Archive for August, 2007

The Fullness of the Cross of Christ

August 30, 2007


In writing about our union with Christ I offered the following as the response to a question. It seemed to me, worth a posting of its own, though it be short. I have, however, added a few thoughts to it.

There are many ways of which to speak of Christ’s work on the Cross, all of them, of course, seeing it as central. In some ways, it is the whole of the Old Testament in a single moment. Which image of sacrifice is not fulfilled in that Great Sacrifice, and yet there are many images? Christ is also the Paschal Lamb, which itself is not part of the normal sacrificial system and yet it is in the Cross as well.

Nor does the sacrificial system make much sense except by some aspect of union with that which is offered. But on the Cross, Christ completes His union with us, if I may be so bold, by assuming even our death that by death He might trample down death.

The mistake too easily made is to think of the Cross as only one thing. The Cross is everything. All things are summed up and completed by Christ on the Cross, just so, everything is summed up and healed in His resurrection from the Dead. On the Cross He is the serpent lifted in the wilderness. On the Cross He is the Lamb of the Passover. On the Cross He is the Offering of Atonement. On the Cross He is Moses’ staff stretched over the waters of the Red Sea. On the Cross He is the arms of Moses stretched out at the destruction of Amalek. On the Cross He is the ram in the thicket that God gave in place of Isaac. On the Cross He is Blood poured out on the Mercy Seat. On the Cross He is the love of God made manifest in its utter self-emptying. On the Cross He is the Bridegroom now come for His bride to bring her back from the dead. On the Cross He is man in His alienation from God and God in His union with man.

All of these are part of the fullness of what it means to be forgiven, and I have only barely touched the edge of it. God has reconciled us to Himself through the Cross of Christ. This is not to say one thing – it is to say everything.

We’ll have read my writings wrong if it is seen that I have offered “the” explanation of the Cross. The Cross is the explanation of everything else, while no one other thing can explain the Cross.

Communion with Christ and the Union of Marriage

August 30, 2007


One of the clearest images of the relationship we have with Christ is that of marriage between a man and a woman. St. Paul makes reference to this in Ephesians 5:

So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church (28-32).

The image as also occurs elsewhere such that we understand that the Church is the “bride of Christ.” The Eucharist is a foretaste of the “wedding banquet,” etc. In drawing on this common image it instructs us both about the nature of marriage, and about the nature of the Church and our relationship with Christ.

I have been married for nearly 32 years and have been involved in counseling countless others as they prepared for marriage or as they sought help in living fully into this great sacrament of the Church. One thing is quite clear to me: whatever marriage may be, the legal metaphor is foreign to it. The state may have its legal framework for marriage (precious little anymore), but little if any of that has anything to do with making a marriage work.

A man and a woman become “bone of bone and flesh of flesh”: not a legal expression. St. Paul is as graphic as one dare be in his description of this aspect of marriage in the passage cited in Ephesians: “No man ever yet hated his own flesh.” But I might add that no matter how much a couple may love each other as they begin their married life, they are not yet living as fully as they will or can in the image of Christ and the Church. It takes years.

It generally takes forgiveness by the truckload. But forgiveness that is understood “legally” is one of the beginnings of a failing marriage. How can my wife forgive me “legally?” Would that mean that she would not hold me “legally” responsible for something? But what would it mean about her heart? Any married person knows that it is the heart that matters. Words are useful, but only when they are truly expressions of the heart. And this aspect of marriage is difficult. When we hurt each other, forgiveness sometimes comes slowly and painfully. This would not be so if forgiveness were actually a “legal” issue. It never has been and it never will be.

Forgiveness is a matter of our relationship. Having stated that, it is still misunderstood by many who would agree with the statement. For many, relationship is still a weak word, signifying nothing more than the “state of things between two individuals.” When used with regard to the sacrament of marriage, relationship refers to the bond or union of two people. They are bone of one another’s bone, flesh of one another’s flesh. Their relationship is the state of their union.

What becomes frightfully important is that when there is something that needs to be forgiven – it is not simply the “legal state of things between them” – it is the ontological state of the mystical union that exists such that the two of them are one. If something needs forgiveness, then both are sick. It cannot be that something affects my wife and does not at the same time affect me. I cannot be in the wrong, my wife in the right, and the problem just rest on my head. If I am wrong, then I am poisoning us both.

Thus St. Paul will use dramatic language and ask:

Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s (1 (Cor. 6:15-20).

This is not a legal problem for St. Paul, but a problem affecting our very ontology. Thus it is that sin will kill us – not because God puts us to death, but because sin is like a disease destroying us from within.

By the same token, union with Christ is a balm, a healing, a new life, a resurrection from the dead. The union of husband and wife, lived rightly and in union with Christ is an instrument of salvation. I always tell young couples that their marriage is for their salvation. It is not simply for the well-being of a culture, nor only for the procreation of children. It is for the working out of our mutual salvation. My own personal experience is that nothing in my life has had the same profound affect on my salvation as my marriage to my wife. Other than God’s own Life given to me, my wife has doubtless been His greatest gift to me. And this is as it should be.

By extension, every member of Christ’s body is also united to one another in a mystical manner. What happens to one of us happens to us all. This mystery is so great that legal imagery cannot begin to touch even the hem of its garment. I can imagine legal imagery having some usefulness, but I generally find it so weak that it often does more harm than good.

When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory (Col. 3:4).

What a wondrous mystery: Christ, who is our life. What a wondrous mystical marriage!


What Does It Mean to Have Communion with God?

August 29, 2007


I am sure that the title of this post seems obvious and as though I had pulled a question out of a catechism. And yet, my experience tells me that things that seem as though they ought to be obvious often are not, particularly the more basic and fundamental they are in our life as Orthodox believers. In an earlier post I noted that the world fellowship is often found in English Bibles as a mistranslation of the Greek word koinonia, the result being that frequently when Scripture is giving us information about communion with God, our translations are giving us something completely different.

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What’s wrong with the human race anyway?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christians doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – Orthodoxy, it can be said, does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in our ontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church, is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, these vitally important parts of the Christian life usually become reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

If you have lived your Christian life and never heard the story of our relationship with God put in the sort of terms used above, then you have missed out on hearing most of the New Testament. You have missed the story as told by the Fathers of the Eastern Church (which means, most of the Church Fathers). It is possible that you have heard such a distortion of the Christian faith that you have wanted nothing to do with it.

But if what I have described above sounds like good news – then the news is very good – because this is the teaching of the New Testament and the Church founded by Jesus Christ and which continues to be proclaimed by the Orthodox Church.

Knowing the Personal God

August 28, 2007


The word personal has a commonplace meaning in English. If I have personal knowledge of an event, it means that I was actually there and saw what took place. Personal knowledge of another person, means that we have actually met, spent time together and shared information. Difficulty arises when this commonplace use of the phrase is mistaken for its theological meaning.

The word person, is pretty much a Christian invention, or certainly comes to a place of importance through its use in Christian theology. In Greek, it is the word prosopon, which originally meant the face, while in Latin the word was persona, which originally meant a mask. In both cases the words were taken up to do service in the efforts of early theologians’ to give expression to the Christian understanding of the Triune God. Person, in its various forms, came to be used for the more technical Greek term hypostasis, and referred to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in their unique aspects. Thus we had three persons in one being.

The word was also used as the Church sought to give expression to what it knew of Christ. Thus we learned to speak of the person of Christ who was both human and Divine: one person, two natures.

In all of these early uses, the term carried far more weight than its commonplace meaning today. Today we mean little more than individual when we say person. To apply that meaning to the persons of the Trinity would be to fall into serious heresy.

And to a degree, to apply that same commonplace meaning to human beings is at the very least a disservice, if not outright error. For there is something about our existence as persons that is precisely linked to our creation in the image of God and the truth of our existence that the commonplace meaning knows nothing of.

Fr. Sophrony Sakharov says that to be created as person is to be created potentially and not actually. That is to say, there is something very “open-ended” in our existence as persons. It is not a limiting term but a term which describes something of infinite capacity. We are created potentially, because we are not yet what we shall be. We are commanded to be conformed to the likeness of God – and this is our goal in Christ. This is far more than moral perfection, but has an ontological meaning as well. Indeed, when Scripture speaks of this aspect of our destiny it generally does not speak in moral terms, but in terms of knowledge and relationship.

“Then I shall know even as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

“We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

That capacity of knowledge – which is another way of speaking about the fullness of our communion with God – is also a way of speaking of our capacity for love. It is the gift of personhood that we are (by grace) capable of loving everyone and everything. We would not be commanded to love even our enemies were it an impossible thing. Apart from Christ we cannot become what we were created to be – but we were created to love in just such a manner – for to love less is to be less than the image and likeness of Christ.

Our commonplace language, even in our faith, speaks of a personal relationship with Christ. It is correct to do so, and even to mean by it that you have “first-hand” knowledge of Christ. It also speaks of mutual obligation which is again correct in the covenantal relationship that God has given us. But it is also true in a less commonplace sense that we have a personal relationship with Christ – in that the nature of our relationship is that between persons. As such it has an infinite capacity and is open-ended. It will grow and become far more later than it is now. It will also mean a participation and a communion, a knowledge that is inherent to personal existence, even though we frequently are not aware of this capacity that is ours.

It is only in knowing the Triune God that we become what we are meant to be – that what it means to exist personally is fully revealed in us. A short quote from Fr. Sophrony:

The Person is He Who alone and genuinely lives. Aside from this vital principle nothing can exist: ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men’ [John 1:4]. The fundamental content of this life is love: ‘God is love’ [1 John 4:8]. the personal being realizes himself through loving contact with another person or persons.

From We Shall See Him As He Is

Thy Word Have I Hid In My Heart

August 27, 2007


A dear friend and parishioner whose Blog, Highways in the Heart, is noted on my blogroll, is as great a fan of the Psalms as anyone I know. She has probably committed over 90 to memory – not a small feat in our world today. It was the tradition (and still required by canons) that the Psalter be known by heart by monks (and hence by Bishops). There are certain Psalms (such as 50/51) that are simply required to be memorized by priests and deacons since they are quietly recited during a great censing. There is no better thing (apart from just living them) to do with Psalms than to commit them to memory. They are the great prayerbook of the Church. They are a ready source of prayer for every possible need and are salted throughout all Orthodox services. My friend has begun to write on how she memorizes psalms. If you are like me you will find this very helpful – both as a way to study – but a way to learn “by heart” the Word of God. Many thanks to her for sharing. I commend her writing to you. It may be accessed here.

Is Fellowship with God Possible?

August 26, 2007


Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The noun is one of the great abilities of ancient Greek – the ability to create abstract concepts from adjectives (this is not common in ancient languages). It is this linguistic ability that caused philosophy in Western Civilization to first be practiced by the Greeks. Without abstract nouns there is nothing to discuss.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two very discreet individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.


Music and Scenes from the “Desert”

August 24, 2007

One of the better known monasteries in Russian history is the Valaam monastery. Taken over by government authorities during the time of the Communists and used for other purposes, it has been returned today to the Church and is growing into a full-functioning, thriving monastery, one of the “deserts” where spiritual warfare on behalf of the world is unceasing. The music is a development of the “Valaam Chant” that has its own ancient roots in the Church. The monks have made numerous recordings in support of their work. May God aid their prayers.

With Humble and Contrite Hearts

August 23, 2007


Perhaps among the greatest of Psalms is David’s 50/51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance. O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on thy altar.

The very core of this Psalm is its attention to the heart and its interior state before God. In this much, nothing has changed between Old and New Testament. The great field of battle, the very doors of heaven, as well as the gates of hell, reside squarely in the human heart. Its state before God is the state of any individual.

David, who was known as a “man after God’s own heart,” was also a man who was capable of both murder and adultery. How could the Scriptures give him such a title? The only sense I can make of such a thing is the character of his heart. When the Prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, his response, without hesitation, was repentance before the Lord. Though he had hardened his heart in such a way as to commit serious sin, He could not turn his back on God when confronted. I have always found this a tremendously hopeful story.

It is, as well, the very core of the Orthodox life. All that we do – praying, fasting, confession, the veneration of icons, keeping vigil – whatever the Tradition may ask of us – all of it is geared towards the condition of the heart. This is why it becomes so strange when people lose their way and begin to think that what is important is the prayer, the fasting, the icons, the details of the vigil, and even allow themselves to be angered when these things are not done as precisely as they might. It is a tragedy, of course. For someone has let the medicine become the focus of their life rather than the health which the medicine should bring.

By the same token, we should rejoice at a humble and contrite heart wherever we find it. If a non-believer extends us mercy, we should rejoice in God and give thanks for His mercies, rather than judging the non-believer. Such merciful men and women will enter the Kingdom before us all.

I have always had a question before me that addresses all of this: is my heart the kind of heart that God could do anything with?

If the answer is “no” then I am in serious trouble. Then I must redouble my efforts and pray more fervently for God’s mercies lest I become someone that He finds useless.

But men and women with humble and contrite hearts are the very stuff of which the Kingdom is made. With such men and women God can and will do anything. For them, nothing is impossible. They cannot be deterred from their appointed meeting with God and His kingdom. Before them earthly kingdoms fall, and the wise of this world become mute.

May God make of me such a man and give me such with whom to keep company.


The Desert – Struggling in a Flat Land

August 22, 2007


One of the best-known sayings to have come from the Desert Fathers is: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” To a large degree the saying extols the virtue of stability. Moving from place to place never removes the problem – it only postpones the inevitable. Somewhere, sometime we have to face the heart of our struggle and by the grace of God overcome. Of course, not everyone is entirely successful in such struggles in the course of this life. How our healing is completed beyond this life is left to the mystery of grace.

There is nothing secular about the desert, the arena of our spiritual struggle. The early monastics who fled to the desert for prayer did not think that they were avoiding problems by seeking out such solitude. St. Athanasius, in the 4th century, had written the Life of St. Antony, one of the first and greatest of all hermits. That book, in a time before printing presses and book agents, still became a “best-seller.” It was read by many and propelled literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women into the monastic life. Modern Christians are overwhelmed when they hear the estimates of the number of monastics by the 5th century. It is hard to believe that the desert could sustain so many.

But that book on the life of St. Antony, held no romanticism for the desert life. Antony’s life of prayer is also a life of struggle against demons. They literally toss him about and beat him up. If anything, such a novel should have made generations afraid to go near the desert.

In the 6th chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul had written:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (11-12).

St. Paul’s observation that the struggle was against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (literally the “heavenlies”) clearly did not dissuade the hordes of hermits from invading the deserts of Africa and the Mideast or the islands and caves of Gaul and the British Isles. One simple reason was that the “heavenlies” was not a description of a two-storey (or more) universe, but simply a description of the nature of the struggle. Those “heavenly places” were as much the territory of the human heart as anything. St. Macarius, a desert dweller, would write:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

 The heavenly cities are not to be found in contemplating some second storey of the universe, but are to be found within the terrible (in the classic sense of the word) confines of the human heart. This was the great promise of the desert: that in solitude and quiet, through prayer and fasting, a man could enter the depths of his heart and there do the warfare that had been given to us to do. Some few became great saints. Others found only madness. Orthodox Christianity received something of a handbook on warfare in that land of the heart in such writings as the Lives of the Fathers, the Philokalia, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and other similar works. They have remained staples of the spiritual life ever since.

The struggle in the desert does not ignore relationships with other human beings. But it recognizes that the trouble in those relationships does not lie in other human beings, but within my own heart. Christ did not suffer from trouble in His relationships with humanity. He was at peace with all. We cannot do more than be like Christ, who Himself began His ministry in the desert, defeating the enemy.

Later Orthodox reflection has widened the desert and recognized that it includes all territory. There is no place we go where the struggle can be differently defined. In the city, in a factory, an office or in school, the battlefield of our spiritual life remains within our own heart. Solitude is only a tool in learning to recognize that fact and to focus our attention on where our attention needs to be.

Obviously, most of us do not leave the company of other human beings in our journey to salvation. But we should draw proper conclusions from the men and women who first entered the deserts and left us the records of their struggles. We do not labor in a secular land beneath the watchful eye of second-storey perfection. We labor in the land where heavenly wickedness does its battle: the human heart. And if our hearts are where the arena is to be found, then we should recognize as well that it is in that very arena that the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is to be found as well. The vast array of saints described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews who, having completed the course of their warfare, now surround us as spectators in the arena of our warfare, should themselves not be relegated to some distant second-storey where they watch us from afar. Thus it is not a strange thing that those who do spiritual warfare best also have many friends among the saints, and learn to call on them for aid. For though it may seem like “my” struggle, it is the struggle of all who name Christ as Lord. The saints do not surround us like a great cloud of witnesses in idle curiosity. They surround us to strengthen and aid us, to encourage us, and even, if need be, to fight along side us. Such is our heavenly warfare of the heart.

To spend time with someone who has learned well the battle of the heart is to sit at the gate of paradise. On some few occasions I have had opportunity to meet such warriors. The peace that is theirs, the complete lack of self-consciousness are signals that you have come to a new country. Such living witnesses are the loudest proclamation of the gospel known on earth. For in their heart, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. These are the dwelling places of the New Jerusalem and the living promises of God. Their hearts point us to the place where we should be engaging the struggle and remind us that with God all things are possible.

Icons in a One-Storey Universe

August 21, 2007


I’ll ask my readers to forgive me as I look at yet another aspect of the Christian life when the idea of a two-storey universe is jettisoned and we come to realize that we are living in a one-storey world: that God is with us. Readership has remained very high over the past week or so, so I will take that to mean that many people are interested in this approach and the insights it brings.

Icons are popularly referred to as “windows to heaven.” This is one of the places where language breaks down. If you are using language in a two-storey world, “heaven” is the equivalent of “upstairs.” It would thus be very peculiar to describe something as being a “window to upstairs.” The very language of the Church shows that it means something quite different.

Icons are not windows to another world, per se, but are a revelation of the truth of existence. When we paint an icon of a saint, the effort is to paint the saint in the truth of their life, not in their mere historical appearance. Thus the symbolism of the Byzantine style, points us towards the holiness of a saint. The same thing could be acheived by writing their lives – but an icon does the same with a single picture.

The same is true of icons depicting Biblical scenes. The icon of the crucifixion famously contains many elements that you would not literally have seen that day in Jerusalem – but if you knew the Truth of all that was happening – then you would know all that is shown in the icon.

This is one of the great difficulties of our one-storey world. It’s not that we live on the first floor and that’s all there is – it’s that we live on the first floor and we don’t know the half of it. We do not realize the true nature of where we are or when we are. Icons frequently show us much about the world as it truly is. This is the character of much of the lives we read about in the saints – they not only see what we see – they see much more. Indeed, we are told, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is not a reference to a notion that if you’re pure in heart, someday you will die and see the Lord. This completely misunderstands the verse.

The verse tells us that the primary organ of vision for human beings is not the eye, but the heart. Our eyes will only see what our hearts will allow. Thus we almost never see the truth of our enemies – as our language says, “We are blinded to the truth.” Anger blinds. Hatred blinds. Greed blinds. Politics blind. Many things blind.

Thus a great part of the Orthodox life is living in such a way that we will be able to see more and more clearly the truth of our own existence and of the world around us. There are those (non-Orthodox) who view the making and venerating of icons as a non-essential in Christianity. They may be willing to tolerate it, but see no necessity in it. Making and venerating icons, in the wisdom of the Church, is not only pleasant, but quite necessary. The veneration of an icon is an essential part of actually seeing it. The persons or situations that are presented to us in an icon are situations that call for humility of heart and a feeling of reverence. In some cases the reverence is so deep that we not only kiss the icon involved, we actually prostrate ourselves to the ground before it before we kiss it (this is the case in the Holy Cross and in the Burial Shroud of Christ).

We have a culture where people bow themselves before money, before food, before the flesh, before power, before almost anything but not the things of God. Our hearts are thus poisoned and our vision becomes clouded. We cannot see or judge anything correctly. We do not see or know the true God, nor do we see our neighbors for who they truly are. The only corrective is to live a life learning to rightly honor those things that should be honored. If kissing an icon seems foreign, it may be merely cultural, but, mind you, ours is a culture that has not taught us how to honor the things of God.

When someone is entering the Church through Baptism they renounce the devil and have prayers of exorcism read over them. Then they turn towards the East, towards the altar of God, and are told to worship Him. At that point they bow to the ground for the first time. They are then given the Creed to recite. There is an understanding that unless you bow down to the Lord God and worship Him, the words of the Creed will remain closed to you. You will not hear them rightly nor find them to be for your salvation.

Thus we walk through this one-storey world and pray to have our eyes opened. We make the sign of the cross frequently, almost as if we were brushing away the clouds of delusion that rise up from everything around us. We invoke the name of Christ without ceasing, begging His mercy.

Icons are windows – to heaven. But heaven is a window on this world. Christ Himself told us that the Kingdom of God is among us. Blessed be His name and may we see with pure hearts what only the Light of Christ can illumine.