by Fr. Turbo Qualls
CR Guest Speaker
In the patriarchal cathedral of St. Sava in Belgrade, the world’s largest mosaic is all but complete. This has been hailed as the peak of Christian art. As a priest of the Serbian Church, I take joy in this accomplishment; however, as an African-American Orthodox Christian, I am challenged by what this monumental work says to me about what is yet to be accomplished in the Church. When I see online pictures of this incredible mosaic, I can’t help but see it as a work of devotion and inspired unity, and like any truly Christian work of art, it speaks to me about so much more than the simple aesthetics of the work itself. The harmony of lines and color whisper to my soul the reality of the unifying power of Christ’s Church. The sheer scale and scope of such a work that brings into unity so many different shapes and hues of glass lead me to a deeper yearning for the work of evangelization of all peoples who hunger and thirst for righteousness!
My experience as an artist has taught me that, while working on a large-scale piece of art, it is imperative to take periodic breaks, step back, and look to see the whole of the artwork. If the artist doesn’t take these moments of needed rest and assessment, the work runs a high risk of becoming distorted due to a narrow perspective. In the same way, it is important for us as Orthodox Christians to take a step back and look at how the mosaic of the Church in America has been forming. We know that the Lord in His wisdom has laid out a perfect pattern and foundation which the Church is to be built upon (Eph 2:20, Matt 16:17–19). This pattern is universal and whole, regardless of the time or region in which the Church is to be incarnated, and it is precisely in this knowledge of the Holy Spirit’s ineffable and infallible guidance and wisdom that we as the Church in America must be still and take a much needed broader look. In other words, we must step back from charging forward with the current political and social movements that are potentially characterizing so much of the discourse within the Church around race and, more importantly, the way in which we are looking to engage our society and those who we are called to evangelize.
As an iconographer, one of the strongest temptations for me is to move beyond the humble and pious referencing of traditional iconographic prototypes and become lost in the overindulgence and inappropriate reliance on the myriad of iconographic examples that have been made so readily available thanks to the internet. This overreliance on multiple images and the choices they seemingly provide too often convolute and obscure the prayerful stillness that is needed, for it is in this stillness that the work produced is transformed into an Icon and not simply a painting. I believe that the overreliance on current ideas and methods to address any issues of race is painfully similar. In the desire to do good, many in the Church are rushing headlong into a frenzy of programs and workshops that provide a pattern but not the pattern by which the Icon of reconciliation is made manifest.
On May 25th of this year, the world witnessed a horrible scene of violence in the death of George Floyd, a scene by which not just our country but the whole of the world was thrown into a fury of protest, riots, and destruction. Interestingly enough, on May 31st, six days after the horrific kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, the Church celebrated Holy Pentecost, as we always do, with the vesperal prayers of kneeling. For too many of the faithful the profundity of the proximity of these events was lost; moreover, I believe that our response as the Church was largely lost. The troparion for Pentecost states:
When the most High came down and confused the tongues, / He divided the nations; / but when he distributed the tongues of fire / He called all to unity. / Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the All-holy Spirit!
Allow me to conclude with a challenge to all you CrossRoad alumni: What will you do with the puzzle pieces of the curious timeline and luminous troparion I’ve put before you? I believe the education and formation you’ve received has uniquely equipped all of you with what our country and this world so desperately need: the formation to follow the pattern by which the Church will answer the painful cry of the world for reconciliation.