remain faithful and not let the devil get a foothold. Easier said than done! Yet somehow, through our newfound understanding of Orthodoxy, the task was one of joy, and that joy made all the sacrifices easier to bear.

The next step in my spiritual growth came when I immersed myself in the study of Orthodox hymnology and services. With the help of parishioners who had become Orthodox the year before, we threaded our way through the new music and the different structure of the Divine Liturgy, Vespers, and Orthros (Matins).

Remember the narrow path our Lord always talked about? The Orthodox way of life, I discovered, is not an easy one, but it is ever satisfying. For the first time in my life, prayer has been transformed from meaningless, watered-down repetition, to deep, contemplative, life-changing food. I fall down daily, but now I have the tools which enable me to stand back up and continue moving forward.

I now feel appreciated for my role as "Khouriya" (the Arabic term of endearment for a priest's wife), and I am ever surprised that I am accepted among other Orthodox for taking this vocation seriously. Yes, trials still exist, but somehow I feel completely armed to handle them. Orthodoxy is the miracle that I have been seeking my entire life. I see Christ more and more in those around me, and can at last let go of the bitterness and pain which were my daily food for so many years. This is only a little beginning in a little life. I have found the pearl of great price, and I know I would give my life for it. My advice to those still seeking? It is the same that I received from countless others who have left other traditions to become Orthodox: Don't wait. We had everything to lose, and found that instead, we gained everything. Dive in, drink deeply of the waters. No longer are we on the outside, longingly looking in; as Bishop BASIL said, "The moment you were chrismated, you became Orthodox, and were truly grafted into the Body of Christ."



(*) Raised in the small mountain town of Evergreen, west of Denver, Shelley had a colorful period in her life as a studio musician and singer/pianist in a rock band! Marriage settled her down, and she and Father Chad served as missionaries in South Africa before taking an Episcopal parish back in the States. Mother to two boys, Shelley divides her time between her family, her role at All Saints as Music Director, and her employment as a graphic designer in Salina..


Article published in English on: 9-3-2011.

Last update: 9-3-2011.