Archive for the ‘Beauty’ Category

Prayers By the Lake – St. Nikolai of Zicha

December 22, 2008

ochrid

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Accept the sacrifice of my words, my Father — accept the babbling of a penitent child, my Father!

Correct my words with Your truth, and accept them on the footstool of Your feet.

 Cense my sacrifice with the fragrant incense of a saint’s prayer and do not reject it, O Triradiate Master of worlds.

 The ranks of angels offer You a more eloquent sacrifice, but their words stream to them from You, and return to You, untainted by the repulsiveness of darkness and not throttled in the throat by sin.

I am poor, and I have nothing else to offer on Your sacrificial altar except these words.

Even if I were to offer up creatures to You, I would be offering up words. For what are creatures except words. You have filled the entire universe with tongues, which are flames when they lift up praise to You and water — when they whisper Your praises to themselves.

Even if I were to offer up a lamb to You, I would be offering You a word.

Even if I were to offer up a bird to You, I would be offering You a word.

Why should I offer up someone else’s word to my Lord, why someone else’s and not my own?

Who has made me master over someone else’s life and someone else’s song, over someone else’s flame and someone else’s sacrifice; who?

My words are my life and my song, my flame and my sacrifice. I have taken from what is Yours and am offering it up to You — accept it and do not reject it, O Mother plenteous in lovingkindness.

I have picked a handful of wheat out of a field of tares, accept even a single kernel of wheat out of my handful and You will make me happy.1

From a single kernel You can bake bread, enough for nations.

Accept my mite, O Son Who Resurrects, accept and do not reject the mite of a pauper.2

Accept my sacrifice not for my sake but for the sake of someone who is even more impoverished than I; is there such a person?

Someone who does not even have what I do, for his sake accept my sacrifice; does such a person exist?

The world squeezed me like an accordion, scarcely did I take a breath and I moaned. Let Your angels give melody to my moaning and let them offer it up before You, my love.

I remind myself of all the blessings You have bestowed on me during my lifetime, my unfailing Companion, and I am offering up to You a gift in return from myself.

I am not offering up to You my entire self, for I am not entirely worthy to burn on Your most pure sacrificial altar. I cannot offer as a sacrifice to the Immortal One what is intended for death and corruption.

I offer up to You only that which has grown within me under Your light, that which was saved in me by Your Word.

Accept the sacrifice of my words, O Triune Bouquet of Flowers; accept the babbling of a new-born child.

When the choirs of angels begin to sing around Your throne, when the archangels’ trumpets begin to blare, when Your martyrs begin to weep for joy, and Your saints begin to sob their prayers for the salvation of the Church on earth, do not despise the sacrifice of my words, O Lord my God.

Do not mishear, but hear.

I pray to You and bow down to You, now and throughout all time, and throughout all eternity. Amen.

Written at Lake Ohrid 1921-1922.

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1.          Cf. Matt. 13:24-3O.

2.          Cf. Mark 12:41-44.

Bad Icons

December 11, 2008

iconoclasmAnd 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 (2 Corinthians 3:18). 

It is a teaching of the Fathers concerning the holy icons that we do not truly “see” them if we have no reverence for that which they depict. Icons are “windows into heaven,” but not in a manner that objectifies heaven. Thus even icons that some may consider badly painted reveal the very depths of heaven if they are viewed by a saint.

By the same token, even badly marred images of Christ in other human beings can reveal the depth of the love of God if seen by the eyes of a saint.

And so the mystery of the holy icons seems to work from both sides. For the viewer, the icon is a window to heaven (if the viewer is indeed looking for heaven). And for those who are not looking for heaven, icons, including their human forms, become opaque, and we see only the reflection of our sinful self.

I like good icons, and would gladly fill my Church with them. But I want to become the kind of viewer who could see heaven if it were shown me (else even good icons become a waste) – and I’d like to be the kind of icon in which someone could see heaven if they were looking (else I become a scandal to the name Christian).

What seems inescapable to me is that there be icons. If you outlaw them in the Church, they will still occupy the Church in the persons of the congregation. We cannot say, “Only read the Scripture, do not look at me as an icon.” Nobody gets that kind of free ride as a Christian. You’re an icon whether you like it or not. And there will be other images as well – either well done reflecting heaven itself – or poorly reflecting everything other than heaven. But there will be icons. God give us grace to rightly honor the windows to heaven He has opened for us, and to be a window to heaven for all who see us.

Originally posted in November, 2006

Beauty and God

December 1, 2008

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This is a reprint of an article from earlier this year. I found it worth re-reading.

Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when it is turned away from God.

Fr. Pavel Florensky

I come to the end of a day that has been filled with other activity and little time for writing. But in my reading at bedtime I came across the above quote. It obviously contains a world of truth, indeed, from a certain perspective it contains the whole of the Gospel. It is both commentary on how we see the world (as beautiful or ugly) or how we are within ourselves. The ugliness of sin is one of its most important components – and the inability to distinguish between the truly beautiful and the false beauty of so much of contemporary life offers a profound diagnosis of our lives and culture.

To say that God is Beautiful carries with it also profound insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?” is a question on which I have posted several times of late. If we ask the question, “How do we recognize Beauty?” then we have also shifted the ground from questions of intellect or pure rationality and onto grounds of aethetics and relationship (communion). The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points as well to a capacity within us to know God. I would offer that this capacity is itself a gift of grace – particularly when we admit that the recognition of beauty is subject to delusion.

In a famous passage from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov has this to say on beauty as well as delusion:

Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but an enigma. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many mysteries weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Theotokos (Madonna)  and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

Dostoevsky’s paradox, that “beauty,” for the mass of mankind, is found in Sodom, is a paradox that can hold two meanings. Either it can mean that even the corrupted “beauty” of Sodom can be redeemed (this is not Dostoevsky’s own intention) or that our heart can be so corrupted that we perceive the things of Sodom to be beautiful (closer to Dostoevsky’s point). We can also bring in a third – that of Florensky quoted above – that the “beauty” found in Sodom is corrupted precisely because it is turned away from God. It’s repentance can also be its restoration of true beauty.

I prefer this third thought (which is more or less the same as the first) in that it carries within it the reminder that when God created the world He said, “It is good (beautiful)” [both the Hebrew and the Greek of Genesis carry this double meaning].

We were created to perceive the Beautiful, even to pursue it. This is also to say that we were created to know God and to have the capacity, by grace, to know Him. Consider the Evangelical imperative: “Go and make disciples.” What would it mean in our proclamation of the gospel were we to have within it an understanding that we are calling people to Beauty? The report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople that when they attended worship among the Orthodox they “did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. We only know that of a truth, God is with them,” is history’s most profound confirmation of this proclamation.

St. Paul confirms the same when he describes the progressive work of our salvation as “the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we would have our hearts cured of the illness that mistakes Sodom for the Kingdom of God, then we should turn our eyes to the face of Christ. There the heart’s battle will find its Champion and beauty will find its Prototype.

Many Thanks for Prayers and a Request

August 9, 2008

I awoke feeling much better today and am deeply grateful for the many prayers. In my experience, rising from a bed of sickness is among the greatest joys we know in our earthly life. I think it is a foreshadowing of the resurrection when we shall all rise from our beds of sickness (and death) and join in the chorus of heaven. I am baptizing a child this afternoon, no better way to celebrate resurrection! I share again the wonderful song of resurrection by St. Nicolai of Zicha, because I do not know of a happier sound!

On a very sorrowful note – pray for our brothers in Russia, Georgia and Ossetia where the threat of war has broken out. How deeply grevious it is for Orthodox brothers to go to war. May God bring a swift and just end to their conflict!

Translation of lyrics:

People rejoice, nations hear:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Stars dance, mounts sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Forests murmur, winds hum:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Seas bow*, animals roar:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bees swarm, and the birds sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Angels stand, triple the song:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Sky humble yourself, and elevate the earth:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bells chime, and tell to all:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Glory to You God, everything is possible to You,
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

The God Who Is Beautiful

July 30, 2008

I suggested this as reading in a comment yesterday and decided to re-post it so that it would be more readily available. It belongs with the question of God and beauty that I started in yesterday’s post.

Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when it is turned away from God.

Fr. Pavel Florensky

I come to the end of a day that has been filled with other activity and little time for writing. But in my reading at bedtime I came across the above quote. It obviously contains a world of truth, indeed, from a certain perspective it contains the whole of the Gospel. It is both commentary on how we see the world (as beautiful or ugly) or how we are within ourselves. The ugliness of sin is one of its most important components – and the inability to distinguish between the truly beautiful and the false beauty of so much of contemporary life offers a profound diagnosis of our lives and culture.

To say that God is Beautiful carries with it also profound insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?” is a question on which I have posted several times of late. If we ask the question, “How do we recognize Beauty?” then we have also shifted the ground from questions of intellect or pure rationality and onto grounds of aethetics and relationship (communion). The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points as well to a capacity within us to know God. I would offer that this capacity is itself a gift of grace – particularly when we admit that the recognition of beauty is subject to delusion.

In a famous passage from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov has this to say on beauty as well as delusion:

Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but an enigma. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many mysteries weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Theotokos (Madonna)  and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

Dostoevsky’s paradox, that “beauty,” for the mass of mankind, is found in Sodom, is a paradox that can hold two meanings. Either it can mean that even the corrupted “beauty” of Sodom can be redeemed (this is not Dostoevsky’s own intention) or that our heart can be so corrupted that we perceive the things of Sodom to be beautiful (closer to Dostoevsky’s point). We can also bring in a third – that of Florensky quoted above – that the “beauty” found in Sodom is corrupted precisely because it is turned away from God. It’s repentance can also be its restoration of true beauty.

I prefer this third thought (which is more or less the same as the first) in that it carries within it the reminder that when God created the world He said, “It is good (beautiful)” [both the Hebrew and the Greek of Genesis carry this double meaning].

We were created to perceive the Beautiful, even to pursue it. This is also to say that we were created to know God and to have the capacity, by grace, to know Him. Consider the Evangelical imperative: “Go and make disciples.” What would it mean in our proclamation of the gospel were we to have within it an understanding that we are calling people to Beauty? The report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople that when they attended worship among the Orthodox they “did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. We only know that of a truth, God is with them,” is history’s most profound confirmation of this proclamation.

St. Paul confirms the same when he describes the progressive work of our salvation as “the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we would have our hearts cured of the illness that mistakes Sodom for the Kingdom of God, then we should turn our eyes to the face of Christ. There the heart’s battle will find its Champion and beauty will find its Prototype.

Prayers By the Lake – I

June 18, 2008

Saint Nicholai Velimirovich, of whom I have written before, is the author of the wonderful, Prayers By the Lake, which he composed on the shores of Lake Ochrid. They are a treasure of modern Orthodox verse. His first poem in the cycle reflects a sense of the creation as God’s own, rather than an inert arena for secular life. I offer this poem and a link to an online edition of His prayers.

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I

Who is that staring at me through all the stars in heaven and all the creatures on earth?

 

Cover your eyes, stars and creatures; do not look upon my nakedness. Shame torments me enough through my own eyes.

 

What is there for you to see? A tree of life that has been reduced to a thorn on the road, that pricks both itself and others. What else-except a heavenly flame immersed in mud, a flame that neither gives light nor goes out?

 

Plowmen, it is not your plowing that matters but the Lord who watches.

 

Singers, it is not your singing that matters but the Lord who listens.

 

Sleepers, it is not your sleeping that matters but the Lord who wakens.

 

It is not the pools of water in the rocks around the lake that matter but the lake itself.

 

What is all human time but a wave that moistens the burning sand on the shore, and then regrets that it left the lake, because it has dried up?

 

O stars and creatures, do not look at me with your eyes but at the Lord. He alone sees. Look at Him and you will see yourselves in your homeland.

 

What do you see when you look at me? A picture of your exile? A mirror of your fleeting transitoriness?

 

O Lord, my beautiful veil, embroidered with golden seraphim, drape over my face like a veil over the face of a widow, and collect my tears, in which the sorrow of all Your creatures seethes.

 

O Lord, my beauty, come and visit me, lest I be ashamed of my nakedness—lest the many thirsty glances that are falling upon me return home thirsty.

Orthodox Serbian Monasteries in Kosovo

May 31, 2008

This is a beautiful sharing from the heart of the earliest Serbian Orthodox homeland.

Is Hell Real?

April 17, 2008

On one of the roads leading into my small city a billboard has recently appeared. It is part of a larger campaign by a nationally known evangelist who is to have a revival in Knoxville. The sign is simple. In very large bright yellow letters (all caps), the sign says: HELL IS REAL. In small letters beneath it, in white, that can be read as your car nears the sign is the statement: so is heaven. Like the small bulliten boards outside of many Southern churches, this sign belongs to a part of our culture that has been with us a long time. But everytime I see this sign, my mind turns to the subject of ontology (the study of the nature of being). Thus I offer today some very basic thoughts on the subject of being – a classical part of Christian theology.

The first thing I will note is that you cannot say Hell is real and Heaven is real and the word real mean the same thing in both sentences. Whatever the reality of Heaven, Hell does not have such reality. Whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.

St. Athanasius in his De Incarnatione, sees sin (and thus hell) as a movement towards “non-being.” The created universe was made out of nothing – thus as it moves away from God it is moving away from the gift of existence and towards its original state – non-existence. God is good, and does not begrudge existence to anything, thus the most creation can do is move towards non-being.

I’m certain that the intent of the billboard was to suggest that hell is not imaginary or just a folk-tale. It is certainly neither of those things. But in Orthodox spiritual terms I would say that hell is a massive state of delusion, maybe the ultimate state of delusion. It is delusional in the sense that (in Orthodox understanding) the “fire” of hell is not a material fire, but itself nothing other than the fire of the Living God (Hebrews 12:29). For those who love God, His fire is light and life, purification and all good things. For those who hate God, His fire is torment, though it be love.

And these are not simply picky issues about the afterlife – they are very germane issues for the present life. Christ Himself gave this “definition” of hell: “And this is condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

It is of critical importance for us to understand that being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth are all synonymous with reality as it is gifted to us by God. Many things that we experience in our currently damaged condition (I speak of our fallen state) which we describe with words such as “being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth, etc.”, are, in fact, only relatively so and are only so inasmuch as they have a participation or a relationship with the fullness of being, reality, life, etc.

Tragically in our world, many live in some state of delusion (even most of us live in some state of delusion). Christ said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” We are not pure in heart, and thus we do not see God, nor do we see anything in the fullness of its truth. Our delusion makes many mistakes about reality. The most serious delusion is that described by Christ, when we prefer darkness to light because our deeds are evil.

I have in my own life known what moments in such darkness are like – and I have seen such darkness in the hearts and lives of others many times. The whole of our ministry and life as Christians is to move from such darkness and into the light of Christ. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (communion) one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1John 1:7)

Is hell real? Only for those who prefer to see the Light of God as darkness.

Is heaven real? Yes, indeed, and everything else is only real as it relates to that reality. God give us grace to walk in the Light.

End of ontology lesson.

Scripture, Icons, and the World We Know

April 6, 2008

I ask for grace in writing this, lest I go beyond my ability. It seems to me well worth saying as discussions of the relationship between Scripture, dogma and science have surfaced. I offer this as food for thought as well as a ground of discussion.

First, I will note an American Protestant tradition (somewhat thin these days but still present in plenty of places within our culture). What I have in mind was once known as a “Common Sense” reading of Scripture. If was built philosophically on Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which held that we knew things directly and that any person of common sense was, if without prejudice, able to come to agreement with other persons of common sense. It was popular in parts of America and at one time (19th century or so) held absolute sway at Princeton and a number of other institutions, and was associated with such names as B.B. Warfield, et al. With the gradual demise of the formal fundamentalist movement after the 1920’s, this method became more of an interesting bit of historical knowledge, though many parts of it remained within the common treatment of Scripture among conservative Protestants. Among its assumptions was the “perspecuity” of Scripture – that is – it was perfectly understandable and interpretable by a person of common sense who approached it with good will and a desire to know the truth.

Much of this philosophy and theology of Biblical interpretation were a necessary part of Protestantism. If the Scriptures did not have such a quality of “perspecuity,” then some authority would be in charge of interpretation – all of which looked like an inevitable return to “Romanism.”

For a history of Fundamentalism in America and its philosophical underpinnings as well as its various schools of Biblical interpretation, I highly recommend George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture: the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. Marsden currently teaches at Notre Dame, though he was at Duke at the time I studied there. His scholarship on American religion is among the finest available.

All of this is stated as a prelude to the Orthodox approach to Scripture. First, it is only fair to say that modern Orthodoxy has more than once had tremendous influence from both Protestant and Catholic scholarship, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Much twentieth-century work has been to firmly build Orthodox scholarship on the foundation of the fathers and the Tradition as received within Orthodoxy. I think the study of Scripture is one of those areas where much work remains to be done (as do many other areas). That’s to say (to my dear readers) – just because you read a book by somebody who is Orthodox and you like a lot, does not mean you are necessarily reading definitive Orthodoxy. It’s never that easy.

I will offer a quote which I have used before:

“Man,” says St. Maximus, “has the absolute need for these two things, if he wants to keep the right way to God without error: the spiritual understanding of Scripture and the spiritual contemplation of God in nature.”

The spiritual understanding of Scripture is a permanent tradition of Eastern spiritual writing. In this context, St. Maximus also has the sternest words for those who can’t go beyond the literal meaning of Scripture. Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way:

He who doesn’t enter into the divine beauty and glory found in the letter of the Law falls under the power of the passions and becomes the slave of the world, which is subject to corruption… he has no integrity but what is subject to corruption.

The exact understanding of the words of the Spirit, however, are revealed only to those worthy of the Spirit; in other words, only those who by prolonged cultivation of the virtues have cleansed their mind of the soot of the passions receive the knowledge of things divine; it makes an impression and penetrates them at first contact. This is from Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality.

A “so-called” Common-sense interpretation of Scripture, or even the “literal” reading, if you will, though sometimes correct, is in many instances not the reading of the Church or of the Fathers and simply leads us into incorrect conclusions.

I think this is particularly the case when treating the early chapters of Genesis and seeking to bring them into current scientific dialog. It is insufficient to say that the “world is now different than God created it,” thereby attempting to rescue a literal reading of Genesis. In terms of the creation of the world, St. Maximus tells us that the “Incarnation is the cause of all things.” This pretty much undermines a literal, chronological treatment of Scripture as in the common-sense tradition.

Genesis certainly tells us much about the condition of humanity – of our turning away from God – but a spiritual reading of that book is certainly required. particularly in the first few chapters, replete as they are with messianic reference, etc. To make of those chapters a “common-sense” description of the creation of the universe and the precise metaphysics of our fall from grace, is probably to miss most of what those chapters have to say to us.

The Fathers (and I think particularly of St. Maximus the Confessor here) in the East really began to tackle the questions of human sin, free will, etc., primarily as they thought about Christ and what was revealed to us in Him about the truth of being human (Jesus was not only fully God, but also fully man, and thus could alone serve as the example of what it means to be “fully human”). And this work was not done until the 5th century. Interestingly, they started there rather than from some sort of systematic theology of the early chapters of Genesis.

In modern times, Fundamentalists, working within the Common Sense tradition, saw Darwin’s work as the complete undermining of the authority of Scripture. The entire modern battle between science and the Bible has largely been a Protestant concern. The terms of that battle have been created largely on that playing field. When Orthodox step onto the field they are like David wearing Saul’s armor. Something just doesn’t fit.

We have interesting verses in Scripture regarding creation. For one, we are told by St. Paul,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:18-21).

Thus St. Paul makes it quite clear that God made the creation subject to the same futility and bondage to corruption which we know as human beings and that the creation will take part in the same redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus.

When God looks at what He made in Genesis and says, “It is good,” is the statement a comment on things as they are, as they were, or as they shall be? (or some combination thereof). We know, theologically, that nothing is “good” except God alone. How could He describe the universe as “good” except as it comes to be in the finality or completion of its creation when it is fully united with Him (Ephesians 1:10)?

It was certainly common among the Eastern fathers to see Adam and Eve as “adolescents” rather than fully completed, already having achieved perfect image and likeness. St. Irenaeus holds this teaching and it is fairly common among the Eastern fathers. They do not tend to focus on Genesis and “original sin” to the extent that became common in the West.

Why do I include icons in the title of this piece? I do so because of the marvelous theological hint given us in the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This is a clear recognition both of how icons work, but also of how Scripture works. Icons are windows – they make it possible to see beyond them to something else. They do not necessarily (in fact rarely) depict anything in a strictly historical manner and yet what they depict is true. I see in Genesis a rich icon of the creation. Knowing how to read that icon, how to see what is shown us by God, requires far more than common sense. It requires a purer heart than I know I have – it requires a relationship with both God and with creation that I do not yet have. But I do know that it is pointing me beyond myself and further than my “common sense” would ever take me.

As for science – it has its own rules and ways of reading the universe. Sometimes science and the faith cross paths. Inasmuch as we both want to know the truth, we share a common journey. Inasmuch as science seeks to control the universe, we part ways. But the assumption that there is all one big truth to which Bible and science both belong – this is part and parcel of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, not exactly a part of Orthodox Tradition. There is much to be discussed by Orthodox in our modern world. Some of that discussion requires a deeper appropriation of the Tradition. Some of that discussion requires that we speak about things that science is making known. But everything requires that we find the Truth at it is revealed in Christ – wherever and however that is so. Glory to God.

The Scripture in Creation

March 12, 2008

birchtrees.jpg

One of the many endearing stories of St. Seraphim of Sarov was a small act of devotion he engaged in during his years as a hermit. The area around his hermitage was designated by him with Biblical place-names. Thus one place was Jerusalem, another Bethlehem, etc. Thus did the great saint transform the trees and rocks and every path by taking it up into the Biblical story. His every action outside his hut was thus also an act of pilgrimage, a reminder of the mighty acts of God for our salvation.

He is not the only saint to have engaged in such naming, though I’ll not go into others here. Rather I want to draw my readers’ attention to this holy practice. In my previous post a comment was made asking how we might more fully encounter God in the creation about us, since the notion of a “secular” world is but a modern fiction and a contradiction of the Word of God and the Orthodox faith.

St. Paul gives this instruction:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father (Ephesians 5:18-20).

Filling our heart with the knowledge of Scripture we bring out of the treasure of our heart the remembrance of God and of His blessing of creation. For everything we see we may know a Scripture or a phrase from the liturgy that fittingly describes its place in the kingdom of God. I could make a considerable study and begin to suggest possibilities – though the possibilities are endless.

St. Antony the Great (I believe it was), was once asked by a philosopher why he had no books. The great ascetic replied, “My book, O Philosopher, is the world.” If you knew the Psalter by heart (as St. Antony most certainly would have), you would never be at a loss for words of praise to the Good God for the creation in which you live.

This very practice runs throughout the liturgy of the Church itself. A priest vesting himself, recites passages of Psalms that relate in a meaningful way to each garment he puts on. His every step is surrounded by Scripture. No moment in the liturgy is bereft of the Word of God. Thus in the liturgy the Word of God inhabits the Church and the Church inhabits the Word of God. With our hearts properly trained we will see that the world around us is equally inhabited and that we may, as St. Paul says, “Always and for everything give thanks in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.”

It is a practice that is not accomplished all at once – but I commend it to you. Memorize verses of Scripture (especially the Psalms) and note their fitness for the world in which you live. The rocks, the trees, the streams, the sky, the clouds, all that we see has its place within those holy hymns. Drawing on the treasure of the heart, we can encounter God at all times, giving thanks for all things.