I’ve been trying desperately to understand and relate to icons. I know that for a majority of Christendom around the world, icons are a very prominent part of the religious experience. I studied a little about the meaning behind them, Olivier Clement says liturgy is to time, as icons are to space. This is what I could gather, they are in essence a guidance through a connection to God by visual understanding.
I wrote in a previous piece about the religious art in the Met and how the viewer was meant to empathize with the subject, in this case Jesus. I didn’t quite understand why but the connection made sense to me, I felt a pull and in the abstract I somehow understood God in a way I couldn’t quite explain.
Fast forward, and the book I am currently reading as directed by Professor Simcoe is called The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It’s written by a neurologist and may as well be in a foreign language, the level of his intellect is so beyond mine I actually have to read it slowly and out loud to comprehend it (oddly enough he talks about how people with higher IQ’s have very little brain activity when doing tasks that cause a lower IQ person to fire on all cylinders. So for me, it’s as if someone poured lighter fluid on my brain and lit it on FIRE.)
I am currently reading about the left and right hemispheres and what they each control and at first I was bored out of my mind but now I’m sucked in. I’m making graphs of left and right and skills on each side so I can visualize and understand it, I’m reading out loud like a maniac, I’m telling people really long stories with confusing explanations and expecting them to be in awe of this pure genius - I’m out of control. Did you know that there are more connections in a human brain than there are particles in the Universe? Particles in the Universe! We are so tiny and insignificant and we know nothing. Yet we are life, our brain is beyond our comprehension, we are complex and unknowable masterpieces and with our minds we can understand a fraction of this universe and yet we wrestle with the divine. How cute.
Today I was butchering some desperate attempt to convey this book's genius to a friend and he asked me how it related to my spiritual journey, I told him I didn’t know but that I think it might be some Miyagi thing, but whatever I’m into it. We then started discussing art and trying to understand the connection to icons, we were going through what it might mean to different cultures, the way it was an education through image in more illiterate societies, the way it brought beauty to exquisite cathedrals that were reverent and doing their best to honor God, the way it makes us empathize. Then it clicked. Miyagi.
*warning: this gets a little heady, so ya know, take it or leave it.
The left hemisphere of our brain is the house for language, it is the engineer, the builder, the details, the toolmaker, the responder, zoomed in, focused, literal, routine, logical. The right hemisphere is social, broad, flexible, receives new information, connected to distantly related meaning, sees the whole picture, has context, non literal, connects to implication, and very importantly, it gives us capacity for empathy.
*you’re into it aren’t you? No? Ok hold on.
The right hemisphere is the part of us that causes us to look into one’s eyes for emotional cues and thus empathy. For example, people with autism have trouble activating this element in their right hemisphere. Because of this inactivation they tend to look at another’s mouth when talking because they are searching for the literal words, because that is all the right hemisphere reads.
Paintings allow us to look into the eyes of the ones we read about, connect to the subject and empathize with say, our savior on the cross. Yet we cannot express such a connection. Our hemispheres communicate to one another, but in a strong activation of the right hemisphere in our empathetic meditation we are using the side of our mind that is without language. It sees the big picture that is unexplained by the details, building blocks and language of the left hemisphere. It understands without formation of words to describe the particulars but it understands just the same.
There are those who have a greater aptitude for the right hemisphere skills and those for the left. Every highly artistic and visual person I know has a connection to God that involves acceptance, there is little to no logical sparing but a recognition of the mystical aspects of faith and a submission to its power. If as a religious tradition we only engage and try to understand God through language and logical arguement, is it possible we are neglecting a side of our minds that could give us access to greater understanding? The part of us that empathizes with art is without language, without logical debate, with a view of the big picture and not the petty details. But it’s still real in our minds and we understand it - it just is. The building blocks of logic and language can’t fully articulate, but we know because we know.
How annoying. How profound.