Archive for the ‘Beauty’ Category

Looking Like Christmas

December 5, 2011

One of the most striking features of the Gospels is the frequent response of the Disciples after the resurrection of Christ: doubt. I have always been sympathetic to the doubts and hesitations that accompanied their ministry during the ministry of Christ. They are almost endearing in their inability to grasp what Christ is all about. However, the same inability to grasp things after the resurrection seems to carry with it all kinds of difficulties. What was it about the resurrection that they could not or did not believe? A man dies and is buried. Then he is not buried and is not simply a resusitated man, but manifests and entirely new form of existence. Call it resurrection or what have you – but apparently Christ had mentioned this coming reality more than once before it happened. What was the problem for the disciples?

The problem seems to go to the very heart of things both then and now. Had the resurrection belonged to the classification of events that everyone can see, measure, study, reach “scientific” agreement about, there would surely have been no trouble. But the resurrection does not belong to some general classification. It is sui generis, its own classification.  There are many who want to speak about the resurrection as if it were a car wreck down at the corner drugstore. Whatever it was (is) it is very much more, even, indeed, something completely different – not like anything else.

And it is here, that the continuing problem of vision is made manifest. Orthodox Christian writers are wont to utter things like, “God will save the world through beauty” (Dostoevsky), or “Icons will save the world” (recently in First Things) all of which makes some people want to run away. But at their heart, such statements are trying to say something about the nature of the resurrection and its action in our world.

The resurrection of Christ is something completely new. It is a manifestation of God unlike anything we have ever known. It is Truth made manifest in the flesh – not the truth to be found in an average living man. I am 58 and I look very unlike what I did at 10. I look decidedly unlike what I will in another 100 years (you probably wouldn’t like to see that). Thus we never normally see anything in an eternal state. But the resurrection is just that. It does not belong exactly to the classification of “things created,” for it is the “uncreated” before our eyes.

And thus the Church paints the things that pertain to the resurrection in an iconic fashion – not like portraiture or the “truth” that lies before our eyes. Icons paint the Truth in a manner that intends to point to the resurrection. By the same token, the Church does not write about the resurrection in the way we write about other things, for the resurrection is not one of the other things but a thing that is unlike anything else. Thus the Fathers of the Church said that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

And both have something to do with vision. The Gospel tells us: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I am not pure in heart but I think I may have encountered such a person. At the least I have read stories about such a person and I know that such persons see what I cannot and they see in a manner that as yet I do not.

But this goes to the point of salvation. Salvation is not how to get people like me (or like you) into some place safe from the fires of hell. That is a transportation problem at best, or a legal problem, at worst. The point of salvation is how to change people like me (and you). It is about changing us such that seeing the resurrection becomes possible.

In this sense, God will indeed save the world through Beauty. The problem is that so few if any of us have ever seen Beauty. If you had seen Beauty, then you would not disagree with the statement. It’s obvious character would be, well, obvious. That people want to argue with it (or with icons) only means that they do not or cannot see. And neither do I, most of the time.

If I could see as I am meant to see then my eyes would not see enemies nor the like. Not that others might not intend to be my enemies or want evil for me – but there are eyes that see beyond all of that and see the Truth of a person. Had I the eyes to see, love would not be an insurmountable problem but as tangible as the Resurrection itself.

And so we draw ever nearer to the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity. Every heart should prepare Him room. More than that, every heart should beg to see the Beauty, to read the Icon of the Gospel of the Nativity, to see what daily escapes our vision and leaves us blind – leading the blind.

The Mount of Transfiguration and the Bridal Chamber of Christ

August 3, 2011

There is a propensity in our modern world to break things down – to analyze. We have gained a certain mastery over many things by analyzing the various components of their structure and manipulating what we find. It has become the default position for modern thought. This power of analysis, however, is weakened by its very success. Frequently the truth of something lies not in the summary of its parts but in the wonder of the whole.

This is certainly the case with the Christian faith. It is not uncommon for theology to be addressed under various headings: Christology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, etc. It makes for an impresive array of titles on a seminary faculty listing. The problem, however, is that theology ultimately seeks to describe or state one thing (or it should). That one thing, however, is so large that it cannot be spoken with ease. The fullness of the faith is not revealed in the analysis of various constituent elements, but in the slow (and sometimes sudden) apprehension of the whole.

If I had to use a single word to describe the one thing that is “everything” it would be Pascha (in its fullness). I cannot think of any part of the Christian life or revelation that is not gathered into the fullness of Pascha. It is one of the reasons that the liturgical celebration of Pascha is as utterly overwhelming in its Orthodox expression.

Liturgy has a grammar, a way of speaking and revealing truth. This grammar does things that cannot be done as easily in discursive theological writing. I have written about this previously.

For one, Orthodox liturgical practice has a habit of bringing elements of the Christian story together that are frequently kept apart – particularly in our modern compartmentalized approach to the faith. There are “theological rhythms” within the Orthodox cycle of services. Each of the seven days of the week has a particular assigned theme (Mondays for the Angels, Tuesdays for St. John the Baptist, etc.). Every day on the calendar has one or more (usually many more) saints whose memory is kept on that day. There is also the cycle of feasts that depend on the date of Pascha, and others that are determined according to a fixed date.

These cycles are always meeting each other and bringing their own elements and insights into the service. Thus those who come to worship are never “just doing one thing” but are always presented with “several things.” And, greater than that, everything is brought together as a “whole” and not just a collection of parts. The “one thing” is seen at every service, even if one facet shines brighter than others.

August 6 marks the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ (this Saturday on the New Calendar). The Church remembers His transfigured appearance before the disciples on Mt. Tabor, with Moses and Elijah appearing with Him. The material used in the liturgical celebration of the feast looks at this event from almost every conceivable angle. One of those angles caught me by surprise the first time I encountered it. – it was occasioned by the normal confluence of liturgical structure – but gave me an image that left me speechless in wonder.

It came at Matins on the day before Transfiguration (known as the Forefeast). During Matins each day, there is the reading of “the canon.” This is a hymn that follows a particular poetic structure. It consists of nine odes, each of which takes its inner meditation from one of the nine traditional Biblical canticles of the Old Testament (such as the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15:1 and following). The sixth ode is always a reflection on the hymn within the book of Jonah (whose three days in the whale is always seen as a “type” of Christ’s three days in the belly of the earth).

This is the verse that struck me:

Making ready for His friends a Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come, Christ ascendeth the mountain, leading them up from life below to the life of heaven.

I have generally viewed the Transfiguration in its own “compartment.” I have extended that consideration to include reflection on the Palamite doctrine of the Divine Energies, since St. Gregory Palamas used the image of the Light of the  Transfiguration for much of his theological understanding. But I had never made the leap to Pascha (to which belongs the image of the Bridal Chamber).

I found myself speechless. The idea was too full. The image of the bridal chamber and its affinity with Pascha is rich, in and of itself. The Church looks forward to the “marriage feast of the Lamb,” an image used for the close of the age and the fulfilling of all things. Pascha is that close and that fulfilling even though it also occurs at a particular moment in history in 33 A.D. The death and resurrection of Christ is the marriage of heaven and earth, the union of God and man, the fulfillment of all things. Having revealed to His disciples the “Bridal Chamber” (as far as they could bear to see it), He then begins to speak to them of His coming resurrection and His sufferings in Jerusalem

The Transfiguration is also the Bridal Chamber (and is described in many other ways as well). It is a glimpse, (out of sequence in a place where sequence has no place), of the fullness of Divinity. Christ appears with Elijah and Moses, the living and the dead, the prophets and the law, and speaks with them concerning His Pascha. And this happens in the context of the Divine Light – a brightness that was beyond the disciples’ ability to bear.

Our faith itself should have this quality of fullness about it – something that is greater than our ability to bear. Our compartmentalization of the world and our faith reduce both to bearable levels – but then we fail to live or to believe. Understanding begins with wonder – and wonder requires something beyond our normal limits. The Transfiguration is an invitation to the Bridal Chamber – the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in the depths of Pascha. Shame on us if we compartmentalize the event in a meditation on the Divine Light. The Light shines in the darkness for a reason, and for a reason the darkness does not comprehend it.

May Christ carry each of us into the Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come – and bring us up from the life below to the life of heaven in the wonder of His Pascha!


I beg pardon of my readers. I will be in Dallas for a few days and cannot predict my access to my computer for managing and answering comments. May God give you all the joy of the feast!

Living on the First Floor

June 10, 2009

DSC_0270I am currently working on a small book that gathers many of my thoughts on the metaphor of the “one-storey universe.” Readers of this blog should be well familiar with the image. I cannot claim to be its originator – I can think of several sources that first suggested this way of explaining things. It is a verbal effort to share a visual and kinesthetic experience. I think that much of my public ministry (in speaking or writing) is an effort to find ways to say things to contemporary Americans (and others) that can make the life of faith possible. It seems clear to me that a wholesale adoption of the vision of the world as offered by our culture is little more than an agreement with death. The gospel necessarily involves the giving of sight to the blind.

I have been fascinated by artists for most of my life. I can think of any number of such gifted persons who have been important in my life. Their importance for me was this strange ability (I call it “strange” because it is not native to me) to see things that others cannot see or to see things in ways that others do not. The thought that two people can look out at the same scene and see something different fascinates me. I can understand that we all see different emphases – different parts of the puzzle. But I mean something much stronger than that. Often the artist relates to what he/she sees in a different manner. Colors manifest themselves in different ways. Relations between objects appear that others do not see.

I see something of the same thing in the stories of saints (particularly those of the Orthodox with whose stories I am most familiar). They walk in the same world in which I walk, and yet it is clear that they do not see the world as I do (most of the time). Saints are not people inhabiting the same space that I inhabit and yet looking away to a world about which they have been told. They are not “heavenly minded” in this sense of heavenly absence, a world that belongs somewhere else. They clearly perceive heaven among us, within us.

A reading of the gospels quickly reveals a Christ who sees and knows something about the world that others around Him either do not see, will not see, or do not understand. He is a walking Jubilee Year (when all debts are cancelled under the law of the Torah). He is the age to come, already walking among men. Around Him, the lame walk, the blind see, prisoners are set free. In the cities of “Roman-controlled” Galilee and Judaea He is not controlled. His Kingdom pours into the lives of those around Him. A crooked tax-collector suddenly proclaims that he will restore four-fold what He has taken from others – a simple response to Christ’s entrance into his home. He surely saw the world in a manner radically different before and after such a rash statement. There is no other explanation.

For me, a key to the vision of the Kingdom of God begins with refusing to allow the Kingdom to be removed from our midst, to be shuttled off the planet and placed somewhere yet to be or open only to those who have died. If Christ has come and accomplished what we are taught in the Gospels, then the world is already different than it commonly appears. To see what has come among us requires that the proper light shine on everything before us.

My experience as an Orthodox priest has been to be frequently plunged into a different light. Words and stories, music and actions are all set beside one another in a way I have never seen before. It is a liturgical combination whose purpose is to reveal the Kingdom of God. It reveals the Kingdom that we might learn to sing the song that belongs to that presence. In other words – it reveals the Kingdom of God that we might learn to worship. I have come to believe that we exist to worship God.

Along with other Orthodox Christians across the world, I have just completed the Paschal cycle – beginning with the pre-Lenten Sundays, through the 40 days of Lent, Holy Week, through Pascha itself, and on to the completion found in the feast of Pentecost. How can I describe an experience that stretches over 100 days, all of which reveal the truth of Christ’s Pascha? It cannot be described – else the Church would have a description instead of 100+ days of liturgically ordered activities.

But I can say something about what I have experienced. The language I have found for this revelation is that Christianity belongs in a one-storey universe. God is here. In the words of the Pentecost liturgy: “He is everywhere present and filling all things.”

I am not an artist – I cannot quite do with words what others do with colors. A single icon speaks with an eloquence that remains beyond my reach. But God is the great Artist. He has so colored our world that, in the Light of Christ, we can see and know heaven among us. As heaven appears – then we begin to see others as persons to be loved rather than objects to be used. We see trees and all of creation as belonging to the same choir as we ourselves. We begin to hear a song that will never end. God give us grace to see and to sing.

A blessed Pentecost to all.


Poems of Pentecost

June 9, 2009

Pentecost Icon

Among the many friends I have had who have now entered the larger life, several were poets. Francis Hall Ford was a parishioner in St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Mission in Chattanooga, which I had a share in founding. She and her family had year’s before entered Orthodoxy through the Greek Church. In later years she split her time between little St. Tikhon’s in Chattanooga and St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas where her daughter, Katie, now lives. Katie has been kind enough to share some of her mother’s poetry. With her permission I share it here. As for Frances (whom I knew better by her Orthodox name, Kassiane) may her memory be eternal!

The first poem is a Japanese tanka (31 syllables, 5 lines, 5-7-5-7-7).


In mid-June’s muteness
When scarce birdword breaks languor
Flame azaleas speak.  
Sudden over path, up hill
Their Pentecost throats give tongue. 

 The second is a brief meditation.


At the Church’s birth,
Licked clean by flames of Spirit
Maid and Apostles in horseshoe
Make sweet maternal crib
In whose dark cave
The World, that Old King,
Waits with a swaddling cloth.

 Frances Hall Ford

The Strange Land of Liturgical Knowledge

June 8, 2009

AgiaSophiaLiturgyI have been involved in Christian liturgical life for most of my adult experience. The first part of that experience was as an Anglican – a liturgical experience that is both Western and reformed. I have been involved in the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity on one level or another for the past 16 years or so – and as an Orthodox priest since 1999. The two experiences are difficult to compare.

There is something “linear” about the reformed liturgies of the West (and by “reformed” I do not mean “Reformed” but “redesigned after 1500 and some after 1960”). The linear character of these liturgies is the simple fact that they tend to do one thing at a time, and in a manner in which actions are simplified and straight-forward. Orthodox liturgies are, in contrast, frequently engaged in several actions at the same time and often bring together varieties of images and events in a single service. 

Principles that have driven reform over the centuries, and particularly in the 20th century, have often been quite rational and even sloganeering. My Anglican training reduced all ritual motion by a priest to things that could be seen and easily interpreted by the congregation. Actions only had meaning as they amplified the accompanying words and only had meaning within the mind of the people observing. No action had significance within itself (thus ritual became “pantomime”).

Despite efforts by some to reform the Byzantine heritage of Orthodoxy, it remains largely immune to the rationalizing and pantomiming principles of Western liturgies. Actions often occur out of sight of the congregation (even behind closed doors). Such actions can only have meaning because something is actually supposed to be happening. There is also a mammoth non-linear aspect to Eastern liturgies. Though liturgical texts are necessarily written in a linear fashion (unless you’ve ever seen the old Hapgood translations) what is described is a service in which many things may be happening at once. It is quite normal for choir, Deacon and Priest to all be doing things in a fairly simultaneous manner (which means that if you are not familiar with the service – a book can be more confusing than helpful).

More than the non-linearity of the service text is the lack of simplification in the liturgical event itself. One of the simplifying principles of the modern West has been the elimination of liturgical aggregates (you only celebrate one thing on a day). Thus it is frequently the case that feasts are moved away from Sundays in order to maintain the focus on the resurrection (notable exceptions are All Saints’ Sunday and the like). According to the Orthodox Typicon (the book which contains the directions and reasoning for liturgical practice) the greatest possible liturgical celebration is the concurrence of Pascha and the feast of the Annunciation on the same day. When this occurs, the Annunciation is not moved to a later or earlier time but is celebrated alongside and within Pascha itself (the rules for this being fairly complicated). This coincidence only occurs under Old Calendar usage since the “New Calendar” mixes the Old Calendar reckoning of Pascha along with the Gregorian reckoning of fixed dates. 

The thought of celebrating both the Annunciation and the Lord’s Pascha simultaneously is utterly foreign to Western liturgical usage. What becomes impossible under a regime of liturgical simplicity is the dialog that occurs when the Annunciation and Pascha are able to speak at the same time. This “polyphonic” character of Eastern liturgies is quite common. Every day of the week has a particular dedication (Monday for the angels, Tuesday for St. John the Forerunner, Wednesday the Betrayal of Christ, Thursday the Apostles and St. Nicholas, Friday the Crucifixion, Saturday the Theotokos and the Departed, and Sunday the Resurrection). Each day also has its saints (of whom there are very many each day). A day may also be a particular feast. It is not unusual in the course of the services for a particular day (which would include Vespers, Matins, as well as the Divine Liturgy) to have touched on all of these liturgical aspects rather than simplifying everything to a single point.

The result (particularly over a period of years) is a richness of experience in which each thing in the faith is brought into contact with everything in the faith. There is a fullness expressed in this experience that cannot be duplicated in another manner. This manner of liturgizing is reflected in the Orthodox resistance to separation and codification as a means of knowledge. The habits of a millennium in the West have been to break things into separate components and to seek to understand the whole by understanding its parts. The result is often an impoverishment of the faith and the experience of the faithful. 

To know something in its fullness by experiencing it in the context of everything instead of in isolation is a difficult path. It requires greater stretches of time and often results in a knowledge that cannot easily be spoken. If such knowledge could be spoken in simplicity then it probably would be – but it cannot. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is inimical to reductionism.

The knowledge granted to us by God which is unspeakable is just so because it is too large for words. Liturgies which are less are just that – less.

Liturgy is a primary means given to us in the Church for encountering God. Why should such a thing be reasonable and simple and easily understood?

Heaven On Their Minds

June 2, 2009

mandylion_str_01Years ago, I recall hearing someone complain about zealous Christians, “They are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” The truth of the statement depends entirely on the understanding of heaven and earth. It is possible to pursue a version of “heaven” such that the spiritual life is undermined. It is also possible to pursue heaven in such a way that the world around us is transformed. It is an important difference.

The principle difference lies in a heaven of the imagination and a heaven that is an in-breaking reality. History, particularly modern history, is replete with various fanciful utopias. The promise of a “better world to come,” does not always come with a proper commentary to guide the hopeful. Thus everything from Marxist totalitarianism to America’s Shining City on a Hill have been thrust forward as “better worlds.” Both, of course, have their dark sides though I by no means draw an equivalence.

But for the Christian, a concern for the “things to come” is right and proper. Eschatology (the study of the “last things”) is an irreplaceable part of Christian understanding. The eschatology on which I was raised was a version of Darbyite Dispensationalism. There was a fascination with world events and the expectation of a soon return of Christ. But the end of things only brought another literalism – a world better than the one we inhabit – but in many ways, not so different. The imagination was not concerned with the “things of heaven” but with the events that would bring us there. Of course there are dangers associated with this form of eschatology, primarily from its inherent involvement with politics. It is a dangerous thing to vote on the Second Coming of Christ.

Orthodox eschatology could best be illustrated from Scripture:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (1 Cor. 13:12).

Of course, I could choose many other passages to consider Orthodox eschatology – but, rightly read, the entirety of Scripture is eschatological. For the Scriptures bear the truth to us (which is always from the eschaton, the end). The truth of things is only to be found fully in their end.

It is this in-breaking of the truth to which the faith bears witness. Though it be seen but dimly in a mirror – it is still the Face which we shall behold ourselves when all has been done.

It is this same Face that is manifest in everything about us (though some mirrors are far more dim than others). It is the sight of a Face that does not render us “too heavenly minded to be of earthly good,” but a Face that reveals to us the true character of earthly good. 

To see the Face of Christ in the face of another human being is not becoming “of no earthly good,” but to begin to see clearly the true character of our brothers and sisters. The Face also reveals to us the true character of the sinful distortions we would cast into the mirrors around us. Only with the vision of the one true Face, are we able to correct the distortions and find ourselves corrected as well.

Orthodox eschatology makes no extreme claims of “realized eschatology” (as in Dodd’s work), but of an unrealized eschatology that nonetheless makes itself manifest to us in a manner that is frequently more real than the mirror in which it is beheld. The theology of icon and the revelation of beauty both point beyond themselves to the Image that has already come among us, is already abiding with us, and is yet to come (Rev. 1:8).

Christ offered a glimpse of the eschatological principle when he said: “Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The union of heaven and earth (which is how St. Maximus the Confessor describes the eschaton) is not the destruction of earth – but its fulfillment. The Face that we behold is the True Image – in which we were created and according to which we will be recreated. That is a great earthly and heavenly good.

Blue Highways

May 24, 2009

Miami 373A few years back there was an American travel book called Blue Highways. The title referred to American maps on which the smaller roads are printed in blue, while the major arteries, the Interstate System, are printed in red. The book was about a trip across America on the “blue” highways. It was almost time-travel since America prior to the 1960’s was largely without an Interstate system. Blue highways are the land of my childhood.

My wife and I, along with my son and his wife, took a “blue highway” adventure this afternoon, traveling some backroads onto the Cumberland Plateau and spending time at “Great Falls,” one of the many waterfalls along the rivers in that part of Tennessee. The trip was accompanied by a picnic worthy of the 1950’s.

As we traveled back home we continued the blue highway route and enjoyed the scenes of back-road Tennessee life on a Sunday afternoon. 

I suspect that our modern age (particularly in America) is an “Interstate” experience. Speed and efficiency are hallmarks of the work place. Commuting by car (as many do) is generally an experience bereft of sight-seeing. We go from place to place and from task to task, spending great portions of our time in something other than full human mode.

I cannot speak for the rest of the world – or all of America. I can only reflect on suburban life as I know it. I have traveled across England’s version of “blue highways” and was stunned by the beauty of its rural character. I have also traveled in the Holy Land and can only say that large portions of that land continue as desert – probably unchanged for centuries.

I believe there is such a thing as a “human” pace to life – a way of living that is rightly suited to who we are. The myth of the malleability of the human has created undreamt of forms of misery – from mechanized boredom to the insanity of “multi-tasking.” 

Prayer, when rightly attended to, is a “blue highway” experience. There is a reason for the length and pace of the traditional Orthodox service. It is a cultural memory of the speed proper to human beings and the attention properly given to God. Modernized services whose agenda is to hold the attention of “worshippers” with the pace of a television show, are not being “culturally relevant,” but culturally destructive – just as certain aspects of our culture deform our humanity and seek to make us into something we are not intended to be.

I am not anti-modern in the sense of being opposed to machines or automobiles or the like. But I am opposed to things that push us in the direction losing our proper humanity. God did not create us for efficiency – nor is His likeness to be revealed in productivity. Speed of travel is meaningless when we are going nowhere. May God grant our daily lives more “blue highways,” and the good sense to take our time when we are there.

Engaging Creation-Praise Him and Highly Exalt Him Forever

May 19, 2009

smPC310365Writing on beauty can seem an abstract approach to the created order – except that it draws our attention to see the world in a particular way. It is important, it seems to me, to at least see the world. So much of theology and what passes for religion can be mere intellectual exercise that religion and abstraction become synonymous. This is foreign to the true life of Orthodoxy and the true life of Christianity.

The sacraments of the Church are more than “seven” moments in the life of Christians that accidentally happen to use physical elements. They are “moments” but examples of the true character of the Christian life. The elements used in sacraments: bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands, sight, sound, action, etc. – are all simply things that make up life as we know it. They are not discussions of bread, wine, water, oil, etc. Thus the sacraments involve eating and drinking, anointing and movement. They are very much part of what is normative in human life.

As examples of the Christian life they point us towards the right understanding and use of creation itself. There are only “seven” sacraments if your are engaged in a contest with medieval Roman Catholics and need to say that your faith is not inferior to theirs. In point of fact “sacrament” or “mystery” (the preferred Orthodox term) is simply a way of rightly understanding our relationship with God as part of His created order. Everything is mystery when rightly understood.

So the question for me has to do with how do I engage creation. Do I live among created things as the bearer of the Divine image living within the mystery of God made manifest in everything around me? Or do I live as a thinking creature who considers religious ideas while going about my normal, everyday tasks.

In a proper Christian understanding, I posit, there are no “normal everyday tasks.” This is simply more of the creeping secularization of our world. Either God is relevant to every task, every motion and action – or He is not relevant at all. There can be no limited God.

This, I think, is a very difficult part of our Christian existence. And I think it is difficult for two different reasons. First, it is difficult because we are not used to God being anything other than a limited God, restricted to specifically “religious” activities. Second, it is difficult because when we attempt to relate to God in formerly “non-religious” activities, what we experience is often an artificial attempt to “sacralize” what we believe to be inherently non-sacred. So our choice becomes something between secularism and pseudo-sacramental. Neither are satisfactory.

A key to overcoming this false distinction lies in properly locating the problem. The problem does not lie in creation. I do not need to redefine creation in order to “make it sacred.” Either it is already inherently sacred or not. Christians are not traveling magicians, bringing a new state to the created world.

The problem does not lie within creation but within ourselves. Christ did not need to change the waters and winds of the Galilee in order to speak peace to their stormy condition. Nothing changed about the wind and the sea other than their presenting condition. Creation did not become other than creation. Christ was already such that wind and sea obeyed Him. 

By the same token, it is not creation that must change in our lives – but our lives in creation must change. As an example, I would cite the Scriptures (from the LXX text of Daniel appended to the article).

This “Song of the Three Young Men,” is as complete a model for our engagement of creation as I can imagine. It does not seek to make the beasts and the cattle to be other than they are – to “sacralize them” – but engages them as they are: creatures of God and thus able to “praise Him and highly exalt Him forever.” To live as a being within a creation that is engaged in the praise and exaltation of God is to live rightly within the world.

The creation is already “eucharistic” (marked by thanksgiving). It is me as a fallen human being who has chosen to be other than eucharistic. Rather than give thanks together with creation I would rather consume it, manage it, use it, abuse it, and consider it inferior to my intellect and dead. The answer to all of that is my repentance and my embrace of the eucharistic life that is proper to the whole of the created order. For we have our place within the Song:

Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 

Our proper engagement with creation – living the mystery – is to lift up our voice and sing and cease to be the only silence outside of Hell.

“Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and to be praised and highly exalted for ever; 
 …Blessed art thou in the firmament of heavenand to be sung and glorified for ever. 
“Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you heavens, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all waters above the heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all powers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, sun and moon, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, stars of heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all rain and dew, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all winds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, fire and heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, dews and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, nights and days, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, light and darkness, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, ice and cold, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, frosts and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, lightnings and clouds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Let the earth bless the Lord; let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, mountains and hills, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all things that grow on the earth, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you springs, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, seas and rivers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you whales and all creatures that move in the waters, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all birds of the air, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all beasts and cattle, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you sons of men, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, O Israel, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever….

Why Should Beauty Matter?

May 18, 2009

IMG_0529Reflecting on my last two posts, The Nature of Things and Our Salvation and Beauty and the Salvation of the World, I have a question:

What is the nature of things such that beauty should matter?

It is a commonplace in our culture to think that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” (rendering beauty completely subjective and relative), while at the same time making a cult out of the pursuit of “beauty” (in various guises). It is thus easy for Christians in the contemporary world to be cautious around the topic of beauty. Relativism generally has a corrosive effect on its surrounding culture – while the hedonistic pursuit of “beauty” is corrosion itself.

And yet, beauty holds a very important place in Orthodox theology and practice. I do not propose to offer a theological account of beauty – there are limits to my capabilities. Instead, I want to stand with others and wonder. There is a beauty to the creation, in its fullness, in its depth and in its surface as we see it, that simply staggers the heart. We are frequently distracted and fail to see the truth of what is. But, I believe, those moments when we are present to beauty, we are beholding something of the truth (and not in a relative sense). 

In Greek, the word, kalos, carries a double meaning: it can mean “good,” and it can mean “beautiful.” The same is true of the Hebrew word tov. It is these words that we find in Genesis when God says that creation is “good.” I believe that the double sense of these words are both true. To know the goodness of creation is also to know its beauty (nor can they truly be separated). 

I am deeply aware of the fallenness of the world in which we live. It is of the very character of sin that it seeks to distort and destroy beauty – just as it would seek to redefine goodness. I am struck, however, by the fact that despite the brokenness of the world and the presence of sin within it – beauty and goodness remain. 

Christ on the cross manifests the transcendent goodness of God. Already on the cross, beauty is destroying sin and goodness revealing the emptiness and futility of evil. 

The title of this website is taken from the last words of St. John Chrysostom. He died in exile. Falsely persecuted by his enemies, he was deposed from his bishopric and exiled to the extreme limits of the Byzantine empire. Always plagued by ill health, his sickness made his exile a torture. His letters from exile reveal a lonely and depressed soul who longed for his friends. However, the profession of faith on his deathbed, like the words of Christ on the cross, reveal a vision of the goodness of God. “Glory to God for all things!” carried the last breath from his body.

I recall a patient that I served as a hospice chaplain. She was a Pentecostal from the mountains here in East Tennessee. Most of her last days were marked by a morphine coma. But in her last hour she was awake. I recall standing by her bed and praying quietly. I remember watching her saying something and bent over her to hear her words. She had raised her hands (weakly), and was repeating, “Praise you, Jesus!” Beauty radiated from her face.

Hers is not the only such death I have witnessed. Like the words of Chrysostom, such moments are the Christian witness to the goodness of God – despite every attending circumstance. My belief is that every moment is utterly filled with beauty and goodness were we only present to the moment. 

Beauty matters because it is the truth in the very nature of things. God said, “It is good.” Creation did not cease to be good, nor did beauty disappear with the entrance of sin. Glory to God for all things.

Beauty and the Salvation of the World

May 17, 2009

481px-Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410Thus the most persuasive philosophic proof of God’s existence is the one the textbooks never mention, conclusion of which can perhaps best express the whole meaning: There exists the icon of the Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists.

– from Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis

This short quote from St. Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis is among the most startling in his extant works. It is not unlike the oft-attributed Dostoevsky quote, “God will save the world through beauty.” Both thoughts bear witness to a beauty that both transcends our world and at the same time establishes and saves our world. Rightly understood, they are also related to Holy Scripture.

Some years ago, within my thesis at Duke University, I wrote about the iconicity of language, meaning that language, especially Holy Scripture, functions in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council stated that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I turned that succinct statement around to ask if Scripture does with words what icons do with color. It became the starting point for my thoughts on the iconicity of language.

We know, dogmatically, much about how an icon “works,” how it makes present what it represents. I sought to apply that understanding to the reading of Holy Scripture. As time has gone by (better than 15 years now) I have come to see that Scripture may indeed best be understood in an iconic fashion. An icon of Christ is not Christ Himself, but a representation of which He is the prototype. But, St. Theodore the Studite noted, it is a representation of the hypostasis, the person of Christ, rather than a representation of His nature. This is a significant dogmatic statement, because it provides a way for speaking of Christ’s presence in a manner that is not a sacrament, in the sense of the Eucharist. The Holy Fathers taught that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the very Body and Blood of Christ. Thus there is not a normal analogy between an icon and the Eucharist.

Neither is Holy Scripture to be likened to the Eucharist, for it is like the icons. An icon is holy because of the presence of the “person,” not because the wood and paint have undergone any change. Christ is “hypostatically present,” but not “naturally present.” He does not become incarnate as wood and paint.

This notion of “hypostatic representation” opened for me a whole new way of understanding the Scriptures and of speaking of their role in revelation. Icons have many strange features (at least those painted in accordance with the canons). The characters are drawn in a manner that differs from photographic reality. Time is somewhat relative – several events separated by time may be pictured together in the same icon if there is a connection between them and they enlighten one another. Other examples could be given. So, too, the Gospels have a way of presenting the saving actions and teachings of Christ in a manner that is iconic. The Gospels frequently ignore time sequence placing events in differing relationships to the whole, in order to reveal yet more of the Truth of Christ.

St. John’s gospel is perhaps the most striking in this respect. Following the Prologue there is a sequence of water stories, followed by a sequence of bread stories. Little wonder that the Church traditionally used St. John for its post-baptismal catechesis. His pericopes are far more like pictures than narratives. And so it is in John’s gospel that we read the finest commentary and teaching on the Eucharist not around the event of the Last Supper (which John does not actually mention) but around the event of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Read in a purely historic manner, Christ’s teaching on the loaves and fishes, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood…”, would not only be scandalous to some, but would literally make no sense. Equally senseless (in the light of the sixth chapter) would be the claim of some historical critical scholars that John knows nothing of the Tradition of the Last Supper. How utterly silly!

Having said all this (and there is so much more that can be said) it is possible to see how the Scriptures resist rational forces that seek to wrest them into one thing or another. One rationalist seeks to harmonize all the Scriptures in a mechanical manner that yields a narrow conception of inerrancy. Another seizes on the iconic character of Scripture and assumes that these oddities represent historical flaws. Like an icon, the Scriptures present the Truth of God to us – and do so in a way that we can indeed begin to see the truth.

There is a propositional character to be found in Scripture – after all, an icon of a human being still looks like a human being, even if it is painted in a style that is other than photographic. But the propositions of Scripture function in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. We are not led to reason God, but to know God. The propositions of Scripture, particularly the most confusing ones, lead the reader to see what cannot be seen in this world until we have the eyes to see.

St. John’s gospel is easily my favorite, if only because I know it better and have spent more time in its pages. There is a transcendent beauty in its words – a beauty never lost regardless of the language into which it is translated. The beauty is more than the sum total of the words or even the beauty of lofty concepts. It is a beauty that is nothing other than the personal (hypostatic) representation of Christ. “These things are written so that in reading them you might believe.”

There exists the Gospel of St. John; therefore, God exists. God is indeed saving the world through beauty.