Archive for September, 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?

Icons – A Room with a View

September 2, 2007

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Dreams are interesting things – our modern age either makes too little of them or too much of them – but mostly, we believe our dreams are about us and about the inside of our heads. Those who make too little of their dreams write them off to anxiety or other stresses of the day – wish fulfillment – or a variety of other mundane causes. Those who make too much of them remind me of those who are Western believers in reincarnation – they always seem to have been somebody famous – while their dreaming counterparts always try to find the meaning of the universe or something equally significant in the slightest symbol. I don’t mean to sound so jaundiced on the subject, but I once spent a week at a Jungian Conference (long ago and far away and definitely in a different galaxy). Such a week can make you afraid to go to sleep.

But dreams certainly have a signficance – and as shown in Scripture, they can indeed be sent by God. My favorite Biblical dream is that of Jacob, who sees a ladder stretching into the heavens and angels going up and coming down. His reaction upon waking was to attribute the dream to the place in which he was sleeping:”This is none other than the gate of heaven and the house of God!” And, of course, as the good patriarch that he was he erected a stone and anointed it with oil.

Years ago, some years before I became Orthodox, I had a dream in which I was in a Church. Its construction was of log-timber and it was obvious to me that it was an Orthodox Church. There were icons and lampadas, and a sizable crowd of people. What fascinated me about this dream-Church were its many rooms. Everywhere you went there were steps up and steps down and rooms here and rooms there and all of them full of people and icons and lampadas and the faint smell of incense and the low murmur of worship and prayers. I remember the dream lasting quite a while, but with nothing more significant than the many rooms – and how it felt to be there.

That feeling is what remained with me when I awoke and remains with me to this day. The description I have given is probably the best I can do, for I have no words for how it felt, other than to say it felt like an Orthodox Church – but an almost endless Orthodox Church.

Having written a week or so back about the Christian life lived in a one-storey universe, I am reminded of that Church in my dream. It was certainly a one-storey Church – and yet it constantly opened up into place after place.

This week I am studying the painting (or writing if you prefer) of icons. They are often called “windows to heaven.” In the Church of my dream, or certainly within the metaphor it has left in my heart, I also think of them as doors to another room. Each saint, each icon of Christ or of the Theotokos, opens not just to heaven, but to ever deeper rooms within the world in which we inhabit. To spend time with an icon is not to visit some other place only to return to where you were before, but is to enter another room though you never left where you were. The world is changed, enlarged. What seemed small and insignificant is suddenly expanded and filled with meaning. The finite is filled with the infinite and becomes inexhaustible.

I remember waking from my dream years ago, and aching with a hunger for something I could not name. But I know now that it was a hunger for heaven – and not for a heaven somewhere else, but for heaven on earth – which in Orthodox dogma – is indeed the Church.

Face to Face with God

September 1, 2007

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2 Cor. 3:18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

1 Cor. 13:12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

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.

There is a peculiar fascination in Scripture with the face of God. It clearly has meaning well beyond simply the presence of God Himself. There can be many stories of encounters with God, with “His angel,” or with His presence in some manner or another – but few encounters will speak of the face of God. At best, in the Old Testament, we are generally told that no one can see the face of God and live – though Moses is said to have spoken to God “face to face” as a man does with his friend. This story, taken in the light of others, probably only refers to a directness and not to a literal face-to-face.

But when we come to the New Testament, particularly to the writings of St. Paul, beholding the face of Christ is quite central to the fullness of our salvation. We will know the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ; when we see face to face we will know even as we are known; with unveiled face we behold the glory of the Lord and are changed into His likeness.

There is certainly an element of intimacy that is inferred by “face-to-face.” There is even an element of equality in the sense of Moses speaking to God as a man would to his friend. But it seems to me quite clear that St. Paul grasps the full plenitude of what it means that God has acquired a human face. Unlike the flashes and clouds that seem to surround Moses’ enounters with God – we now have something made accessible to us all in the incarnation. God has assumed a human face and can be seen face-to-face.

Of course this is not saying that we can now take pictures and have photographs to remember Him by (had the technology existed then). There are those odd reminders in the post-resurrection encounters of those who saw Him and yet did not recognize Him. But in the coming of God in the flesh, there is an accessibility that did not exist before. Such a God has made it clear that He wishes to be seen face to face.

Indeed with the incarnation God declares to us that the nature of His relationship with us is to be face to face and in no other way. In the painting of icons this truth is represented by the avoidance of profile. Christ is never portrayed in profile and this is generally true of all the saints. We see them, face to face, because they are open to us and stand before us ready to embrace us in relationship.

The mystery that we encounter in an icon is thus not the mystery of something directly hiding from us – the mystery of someone who has turned their back and we cannot see what they are doing. The mystery is of one whose face reveals more than we can comprehend.

This next week I will be attending an icon workshop with my teenage daughter, Clare. She is the artist of the family. I look forward to a week with her, but a week in which you encounter the face of the one whom you paint – a face that in some sense you help reveal. It is the first such workshop I will have attended. What time I can get to write a little will likely reflect the day’s thoughts. So do not be surprised to read about icons here next week. I would appreciate your prayers and pray that we all behold Him face to face and truly grow from glory to glory.