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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

In Light of Women: One Woman’s Journey with Icons

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

Reviewed by The Right Reverend William O. Gregg, Ph.D.

Mary Jane Miller is an accomplished, creative artist in several media. Over a career of over forty years, her work has always been grounded in artistic principles, immense talent, and knowledge of the medium being used. In her work, you meet a passionate, disciplined, unruly, compassionate woman of aesthetic insight, curiosity, and insight, an inquiring mind that constantly explores, questions, wonders (and wanders), argues and engages whatever and whoever is around. In short, you meet an extraordinary, strong, capable woman. For decades now, Mary Jane has lived in the world of icon writing and painting. Through this medium, she invites men and women to journey with her and beyond her in relationship with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. In this work, she invites us into the prayerful exploration if the role of women in our world from the perspective of icons.

One of the things I like best about this text is the icons. Deeply embedded in the classical icon-writing tradition, the artist in Mary Jane breathes through this classical form, giving new life to the ancient process. The boundaries are pushed, and sometimes crossed, but always remaining deeply within the holy purpose of these windows into Holy Mystery that transcend this world and transform us in this world. These icons featured here are exquisite, dynamic, engaging – even provocative theologically, spiritually, and humanly. They draw you into prayer, touch your soul, energize your will and desire for God, and unfold yourself as Holy Mystery meets you in the mystical experience of prayer. And then they send you back into this world – perhaps renewed, perhaps transformed, perhaps with a new insight or understanding of God, Jesus, the Spirit, or yourself as the beloved of God. And changed, transformed, empowered to participate in God’s mission grounded in the knowing that you dwell in Christ and Christ dwells in you.

This is a book of a faithful woman speaking to God’s beloved. It is not scholarly. The style is accessible, and not cluttered with technical language and concepts. It is biblically grounded. It is wonderfully Anglican, embracing Scripture, Tradition, and Reason ably and effectively. The introductory section where Miller talks about icons and the icon tradition is interesting and informative. The writing speaks directly to the reader so that it feels more like a conversation. You can hear a real voice speaking.

The reflections on the Mary Icons of Part I are organized around a trinity of “receive, nurture, release”. This framework provides a theological lens for engaging these Marian icons that are thoughtful and challenging. Mary is not merely a figure in a “painting,” but a person who speaks to us and has something to say to each of us today in the lives we are living. Each reflection is focused, not trying to say everything, but giving us a starting point from which to move into the icon, allowing it to draw us on where it will.

Parts II and III move more pointedly to Miller’s focus on the voice of women in the Church and the world. And, as icons do, there is a powerful weaving together of what has always been in the tradition, even if ignored or suppressed, with contemporary issues. The poignant theme and question throughout is, “Why should we/do we continue to allow the ‘line of silence’ in the Marian icons to marginalize women (or anyone one of God’s beloved), to impose discriminatory policies, practices, and attitudes on God’s beloved?” The challenge of the icons is disruptive, unsettling, and a clear call and invitation to reframe our thinking, our understanding, our hearts and souls so that we are transformed from the inside depths of our being out into the “new life of grace” of Baptism. The point, it seems to me, is that the “take-away” from Mary Jane’s reflections is that the gift of icons is a prophetic word to each of us to pray, reflect, and seek the ways God is calling all of God’s beloved to participate in God’s mission through our love and service in the world. No one, absolutely no one – and in this work, with special attention to God’s beloved women – is excluded from this invitation, nor will anyone be left out of God’s abundant equipping of each of us through the Spirit to fulfill God’s calling to us.

The reflections on Mary Magdalene and Mary of the Desert (Parts II & III) are poignant, offering new perspectives. The timelessness of the medium and the message is linked directly with issues of our own day, especially for women. The icon, Mary of Egypt and John the Baptist is especially strong, bringing together Mary and John to speak across space and time the eternal message of the urgency to speak and act, to embody our participation in God’s mission in the concrete daily living of our Baptismal Vows. Mary of the Dessert is a strong character, standing simply in the desert, dressed in the orange habit of the disciple. She is a wonderful example of God’s calling whom God calls and makes a strong case for the vital, indeed, the essential role of women in the world and therefore in God’s mission.

Mary and Christ in Holy Union is a wonderful example of Miller’s capacity to give new life to an ancient art form. It is imaginative and evocative of all kinds of possibilities. The startling passage from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas of making Mary Magdalene “male” pointedly raises all kinds of issues and questions found in feminist and womanist theology and about which men need not merely to note, but to engage, address, and work for and with women to create and sustain what I would term the divine partnership between men and women to which God calls us.

This book is a carefully thought out, faithfully prayed work of a strong, faithful woman who not only tells a rich part of her life with Christ but calls women and men into new possibilities and relationships and does so in an inviting manner that moves one’s spirit, touches one’s soul and gives hope in one’s heart.

I commend it to all.

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