Archive for March, 2007

Reverent Audaciousness

March 14, 2007

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From Fr. Sophrony’s We Shall See Him as He Is

Divine Love begets reverent audaciousness. Thus a handful of Apostles, hitherto faint-hearted, after the descent of the Holy Ghost were filled with courage and took on the whole of the rest of the world in spiritual struggle. Nearly all of them suffered martyrdom. When the governor of Patras threatened St. Andrew with crucifixion the latter made the marvelous reply, “If I feared the cross, I would not be preaching it.” And he was crucified, and hanging on the cross extolled the death on the cross of his Master, Christ.

Inestimable are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Every true gift is none other than a flame of love. But for our hearts to become capable of receiving the love of Christ in its glowing manifestations we must all, every one of us, endure many trials. People who live lives of ease atrophy spiritually and remain impervious to divinely universal, Christ-like love. They live and ide without their spirit rising upward to heaven. Gifts from on High are commensurate to our ascetic struggle. All who walk the way of Christ’s commandments are regenerated in their very following of Him – some more, some less, depending on the ardour manifested. Through being crucified together with God the Word-made-flesh, grace descends on the believer, likening him to God made man. This great gift also embraces in itself life-giving theology through a real dwelling in the Light of love.

This passage from Fr. Silouan’s writings should in no way be interpreted as though we were “earning” gifts from God. Gifts are gifts. But neither would our Heavenly Father give to us something that would harm us. Spiritual gifts come to us after great ascetic struggle (which itself is impossible without Grace) because we have been prepared to receive such gifts for our salvation and not our condemnation.

I had experience with the Charismatic Movement in the early 1970’s (indeed I lived in a commune as part of that movement). I was quite young in every way – as were most of the people with whom I came in contact. I shudder sometimes when I look back and see the damage we did to one another in the name of Christ, either through claiming gifts we did not have, or by misusing and abusing gifts we did have. Spiritually it was a dangerous period in my life.

To a degree, I continue to see danger in such movements – where great gifts are boasted – but great fruit not borne.

Orthodoxy itself has little contact with the modern Charismatic movement, but it does not mean that there is no one whose spiritual life is not more governed by delusion than reality. True ascetic effort should move us towards Christ, and particularly Christ Crucified. It should beget patience and humility and a love for all things. If such love is absent then whatever we are encountering is not of God.

This is also the danger in theology that we only know intellectually. “Knowledge puffs up,” ( 1 Cor. 8:1) particularly if it is a knowledge that is not also grounded in the heart and in love of God. I believe that it is for this reason that there is as much argument surrounding Christian theology (not there there is no place for argument but much of it lacks charity in my experience). We are in too far great a hurry to gain knowledge that we ourselves have not received from God. To read the Fathers and use them as the grist for theological warfare – is a waste of time. Like Scripture, they must be read in humility and patience with much prayer in hope that they are properly assimilated into our life as grace and not simply added to our brain as information.

But I come back to that delicious phrase that Fr. Sophrony puts forward: “reverent audaciousness.” What a marvelous term to use – to encourage us to be “audacious” in our pursuit of God (reverently of course).

May God grant us the Grace to pray more than we read and to be audacious in our pursuit of God.

Pray for Catechumens

March 13, 2007

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In this season of the year it is traditional for Catechumens to be preparing for reception into the Church. My experience is that for anyone preparing to be received life gets a little tougher. I suspect the enemy to be the culprit behind this and therefore think it all the more incumbent on all Orthodox to remember and pray for Catechumens. The Fathers wisely gave us such prayers for every liturgy (though in some versions of the Typicon they may be left out). I generally think of this as a crying shame but I don’t know enough behind the issue to really have an opinion. I just know that in my parish there are always Catechumens to be prayed for.

I think of my favorite prayer for the Catechumens, that of St. Basil’s liturgy:

O Lord our God, who dwellest in the heavens, and lookest down upon all thy works, look down upon thy servants, the catechumens, who have bowed their necks before thee, and grant them a light yoke. Make them honorable members of thy holy Church, and vouchsafe unto them the laver of regeneration, the forgiveness of sins, and the robe of incorruption, unto the knowledge of thee, our true God.

The phrase that always stands out to me when I read it is: Grant them a light yoke. This is the yoke of Christ who told us “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). For many coming into Orthodoxy, the yoke seems difficult. Compared to much they may have known elsewhere, Orthodox can seem completely daunting. Converts, true to form, they take everything seriously. If the calendar says, “Fast.” They fast. If services are scheduled they feel they should be there and are dismayed at how difficult this can be (particularly during Lent).

They should not take as an example those who totally disdain the fast or who absent themselves from services as if all that mattered was Sunday (or only a few of those). That is all another story.

But we are commanded to pray for the Catechumens – and I might add – make their yoke is light as possible while still doing them good. They should not be crushed by an idealized Orthodoxy that even the Orthodox do not keep. But they should not be discouraged by the poor examples they see in others.

I encourage my own parish in sermons, reminding them that if we do not strive to live the Orthodox life, then those who seek it will have no hope when they come to us. The Orthodox Church has to be something more substantive than the sign outside the building.

But still, in all, O God, grant the Catechumens a light yoke. Grant them the yoke of Christ, and not the yoke of man. For there is no hope in man, nor in princes, nor in the sons of men.

God save the Catechumens!

Icons and the Heart

March 12, 2007

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My maternal grandparents’ home had an array of popular religious art: Jesus knocking at the door (as discussed in the previous post’s comments), the guardian angel and the children, prayer in the garden of gethsemane. They were country Baptists, and yet religious art (I suppose some would call it kitsch) was an important part of the home.

My first encounter of the Theotokos was with a Raphael Madonna that was the frontispiece in the little Bible my mother’s Baptist Sunday School gave me when I was born. It is with my altar books at the Church now. Strangely, having grown up in what was an almost uniform Baptist culture, religious art, such as it was, had a great deal of importance.

Iconoclasm played a huge role in the Reformation, and yet it becomes progressively weaker as it moves away from its intellectual centers. I have no way of offering a survey of such matters but I would expect that more highly educated Protestants (excluding the Episcopalians) may have had less art of this sort in the home than the less educated. Did Presbyterians (almost always more educated than Baptists) have less religious art in the home? I can only guess.

Nevertheless, the role that relgious art, whether good or bad, played in Protestant homes shouldn’t be underestimated. I am certain that my earliest awareness of God and my earliest thoughts of God were related primarily to the images I saw around me. Thus what I saw and considered was largely sentimental, but still gentle and kind.

It was only later, particularly in early teen years, that the fearful ideas of a punishing God became important – doubtless mixed with experiences of angry adults. But I think earlier ideas trump later misfortune.

That all of my children have grown up with icons in the home and part of my family’s prayer life, encourages me when I think of their life in Christ. What I cannot fathom would be an imageless Christianity.

Human beings make images – we do it everywhere and in every culture. Islam has its strict iconoclasm and yet cannot resist turning Arabic Script into something of an image itself. And if were to have traveled across the Middle East (particularly before it became such a political nightmare) you would have discovered a strange symbiotic relationship with the Christians (usually Orthodox) who lived among them. There are monasteries with miracle-working icons of the Theotokos who are (or at least were) likely to have more muslims in attendance at any given time than Christians. The muslims ignore the religious implications of their actions (largely), but come for the miracles anyway. Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain has a number of such accounts.

What seems obvious to me is that Christianity is far better served by a doctrinally ruled use of art (which icons are to a large extent) than by art that is driven by little more than sentimentality. Both may touch the heart – and God’s great kindness is such that He’ll use virtually everything for our salvation – but images are at least as important as words. As the Seventh Council stated: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” Thus it seems obvious that art should be a doctrinal matter. Indeed, the unique ability of art to communicate on the level of the heart (thus a picture is worth a thousand words) would seem to require that we pay at least as much if not more attention to it than to the written word.

Or so my heart tells me.

The Door of the Heart

March 11, 2007

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If there is anything about our life that captures my attention (indeed some days I think of little else), it is the heart. There is a clear sense in the writings of the Fathers of what is meant by the heart and Scripture has much to say as well.

Christ said about the heart: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matt. 12:35).

This is not the “California” version of the heart as in phrases such as “you have to follow your heart.” Christ is not engaging in sentimentality but directing us to the very core of our being. There in the heart of ourselves we create our treasure. The treasure is either good or evil. I believe we are always at every moment doing something that “creates” the treasure of the heart. We store up anger or kindness, meekness or condemnation. All that we do flows from the heart in one manner or another.

What occupies my attention is the question (to myself): “What are you doing with your heart?”

Sometimes the question takes a different form (and this is not always to myself): “Why are you doing that with your heart?”

Our strangely contorted culture only knows that the heart “sells.” Generally the purveyors of culture care little about the treasures they sell. Anger will get as many rating numbers (sometimes more) than joy.

I watch traffic on my blog. I note that a little controversy can almost double the “views” on any given day. I resist the temptation (as I can). The world has enough controversy without me adding to it.

It is clear that our hearts are broken in places, and are hard in others. A lot of the “treasure” in our heart was not put there by ourselves, but was “sown by an enemy.” But knowing that only means I am the more responsible with what I do with it.

The verse from Psalm 51(50): “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” should be a constant refrain in our day. At some points the prayer has to increase to the level of desperation: “Cast me not away from Thy presence and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me!”

Can we change our own hearts? I do not think it is possible – were we able to be masters of our heart we would need no Savior. We can never say of something, “That is simply how my heart is!” For Scripture warns us as well that the “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it” (Jer. 17:9)?

I am certain that the heart only changes by the grace of God. We cannot make ourselves into the image of God – only God can do that in us. Which leaves us again with prayer – praying from my heart – praying with my heart – praying for my heart – even in spite of my heart. Lord, have mercy!

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me (Rev. 3:20).

Smashing the Gates of Hell

March 10, 2007

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Perhaps it seems early to be talking about smashing the gates of hell (isn’t that something to be left until Pascha?), but the Church engages us as “gate smashers” much earlier in the Lenten season than just Pascha itself. The memorial Saturdays (“Soul Saturdays”) that we observe in which we pray for the departed (it’s nearly every Saturday in Lent) are small reminders that the Pascha of our Lord has smashed the gates, and we are thus able to pray freely for the departed.

The statement in Scripture (Matt. 16:18) when Christ says that the “gates of hell will not prevail against the Church,” are frequently interpreted to mean that the Church will be preserved from the attacks of the enemy. That is one way of translating the passage. The passage literally says, “gates of Hades” rather than “gates of Hell,” which to me signifies less an issue with the enemy and more an issue with the power of death and all the nothingness that comprises hell.

This morning as we prayed yet again for the departed I realized that this was not just a “memorial event” in which we were indulging our grief and praying for our departed loved ones. This was essential a Paschal act, proclaiming the good news, by our prayers, that Christ has trampled down death by death.

We pray for them – and they pray for us. The Church is One – on earth and in Heaven. Saturday by Saturday we are praying our way to Pascha. And this cycle of “Soul Saturdays” will not be complete until the last one which is offered on the weekend of Pentecost. And at the “Kneeling Vespers” on Pentecost Sunday, we will pray for all those in “Hell” from the beginning of the world. It’s bold, but that’s the prayer as it stands written.

In prayer – we soldier on.

Encountering God

March 9, 2007

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Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, in his little classic, Beginning to Pray, focuses first on the absence of God rather than His presence – which is helpful for me since that’s starting where I have to start (as do almost all of us). He grounds this in God’s personhood and His freedom. God is not some object that we always have at our beck and call. Though He is indeed “everywhere present and filleth all things,” He is still free. It is not at all unusal for us to begin prayer only to find only a sense of absence.

St. Gregory of Nyssa is said to have opposed the idea of pilgrimages to Jerusalem since we could far more easily encounter God in our hearts. It is well enough said, but it is still true that being creatures who dwell in time and space, we sometimes have to go somewhere specific in order to reach the Jerusalem in our heart.

Over my years of pastoring I have been told a number of times, “I can worship God more easily on a walk in the woods than in Church.” In my snappier moods I have been known to counter with, “That seems very odd that you should encounter God in the woods since He had an appointment to meet you last Sunday in Church at 10.

We are human beings, not pure intellects (or however we are to describe the “bodiless powers of heaven” – angels). Thus it should come as no surprise to us that being dwellers in time and space we might have to be somewhere and sometime if we are to encounter God.

The great Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, knew something of this. After every remarkable encounter with God it seems to have been their practice to build and altar and make sacrifice and even to change the name of the place to remember the specifics of the encounter.

Several years ago we had a Methodist Sunday School Class of young boys and girls (around age 10) come and visit our parish on a Sunday. We knew about the visit ahead of time and were glad to welcome them. We did nothing unusual in the service. At that time St. Anne met in rented commercial space. Other than the icons and candles there was absolutely nothing remarkable about our space. After Church one of the young girls said to her mother (who happened to be the Sunday School teacher), “Can we come back here next Sunday?”

Puzzled, her mother asked, “Why.”

“God is here,” was the girls answer. There was nothing to be said. The mother blushed and ushered her out. I can only wonder how long it will take that young girl to return to an Orthodox Church, for “God is here.”

The Church does many things to help us in our pilgrimage to God. The “beauty of our temples” (not a ubiquitous phenomenon) is part of that effort. We place icons for veneration. We encourage people to light candles, to cross themselves, to make prostrations (when appropriate). Incense rises before our eyes and fills our nostrils with the odor of a “sweet sacrifice.”

Still, St. Gregory is right. The pilgrimage is to the heart (even if you are going to Jerusalem). St. Mary of Egypt’s simple story is graphic illustration of the heart’s utter importance in this journey and encounter.

Our narthex is filled with things for worship. Candles, alms basins and the like. I have sometimes felt tempted to put a box in the narthex and mark it, “Earthly Cares,” so that we might have a place to put them when we lay them aside. It is more easily sung than actually done.

Protestant reformers when in an iconoclastic mood, smashed images and whitewashed walls of churches. All distractions to the pure Word of God were removed. Of course our minds are such that they cannot stand a blank slate. Give us a blank slate to look at and we will fill it in with all kinds of images, very few of which are holy.

Even in an Orthodox Church, where the images are there for us to see and direct our minds to heaven, we still find ourselves distracted. That is where we finally encounter God in His utter humility. Such is His love of man and compassion for our frailty, that when all is said and done He offers Himself to us on a spoon. How many times have I felt like a mother giving medicine to her children (please ignore the gender issues in that last statement). Communion is our “medicine of immortality.” We would never find our way there except for the condescension of God.

In the fear of God and with faith and love draw near

At the Edge of Heaven

March 8, 2007

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In writing about the Iconostasis in the previous post, I wrote of “boundaries,” and how the definitions that exist in the Church reflect even greater realities. I believe those realities are two-fold.

The first reality is to be found within ourselves. Fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God, there is a spiritual reality to our composition and inner relationship that is far too easily overlooked in our materialistic age. It seems correct to me that we are now seeing that many components of our life have a grounding not just in the “mind” (whatever a materialist would mean by that) but in the body itself (every thought has a chemical expression). We are not angels, disembodied spirits. We are human beings who think with flesh and blood. And this is a marvelous thing.

And yet, at least in our ignorance, we cannot speak very clearly of such matters. We often have to draw on other metaphors – though we should remember that our embodied existence is just that, embodied. I wrote in the previous post of the Temple of our body, and how there are distinctions and boundaries to be found there and respected.

Much of this is the cause of our problem with “prayer of the heart.” It is interesting that the “prayer of the heart” almost always has a certain amount of physical instruction. “To pray with the mind centered the heart,” is one such admonition.

I believe it is a place that we also encounter, or can encounter icons. I have seen people literally be converted by the presence of an icon. Last year I was in Atlanta when the Icon of Our Lady of Sitka was being taken around the country. The image that came to me as I stood with the other priests and offered the Molieben (prayer service) to Our Lady of Sitka, was that of a surface that has been distorted by the weight of an object placed on it (think of a flexible surface). In such a situation, the surface on which we stand is pulled down as if in a “cone shape,” and eveything around it falls towards it.

Now that may sound strange and having just written it sounds strange to me – but that’s what I felt. It was as if something very big and very heavy were in our midst. I believe this to have been the spiritual weight of the icon itself. Thus many of the people in attendance at the service felt “drawn” to the icon. My own language would have said that I did not feel drawn, I literally felt as though I were falling towards the icon.

Perhaps I am delusional. That is always a distinct possibility, but it is clear that many people were touched by the presence of the icon that night.

One of the most famous “boundary” stories in all of Orthodoxy, is that of St. Mary of Egypt. She was a young prostitute who, on a lark, traveled to Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She came with a procession of pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where the cross was exhibited). But she discovered that when she tried to cross the threshhold of the Church she was repelled as if there were an invisible wall blocking the way. After several attempts she turned to an icon of the Mother of God beside the entrance. She prayed for help and promised to give up her life of prostitution and give herself completely to God. Then she was able to cross the threshhold.

In such an occasion I can only say that a person stands at the boundary of earth and heaven. Unable to enter heaven except by repentance they find that every human effort to press forward thrusts them backwards. Heaven opens to us only as a great gift of grace.

This same experience is something that I think exists frequently in our prayers. We frequently stand outside the door, and are all to frequently satisfied not to enter into the depths of the bridal chamber (the altar of the Church is called the Bridal Chamber during the Bridegroom Matins services of Holy Week). We stand and pray and are satisfied with a wandering mind and a hardened heart. There is a great need in our lives to press forward until we come to the place of true repentance. Then we find the doors of heaven opened to us and we enter into true prayer.

The series of prayers that a Bishop, Priest, or Deacon must offer before entering the holy altar at the beginning of any Divine Liturgy (these entrance prayers are prayed before the service of the Proskomedie). All of these prayers recognize the holiness of the altar area and the unworthiness of those who enter.

These boundaries, places and points where earth and heaven meet, are probably far more frequent in our lives than we admit. God is so gracious and merciful that He comes to us again and again. It is our fault that we increasingly secularize the world around us, and we see no boundaries, no doors.

Christ speaks of such moments in His famous parable of the Last Judgment when he tells us that all of these needy neighbors who surround us (the sick, the naked, the hungry, those in prison, etc.) were all occasions where Christ was to be encountered. They each stood before us as the Gate of Heaven and we refused to enter.

It is good when we pay enough attention to our heart that we can be aware of the generosity of God who meets us in so many ways. We need to be like Jacob of old who awakened from his dream at Bethel (the dream where he saw the ladder stretching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending). He did not wake from his dream like a secular man. A secular man would have said, “What a strange dream. I wonder what I’m worried about. Or did I eat something bad last night.” For the secular man, reality is defined only by himself. Jacob woke from his dream and said:

Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Gen. 28:16-17).

These are not the thoughts of a modern man. But, with the renewal of our mind, they can be our thoughts.

The Iconostasis and Modern Piety

March 7, 2007

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This is meant as a follow-up with more personal reflections to accompany my earlier post on the Iconostasis in Orthodox Churches. I know from my many conversations with bright young seminarians (two of whom are married to my oldest daughters) that there is much, much more to know about the history and development of Eastern liturgical practices than I begin to know, despite my years of reading. But I do know something about piety, particularly the piety found in our modern American experience – and I know my own experiences as well. So this short piece will focus on those things and hopefully shed some useful light.

Some years ago when our mission was first starting, we worshipped in an empty warehouse (quite a small warehouse I might add). There were two icons, Christ and the Theotokos, set up in the front of the room, and a small analoy from which the Reader led the service. We built an altar and set it in place. It was only used by visiting priests – which was about every six weeks at the time.

We discussed building an iconostasis. We decided the easiest thing to do was to build a wall (framed with sheetrock) with three openings. We eventually added doors, etc.

What I most remember was the labor that we put in over the course of a Saturday. By the end of the day the wall was complete, but not painted. We measured and hung the two icons. It was a modest affair, but the impact was huge.

I remember looking at the altar, now seen through the “royal” door space, and thought to myself, “Now it truly seems to be an altar.” What I noticed was that the wall (about the best we could do at the time) did not cut me off from the altar, but instead “revealed” the altar to me. Without the iconostasis it was not obvious what the table was. Now it was clearly an altar, albeit simple and quite makeshift.

Human beings need boundaries – they are inherently part of a healthy life. They “define” things for us. Without them everything becomes confused and without meaning. If you will, the Incarnation itself is God within human boundaries. Christ revealed God fully and truly for the first time. This is one of the main hallmarks of Orthodox dogma on the Holy Icons. We make icons of Christ not because He became man, but because He became “a man.” There is a great deal of difference.

I cannot paint a picture of “humanity.” I’ve seen some bad “publicly funded art” (as my children call it) that seeks to do something like portray “humanity,” but, of course, it always fails. You cannot paint human nature, or any nature. You can only paint a man. St. Theodore the Studite in speaking of this referred to icons as “hypostatic representations,” meaning, images of the person, not the nature. We might use certain symbolic images to point to the nature (such as a halo, etc.), but you cannot paint the nature of someone or thing.

Even in Orthodox Churches that are “minimalist” when it comes to the iconostasis, still have enough definition that you know where the altar is and that it is an altar. There is still a “going in” and a “coming out.” It may be possible to see more, but there is enough definition that the seeing knows what it sees.

I think this is an important matter in modern piety, precisely because we live in a culture where boundaries are being demolished at a fearful pace. I have worshipped (when I was an Anglican) in settings where the altar was in the middle of the Church and everyone surrounded it. I would not criticize this as though it invalidated the actions that took place – but the “democratization” of the liturgy can make the emphasis be on us, the worshippers, rather than on God, the worshipped.

Of course I’m now making an argument based on my own subjectivity, so I’ll readily admit that there’s plenty of room to disagree. But I am certain in my heart, that definition, boundaries, whatever we want to call it, is very important for us today – perhaps even more than at any other time.

It is important for us to know that we cannot have something or someone just because we want it. That God is accessible by invitation and gift, not by right.

I also believe that the boundaries manifest in Orthodox worship are helpful to us in discovering the boundaries that exist within our own souls. I have taught and continue to teach that we human beings are constructed much like a Temple (indeed our bodies are called “Temples” in Scripture). There is a narthex, a most public part of who we are. There is a nave that is less public but still a place where “family” gathers. But there is also a Holy Place, the heart, where we “sup” with God. This is a most intimate place and must not be thrown open to any and all. There is a place within us where we need “to remove” even our own shoes (much less letting others stomp around in there).

Interestingly, and I think this is important as a matter of piety, even as a priest I do not enter and exit the altar area lightly. There is a proper way for a priest to enter the altar and proper ways for him to behave when he is there. This has been personally important for me as I struggle to know God.

Regardless of the evolution of the iconostasis, the prayers in the liturgy are quite clear in their attitude to the altar. There is an “iconostasis” of some form that is encountered in the prayers that a priest says (aloud or quietly depending on parish practice) in which he acknowledges that he stands somewhere he doesn’t deserve to be, and beseeches God to have mercy on all who stand at that table with him. I have been particularly struck in concelebrations with other priests when the prayer asks that “no one around this table be struck with confusion.” I know that the meaning of the prayer has to do with confusion of soul, and yet it also makes me think of my own liturgical confusion as I make my way through the complexities of the service.

Whether we are describing an iconostasis that stretches almost to the ceiling, or nothing more than two icons on easels, the same boundary is being drawn and the same statement being made. One just says it louder than the other. And what it says, I believe, is something I need to hear.

Over at the Undercroft

March 6, 2007

Ben Donald continues an excellent series of articles over at The Undercroft. Good thoughts, good reading.

The Iconostasis

March 6, 2007

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A recent email suggested to me that I might write about the iconostasis (the icon screen) found in Orthodox Churches. Some Protestants in particular have problems with it, feeling on the one hand that they are “shut out” of the liturgy to some extent or that Orthodox practice is restoring the “curtain of the Temple” that Christ’s crucifixion rent in two.  Those are not surprising thoughts and are worth some comment.

I have to say up front that some Orthodox Churches have a much larger iconostasis than others, and some have a very minimalist iconostasis that essentially obscures nothing. Orthodoxy, as a dogmatic matter, has no demands in either direction. So what we are discussing here is what you will simply find in many Orthodox Churches (doors and curtains and a very substantial Icon Screen) but not necessarily in every Orthodox Church. Thus I am discussing a very common practice, but not a dogma of the Church. And that’s a very important distinction to make when thinking of Orthodoxy.

The development of the “icon screen” in Orthodoxy is itself the story of an evolution. I might add, that one of the earliest written descriptions of such a use of icons is found, in of all places, Britain, where the Ven. Bede mentions the erection of something like an icon screen by Benedict Biscop. This would have been in the 7th century or so. In the West, the Rood Screen (which exists in very few places at all today) came to serve a purpose somewhat similar to the iconostasis in the East.

As my Archbishop says (and I agree), some things existed in Orthodoxy and disappeared for good reasons, while other things developed and came about for good reason. Orthodoxy is alive and does change (not dogmatically) while, we would say, remaining the same.

Having said all that (whew!) I turn to some preliminary thoughts. And they are not first about icons exactly. My first thought is the memory of an Anglican parishioner I had some 25 years or more ago who objected when I placed a very “Spanish” crucifix over the rear doors of the Church (the exit). A family had brought it back from South America. Like most Spanish crucifixes, it left little to the imagination.

This parishioner was deeply upset by my action and attacked the very idea of having a crucifix in the Church, arguing that “Christ is risen and not on the Cross! I do not want my children exposed to such a hideous thing!” I left the crucifix in its place and she never attacked me again (long story).

But she was wrong theologically. To depict Christ on the Cross (as in a crucifix) is no different than to preach: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” What was going on in that particular woman’s mind was something she had been told (incorrectly) about Roman Catholicism and was reacting from incorrect theological information.

In the same manner, to see an iconostasis in an Orthodox Church, and assume that it exists in order to separate people from God is to seriously misread the meaning of the screen and the nature of Orthodox iconography.

The icon screen grew historically and has certainly changed its function over time. Orthodox explanations of the iconostasis have also evolved with that development. The thoughts I offer here are not a dogmatic explanation of the iconostasis (it’s not a matter of dogma) but are common in Orthodox thought.

In some pious commentaries on Orthodox services, the gates of the icon screen are compared to the gates of paradise and their opening and closing to specific actions and moments in salvation history. Thus, the closing of the gates early in the service of Great Vespers is compared to the shutting of paradise to Adam and the priest standing before the gates praying represents our repentance before God.

Such explanations are just what I have termed them, pious explanations. But they are not “incorrect” for being pious explanations. They are ways to think of the actions that are taking place. (Incidentally I could think of nothing deadlier than attending a service and meditating on when a certain practice developed, etc. – that’s not worship – it’s misplaced academics).

Most especially in the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), the doors can have a very profound meaning (as well as the curtain if one is used). But never are they used to “shut us off from God.” They are used to heighten the sense of drama in the Liturgy and to mark certain moments as particularly “holy” if you will. But the end of the “drama” comes with the curtain and doors opening and the gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood being brought forth to the people! Nothing could be more in harmony with the gospel.

Indeed, this liturgical action is a reminder of the nature of our salvation. It is a gift that is given to us, not a right, nor property common to us all. The action of the Holy Gifts being “brought out” to us is very much in keeping with the Gospel itself.

To be more blunt, we in America have imported our sense of “democracy” into our liturgical sensibilities. We believe that nothing should be secret, nothing hidden, nothing marked off as set apart. We are a nation that witnesses people on Jerry Springer saying things that should only be said in confession. We have no shame.

What remains in Orthodox liturgy (and was once present in Roman Liturgies and even some forms of Anglican liturgies) is a deep sense of the Holy. The movement from Old Testament to New Testament has not democratized worship or destroyed the need for priests (Protestants are quick to speak of the “priesthood of all believers” but end up with no priesthood of any believers). Protestant reform movements that utterly destroyed Rood Screens and the architecture of medieval worship succeeded in a drive to declare that “all things are holy.” But just as the Puritan abolition of Christmas did not succeed in making everyday as holy as that day, such iconoclastic actions succeeded only in creating a secular world where nothing is holy and no day a holy day. Here I highly recommend Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars for an amazing look at the actual details of the Reformation in England.

Our nation very likely needs icon screens or things that function in a way to help us know that the One whom we worship is holy. Knowing that, we know much more fully that the Holy One has condescended to our humanity and gives Himself to us in His humility. The loss of such distinctions has created the growing absence of reverence and even worship itself in our churches. The iconostasis does not separate us from God – it may very well be one of the few teaching tools that allow us to be united to Him.

There is so much more to be said on this subject – but this seems enough for one posting.