Bad Icons

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

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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54 responses to “Bad Icons”

  1. handmaidleah Avatar

    Fr. Bless!
    Great reminder, thanks.

  2. Joseph Hromy Avatar
    Joseph Hromy

    Father do you know why the west never truely got into icons? Thanks

  3. Moses Avatar

    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.

    This quote says it all! I have heard many complaints about “latin and un-canonical icons” from people and personally I prefer eastern style icons, however the other so-called “bad icons” are still icons nonetheless.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    The lack of contact between East and West is probably the primary reason. In early Christian Britain (acc. to the Ven. Bede’s History) one of their Bishops visited Rome, and came back with a number of icons which he hung on the Rood Beam (roughly where an iconostasis is in the East). We are also told by the Ven. Bede, that when St. Augustine of Canterbury came ashore in Britain (sent by St. Gregory the Dialogist), he came “bearing a cross of silver and a portrait of Christ on a board,” i.e. an icon. Thus icons were known and used at a time when the Church was still united, East and West, and where Byzantium was still a great touchstone for many things.

    By the time of Charlemagne, Greek was so poorly understood in the West that the 7th council was rejected at first because of a mistranslation of the tomos of the Council.

    The “Dark Ages” in the West were largely an isolation from the civilization of the East (Byzantium). We in the West often forget that the Roman Empire in the East did not fall until 1453.

  5. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    There seems to be different ways of speaking about Icons. As Fr. Stephen elequantly stated, individuals can be icons. Other things in this world can also reveal heaven to us. But what are the conditions that that make an “Icon”-that of wood, paint, etc.- an icon? Does it require to have been written of a holy person, through prayer and ascetic effort? If I sit down with some paint and a piece of wood and paint a picture of a saint, of the church; is this then an Icon? It would seem that there is a dividing line somewhere-some preconditions or rules. In the same way the Bible is a written Icon and it is in somehow beyond other writings. These writings were decided by the Church and therefore non-canonical writings and letters are not used in Church. How can a non-canonical icon then be used in Church if Scripture and icons are to reveal the same thing? Just some questions-from someone who wants to learn- for clarifications sake.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Generally speaking, an icon should adhere to the Tradition. Many iconographers refer to holy paintings that do not adhere to the tradition as “religious art.” There are examples of miraculous “religious art” so we don’t just reject it out of hand. However, religious art is not as useful for instructing for doctrine, etc., as is the case for a properly painted icon.

    “Non-canonical” icons are quite common – having become popular during later periods in the Orthodox world (under influence from Western Europe). But, as noted, some have a very venerable place in the Church. It does not make them “canonical” per se, but the Church accepts them within limits.

  7. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, bless!

    I think Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s call to serve Christ as she found Him in the poorest of the poor was my first inkling of this understanding of man as Icon of Christ–particularly man in his sin and in his need. I found it beautiful, but it was also foreign to the mindset with which I was raised. I don’t think I understood or fully embraced what she meant by that until I became Orthodox. Despite Christ’s words about our treatment of others being accepted as treatment of Him in His teaching about the Judgment in Matt. 25, I was vaguely uneasy and confused with such a seemingly “literal” understanding of seeing Christ in others, and yet powerfully attracted by the beauty of the love of Christ she expressed in so doing.

    Handmaidleah, I don’t have a WordPress account, so I can’t comment on your site, but I just want to thank you so much for your blog “Christ is in our midst.” The quotes and excerpts are such a blessing to me. The art and the whole site is beautiful (in all ways). It is a very good use of cyberspace!

  8. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Would it be safe to say that we should try our best to follow the canons but be open to the fact that God can also not be contained within these rules? I have a mother-in-law who happens to paint icons. She is not Orthodox but truly sees what they express and attempts to express the same beauty in her work. If in some way these icons reveal there purpose than they are truly iconographic but may go unrecognized as such. Would such an icon be proper for placement in an Orthodox home?

  9. The Scylding Avatar

    Not related:
    I don’t know if you followed recent Canadian events at all, but the new leader of Canada’s Liberal Party lists his religion as Russian Orthodox. He is the grandson of Count Pavel Ignatieff, Minister of Education and Special Adviser to Tsar Nicholas II. He himself has been a Harvard Professor… His name is Michael Ignatieff.

    Not really relevant, but maybe interesting. Has there been any other major leaders in the West that profess Orthodoxy (even nominally)?

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Well, uh, the current governor of Illinois… :0

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Stephen W,

    Certainly. You might even have it blessed. There’s much more freedom in these matters – particularly when it comes to private piety – than people often know. Orthodoxy has its canons, etc., and they teach and reveal the Truth. But the canons are not an exhaustive treatment of the Truth. They are norms that guard us and guide us and provide a safe haven of salvation.

    I still listen to lots of music that is not “Orthodox,” as would be true of most Orthodox believers that I know. I play a number of musical instruments, and enjoy the blues. It has no place in the liturgical life of the Church, but it sounds good on the piano in my living room.

  12. Ø Avatar

    Fr. Stephen –

    I just wanted to thank you for your many wonderful posts on icons. I recently recommended your blog to my mother, and she has told me that your posts have greatly helped her to understand the place of the holy icons in Orthodox Tradition.

    Thank you.
    – Zachary Saint-Denys

  13. luciasclay Avatar

    LOL. Blago’s orthodox ? And he’s an icon by virtue of being made in God’s image. ( Until this year I was a greater chicagoland resident so this is funny to me ).

    Seriously though prayers for him and his family.

    Your previous post had an icon of the transfiguration and this one deals with the icons. I know that even at the 7th council the question of invocation of saints was not disputed merely the painting, display and veneration of the icons themselves. I am not aware of a dispute regarding the invocation of saints prior to the reformation. Was the invocation of saints really undisputed until that time ?

    Still being in the middle between protestant and wherever it is I’m going to end up I tend to try and find some basis of even a hint of a belief in scripture. And certainly its helpful to have some basis as I talk within my household and family of these things. I’ve seen the “great cloud of witnesses” and “to the spirits of men made perfect” etc. passages. But I got to contemplating the transfiguration lately. On the one hand we have the case of Saul at Endor which was bad. But then we have the case of Christ on Tabor.

    Is the transfiguration part of the foundation, the event, that gave rise to the tradition of the communion with saints. Realizing its a mystery itself and part of what your previous post refers to as the unspeakable.

    Because it seems to me that for most people I know the problem is not the painting of a picture but rather the invocation of the saints. And that primarily because it is believed to be forbidden for any number of reasons.



  14. The Scylding Avatar

    Hah! But I did say “major” – as in national/heads-of-state etc.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    First – I would probably go to Revelations for a foundation in Scripture. There we have the martyrs (Rev. 6:9-10) the souls of those slain for the word cry out to God; Rev. 8:3-4 mentions the prayers of the saints and incense mingled with their prayers. Of course, this latter reference could also mean the saints on the earth (believers).

    Generally, those who are in heaven pray. For what do they pray – for themselves? The clear indication of Rev. is that the battle is here and it is for us they pray, just as the cloud of witnesses watch us.

    If the saints in heaven pray for us, our prayers asking them to do what they already do is exactly what we rightly ask God to do (what he is already doing). We do not ask the saints to do something other than what they are already doing.

    A difficulty more many protestants is that they confuse prayer with worship. We do not pray to the saints as though they were God. We do not ask them to do what they cannot do. Even “Most Holy Theotokos save us!” traditionally refers to her prayers, not to any role of atonement, etc.

    But with no prayer, we have no communion, and we treat the largest portion of the Church as though it were dead – as in dead and gone – when, in fact, God is the “God of the living not of the dead.” Our prayers to the saints and their prayers for us, and our communion with them in prayer, all bear witness to the resurrection of Christ, without which none of those actions would make sense. But if Christ is truly risen, then those prayers make much sense.

    The Protestant version of heaven, hell, the after-life, etc., tends towards the trite – devoid of mystery or communion. It is hard, at first, to comprehend the fullness of the mystery of Christian theology as it is found in Orthodoxy, but only because it is so full.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    Heads of state in the West… Prince Philip was born Orthodox, but became Anglican when he married Elizabeth. His mother became an Orthodox nun… but he’s not a head of state.

    Dukakis is Orthodox…but he lost his election…I assume Spiro Agnew was at least born Orthodox…but he’s a poor example as well… and he wasn’t a head of state.

    I guess I can’t think of any…though it may speak better of the Orthodox not to have any names in that group. It’s hard enough that we have names among the leaders anywhere.

  17. luciasclay Avatar

    So the meeting of Christ with Moses and Elijah doesn’t impact this because it was pre-resurrecton ? Or because it was belived the bodies were also resurrected etc.

    And yes I’m trying as best I can, in the tradition of western thinking, to clearly define mysteries 🙂

  18. Robert Avatar


    If I may add something, be very aware that trying to find a reason for everything in Scripture (and reject it because it is not found there) is in itself very alien to Orthodoxy. As a former Protestant, I struggle with this blindspot often.

  19. handmaidleah Avatar

    Good ol’ Vladimir Putin is Orthodox 😉
    Karen C. I am gratified that you like my blog.

  20. Robert Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    “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 am reminded that understood this way, icons are a witness – a testimony- to the presence of the Kingdom and of Christ Himself. Likewise we ourselves, and indeed all of humanity, are a witness to God’s splendor. Alas, too often we condemn ourselves by rejecting His testimony in and amongst us. The question is ever before us “shall we become participants with God in this testimony?” This is salvation itself. This is Christ ever among us!

  21. Robert Avatar

    Alas, too often we condemn ourselves by rejecting His testimony in and amongst us.

    And so we ourselves are “Bad Icons”

  22. luciasclay Avatar

    Robert. Indeed a valid point and thanks for point it out.

    I’m not trying to prove it but am at looking for traces of it. I’ve found some and was curious if there were others. But at the same time it is of course my habits of approaching questions coming out.

    For me my biggest challenge will be if I decide to finally take the leap I also have a family. Both immediate and extended. They are your standard protestants in that they view the Church as corrupted but they are primarily focused on Rome and know nothing of Orthodox. They will conclude that “its all the same” despite that not being the case of course.

    That is an interesting challenge for me. Of course I think of all the saints and martyrs who dealt with a lot bigger challenges relative to their conversion and wonder why I am timid.

    My biggest hesitation is having once believed error and found out it was I know that I am far from certain of what I know. Its with that uncertainty in my own knowledge that I continue to slowly learn and inquire about Orthodoxy.


  23. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would continue exploring and not feel pressure other than the pressure we all should feel of being drawn toward God. The Truth will remain the Truth and will become evident in time – a lot of it has to do with our heart – far more than our head. I accepted the truth of Orthodoxy probably 20 years before I converted. It wasn’t until the last seven of those years that questions of ecclesiology and the meaning of being in communion became clear enough to me that conversion was inevitable. I was hampered at the time with needing a job to support my family of four children. God provided, and everything worked very well when we did convert – but getting there was a struggle. I trust God to help others and never judge anyone’s journey. I can’t.

    On the Transfiguration – it does indeed have some impact on icons, and on their theology – though that was later in coming. Icons, like the Doctrine of the Trinity – were present in the Church before the Church was forced to articulate with precision what otherwise had remained a mystery.

    I would add to that, the entire subtheme of “image” to be found in both Old and New Testament – it’s strongly present in St. Paul’s writings (“being conformed to the image of His beloved Son, etc.). The word for “glory” in the OT (kavod) has a component of its meaning that includes the notion of image. Thus St. Paul’s “being changed from glory to glory” is a play on this Hebrew word.

    To the Church, the fact that God’s own true image, His only begotten Son, became flesh and visible to us (“we beheld His glory” in St. John) changes the entire discussion of image and icons. It’s actually a very rich area of Scripture as you dig.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m a fan of your site and its beauty as well.

  25. Andrew Avatar

    Very beautiful.

  26. Robert Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    When you say “the entire subtheme of ‘image’ to be found in both Old and New Testament – it’s strongly present in St. Paul’s writings” this may or may not be true (I agree with you in fact). But is this not misleading? Is it not an interpretation -a certain perspective- of the Scriptures that leads one to this particular insight?

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, of course. There are only interpretations of Scripture. I am pointing to one that seems obvious within Orthodoxy. But it’s the only way I know to read the Scriptures – from an Orthodox interpretation – since I accept that the Orthodox interpretation is just what the name implies. It begs the question, of course, but there is no other choice. There’s not an interpretation that isn’t committed to something. And, of course, the question would be, by what authority does that something claim to read Scripture? Orthodoxy offers one answer. Others would offer another.

    But I would not think of this as misleading. My statements, and everything I say on the blog is manifestly from an Orthodox point of view. Shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone… I guess.

    But “this may or may not be true” is also like saying “Orthodoxy may or may not be true” or “Jesus may or may not be God.” Orthodoxy of course, affirms what it proclaims to be the truth, both in Scripture, and about Christ. Again, no surprise.

    But…I’m working on some things to pull together a post on this “subtheme” of glory and image – a little longer post than usual, but one that I think will be of interest.

  28. Meg Avatar

    Dukakis’s marriage to a Jewish woman excommunicated him from Orthodoxy. And someone posted on one of my Orthodox lists that the current governor of Illinois is not actually Orthodox — he just parades it around whenever he thinks it will get him votes. Not being remotely near Illinois, I couldn’t attest to the truth of that, but it’s something to keep an eye out for.

    Someone once told me that when we die, we will meet God holding two objects in His hands: in His right hand, an icon, and in His left hand, a mirror. The icon is of us, as He conceived us when He created us, and the mirror is to help us judge for ourselves how much we resemble that icon. Some of us will say, “Wow, does that look like me or what?!” and some will say, “Who the heck’s that?!” Something to consider??

  29. Robert Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not accusing you of misleading; neither do I think you have been less than forthright as to your perspective. I only meant to point out in my clumsy way that when anyone claims this or that can be “found” in Scripture, in reality this is not at all that self evident (hence my “may or may not be true” as a way of saying that what is clear to you and me is not at all evidently true or clear to others not sharing our perspective). One has to have eyes to see, and when Scriptures are disconnected from Tradition and life in the Church (proper interpretive context) results are wide and varied. The truth indeed is often hidden, or so it appears to me, and very obscure by reason of our hardness of heart. This relates to what you said about bad icons, how even a saint can see “the very depths of heaven” in a bad icon. It also relates to good icons as they are deemed faithful interpretations – windows into heaven itself.

    Please accept my apologies for making it sound like I was criticising you, this was certainly not my intent.

  30. Visibilium Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I especially relish your story about your thesis defence, when you were asked if icons were necessary for salvation.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thanks for remembering. The event was a turning point for me…


    You’re absolutely right. I understood The Scylding’s question to have included “nominally” Orthodox. I would think an Orthodox Christian, regularly confessing and making communion and seeking to live the Christian life, though still a sinner, might avoid attempting to sell Senate seats or other accusations we have heard in the news. May God have mercy on us all.

  32. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Fr. Stephen, Was iconoclasm against the physical reality of the icon itself or against what it represented -the veneration and prayer to saints- or both? Many protestants today do not seem to be against the idea of symbols representing the heavenly realm- every church today has some symbols even if it is a simple wooden cross- but do however find themselves in oposition to venerating and praying to saints. I find myself not having to defend the icon itself but the saints and our relationship with them. I do remember a previous post where you said something about the antibaptist having problems with even the most basic symbols but the vast majority of protestants today don’t seem to be hung up on this anymore. So then again would the discussion today be more about prayer to saints?- which I find that many Orthodox do not fully understand. Of course most of us our products of a culture that has no proper understanding of these things. Thank you for addressing these topics because they are paramount to our salvation and a healthy view of God that seems to be needed.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    Stephen W.

    I think you’ve put your finger on the issue. It’s the veneration. When I was writing my thesis on the icon as theology, I made a very strong case that an icon cannot even be seen properly without veneration. Thus it is very much rooted in the veneration of saints.

    But prior to that doctrine is the doctrine of knowledge as communion, for instance, rather than rationality, per se. The arguments against veneration all presumen a kind of knowledge about things Divine that is rational and psychological at best. It is an inherent part of individualism and Scottish Common Sense philosophy that is the root of most American thought.

    Thus, when entering these things, I like to start with questions of how we know God, doctrine, etc. If someone can begin to stand on the ground of knowing God as communion, then it’s much easier for them to understand what is happening in the veneration of saints.

    I remember a woman, a former Pentecostal, who became Greek Orthodox. She told her priest that she had difficulties with giving honor to the Theotokos. He sent her into the Church and told her to sit before the icon of the Theotokos for an hour or so. Somewhere in the course of that time, her questions were resolved – not by a syllogism – but by the Theotokos. I’ve always liked that story, perhaps because I would not have thought to suggest it.

    We have a very deep chasm between Orthodoxy and other forms of Christianity when it comes to the whole area of knowledge. How many of them would understand the statement that we venerate icons as a means of knowledge (as communion)? Our preaching of the gospel in its fullness is also the rescue of man from his diminished state produced by the reductionism of modernity. Sin is bad enough. But modern man doesn’t even have the model of what sin has done to him. The answer is so great that I think he hardly dare to believe it.

  34. Visibilium Avatar


    Protestants would probably have more problems with our icons if they were to realize that we mean something way different when we talk about symbols. For us, symbols aren’t divorced from realities. The Reformation controversies solidified the Western divorce of symbol from reality.

  35. coffeezombie Avatar


    I can somewhat relate to where you are coming from. I, myself, converted from a Southern Baptist background, and my conversion has been a cause of much strife with my family. I won’t go into particulars, but this strife was the background as I was exploring the Faith. Fortunately, at the time, I was not married (though my girlfriend—now wife—was exploring the Faith with me and was, in fact, ready to convert before I was), so my main conflict has been with my parents and, to a lesser degree, my siblings.

    I think the question of icons and Saints is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Protestants (especially those who have already gotten over Sola Scriptura); this was my own experience. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, I found that the issue really was a “heart” issue rather than a “head” issue. I understood, mentally, much of what was said about icons, I understood why the Church doesn’t believe they are a violation of the Second Commandment, I understood why the Church teaches that the Saints can hear our prayers, and that we can pray to them, and so on.

    But when it came to the idea of actually doing these things, I couldn’t do it. It didn’t feel right. I would stand in Liturgy, and participate in singing everything, but when a hymn to a Saint was sung, I would keep silence. Looking back, I think the main problem was that, after being taught for the first 23 years of my life in the Baptist church that icons and Saints were just idols that Catholics worshiped instead of God, and so on, kissing an icon or asking a Saint’s prayers was the final act of breaking with the Protestantism of my past.

    When I finally did say my first prayer to a Saint, and kiss my first icon, I think I would describe it thus: It was like someone who had grown up being told that a particular fence was electrified and not to go near it finally going to the fence and touching it, and realizing that it was never electrified at all!

    But how did that come about? In my case, I think I’d credit the friend who said to me once, “You’ve gotta trust the Church.” That’s how I’d sum it up. I finally put the pieces together and said, “I do believe that this is the true Church, that God has preserved it from error; icons and Saints are a part of the Church’s Tradition; therefore, what am I concerned about?”

    And since I took that final step, and, especially since my Chrismation, it has not been an issue for me.

    That’s my story, at least. I hope it may serve to encourage, and, if I have said anything wrong, please forgive me.

  36. The Scylding Avatar

    Vis – for most Protestants – yes. For SOME Lutherans – no. The symbol/reality divorce traces back to the understanding of Holy Communion. An “orthodox” Lutheran understanding of Holy Communion is sharply different to the rest of Protestantism (with the exception of an odd Anglican or 2), and different to Rome as well.

    Most non-Lutherans are quite taken aback when they learn what Lutherans actually confess wrt Holy Communion, Baptism etc. Orthodox friends of mine remarked on how familiar a Lutheran Liturgy proper was to them when they visited out Church.

    Not to minimise differences though (No illusions here). But many Lutherans are throuroughly disgusted at how the terms Protestant and Evangelical were “wrenched” from our hands…..

  37. The Scylding Avatar

    That should be “our Church” – I tend to think faster than I write.

  38. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your comments about knowledge as communion speak forcibly to me. Thank you for them.

    For what it’s worth, it appears to me that the Lord’s intention for the family is to be the training ground for communion. Children bear their parents’ image in a sense as man bears the image of God. This means that children are supposed to grow up by imitating their parents, becoming like them as the means of growing into maturity. Man, similarly, is supposed to grow into maturity by imitation of God. This imitation comes about through communion, living life in each other’s loving company, eating together, talking together, being silent together, the children learning by lived-out example how Daddy holds a job, pays the bills, eats spinach, prays, loves his wife, loves his Church, how Mommy cares for a baby, makes a meal, finds a bargain, cares for the poor, honors her husband, loves the Psalms. Adam and Eve enjoyed such communion walking with God in the cool of the evening, learning to be like Him. They abandoned that communion in order to grasp at the trappings of divinity through knowledge — that is, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

    It appears to me that modern society has redefined the growth of children into maturity as a matter of knowledge. A child becomes fit for adulthood not by communion with his parents but by spending childhood in school gaining what is arguably called knowledge, in a school where the only possible communion is with equally immature peers (the job of a teacher is certainly not to commune with the students). In the evenings when families might repair some of this damage, they fill their lives with activity, often forsaking having meals together (a key part of communion, as the OT sacrifices show). When they have meals or leisure time together, families all too often spend them in front of the TV or computer screen, communing with the moving images (this reminds me eerily of the “living” image of the beast in Revelation) fabricated for the sole purpose of selling advertising time or gaming software. But communion, even with fabricated images, is powerful, and we imitate and grow to be like what we see. The result is akin to breathing carbon monoxide, which takes the place of oxygen in the blood but lacks its life-sustaining power, thus suffocating a man even while he continues to breathe comfortably.

    Intuitively I imagine that children deprived of this first, deepest, God-given experience of communion with their parents are likely to find themselves tremendously handicapped in learning communion with God, indeed hardly capable of understanding why they should desire it.

  39. zoe Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, God Bless. My husband and I are so overjoyed. God through his Son Jesus Christ answers prayers and I know that the Holy Theotokos and other saints listen to our prayers as well. I’ve been asking the Holy Theotokos to pray for my son so that my son may come to know Her Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and come to His Kingdom. This morning, my husband just told me that during his conversation with our son, he (our son) asked us
    (his parents) to pray for him!! This is a miracle and a very significant step for my son. Thank you O Lord and blessed Virgin Mary and all the Saints
    both departed and living praying for us sinners. Thank you, Father Stephens and the brothers and sisters at Saint Anne’s Orthodox Church for all your prayers. I respond to this blog hoping to encourage those who, like me, are struggling in their relationship with Icons, especially with the Icon of the Holy Theotokos. “Oh Holy Theotokos save us”.

  40. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thanks be to God. May He continue to bless your son!

  41. fatherstephen Avatar


    A powerful and wonderful example. I agree.

    We homeschooled our son (who is now 21) for the 7th and 8th grade. Best thing we ever did for him (educationally). There is pretty much nothing that an adolescent learns from other adolescents other than pain and misery in a culture that devours its own. Traditional societies tend to “apprentice” youth in their adolescence – putting them beside adults so that they learn to be adults. My son’s daily presence with my wife in the home (and me as well, occasionally) gave him the constant exposure to maturity and adult behavior that allowed him to grow and mature. He is an outstanding young man whom I admire greatly. I see those 2 years as invaluable. Priceless.

  42. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Fr Stephen, You mentioned influences on American thought. When talking about the roots of American thought, it seems that we also need to look at pragmatism. Ideas that stem from this way of thinking have much to do with modern relativism even if this was not the intention. It seems apparent that -whether we are Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic- we are living in a Western society and are therefore influenced by many things that most are not even aware of. Pragmatism is just one example of many, I am sure. One of the claims that pragmatism was supposed to be able to do was to unite science with religion. The construction of philosophies such as this, from what I see, are not needed in Orthodoxy, since such a dichotomy never existed in the East. I believe this is all related in some way to the modern Americans view on icons, veneration, and even truth. Icons,and even the whole of Orthodoxy then becomes just another expression of what works for one person but maybe not for another.
    Many Protestant Christians can except icons even to the degree that it is OK for others but they are not necessary or relative to their own lives. A major stumbling block in the West seems to be the lack of mystery and the idea that science and reason stand in opposistion to Church and faith. This may be why many are looking for a rational answer to the validity of icons. I’m probably over my head here!!!

  43. fatherstephen Avatar


    I am not competent in the history of modern philosophy myself, though I’ve read a bit. If I’m not mistaken the pragmatism that permeates our culture, is rooted, philosophically, in the Scottish Common Sense school that played an important role in the forming of our culture. Historians of modern thought (perhaps among our readers) could give a more full account. But, I think you are right in seeing its impact on the understanding of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy requires, to a degree, a re-education on certain fundamental things in order to be understood or practiced. This has become increasingly clear to me over the years of being Orthodox, and responsible for teaching the faith to others.

  44. Visibilium Avatar


    Your observation would be true only on the surface. That the Protestants and their RC cousins accept the symbol/reality divorce is made obvious by the RCs’, some Lutherans’, and some Anglicans’ insistence on a Real Presence–as opposed to a symbolic presence. The Lutherans have a theory explaining the Real Presence, which the RCs reject in favor of their own.

    Orthodox can’t get stuck in such arguments owing to our rejection of that paradigm altogether. Our symbols are really symbols and our realities are symbolically real.

    Interestingly, the more “real” Westerns carry the symbol/reality hallucination a bit further with their frivolous quibbling about sacraments and sacramentals.

  45. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would probably parse things a little differently than Visibilium, but I think the symbol/reality divorce preceded Protestant thought and was already a part of Medieval metaphysics. What familiarity I have with Anglican accounts (which is considerable) and with Lutheran (much more casual) still seem to carry the distinction and to not be compatible with Orthodox understanding. I would readily agree that the intention behind many accounts might be quite Orthodox – but that the older baggage inhibits that. More modern Lutheran accounts that I’ve read have simply held to the language of “Real Presence” in which they’ve found agreement with Rome and Anglicans. Is this a new thing, or does it represent a departure from classic Lutheran thought? Is it just ELCA doing this on a modern basis? I’m out of my competency in this…

  46. […] worshipping of other gods – is getting a little mixed up.Why am I bothering with all this? Because Father Stephen posted recently on the issue, and he almost always has something wise to say. What seems […]

  47. The Scylding Avatar

    My anwer would be that there is a fair difference between ELCA/ELCiC and LCMS/LCC types. Whereas the ELCA seem to have departed their moorings and moved closer to the (liberal factions of) Anglicans, there has been more emphasis on ‘orthodox’ Lutheranism. I come into contact with seminarians, and there seems to be a greater appreciation of Luther proper, as well as an understanding of Orthodoxy. But I do understand the differences as you underline it – Luther did come under the influences of the Nominalists to some extent. But at the same time, one should realise that at the present, a Lutheran theology is a different beast to the majority of other Western understandings. That does not make it identical to the East, but it does not make it identical to Rome or the Calvinists or the rest of them either. Hence my tendency to sometimes thuink of Lutheranism as Real Western Orthodoxy, so-to-speak.

    But that is another topic for another day….

  48. fatherstephen Avatar


    I understand. My God continue to bless the best in us all.

  49. Daniel Avatar

    Fr Stephan,

    I’m interested in where you get some of the patristic teaching on icons. References would be nice. In particular I would love to see some quotes from the fathers about this statement of yours.

    “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”

    Not because I disagree, actually I think its very true and my personal experience and observation of close friends seems to agree.

  50. fatherstephen Avatar

    The best compendium on iconography and its theology is Ouspensky’s the Theology of Icons. Also, I like Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis. It’s a different read but quite rich with insight.

    I did an MA in Religion at Duke, completed in 1991. At that time it was possible to read everything published in English on icons. My thesis was entitled “the Icon as Theology.” Much of what I write on icons, comes as the fruit of that study – which is to say I’d have to dig for the references. I used a lot of St. Theodore the Studite, whose work is truly seminal.

    I’ve also studied (briefly) with a master iconographer who was a treasure of patristic quotes and insights – drawn from a lifetime of iconography. Sometimes it’s just hard to pin down understandings that have been digested and incorporated into your life for a long while.

    But I’ll try to be more helpful in the future…It was a good question.

    I’ll offer a small expansion of the idea here. St. Theodore develops the understanding that icons are a “hypostatic representation,” that is, it is the person which is made present in the icon (rather than the essence). It is inherently the case that persons are known only in a “relational” manner, or by communion. Personhood cannot be objectified (I would look at Met. John Zizioulas’ work, largely derived from St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Basil the Great). If personhood cannot be objectified, then to view an icon without “relation” (which is expressed in veneration) is not to see “the heavenly” that is made present. In that sense the icon ceases (for the viewer) to be a window to heaven and simply becomes “opaque”.

    But as you can see, to make a statement as I offered, there are several sources combined to offer such a conclusion.

    From time to time I’ve looked at having my thesis published. It’s been read by Orthodox scholars and met with approval. My back burner is stacked with far too many such projects. Hope that small excursus is of help.

  51. David Di Giacomo Avatar
    David Di Giacomo

    Father Stephen, did you ever publish your thesis on icons? I’m thinking that would be an interesting read.

    By your prayers,


  52. David Di Giacomo Avatar
    David Di Giacomo

    Father, forgive me. Somehow I read that last comment of yours and completely missed the last paragraph, only seeing it after I clicked “submit”.

    I still would be interested to read your thesis.

  53. Steve Avatar

    It seems to me, that the problem is the state of the human heart, not icons.

  54. Cheryl Avatar

    I would love to read your thesis too, Father. Some of my favorite posts are when you write about icons and the iconicity of Scripture.

    In re-reading this entry and the comments, I’m reminded of two words I learned in French: savoir and connaitre. I remember my teacher explaining the difference of these two verbs, that both mean “to know.” Savoir is an informational type of learning, but connaitre is interpersonal knowing. It constantly seems to be that Orthodoxy is concerned with the latter [though it does not necessarily need to be divorced from the former].

    A breath of fresh air coming from a very Reformed background where logic and rationality reigns supreme–often ending up in very illogical places, completely devoid of the mystery and reality and complexity and beauty that is such a part of life.


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