Is the World Literal or Iconic?

IMG_1642What do you see when you see the world and how do you see it? I have written much about the secular character of our culture and its “literal” view of the world. The world is what you see and nothing more. Significant events take their significance from their own relation to other literal events. Much that passes for Christian theology or “thought” belongs to this world-view today. Thus those who concern themselves with “prophetic” events are constantly working to make a connection between the words of Scripture and the “literal” events of today’s news. The coming of Christ is seen by them as an event that will fit within the headlines of the paper – and even fantasize about the difficulties presented to mainstream media when the event of a “literal rapture” occurs, and a significant portion of the population goes missing. It is a way to see the world – not significantly different than how any non-believer sees the world – and – I would suggest – deadly dull and wrong.

There are other ways to see the world. The “other way” with which I am most familiar is the world as icon. Of painted icons we say they are “windows to heaven.” Though no more than wood and paint, faithful believers find them to be something which points to something yet more – they both point to and make present here.

The house in which I live has a marvelous feature. The living room – dining room (more or less one large room together) has one entire wall as floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, the living room is cantilevered so that parts of two additional walls consist of windows as well. The effect is that the main living space of my home constantly includes the outdoors. In the Autumn the room is suffused with golden light from the leaves of the many trees that overlook the rear of our house. In the Spring and Summer, the room takes on a radiance from the many trees and flowers. Even in winter as the room looks out over the naked wood of trees and offers views of neighboring streets and houses – the room remains transformed.

To say that something is a window is to recognize both its “literal” presence as well as its “iconic” function. It provides both wall to enclose and yet reaches out to include. The world, I believe, when properly seen, does the same. There are occasional views of certain aspects of the world that make the most hardened, literal heart pause and recognize that something transcendent, or something which certainly hints at the transcendent has come into view.

I well understand that there are people who do not believe in God. Oftentimes when they tell me about the God they don’t believe in, I have to say that I don’t believe in that God either. But I do not understand people who live in our world and do not wonder whether there is a God – whether the beauty that refuses to disappear, despite our best efforts – is not reflective of some greater Beauty that refuses to utterly hide Himself.

My children (now adult) laugh at me for once having scolded them about “fairy circles.” We were walking in the woods in Durham, N.C. My oldest girl was 8, her sister between 5 and 6. We came on a clearing with a beautiful circle of mushrooms. “It’s a fairy circle!” I exclaimed. Despite late night readings of Tolkien and Lewis, both of them laughed at me and said, “Papa!” in their most disapproving, skeptical voices. My scolding was that they did not at least pause to wonder.

I do not believe in fairy circles, nor did I expect my children to. But I do wonder (and I still pray that my children do and often). I wonder because I believe the world to be iconic – a window that reveals more than a first glimpse. It reveals a beauty and a vastness that stretches beyond the literal. The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep. He dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven and saw angels going up and down the ladder. His response was iconic: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not! How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”

I want to sleep and wake like a patriarch.

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.





51 responses to “Is the World Literal or Iconic?”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Windows in my home on a winter’s day.

  2. Dn Charles Avatar

    Very nice! Again you uplift.
    Surely the world is iconic. It is like Plato’s cave.
    May the Lord help us all see it as a window into heaven.

  3. […] Is the World Literal or Iconic? « Glory to God for All Things – view page – cached What do you see when you see the world and how do you see it? I have written much about the secular character of our culture and its “literal” view of the world. The world is what you see and nothing more. Significant events take their significance from their own relation to other literal events. — From the page […]

  4. tesla1389 Avatar

    Father, bless!

    Your statement here regarding secularism resonated with me: *The world is what you see and nothing more.*

    I come from a fundamentalist background and the above shows how similar fundamentalists and secularists are. There is no depth to their view of reality.

    Anyway, I am a Protestant who has enjoyed reading your blog and am constantly refreshed by your iconic take on things.

  5. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    Yes, the world is iconic, of course. I thought everyone knew that. Or at least that all children did.

    I grew up in north west Montana and the “woods” was my playground. There was always something mysterious around the next bend. I could roam for miles undisturbed in the forest among the hills surrounded by mountains. And I always knew, intuitively, that it all meant something. That it stood for something beyond. That it pointed to some other. That is why we children often played at being in some far off country. It was a far off country that we longed for. And I still do.

    It wasn’t until I was in school for a few years that the thought of “ what you see is all you get” occurred to me. That was depressing. I don’t know if I ever fully recovered. It was a wound to the soul. School is so oppressive, abusive. It ought to be outlawed.

    But since school can’t be outlawed or the world abandoned then the Church ought to be a sanctuary. It ought to be, in some sense, a return to childhood. I think it should be the same kind of simple intuitive adventure as when a child plays in the forest.

    I think that it is very unfortunate that our church “services”, even for the Orthodox, have become ever so much more like school than an adventure in the forest. And that everyone has become more like teachers than children at play.

  6. Rebecca Avatar

    I have two sons, both of whom get too much time on the computer and other electronic games. This post resonates-they are my boys, they come from me, yet they rarely wonder at their world. Their innocence is one I can hardly recognize at times. I wandered AND wondered as a child, was lucky that I had physical space behind our house to engage in this, but I could do it indoors too. The “window” was in my head, and in our books.

    I have begun to restrict their time with these games precisely because I feel them losing empathy that comes from wondering.

    Thank you Father, for the memories as well as the window!

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your comment, “It was like a wound,” struck me deeply this morning. To suddenly remove the iconic character of the world and replace it with a secular literalism – to rob a child of wonder is a great wound indeed. Our services should not lack an iconic-wonder element either. May God help us to worship in wonder and awe.

    I should add (somewhere) that I mentioned the iconic view as an “other” view. I do not doubt that wonder can be seen in many ways – not all of them Christian – but I admire wonder nonetheless.

    I found when I visited England a heightened since of wonder – perhaps because the countryside and the villages are so like the novels I’ve read for years (Tolkien especially). I once feared traveling Europe for the same reason I feared entering an Orthodox Church. I was aware of the potential for wonder – and though I ached for it – I feared that once encountered, I would not be able to leave, or not be able to bear the fierce onslaught of so much wonder-neglected.

    It has not been the case. Though I’d gladly spend more time traveling in Europe if ever the chance arises – and I pray that we are able in time to build an Orthodox Temple in Oak Ridge that will embody the wonder that can reside in such places (its in our plans). More especially, I’d like for my soul to take on a greater and greater capacity for wonder (heal the wound) and see the world as God creates it.

  8. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    The idea of icon is so powerful. It is like the idea, in orthodoxy, of personhood. It can be used to explain so much. Some things in Orthodoxy are like surprise packages that can be unwrapped for years. I sure do appreciate all the un-wrapping that goes on here.

    A while back you said:” communion is everything.” That is a wonderful big present that will take a lifetime to unwrap. I think it is a big box full of other presents like icon and person, and eternal time. And all this is part of the biggest present of all–wonder. I hope that my whole life can become like that. Kind of like growing up in a forest. An that I don’t get lost in the wrappers.

    Lord save us from all these infernal distractions, lies, that keep us from seeing what is real. Let us keep looking out the window. Out through all the icons the Lord provides to that far off country.

  9. Travis Avatar

    One of the most difficult things for myself has been recognizing the relative nature of the literal worldview you describe but being unable to take the leap to see world in a different way.

    The literal worldview is relentless in it’s criticism and attempt to reduce all other views of truth to a mere accretion. Even though I recognize the choice I have, that critical voice is always there as a nagging doubt.

    Lately, I’m beginning to see the importance of the Liturgy as a way of immersing oneself in that other world. Something that takes time and grace – so maybe the problem itself is seeing it as a all or nothing choice that I have to make.

    Great post, thanks.

  10. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    C.S. Lewis’s Suprised by Joy is an excellent read concerning all this.

  11. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, My daughter (7 in October) wonders why she can not see God or the angels, particularly her guardian angel. I tried to explain that we see the angels and saints through icons and that we see God everywhere because He is in all things but this did not seem to work. Is this skepticism anything to worry about or just healthy signs of thought. How would you explain things to a child who looks at the world concretely, much like many adults and who only want to believe what they can see? (My daughter also views life and reality through a brother who is very sick, which I am certain forms many of her thoughts) Thanks.

  12. pam Avatar

    when I was about ten, my parents moved to a 10 acre farm. I “found” this bush, its middle was cleared, just big enough for a 10 year old girl to get in the middle of it. When ever my parents argued and fought I went to that bush and crawled into the middle. I felt so safe and even cared for and loved. I know I will be jumped on for this, but it was as if God was there for me… protecting me some how.

  13. MichaelPatrick Avatar


  14. Laura Avatar

    Father, I want to view the world this way, but I am still struggling to do so in my daily life. I have so much skepticism engrained in me – it is hard to believe in miracles sometimes. Could you give an example of viewing the world with wonder in an Orthodox context?

  15. coffeezombie Avatar

    Dusty, what you said about school resonated with me. I have long noticed, and found it interesting, that the people I have known who have most retained the childish sense of wonder (and the people I have met who have continued to love learning, and so on) have almost all, to my knowledge, been home-schooled.

    The statement in the post about fairy circles reminded me of an experience I had once looking out a rear window of my parents’ house. I saw a mass congregation of fireflies flashing about in a wooded area, and as I watched, the thought occurred to me that, perhaps, someone centuries ago, saw a similar scene (do they have fireflies in Europe?) and called the fairies. Because that was exactly, to my mind, what it looked like: a fairy dance.

  16. Bill M Avatar
    Bill M

    Dusty Henry –

    Your comment of 11:31 is beautifully worded, and echoes of deep truth. May I quote a portion of it in a note on my FB page?

    Father –

    Several years ago I was on my way to a Wednesday night prayer meeting at our church. It was during a time when one of the comets was in the sky and visible to the eye (I forget which one). I remember standing in the dark outside the church, just looking up at that comet – the first and only I have seen outside of photos – and being near tears in wonder. I don’t know why; it was just a comet.

    Later on, during the prayer meeting, I tried to describe the sight, and my reaction. All I got was blank stares, and perhaps a couple smirks of “there goes Bill again with his mind out of this world”. Somehow I doubt than anyone there took the time, after dismissal, to look up on their way out.

    And perhaps there is a reason for it, as you have hinted at in your recent comment. Wonder can be scary. We fear that it may be overwhelming.

    Thank you for your teaching here…

  17. David Avatar

    “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.” – Puddleglum

  18. Keljeck Avatar

    Bill M,

    I too had a similar experience. It was my second year of college, so naturally I was beginning to have some doubts. I grew up with a more conservative evangelical form of Christianity, and a few of the bricks were crumbling. The college I am at is on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the moon rises over the water, and it had just so happened to be the Pink Moon. Large. Beat red. It’s light a stairway on the waters. I felt compelled to go down to the beach and sit in the rocks praying to God prayers of thanks for the bits of beauty every which way.

    Even the couple who decided to sit on the beach to watch a movie on their portable DVD player didn’t bother me in those moments. And I felt my faith, in a way, restored.

  19. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    Bill, quote away. Actually, if I sometimes write well on this blog, it is entirely the fault of Fr. Stephen. He seems to inspire the best in me. I have never been able to write like this before. So be sure to thank him.

  20. Kerry Avatar

    I love this post. However, when discussing these types of issues with non-believers, they reply that science holds the wonder and beauty… that it can be proved and it’s beautiful because it CAN be proved. How is it possible to convey the TRUE icons to a non-believer who’s worldview is science? I believe they can truly co-exist but often don’t know how to reply.

  21. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Rebecca, I have a son who became addicted to internet gaming. He eventually went professional but is still learning to be a responsible adult. It’s a dangerous thing especially for boys because their wiring rewards a challenge response, and gaming puts a tool in their hands to trigger those feelings almost at will.

    On the positive side God created a world and inhabits it, so it’s not surprising that we also create virtual worlds to “inhabit.” You are doing the right thing to manage your boys’ access. If playing becomes a reward for specific and measurable responsible behaviors you can get a grip on it and not let it grip them. You have to stand between them and the game as a reminder-in-flesh that they were born in real life (IRL) in God’s world, and it’s a marvelous place. Making a checklist of growing-up things that boys should do can be their ticket to win some game time. I’m serious. Hard, unambiguous lines work for boys who understand black and white better than gray. There are books that have projects and things boys should do. Boyscout-like. And taking out trash, making beds, scrubbing bathrooms and cars.

    My heart aches for my son and other young men who become addicted. It’s sad how blind they can become to how their addiction affects others, because they don’t realize how valuable they are in the kingdom where we’re all related. I will do my best to remember your boys in my prayers. Please forgive my unsolicited advice.

  22. Marsha Avatar

    Stephen, my daughter is newly 7 and has many of the same concerns, wonderings, and “doubts” that yours does. I wonder if it’s developmental? My daughter became very interested in what was behind the scenes, as in movies and so on and how they made something “look like” it was real.

    As with so many other things, I”ve found it helpful to not put an adult interpretation on a childish reaction. For instance, I think it’s premature to call my daughter’s musings “doubt” as in the adult sense. I try to stand back, and out of the way, and keep saying that “God is most certainly real, and will reveal Himself to ones who keep asking” but that we must remain open to how He will reveal himself.

    I have no idea if this is a correct response, only time will tell.

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    Bill, I understand completely what you are talking about. Throughout my life I’ve had similer experiences of awe and wonder, but I feel it is something more than that.

    It was many years ago that I first realized and articulated to myself that this mood is inextricably bound up with a certain, strange longing. It is always characterized by a kind of nostalgia for something I have never really known, as if I possess some vestigial memory of a lost knowledge or emotion that flits maddeningly and elusively on the edge of my ability to recall directly. It’s truly a numinous experience, that is, an experience that makes me feel as I’ve come into brief contact with some sort of transcendent spiritual truth. It tends to generate the impression of an absolute, unmediated experience of supernal beauty hovering just beyond the edge of my inner grasp.

    All the flickering hints of this beauty that I sometimes encounter in literature, film, music, and scenic natural vistas and skyscapes, seem to reach their apotheosis in this ungraspable ultimacy, as if they are merely finite carriers that filter and refract partial glimpses of an infinite reality, like the Platonic Form of the Beautiful itself. There world truly is an Icon.

    Yet, sadly it is only a brief glimpse to me.

    CS lewis is the one person I feel who understood acutely this feeling of intense longing and aching for the beauty at the edge of our vision when he said:
    “the longing for that unnameable something, the desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of, The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

  24. Mary Avatar

    Dustry Henry said: C.S. Lewis’s Suprised by Joy is an excellent read concerning all this.

    Yes, I remember reading that and feeling so thankful that something I had experienced at times but had no words for, was being written of by someone else – someone who could make sense of it.

    I often have these times of wonder at so many things! But it is impossible to speak of beyond that.

    Glory to God for allowing us to feel Him in this wonder!

  25. Toni Avatar

    Terribilis est locus iste.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think you have to tell them what you see (and it helps if you see beyond the literal). Some children seem to see things from the very beginning – others (particularly in our culture) are baptized into secularism far too soon. But telling them of your own experience is probably the best we can do (as well as the lives of the saints, etc.).

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    My “place” was any cardboard box (large enough, of course).

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    If I could recommend a book (full of such stories in an amazing context): Father Arseny. There are two volumes, both are wonderful reads, worth whatever price they cost (though probably available cheap through Amazon, etc.).

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    God bless Puddleglum!

  30. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! The associate pastor at a church I used to belong to, disagreed with Christians critical of teaching children to believe in Santa Claus (because of a concern that once the Santa “myth” was busted, those children might later also question the literal truth of the gospel). My pastor friend went to great lengths to make Santa real (flour boot footprints leading from the fireplace to the cookie plate and the tree, etc.). His reason was, I believe, reflective of his instinctive conviction of what you have written about here. He said he wanted his children to experience the wonder of Santa, and believed this experience of wonder was as important to their understanding the real nature of the gospel as was their belief that the events taught in the Gospels were literally true. Wise man!

    I realize for me, the Narnia books also served as a vehicle for this sort of wonder. Starting from the age of 8 when I received the set for Christmas, I would read and reread them many time throughout my childhood. In great part, I credit C. S. Lewis for destroying my capacity to be content with anything less than a fully Orthodox understanding of the meaning of the gospel.

    Kerry, I often think that such an attitude toward science can be a sort of implicit adult faith in God in seed form, one that needs a truly adult understanding of God and of the real meaning of Christian faith (and not the childhood caricatures such people often have) in order to sprout and grow. It seems to me, most times all we can do is faithfully witness to the little we know and pray.

  31. Stephen Avatar

    Marsha, many of the “doubts” may very well be developmental and you may be right that it is not the same as doubt in it’s adult form- although not all children go through this, to my knowledge. My daughter has always been somewhat introspective and inquisitive about life. My fear is that if I do not handle her thoughts and questions right she may go in the wrong direction regarding her life. I try my best to instill a deep rooted notion of the presence of God all around us and to keep wonder alive but most of the world has lost this and an alternate, more modern vision and spirit is competing for her attention and soul. I guess all that I can do is to keep on teaching and leading through example through prayer and the other ways that the Church teaches us to make the presence of God known in our lives. Anyway, it is nice to know that there are others who experience some of these things with their children.

  32. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    That sounds like good advice. I just took my children to a Monastery last weekend. They did not care for the frequent and long services but they loved being there in a way I can’t describe. They are building relationships with the place and the nuns. My prayer is that these things will have a major impact on their lives, now and in the future. One thing that I believe is that we should make spiritual life as normal as possible, such is the case with monks and nuns. Beleif in God seems to be no different than breathing to them.

  33. Stephen Avatar

    Karen, Interesting about the Santa thing. I am not saying that this method is wrong but my priest takes the opposite approach with regards to make believe people and things. He believes that once a child finds out that Santa is not real it will be more difficult for them to form real belief in God as an adult and they will look back on their childhood as false to some degree and that their parents had lied to them. (I guess the fear is that a child will eventually lump together all of the things that they cannot see, whether real or not and throw it all out). I can see both points so I guess discernment with individual children is called for here. It is kind of funny how people can see things from completely different angles sometimes…this make it hard to no what the right approach is at times.

  34. Lucy Avatar

    Oh my. A great post. And great comments, too. All of them are so relevant in my own life right now! I’m struggling with my own children and their sometimes irritating lack of “wonder.” But then, maybe they’re only catching my own lack of wonder. They don’t watch much tv or play many video games. They spend hours in pretend play and have access to trees and bugs, but they still don’t believe in faeries. I try to teach them the balance between actually believing that fanciful things are real (such as Santa and faeries) and having the ability to “suspend belief” for a moment, to enjoy pretending that there is such a thing as a fairy (and such a thing as Santa – we don’t “believe” in Santa, but we play with it and we emphasize St Nicholas).

    My son recently read all the Narnia books (he’s 8 – we read the end of The Last Battle together, just so I could cry!). I hope they are instrumental in forming his moral imagination. But they have to compete with Star Wars and the Wii (and teachers at school who have no sense of wonder). It’s tough sometimes.

    Personally, I’ve always loved G.K. Chesterton for his infectious sense of wonder at the world and the God who made all of it. Once again, great post, Fr. Stephen.

  35. MichaelPatrick Avatar


    I used to ask my kids where love was and what love looked like. “How real is love?” “What does it look like?” “Can you give me some examples?” This prompted some interesting discussions over the years, and they’d almost always come around pretty quickly to “yes, love is very real.”

    I’d remind them that God is love; that Jesus appeared on earth bringing God’s kingdom. We are his body on earth who he feeds with his own divine body and blood. And he sent the comforter to be with us until we see him face to face. We shouldn’t grieve the Holy Spirit or drive him away.

    Like Christ we can pray for others. When we do we learn that God’s love actually does hold everything together. He restores broken people and relationships. When he doesn’t mend some broken person he still joins them to Christ just to be with them even though they may not recognize him. Christ is everyone’s hope. When we pray for those who don’t have any faith or hope we make ourselves like Christ — invisible love-glue that binds them to us and Christ in spite of pain and loneliness. This is God’s own divine work entrusted to us.

    God’s love is the atomic glue that scientists still look for but can’t see because God is not a showoff. He is humble. Even though our sins make it hard to see God in the world, he still holds things together from the smallest atomic particles to the biggest galaxies.

    Why did he make the world? Why did he take his cross, die, and rise in three days to rescue us from sin and death? Why did he bring the Father’s kingdom and send the comforter until it the Lord’s day comes? Because he loves us. Love is the most real thing there is! Without God’s love nothing would be, and it couldn’t be seen or heard with our ears, smelled, touched or tasted. At all times we can use our senses to find God’s love and how he holds all things together for us. We will see him in other people, even people who don’t see him!

    Isaiah 55 says: “so shall My word be that goeth forth out of My mouth: It shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

    If we can’t see trees clapping or hear hills singing we are probably not using our senses well, since God still shows himself to us in this world as brightly as the sun that he made to warm it. All of the earth’s glory belongs to Christ, our God who does everything for us because he is love.

  36. mary Avatar

    talking of icons,my friend made me an icon of my patron saint mary of egypt. she knows i love disneyland,so she put some “fairy dust” on her hair,(this is something my friend and i share,something special).our friend nicole had breast cancer.she went through the operation with the angels,the “Mother of God”,beside her.we went to see her in her room,nicole was glowing,also good results from the doctor.i came home that evening,looking like i got ran over by a truck! went to the frig.,open a bottle of beer.i happen to look over at my icon of st. mary,her hair was glowing with the “fairy dust”.i started to laugh,asking st. mary if she went to disneyland without me! yes our icons can be a comfort to us. mary

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    Stephen, et al viz. Santa

    I’m sort of at a stage in life in which the Santa question is no longer large (my children are grown). I have generally taken care to tell my children about the real St. Nicholas and the many true stories (including modern ones) known about him. “St. Nicholas” visits our parish on the Sunday closest to his feast (Dec. 6) and gifts candy and tells stories about his life.

    Frederica Mathewes-Green has a very strong take on the Santa question (she says categorically that it is wrong to tell children things that are not true). We traded some emails about this some years ago. But it is largely a moot point for me now.

    I do find it problematic to mix St. Nicholas with Christmas – because it is largely a modern Western mixture and somewhat confusing. The TV “mythology” of Christmas has become so outrageous that it’s hard to give much room to the culture on these points.

  38. fatherstephen Avatar

    Finding good books on the saints (there are some for children) is, I think, one of the best ways to go to share the wonder of things.

  39. Damaris Avatar

    Stephen —

    I teach fourth and fifth grade. These kids are older than your daughter, but not by much. I have found that, with the proper preparation, my students have no difficulty with the difference between “fact” and “truth.” I teach Aesop’s fables and discuss this. Are they fact? (No.) Do they tell us truth? (Yes.) Once they get this distinction, they can apply it to so many other things — it comes up in history, literature, even moderating fights. They are beginning to understand that truth is not always concrete or visible but none the less true for all that. (I don’t teach in public school, I should mention.)

    Pam and Father Stephen — My eldest daughter had a cardboard box called her “thundercase.” The outdoor back steps were her “safety boat.” (Interestingly, she’s now in the Navy!) I love children’s worlds. According to my younger children, the Indiana farmland we’re surrounded by is a patchwork of exotic and wonderful lands.

  40. George Patsourakos Avatar

    I grew up on a small street that led into a woods. When I was a child, I would often take a walk into this woods to enjoy the flowers, the trees, the fresh air, and a couple of huge rocks on which I would climb. When sitting on top of these rocks, I could see most of the city (Lowell, Massachusetts), as well as a huge nearby state forest.

    I found this environment, along with its beautiful view, to be inspiring, and I thought “what a beautiful world that God has created.

  41. Karen Avatar

    Stephen, it was exactly your Priest’s perspective that my pastor friend disagreed with. I can see both sides. I was raised with Santa and the Easter Bunny and never remember having any trouble distinguishing between that make-believe and the gospel in later childhood or adolescence. Jesus/God was always very real to me. Believing adults do, after all, go to church and worship God and act like obedience and faith matter (or they should)–they don’t do this in the same way with Santa! I would think the absence of a living faithful practice on the part of parents or significant people in a child’s life is far more pertinent to their later ability to believe than what they were taught about Santa. For me as a child, I guess it also helped that when I acted on things I was taught in Sunday school, God in His grace manifested Himself to me in some significant ways (answered prayers, etc.). My son persisted in believing in Santa, even though we gently busted that myth early on (and he believed in the tooth fairy even longer even after many broad hints about the real identity of the “tooth fairy” because we had decided to have fun with that one while he was little). That taught me children have an innate need for wonder and will create it for themselves if we don’t acknowledge it. There’s a book by a Protestant publisher by Harold Myra about Santa and his origin in the real St. Nicholas that we read to our children when they were still quite young. We told them Santa is just a game for fun and emphasized St. Nicholas as well (I have done the same with our daughter who is on the Autism spectrum and much more concrete in her thinking, but she was confused for a while because “Santa” came to school and gave the kids books, so she had seen him!). I wish I had been raised and that I had been able to raise my children from the get-go with many more stories of the Saints, especially those from recent history. We used some missionary stories that my son loved for homeschool in early elementary years–it seems like there is a dearth of good material for children available in English, but hopefully that is changing.

  42. Romanós Avatar

    “Much that passes for Christian theology or “thought” belongs to this world-view today. Thus those who concern themselves with “prophetic” events are constantly working to make a connection between the words of Scripture and the “literal” events of today’s news. The coming of Christ is seen by them as an event that will fit within the headlines of the paper – and even fantasize about the difficulties presented to mainstream media when the event of a “literal rapture” occurs, and a significant portion of the population goes missing.”

    Casting their nets into the waves of speculation, they bring up no fish, only their own reflection, and nodding in approval to one another, they head back to shore, where they will count the fish that they have not caught, only imagined. Fantasy upon fantasy, when the Lord Himself is not just near us, but among us, notwithstanding His second and glorious coming, the judgment, and the last day. Just as reality is not just planned but all plan, so is the world not just bits of ikon here and there but all ikon. Everything points to and glorifies the One in whom we were hidden before the foundation of the world, and in whose embrace we now live through love, now and unto the ages of ages.

  43. fatherstephen Avatar

    What a wonderfully sweet word. Many thanks!

  44. Barbara Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, have you read “Spiritual Beauty” by Constatine Cavarnos? He differentiates traces the distinction between physical and spiritual beauty from Antiquity to present. He makes a case that Dostoievsky’s famous quote “Beauty will save the world” is actually referring to spiritual beauty rather than physical beauty – which has the same formal characteristics but is on a lower level of being. He also says that the Fathers have always urged Christians not to linger on physical beauty, but to use it as a springboard to spiritual beauty. I found this perspective so unique and inspiring – that everything beautiful should not only lead us to worship our Creator, but also lead us to long for inward beauty.

  45. Alexander Patico Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Just read your remarkable piece (Is the World Literal or Iconic?). The attitude you manifest jibes well with my own. It is one easily confused with some others that appear similar, such as a secular appreciation of beauty that leaves out the wonder about what stands behind. Or even the profundity of “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” which still omits whole universes of meaning. The Islamic tradition of the 99 names of God (“the Merciful,” “the All-Knowing,” the Guardian”) — or an Orthodox apophatic approach — either merely points to the inexhaustibility of the Divine. Suffice it to say that next January, when we are one morning surprised by an overnight icestorm or snowfall that presents us with a crystalline wonderland (outside our own big glass-enclosed room), I will think of you with gratitude!

  46. April Mitchell Avatar

    Beautiful, thanks for sharing your window on the world with us.

  47. […] Is the World Literal or Iconic […]

  48. Isaac David Avatar
    Isaac David

    I have only just come across this post and identify very much with what it says. At the age of 51, I feel blessed that I have retained a sense of wonder in the beauty of the world, but more so that, as an Orthodox christian for the last eight years, that wonder has increasingly given way to seeing the Hand of God in such beauty. I even find beauty in unexpected places – since childhood, I have always felt uplifted by the sound of a distant airplane at night. Now, when I hear that sound, I am reminded that Heaven is both far away and yet all around, as well as the fact, once remarked by an Athonite monk, that planes are shaped like the Life-Giving Cross, so that their presence indicates a blessing.

    On a more literary note, I wonder if you have read the works of Thomas Traherne, who expressed similar sentiments in his poetry and prose?

  49. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have not read Traherne, but my wife, the English major, doubtlessly has. I’ll touch base with her and get steered in the right direction. I often think that poets see and understand things that many others do not. Not that there aren’t lots of confused poets. 🙂

  50. Isaac David Avatar
    Isaac David

    Traherne was a 17th century Anglican clergyman, most of whose poetry wasn’t published until the early 20th century. His ‘Centuries of Meditations’ is available at Christian Classics Ethereal Library and some of his other works can be found elsewhere on the web. Enjoy!

  51. Micah Avatar

    Thanks Isaac!

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