During the Seven decades of Soviet Rule the Russian Orthodox Church endured a persecution like that of believers in the first centuries of Christianity's existence. One of Josef Stalin's first directives was to silence the voice of the Church by pulling down and melting all of Russia's church bells. If churches weren't blown-up they were put to secular purposes - even installing toilets over the place where the altar had been.
In one night all of Ukraine's bishops were arrested, killed or exiled. Icons beyond counting were burned, priests and their families disappeared, monastic communities were dispersed.
Yet after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 warehouses were opened containing thousands of neglected icons. The 2005 cleaning and restoration of one icon of the Mother of God proved to be of particular significance. The story of the discovery can be found online: Russia Peels the Veils from Antiquity and Gazes, Awed.
Above is the icon with its riza (decorative metal case) removed. Below is the icon fully restored. The Russian restorer likens the knowing smile of the Mother of God to that of the Mona Lisa with this one important difference: We don't know why the Mona Lisa smiles, but with her Son cradled in her left arm, we know why Mary does.
But what's to be learned from this discovery? The Virgin's smile is a knowing smile: God knows us as his children, even when we're soiled or fallen, sleepy, restless or even covered in recklessness and error.
But the wonder of this icon coming to us after seventy hidden years is in the getting to the underneath. We can live surfacey lives in this country: the talk shows and interviews, the commercials and sitcoms, roaming up and down aisles of things to buy. The icon with the charred and opaque surface seems to say, "There's more; get at the more."
Or sometimes disappointments overwhelm us and life can seem to be ruined and without purpose. Or we feel burned out, like the blackened board. But the icon says, "Go deeper, peel away the surfaces. There's more." So many people are afflicted with bad cases of "What's the use?" But the icon, once cleaned and patched reveals yet again, "You can heal - you can dream again, there's more."
There's radiance in every human person - it can be shelved, masked, forgotten, or stolen away, but it's there waiting to be discovered and shared. This marvelous icon of bright joy - it's all of us! Ponder the icon in its transformation. But ultimately the peeling away and the discovery of the more is about each of us even more than it is about the icon.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When she saw the pictures and heard the story about the icon, my nine year old friend, Katie, wrote this dear poem, Lost and Forgotten. We can realize the poem as about ourselves as well and our churches, our nation, our communities, our families.
"Lost and Forgotten"
Veiled in darkness,
Lost and forgotten,
Falling apart, piece by piece.
A Mother and Son
to be discovered
Restored back to
Golden light, jewels, wondrous colors,
All together in one
Little Family of love.
Lost and Forgotten,
A Mother and Son
And crowned with