Archive for September 4th, 2007

Windows to Heaven Are Not One Way

September 4, 2007

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I am participating in an icon workshop this week. Lectures, slides, and the slow process of learning how icons are painted, by painting one yourself under the guidance of an accomplished master. My experience is that you very quickly see that here you can only be pupil (at least at this stage of my life).

 A small but interesting point worth sharing this evening, is in the process of writing or painting the icon itself (both terms are used – some stages are far more like writing, indeed). It is the quiet instruction that as you work, pray, but also remember to pray to the saint or to Christ – whomever you are painting – asking for help. There is a relationship that is going on as part of the acting of painting itself.

I am working on an icon of St. Gregory Palamas, a 14th century saint, of tremendous importance theologically. He was given to me to paint, because the model I’m working on has primarily the face – and I’m simply not ready to learn much else. It is a good place to start.

 I find myself praying (as directed) and also apologizing frequently for my mistakes. And thinking often of both the theology St. Gregory taught, but also about the history of my encounter with him and his writings. They go back to the first Orthodox book I ever read. Thus it is not ironic, but simply proper that the first saint whose writings played a role in my life and my conversion is also the first to teach me how to present him to the world in the medium of iconography. Slowly I find that painting is like cleaning a window – removing what prohibits me from seeing the icon – but with an increasing awareness that the icon sees me.

I have found prayer with icons, through the years, to have much of this same experience. I simply have gotten to know the saint in the icon as they have become part of my prayer world. These are the people I pray with, like other parishioners in my parish – only they pray for me always – and I find that there is nothing I can do for them – other than to let them be who are what they are – saints in the midst of us.

I have to return to my work. May God bless.

What Do You See Outside Your Window – Evil in a One-Storey Universe

September 4, 2007

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A question was put several days back about what would be said about “evil in a one-storey universe?” Of course, as I’ve thought about the question, my simplest conclusion is to wonder how one would give an account of evil in a two-storey universe. For it seems that those who have imagined the universe as a two-storey affair have largely confined evil here and proposed that the second-floor has been swept clean. Heaven above and earth below, and a basement yet to come where the evil will at least be confined in everlasting flames. Of course the multi-storey version of good and evil do nothing to solve the problem and do much to create a secular no-man’s land, increasingly populated with those who cannot believe in either a second-storey nor a basement and frequently see believers among the evil in this world (if only to complicate matters).

Of course, the two Biblical books that treat the imagery of spiritual warfare with the evil one in the most literal fashion, have Satan standing before God and holding converse about the long-suffering Job (in the book of the same name) and engaged in a “war in heaven” with St. Michael and the angels in the other (the Revelation of St. John). In neither account is the location of great significance, for the center of action in both books in not “heaven” but rather earth – with St. Job’s sufferings in the one, and the various plagues and misfortunes befalling the earth in the other. Indeed, if the drama of either book is examined, the “heavenly” scenes, are rather more like ante-rooms than an upper-storey.

But the question remains – what account do we give of evil if we speak of the universe in the language of a single storey? I am a believer and as such generally find the source of evil in the abuse of free will, whether of human beings or on the part of heavenly beings (the demonic). Nor do I see that account as different than the theological account to be found in the Fathers. What I bear witness to as a believer, however, is less an account of the origin of evil than to my faith that our universe, though caught in the throes of death and decay, has nevertheless been entered by its Creator, who having taken flesh of the Virgin, has entered into the very depths of death and decay – themselves the result of evil – and defeated them. And thus I see this one-storey world in which I live as the active stage upon which that same victory is being manifest. I cannot say in the least that I see that victory increasingly manifest – for the Christian account of the world is not an account of progress towards the Kingdom of God, but a witness to the fact that the Kingdom of God has entered our world and there is nothing we can do about it. We can, of course, repent, believe the Gospel, and by God’s grace come to know that Kingdom within our selves and within the world in which we live (all of which is the gift of God) but we will also know that Kingdom in the midst of this same storey, which continues to lie in darkness and to endure the presence and work of evil.

Of course, there is much conversation about the metaphysics of evil and the nature of hell and eternal punishment – and though I have recommended articles on the same that I find of value – I think that a large amount of Christian energy is wasted on such matters. For it is not the mastery of the metaphysics of the universe that makes any difference, but rather the embrace of the Gospel of Christ and obedience to His commandments. Those who point to the plenitude of evil around us will get little argument from me, other than to say that what appears to be a plenitude is a “kingdom” that cannot stand, and that it’s end will come. I received a post that got lost in the spam yesterday complaining of the evil within the world, and wondering how I could speak of “heaven on earth.” I cannot think of anywhere else to speak of it, since all I know of heaven its what came forth from the tomb at Pascha. That same resurrected Christ is now Head of His body, the Church, and I cannot know of how to speak of that Body if it is not heaven on earth (despite all that we sinners may drag within her) but all the sickness that enters the doors of a hospital do not make it less a place a healing – I cannot do other with the Body of Christ but bear witness to the very fact that it exists for nothing other than healing. The only weakness within the Church is when we “patients” forget why we came in its doors in the first place, and begin to imagine either that we are already healed, or worse, that someone has turned us into the medical staff.

But though the one-storey world as we know it is itself a cosmic war zone, I cannot lose hope when I know that the end of the battle has already been accomplished in the coming of Christ. I wait for its manifestation – but having known the risen Lord – I wait with hope and run the race with patience. What else are we supposed to do?