Archive for September, 2007

Why The Small Things Matter

September 17, 2007


Perhaps one of the greatest disservices done to Christians by the spate of “Left Behind” novels and the like, and the romanticism that is inherent in the drama depicted – is that it makes the true struggle undergone by Christians seem trivial by comparison. When the small actions, little choices for kindness, forgiveness, joy, comfort – the whole panoply of our daily struggle – are minimized, the heroism of our struggle and its importance can be reduced to insignificance.

When this is coupled with a reduced doctrine of the Atonement, in which a simple act of intellectual acceptance, a “choice for Jesus,” acquires a blood payment for sin in a once-for-all momentary encounter (I’m doing my best to describe the popular conception of the Substitutionary Atonement Theory), Christianity itself becomes minimized. One decision and you’re done. Little wonder that many have traded-in Christian ascesis for political action – at least the latter seems real to them.

I have described the Substitutionary Atonement as a “reduced” doctrine because it uses only one sacrificial image to describe Christ’s work on the Cross. This single image does not begin to do justice to the many images of sacrifice given in the Scriptures, all of which are fullfilled by Christ’s death on the Cross. Christ sacrifice is not one thing – but all things.

The reduction of Christianity to a virtual land of fantasy has granted undue power to our present age in the guise of the secular. There is, in fact, no such thing as secular – it is a modern fiction – one which Christians should not empower by granting it recognition. God is excluded from nothing whatsoever, nor does He ask for our permission in order to be present. We may do unspeakable things in His presence – but that does not render Him absent. It renders us hardened hearts but can make no change in the changeless God.

The sooner Christians awaken to the marketing scheme of secularizing dogma-merchants, the sooner they can begin their search for the God whom they have “left behind.” He is truly near us, even on our lips and in our mouths. We should renounce the false romanticism of modern dispensationalism and the hucksters of false messianic prophecies. All of these things are removing the truth of our faith from the smallest of things before us, and placing them on the false stage of “history.”

Small things matter for it is there that we will meet Christ – and there alone. Every moment of our life, even when it is later dramatized for narrative effect, is still quite a small thing. Either we will see and embrace Christ in these moments of our existence, or we will worship a false Christ manufactured by human imagination and fantasy. For the Christian, God is here or He is nowhere at all.

What St. Seraphim Meant

September 17, 2007


“Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” This is perhaps the most famous quote of the great Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov. Many of his icons have this saying on them. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it. On the other hand, I think there are many who do not understand it. And understanding what he meant can take you to the very heart of Orthodoxy.

“To acquire the Spirit of Peace,” has a wonderful ring to it – and most of us assume that it is the fruit of the great saint’s long years of strict monastic practice. Doubtless many of the gifts of St. Seraphim were manifested in such a powerful fashion on account of his years of silence and prayer.

But his statement on acquiring the Spirit of Peace is not nearly as complicated or mysterious as some might think.

In many ways it is simply an expansion of the Gospel parable of the talents:

For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property;to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, `Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, `Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, `Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, `You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth’ (Matthew 25:14-30).

This very familiar parable is quite odd. Christ is alluding to something in the imagery of the “talents” of silver (or gold). Whatever it is, it has been given freely to the stewards – but the stewards are expected to do something with the gift. It is to be given back, with a profit.

First, the parable is not about talents: piano-playing and the like. Nor is it about public-speaking, or even being a good teacher of children. It is not about talents. It is about a sum of money – but is not a “stewardship” parable in the sense that Christ is not trying to tell us to be sure and make money.

It is a parable about grace, about the Holy Spirit.

St. Seraphim, in his own teaching, would be almost crass. He told his disciples to “acquire the Holy Spirit,” and used the gross comparisons of a businessman investing his money in order to make more. His own father was a merchant. He knew what he was talking about – but the imagery was carried over to the spiritual life – and its goal was supremely described as the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”

The larger question then (and it applies to the parable as well): How do we acquire grace – or the Holy Spirit?

Please note that I am not speaking about earning more grace and performing works in order to gain the Holy Spirit.

Grace is nothing other than the Life of God. In proper theological terms (of the Eastern Church) grace is the uncreated Divine energies. But that phrase, unless correctly understood can be all to confusing. I prefer to speak either of grace or of God’s own Life, freely given to us.

First, grace is a gift. You don’t have to go anywhere to get what you already have been given. What we need to do is allow the grace of God to work in us what God intends.

St. Paul would urge: “We entreat you not to receive the grace of God in vain! (2 Corinthians 6:1)

Each of us (certainly in our Baptism and Chrismation) have been given the grace of God for our salvation – that is to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit and to conform us to the image of God in Christ. The question is what do we do with it?

This is a question particularly about the small things of the day. Do we pray? Do we begin the day by crossing ourselves before our feet ever hit the floor? When tempted to grumble do we refrain and give thanks instead? Do we condemn others, even when we could have been silent? Do we forgive when we could have nursed a grudge?

There is grace for each of these things and thousands more. We are able, because God has made us able. Grace that is put to use in our lives produces dividends of grace. St. Seraphim did not become what he was through a momentary gift, but through a lifetime of ascesis and “reinvesting” the grace given him.

Some words from the great saint for the little things of the day:

You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.

All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other…instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.

Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.

This is what St. Seraphim meant.

Time in a One-Storey World

September 14, 2007


It seems to me as I’ve looked over my posts on the “one-storey” world, that one thing I have not paid much attention to is time. Part of the “two-storey” construct which dominates our modern world-view, is a tendency to view time in a purely linear, historical progression. Thus for some very conservative two-storey Christians, time begins at creation, and moves along in a linear fashion. Thus the timing of Adam and the fall become critical historical problems. There are those who are thus forced to argue for a “young earth.” A museum opened this past year in which the young earth was celebrated, the dinosaurs depicted as cohabiting the world with Adam and Eve. It adds a whole new dimension to life in the Garden of Eden.

This same treatment of time may have an emphasis on the “last days,” in some cases arguing strongly that we are in just such days. The “Left Behind” series of novels celebrates this linear view. And although, properly speaking, the end of history may be referred to as the “eschaton,” the linear, two-storey version of time and life on earth, actually lacks an eschatological dimension. There is nothing about the end that is different from the rest of time with the sole factor of its timing. It is the end, because it is the last thing in a long progression. Prophecy about such an end is not about the nature of things, but simply about the progression of things. This is not Biblical eschatology.

Of course, this is a hallmark of the two-storey worldview. It is inherently secular (even when it’s religious). That which is significant and of everlasting value has been placed “off world” in a second-storey. This world simply continues until it is brought to its cataclysmic end, trucks running off the road, airplanes crashing, and all the rest of the tragic scenario of Dispensationalism (of course it’s quite possible to be a two-storey Christian without at the same time being a Dispensationalist).

However, as noted, this modernized world-view has no proper eschatology, and does not have a proper Christian view of time. Christ, we are told in Scripture, is the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 21:6). This is not simply a way of saying that He is eternal and was here when everything was created and will be here when everything ends. To view Him in such a manner, is to privilege creation in a way that sets it on a par with God, only shorter.

Scripture does not tell us that Christ was the Alpha and He will be the Omega – He is already both, always. When Christ walked among His disciples, the end of the age had come upon them. It is thus that His ministry is marked with the character of a “Jubilee” year, the 50th year in the Sabbath Cycle, in which everything is set free, and restored to its proper owner and order. Thus when St. John the Baptist sends word to ask whether Christ is the Messiah, Christ’s answer is couched in the language of the Jubilee:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me (Matt. 11:4-6).

In the same vein He announces His ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:16-19).

This passage is a traditional Jubilee passage. The Jubilee itself, though occurring every 50 years, is also a type of the eschaton, the Great Day of the Lord, when the Judge will come and all things will be set right. The healing ministry of Jesus must be seen in this light. He does what He does, because He is the Omega, and where He walks the Jubilee has come. He is the End of History tabernacling in time.

By the same token – all that is associated with Him takes on this same cast. Thus, we are no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of Heaven:

But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,21 who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:20-21).

Thus the Church, though in this world, is not of this world. Properly, the Church is an eschatological moment. It Baptizes into the death of Christ and raises in the likeness of His resurrection, thus casting time aside and treating these historical events as present, because in the presence of Christ all moments are present. The Church eats of an eschatological meal, enjoying the food of the Messianic banquet now, because in Christ that moment is already made present to the Church.

Dostoevsky’s famous Grand Inquisitor is a frontal assault on the Church acting not as eschatological community but the arbiter of history. In Dostoevsky “poem,” the Grand Inquisitor will have nothing to do with Christ other than to threaten Him for heresy and subject Him to the Inquisition. The Church will achieve what it sees God has having failed to do. There are a thousand ways to run this story – whether it is the Liberation Theology of South America, or the Swastika bedecked Churches who sought to Baptize a demoniac regeme. At points in time Christians have lost the proper identity of the Church as an eschatological moment and, through various schemes and arrangements, has either sought to prop up regemes that were judged useful to the Church’s needs, or even to have simply replaced the regeme with the Church itself. This is the ultimate triumph of secularism. To declare the Church as the Kingdom Come when it is living as nothing of the sort is to dress up a donkey and call him “Aslan.” Some may fall for it, but none of us should. It is a false eschatology.

The act of forgiveness is a true eschatological triumph. Trapped in history, modern man sees no way forward but to fight for domination: to the victor goes the spoils. Forgiveness is weakness and a good way to lose tomorrow what we gained yesterday. However, in radical obedience to the gospel of Christ, Christians behave in an eschatological manner: we forgive our enemies because we have already seen the outcome of history in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and thus do not need to force the behavior of our enemies in order to create a desired outcome. In the light of Christ’s triumph, we may forgive those who hurt us, because we know of the forgiveness that is and will be ours. The forgiveness of enemies is a proclamation of the victory of Christ – both now and forever.

The resurrection itself is the great sign of our forgiveness. Having obtained death as the outcome of our disobedience, we obtain the forgiveness of death in our resurrection. In a thousand ways in which the life of the Church is made manifest in this world – it shows forth not a linear progression through history – but an inbreaking of the Kingdom. Time has been ruptured, fulfilled, overcome.

We may live in a one-storey universe – but this one-storey universe is not a linear progression of events. It is the arena in which the Lord of time, transcends time. It is the arena in which the Cause is born in the midst of time. Thus St. Maximus can say that the “incarnation is the cause of all things.” In this one-storey universe icons become windows to heaven, doorways to the eschaton, for each portrayal in an icon is drawn in an eschatological manner. Thus we can see an icon of St. John the Baptist (with his head on his shoulders) with his head also on a charger lying at his feet. This is only possible for we are seeing all things together as we gaze through a window that shatters the boundaries of time.

It is also a reason why it is quite problematic when Orthodox Christians see themselves primarily as the keepers and conservers of the past. We do not look back and think that the 1st century was the best; or the 4th; or the 8th; or the 15th; or the 19th, etc. We are “stewards of the mysteries of God,” which no time can limit or define. We are the same Church in the 21st century as we were in the 1st century because we have always been the Church which is Christ’s eschatological bride. We are the Church of all centuries because we will be and are the Church at the end of the age.

Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

How Do We Know God?

September 12, 2007


How do we know God? The question is simple and straightforward – until we begin to answer it.

I have written lately much about icons, and particularly the Seventh Council’s contention that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This simple statement has such a richness of implication that it is hard to ask too much of it. It obviously means to say that there are ways we know God that are not confined to the words of Scripture. Not that icons are ever properly contradictory to Scripture – but present what they do in the manner that they do it is clear that we encounter God in ways that transcend the written word.

Icons, canonically, have something of a strict control about them. We can’t make icons just any way we want (though the pressures of the modern world have stretched this stricture to its limits). They have this strict control, I believe, not because of their weakness, but because of their power. Just as the written word has a tremendous power – and thus has its strictures as well – so images have their boundaries.

But the very revelatory character of images points to something beyond both Scripture and Icon – which is a ubiquity to God and His self-revelation. In simpler terms – God is everywhere and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It is important to note that the Church is not the sole dispenser of knowledge of God – and even as we dispense what we have, we do not have what is most key in the knowledge of God – we do not control the action of God. We cannot say to someone, “If you do this, then you will know God.” Were it so easy, so straightforward, seminary would likely be limited to one class, and all of our priests would seem wise. But such is not the case.

We we have been given is true and faithful and what we have we can share. But still each person must themselves encounter the true and living God in such a way that what has been made known to us in Tradition becomes true for them in an existential manner.

Of this none of us have control. To some great extent, even the person who is seeking to know God is not in control. We never truly know our own heart – and though convinced of one thing with regard to our heart – it is entirely possible for something else to be the case. The heart is mystery – even to ourselves – and outside of the clear light of God’s revelation we do not know even this most intimate thing about ourselves.

We add to this finally the fact that God Himself is free. He is not simply the Absolute and thus confined to His own attributes. In Orthodox understanding, we begin with God as person before we proceed to say anything else. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and His being (in a logical sense) rises from that act of communion. Thus God is “free” as philosophers would say, even of His own Substance. Thus I cannot predict God or tell someone else what they may do and how He will respond.

I can recall in my earliest Christian days making just such a promise. I knew very little and was simply a very zealous Jesus Freak. I recall in a personal encounter with someone making a specific promise about what God would do if they would do thus and such. The details of the story are not important at the moment. But I recall that as soon as I had uttered such a rash promise, I had a feeling that I had crossed a boundary that should have not been crossed. I had no theology to tell me so, only my inner sense of my relationship with God. Somehow, it seemed clear to me that I was not the senior partner in this relationship and my rashness had forgotten that fact.

I recall praying (under my breath) and asking forgiveness for my rashness and begging God not to hold it against the person with whom I was talking, or against me. The good God, apparently forgave me, and did what was asked, but I also knew it had been pure grace and an act of kindness – no necessity bound His action, least of all my promises in His name.

We know God as He makes Himself known to us. Within the life of the Church, having submitted our lives to Holy Tradition and the discipleship of Christ, it is possible to point to sacraments, to Scripture, to icons, to all the various things God has set forth that we may know Him. But outside of that life, there are no holds barred. God is not willing that any should perish and will make Himself known however He chooses – and no one can gainsay it. God is God.

But the Tradition would tell us quite the same thing.

Looking for God in All Places

September 11, 2007


Sometimes the title for a piece comes before the rest of my writing and tells me what I’m going to write. Other times it comes as the last thing. Tonight it’s the first. I thought about “Looking for God in all the Right Places,” but, then again, that’s the problem. People frequently assume that God is to be found in “religious” places, as though those were the places He would most like to hang around. There is a sacramental side to that – and many holy places are just that – holy places and have been places of pilgrimage and conversion.

But it can too easily be assumed that God is in those places and not in others – when in fact He is “everywhere present and fills all things,” (from the prayer, “O, Heavenly King”). Ignoring this is just another subtle way to create a two-storey universe or a bifurcated world, a world where God is in this place, but not in that. With such distinctions we’ll have recreated the entire mess of secularism.

The foremost place for finding God is within our own heart – for if we do not find Him there, we will likely not find Him anywhere. God is made known to us in Scripture, and yet a heart that rejects God, or a heart that harbors hatred, will not likely find Him there, either. The same is true of every “holy” place and every “holy” thing. In the Orthodox Liturgy the priest lifts the consecrated Body of Christ from the diskos and proclaims, “The Holy Things are for the holy.” This is a specific reference within the Eucharist, but it is also true generally in our lives. My heart doesn’t need to be perfect by any means, but there must be some corner, some place where I will welcome God for Him to enter into that most sacred of all created places, the human heart.

I have written over the past week about icons – they can be marvelous “windows to heaven,” but they will be opaque and closed to our viewing unless our hearts are ready to see. By the same token, and with much greater difficulty, God is present and made known to us in the most frightful suffering the world knows (as well as the less frightful) – for He is a God who has not absented Himself from human suffering but has, instead, united Himself with it. We have a tendency to see human tragedy and cry, “Where is God?” I think of this as standing before the foot of the Cross with the dead body of Jesus hanging on it and shouting the same. He is as present in all human suffering as He was and is in His suffering on the Cross. Again, it is a great heart that can see His presence in such circumstances.

Which brings me back to my title. We should be looking for God in all the right places – but if we have the eyes to see, we will understand that all the right places is all places. Thanks be to God.

Icons and the Fullness of the Faith – A Story

September 10, 2007


In 1988 I began studies at Duke University in the Graduate School of Religion. My intention at the time was to complete a doctorate and look for a teaching position. I had served for eight years in the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church and was headed for what I hoped would be a deepening of my understanding of the faith and of my ministry. I had an interest in Orthodox theology at the time, and applied to Duke particularly to study with Geoffrey Wainwright who is a noted systematic theologian and very sympathetic and understanding of Orthodox theology (he was the commencement speaker year before last at St. Vladimir’s Seminary).

I also found a growing interest in the work of Stanley Hauerwas who was and is on the faculty there as well. Generally, I was never disappointed in my studies. In most if not all of my seminars I was able to concentrate my own studies on Orthodox writings and found support and encouragement. It is too long a story to explain how my doctoral program became a Master’s program (it was my choice). But my studies, even as they concluded, probably sealed a certain portion of my conversion to the Orthodox faith.

I wrote my thesis on the “Icon as Theology,” after Dr. Wainwright sent me down that path. I discovered as I studied not the art, but the theology of the icon, that everything I had learned previously about the Orthodox faith was summarized in these colorful representations – and perhaps more.

A very significant moment occurred during my thesis defense. The committee examining me consisted of Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanley Hauerwas and Susan Keefe, Associate Professor of Church History at the Divinity School. You never know quite what to expect when you are defending a thesis or a dissertation – anything can happen. Generally our conversations were friendly and simply pressed various issues within the thesis. But true to his form, Hauerwas turned the tables in a suddenly personal fashion:

“Stephen, do you believe that the veneration of icons is necessary for salvation?”

It was more than a personal question (indeed it felt we had suddenly left all academics aside). What Dr. Hauerwas was well aware of was that my ordination oath as an Episcopal priest contained the statement: “I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to contain all things necessary to salvation.”

I balked at his question. The fact that I balked and did not immediately repeat the oath I had taken some 10-and-a-half years before (it was now 1990), was itself a crystalizing moment for me. There are such moments when time seems to stop or at least to have no relevance. I have no idea I long I hesitated, but the answer seemed clear to me:

“Though I took an oath that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation, I believe the veneration of icons is necessary to its fullness.”

It was a statement I had never made before, but was clearly a statement I believed to be true. Had I denied it I would have been lying.

What was clear to me was that something had changed. What had been an intellectual interest in Orthodox theology and something of a touchstone for Christian believing (it was simply impossible to find reliable doctrinal teaching elsewhere, in my experience), had now become an article of faith.

For one, the notion of the “fullness of the faith,” was a concept I had not always considered but had become increasingly familiar with as I read Orthodox writings. The “fullness” of the truth is something larger than a mere syllogism. It implies not only correctness of doctrine, but doctrine that is itself set in its proper context and relationship. The word “Orthodox” can be translated to simply mean “correct,” but its larger meaning is “right glory.” The Orthodox understanding is that right believing is only fully known in right worship. We were created to give God glory and thanksgiving (Fr. Alexander Schmemann very famously draws this from Romans 1:21). It is only in that state of giving glory and thanksgiving that we rightly know and perceive the truth. Doctrine cannot be divorced from worship (this was a point for which Wainwright was well known and which drew me to work with him).

But my studies had led me to see that the “fullness” of the faith was summarized in the veneration of icons in a way that was matched by nothing else. It is a mark of Orthodox worship that the great struggles for the true faith in the early centuries had profound effects on certain aspects of worship. When the heresy of Arianism was answered with the Nicene Creed – the Creed became an indispensable part of the Liturgy. Indeed, every affirmation of the faith over and against the various heresies found some voice within the prayers and hymns of the Church. To worship God is also to affirm the truth as it has been made known.

The last of the great Ecumenical Councils, by Orthodox reckoning, was the Seventh, in which the making and veneration of icons was solemnly defined by the Church in answer to the heresy of iconoclasm. The theological underpinnings of that council required the whole of the previous six – it served as a summarization. Thus the presence of icons in an Orthodox Church is not optional – they are as necessary as the Nicene Creed.

The Church worshipped without all of the stated words of the Nicene Creed prior to the 4th century, though its faith did not differ from that of Nicaea. There is evidence of images within Christian Churches going back to the Second Century (most famously in the Catacombs of Rome). I do not presume that images played the same role in the first few centuries that they came to play in later centuries – but that is the nature of Christian doctrine and worship. I do not see this as a development of doctrine, but simply an outward statement of what the Church has always known. Regarding icons St. John of Damascus stated in the 8th century:

Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. [On Icons, 1,16].

St. John’s statement, perhaps one of the most familiar and oft-quoted of the Fathers on icons, demonstrates how the holy icons served to summarize the faith. We make them because in doing so we defend the fact of Christ’s incarnation. In the canonical style that came to be the standard within Orthodoxy, the icons did more than reaffirm the incarnation – they came to say, as the Father’s of the Seventh Council affirmed, “with color, what the Scriptures say with words.” I had not denied an oath I took at one point in my life – I had simply discovered that there is a fullness of the same gospel that is also stated in color. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. There is, in fact, only one Word, and though He could not be contained by the universe, He was nonetheless contained within matter. Words alone might give rise to a dematerialization of that truth – reducing the incarnate God to an idea – a statement – words alone. That we eat His Body and drink His Blood serve as sacramental anchors for His continuing use of matter.

His image states in another manner the same fullness. I will not cease from honoring the matter which works my salvation. If there is a fullness – why would we want less?

A Blessed Day to You All

September 10, 2007

When an Icon is not an Icon

September 9, 2007


When is an icon not an icon?

There are several answers to the question. Some of them would be technical, even somewhat argumentative as the strict canon governing icons gave way to more “Westernized” styles in the 17th century and beyond – but there have been notable “icons” among even very “Westernized” icons. St. Seraphim of Sarov prayed before such an icon – and some have been known to weep and many of them hold a deep place in the heart and devotion of Orthodox people in many places across the world.

The answer, as I said, could be technical. An icon, since it is like Scripture, has rules that govern its composition and content. Not every religious picture is an icon – even though it may easily inspire devotion and reverence. It has its place.

I spent better than two years working as a Hospice Chaplain in the mountains (mostly) of East Tennessee during the time after my conversion to Orthodoxy, while I was being trained for ordination in the Church. Most of the homes I was privileged to enter were rural, modest, and Baptist or Pentecostal. Most of the Baptists were not Southern Baptist, but Missionary Baptist, and some Primitive Baptist. Pentecostals covered a different spectrum (though they are much alike in this part of Tennessee). To my surprise, most homes had religious pictures. Among the most popular, interestingly, was the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There was no consciousness whatsoever of Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart – but the picture said something about Jesus that was immediately recognized and cherished. I could not argue with the thought. I even recall one home that had a sizable statue of Mary – the family loved the Mother of God, though not particularly aware of Orthodox or Catholic doctrine about her.

That experience has always made me careful not to hurry towards criticism of religious art – as I said, it has it’s place.

I heard one comment this week, however, that struck me as the truth in the deepest sort of way. In a conversation about icons, a particular example, known to several of us, was raised. The master iconographer immediately said of it: “It is not an icon!” I was surprised – but the explanation went to the heart of things.

“The icon has hate in it and Orthodox icons cannot have hate.”

The example was an icon that contained some political content – I’ll not go into details – but the point was profound. An icon is a “window to heaven,” which cannot also be a window to hate. I am sure that some will point to icons of the Last Judgment and their portrayal of hell, etc., and ask how these are icons. They are icons just as Scripture describing such things are Scripture – but the Scriptures are not the bearer of hate unless they are being badly misinterpreted (which they often have been). A heart of hate will find hate wherever it looks, but will not see heaven no matter how hard it looks.

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love (1 John 4:7-8).

When an icon does not agree with this – it is not an icon.

Icons and the Scriptures

September 7, 2007


I have had many thoughts this week about problems within the modern academic study of Scripture. An inherent problem is that scholars of Scripture lack both imagination and experience. I do not mean to impugn the intelligence of any particular academic – indeed, I have known many interpreters of Scripture whose work was almost pure imagination. What I am alluding to is a limit of imagination to see the many layers, the form and shape of Scripture and the wonders of its construction.

I can recall in both college and seminary courses having professors point to the fact that the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 reads (ambiguously) “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son,” rather than the Greek “a young virgin….” Early translators of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek chose the unambiguous term parthenos to render the Hebrew ‘alma. The conclusion thrust to our young minds was that an error in translation led to the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth!

Of course, this same simple conclusion ignored an entire tradition of Biblical interpretation that saw the Virgin Birth in far more than Isaiah 7:14, (not arguing the more obvious point that the doctrine of Christ’s Virgin Birth was actually based on His birth from a virgin). But the doctrine and the stories within Luke and Matthew have structures and layers and form that go far beyond the turn of a single Hebrew word. I could repeat this example many times.

My thoughts about the limitations of Biblical scholarship this week have not been accidental. They have come as I have been taking part in a workshop on painting icons. It has been my meditation on the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s proclamation: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” that has led me to my conclusions about certain problems with Scriptural scholarship.

For I believe that it is not only true that icons do with color what Scripture does with words, but also that Scripture does with words what icons do with color. Scripture, as used traditionally in the Christian faith, is iconic in its structure and form and will not be well understood apart from this.

As I have taken part in the workshop this week, I have also had the benefit, and humbling experience of painting (or writing) an icon. And as all workshops should be – this one is conducted by a Master iconographer – someone who not only knows technique but also the theology and history of icons. It is a profound experience to be corrected by a Master iconographer (or to see the look of despair in her face as she would examine my work). But being in such a context I realized that no scholar of Scripture has ever sat with a writer of Scripture, or had someone stand over their work and critique them in quite the same manner. It is an inherent limitation of the academic study of Scripture.

This limitation has existed since the beginning – though the Master was present in that beginning to do the same as a Master iconographer. I think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in St. Luke’s Gospel. They do not recognize the risen Lord, nor do they seem to have any understanding that His resurrection is to be expected. And so they receive a correction from the Master:

“O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:25-27).

The reading of Scripture, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” is not an obvious matter. Those who argue for “soul competency” seem to ignore such examples as the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or presume that somehow Pentecost fixed all that. But it is still the case that reading Scripture is something that must be taught (though the manner of its teaching will go far beyond the bounds of a scholastic classroom). What is taught must be more than “this is what this means.” What is taught must also be the form and shape and structure of Scripture. Scripture has a language that is far deeper and more constant than Greek or Hebrew – and it is a part of its language that must be learned. For instance, how does the New Testament read the Old Testament?

It is here in such questions that the Christian understanding of Scripture as icon becomes apparent. We lack the experience of sitting with a master iconographer as we read Scripture, but the Tradition that is manifest in an iconographer, is also carried in the liturgical life of the Church. How do the prayers of the Church read Scripture? What form and shape do they see and what do they tell us about its structure? The liturgical life of the Church recognizes this iconic form in Scripture and even echoes it within its musical forms. That some feasts “sound” like other feasts is not an accident in Orthodox worship.

All of this tells me something about the study of Scripture. Although modern scholarship in many places is completely ignorant of the liturgical legacy of the Orthodox faith – that liturgical life has not disappeared, nor has its reading of Scripture.

To step into the active life of the creation of icons is to step into one of the deeper parts of the stream of Tradition. It is not a different stream than that of Scripture – one flows with color while the other flows with words – just as the liturgical life of the Church flows with music and action as well as words (and icons). All of them are one and the same stream of Tradition. It is good to stand deeply in any part of the waters (even if your work brings strange looks to the face of the master who guides you).

Being Formed in the Light – Icons and Salvation

September 6, 2007


1 John 1:5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.John 3:29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

One of the stranger experiences of painting icons (and I have nothing to compare it to since I have never painted anything else) is the movement from dark to light. The basic form is established in the darkest tones that will appear – and despite what you may have seen in books of reproductions, icons do not properly ever use the color black. Some other dark color has to carry that value. But at the stage of the first beginnings, when the basic shapes are established, an icon is at its darkest stage. Indeed, in painting the icon of a face, it appears quite dark, lifeless and flat.

The startling process (particularly for this neophyte) is the building up of form and content with light. Each stage is lighter than the last until at last highlights are added. But in the process what had been dead and lifeless, flat and empty, now becomes increasingly full and alive. “It is building with light,” we are told.

That, of course, is the process of painting an icon. But there is also a work of restoration and of re-creating an image that is taking place in each of us. Like the form of an icon in its darkest stage, we come to Christ and the discernable similarity to the image of God is there – but we are dark and lifeless by comparison to what we are called to be.

The Scripture verses I cited above were some that came to mind as I thought about this process today. We were told in painting: “You never create form back adding something darker.” This is true in our Christian formation as well. The movies like to add a bit of darkness to their characters for the sake of interest. Numerous writers from Dostoevsky to C.S.Lewis have noted the difficulties in creating a literary character who is interesting without at the same time being bad. But our badness, however “colorful” it may seem to some – particularly if it is nicely drawn on the screen and compared to lifeless “straw men” of goodness -is not very interesting at all. True goodness has a form and depth to it that makes anything less seem not full of character, but simple, banal and boring.

“God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” We need add no darkness to our character in order to become more like Christ. It is light that gives us form and reveals the character of Christ in us.

By the same token, St. John the Baptist’s statement, that “He must increase and I must decrease,” seems quite apt for our situation as well. The change that is to take place in us, from glory to glory, comes by beholding the face of Christ:

2 Cor. 4:6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in
the face of Christ.

The change that occurs in us does not come about because we have made a promise to make a good effort at self-improvement – to learn to behave ourselves better. It comes not because we have learned to reform ourselves by ridding ourselves of our worst habits and undergone years of psychoanalysis (I do not mean to disparage the use of medicines where needed, nor the help of physicians). But the change that occurs in us does not come by more carefully monitoring ourselves, but by recognizing that it is Christ who must increase while I am descreasing. It is not nearly so much that I need less of something as it is I need more of something, or rather, Someone. It is “Christ in you” who is the “hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Our daily labor needs to be towards Christ Himself – that He may increase in us. It is not the obliteration of what we are as it is the “light of Christ” appropriately applied that brings proper form and shape to our shapeless lives and reveals that this lump of clay was indeed created to become the image of God.

Not less of the world – but more of God. He is not destroying us in the process of saving us – but making His creation new.