Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Second Look

Atop a mountain overlooking the Aegean sits a stark white chapel, one of many on the island of Milos. I photographed it from a distance.
Rev. Frank Dunn
I had no idea of actually going there. Yet the path took my companions and me gradually closer and higher until we stood outside the tiny church, looking at an ancient fluted column poking out from the foundation, a sure sign that this had been a holy site long before Christians got ahold of it.

Entering the tiny space, I found an ambo with a book turned to a gospel, remaining globs of wax where someone’s candle had been lit in prayer, a rude iconostasis with unimposing icons. Something identified the chapel with the name Prophetas Elias, and there hung on the south wall two versions of an icon I had never seen before. Elijah the Prophet sat in the wilderness, above and beside him a raven with a morsel of bread in its beak. 

My friends and I snapped pictures of one thing and another, eventually winding our way into the field on our way down the hillside towards ruins that beckoned. “I want to have another look at that chapel before we leave,” I said. I didn’t know quite why. The door creaked a greeting as it had the first time. 

I stood before the better of the two icons of Elijah. Then it came to me: my first awareness of the story of Elijah and the ravens. Barely a year after my ordination, I was reading in 1 Kings 17 that the Word of God came to Elijah directing him to become a hermit over on the east side of the Jordan where he could drink from the Wadi Cherith and be fed bread and meat by ravens. I had finished reading, meditated upon the passage, written a bit in my journal, and was about to get on with my day when I realized that, for the first time in years, I had read a Bible story and not asked what had really happened. Instead, I had entered the story, wondered to myself what “ravens” in my life were feeding me, sensing that I was being sustained in improbable yet certain ways.

Sometime later I discovered Paul Ricoeur’s phrase “the second naïveté,” by which he denoted that stage of faith which follows rational probing. We do not cease to think, nor do we simply take for granted the factuality of narratives such as Elijah’s being fed by birds. We approach the story on another level, simply seeing in it our souls and bodies mirrored back to us. 

In Athens at length I found an icon of Elijah and the raven. It hangs now in a space by the front door with my other icons. I pause before it and remember that the truth of the story is not what fed Elijah, but the things and creatures that in improbable ways feed me.

Frank Dunn is the Senior Priest at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Columbia Heights. Share your reactions and comments on Facebook.