An icon should give us glimpses of our God who is both immanent and transcendent, knowable and unknowable. If an icon becomes more important to us than what it reveals of God, then it becomes a golden calf….
Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places describes L’Engle’s trip to Antarctica when she was 74 years old and the encounters she had with the small, crested Rock Hopper Penguins. She uses the image of the golden calf and her experience with the penguins to illustrate the difference between idols and icons. Like the Israelites, who turned the golden calf into idol worship instead of the worship of God, the penguins became to her an icon that opened her up to experience of God; an icon is the window to that connection.
Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007, was a well-known believer in Christ, who often ran afoul of ‘establishment’ Christianity by continuing to question and to seek that which made her uncomfortable in her faith. But her nonfiction has always struck a chord in me, as I am attracted to believers of all kinds who struggle to make sense of their tradition and especially, like L’Engle, see a bigger picture. Books like this mirror my own questions and struggles with spirituality, religion and belief.
It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable…Whatever is an open door to God is, for me, an icon.
Because L’Engle uses penguins (penguins?!) as an icon to God, I was intrigued from the beginning and it articulated for me why I find it so easy to connect to God in nature and not in a building. I am never so connected to the experience, love and beauty of the Creator than when I am walking the bluffs overlooking the ocean, hiking the trails of the nearby mountains or when watching a lizard slither across a huge rock in the desert.
There are parts of liturgical services that in the words and rituals, I do see beauty and sincerity. I love getting caught up in words, in turns of phrase, of ideas written just so. And in a moment of public prayer or thanksgiving, I am often caught up in a sea of emotions. But once I leave the building, they are gone. And once I glimpse a hummingbird flitting over a flower or a flock of birds in v-formation it is only then that I can sincerely praise God.
I think we have totally complicated God and what it means to worship. The first thing God did, according to the Bible, was to create the world. Pagans stopped there, while the rest went on to create golden calves, complicated and alienating ways of worship, erecting walls of concrete to hold services, and sadly, making theologies with a total disregard for the Creator’s creation. How ironic!
So, even if we understand that praying through icons is not idolatry, why do we mortals need icons? Icons are not adequate, nor are sunset and moonrise and star-filled skies, though they are icons of God’s creation. Perhaps we need icons because of the very inadequacy of our ability to understand God….
Title: Penguins and Golden Calves
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Publisher: WaterBrook Press