Archive for September 19th, 2009

To See An Icon

September 19, 2009

12My previous post spoke of the world existing “iconically” rather than “literally.” I do not mean that the world cannot be seen in a “literal” fashion – only that the world will not be truly seen if seen only in a literal fashion (there is probably a better word than “literal” to describe this secularized form of experience). The seeing which sees in a “literal” fashion, assumes that things are only things, that what exists, exists only in an objective fashion and can be comprehended by such an objective viewing.

Seeing an icon involves a different kind of seeing than that normally described in an objective encounter. The writings of the Fathers surrounding the Seventh Ecumenical Council described an icon as a “hypostatic representation” (this is particularly true in the writings of St. Theodore the Studite). As such, an icon is a representation of the person, not of an essence (no painting could ever actually be a painting of an essence). But because an icon is a representation of a person, and not merely a semi-photographic portrayal of their likeness, it is also true that the icon cannot be seen as icon, except in a personal or hypostatic manner.

It is possible to see many people in the course of a given day – but that does not mean you have encountered them as persons. Frequently in our busy, de-personalized world, we encounter crowds as only so much “cattle.” Worse still is to see others in a merely objective way. In such an objective encounter, we categorize, judge, and discard the other not as person, but merely another object in our repertoire.

To see an icon as icon of a person – it is necessary that the icon (or that which is represented) be greeted in veneration. This is not an attitude of worship, but a greeting of honor and love. I cannot see another person as person except in an attitude of veneration (of honor and love). We are “fearfully and wonderfully made:” Human beings cannot be seen for what they are unless they are approached in “fear” and “wonder.”

The universe has a hypostatic character to it: it does not exist as an object that has no relation. The universe is creation – as such it has a Creator and cannot be seen for what it is unless its Creator is held in honor and love (and worship). We do not worship the creation, but we cannot rightly see it except we see it as creation. This is something profoundly deeper than seeing creation as a thing or a collection of things.

I have been to museums and have seen the relic collections of many Churches. I never fail to be struck by an object when it is associated with a person. The see an ancient set of vestments can be of interest to me – but to see a set of vestments worn by someone whom I know (such as a saint whom I know) is a very different form of seeing. Last year at about this time, I sat in the cave that served as the monastic cell of St. John of Damascus. There he prayed. There he wrote his great masterpieces of theology. I could not see the rock as “mere rock.” It had a hypostatic character that bore both its relation to the Creator as well as its lesser relation to St. John. It was not a cave, but his cave.

I daresay most people see the members of their family in something greater than an objective manner. We see beyond faults and shortcomings. We sometimes even see the state of their souls. We are rarely unaware of the web of relations in which we exist together with those we love. All of these things drive us to see one another as more than object.

To see the world as icon is to understand its place as creation and to hold it in proper veneration as the handiwork of God. Seen in such a way, everything becomes a window to heaven, the gate by which we may enter the nearer presence of God.