To See An Icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.





13 responses to “To See An Icon”

  1. Tracy Martha Avatar
    Tracy Martha

    Father, memory eternal. Our prayers are with you during this time.
    Christ is our strength and our joy!
    – M

  2. Marsha Avatar

    Memory Eternal! Our prayers are with you and your family!

  3. Rachael Avatar

    Memory eternal, Father. You are all in my prayers.

  4. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    In our Orthodox faith the idea, if one can call it merely an idea, of icon is everywhere. One might say that icon is the way we think. The dogmas are icons, the Church is an icon, and we are icons of Christ. And wrapped in the thinking of icon is the even more essential idea of person. These are ideas full of wonder, and ineffable. But they are our salvation.

    The world has a way of thinking too. The world’s ideas are materialism, scientism, and evolutionism. Simple put, that only material things are real things, that only scientific truth is real truth, and that only these can be used to explain the universe. And these ideas are our damnation.

    But these ideas are so powerful and so pervasive, so insisted on by all those around us, that I fear it is impossible for many to think in any other way. And I wonder if there will come a time, eventually, that salvation will be closed off from mankind because he can not bring himself to think it. Come quickly Lord Jesus!!

  5. Tim of Angle Avatar

    The word you’re looking for is not “literal” but “superficial”.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    No, superficial does not do it. It is not a mere cursory seeing, but a seeing that does not think there is anything or any connection between what is seen and anything else – or that the connections are only ideological – those connections which we must make mentally, if at all.

  7. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    Fr. Stephen,

    A few days ago a boy in our town committed suicide. He was just 16. So I was thinking about that some, and praying for him. I have had thoughts of suicide my self sometimes. I think it is because of a lack of validation. I think that validation is when someone, usually your father, makes sure that you know that your life has meaning. Not so much in words as in action. There is something about our makeup as persons that requires meaning in our lives.

    I bet that this poor 16 year old boy didn’t have that. I bet he came from a broken home. I bet he turned to his father, to the community, and probably to a girl friend for validation but could not find it. At least not enough.

    The most tragic thing about not seeing icon is that it stifles meaning. Seeing icon in creation gives meaning to life. It helps validate our existence. Without that we perish.

    Incidentally, the last time I had suicidal thoughts is when an Orthodox priest I was corresponding with seemed to invalidate my past Christian experiences because I was not Orthodox. Note to Orthodox priests: please be careful. We converts have been through a lot and may have fragile psyches.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    May God grant him rest.

  9. mike Avatar
    mike an “outsider” studying the picture for this post i cant help but focus in on the faces of the small crowd behind the bishops and wonder….

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Properly, the bishops should indeed be icons for us. And very likely are for those small faces in the crowd behind.

  11. Ryan Avatar

    Father, thank you for these beautiful articles. William Blake, for all of the issues with his “theology”, offered to me a powerful curative to this “literal” worldview which eventually helped me more fully embrace Orthodoxy. He called this “literal” world the “vegetable universe,” “Newton’s sleep,” and considered “imagination” to be the real world, though I suspect what he meant by imagination is different from how we normally use the word. Maybe it was closer to the world as icon. Obviously in Orthodoxy the term “imagination” has a number of problematic associations but I do like the term “vegetable universe.”

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I like the term as well. I’ll have to give some consideration in how to use it.

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