Icons in a Literal World

I wrote this reflection nearly a year ago. Today I found my mind wandering back to the topic – searching beyond what I could see to what is unseen and yet more real. I have become increasingly convinced that the “literal” world we see is deeply distorted by our own self-deception. It is not a problem with the nature of creation – but rather the distortion of our own falsely constructed existence. May God ground my life in His reality!

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. 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.





12 responses to “Icons in a Literal World”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Fabio Leite, Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο. Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο said: Icons in a Literal World: I wrote this reflection nearly a year ago. Today I found my mind wandering back to the t… http://bit.ly/99yVq8 […]

  2. Susan Cushman Avatar

    As an (semi-retired) iconographer, I can relate to your words on one level. As a Christian–and really, as a human being, made in God’s image–on another level. Anton Vrame’s book, “The Educating Icon,” addresses some of what you are saying here. He writes about finding an “iconic way of living.” Thanks for reminding me to see the world as transcendent. I needed to hear this today.

  3. Ruth Ann Avatar

    For 60 plus years I’ve seen the world as you have described, although I didn’t know the word “icon” until recent decades. To put it in my own words, I am constantly aware at some level or many levels of God’s Presence in all I see and experience. The Irish talk about “thin places,” and I believe this is what it means, more or less.

  4. Steven Clark Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for addressing creatively and artistically the basic phenomenological question.

  5. Yannis Avatar

    Much depends on the predisposition of the heart. Its hard to notice the transcedence when one’s heart is full of worries, troubles, plans etc. But when they are left behind and everything is seen directly and clearly, without ego noise, then even the simplest things reveal their wondrousness.

    The reality, at least scientifically, is that there is nothing simple; eveything is very very complex and carries within it unsolvable mysteries. Everything has infinite levels in many ways. And pure perception can intuitively take all this in for what it is as it happens. Nothing less than wonder.

  6. practicinghuman Avatar

    As the topic of the icon has come up, can anyone recommend any books about the theology of the icon that are SUPER accessible to non-Orthodox Christians?

  7. Darlene Avatar

    I recall the first time my eyes gazed upon the Grand Canyon – they began to fill with tears. I could not find the words to describe such beauty. Such beauty was an icon pointing to the glorious Creator!

  8. Helen Avatar

    I deal with such things very often because I write (paint) Orthodox icons and write about them. Recently one nun made me to laugh. She asked how long does it take for me to paint an icon, like I were doing some technical task. Who really need the icon which is made in such a technical way? It is an imitation of an icon. The writing of a real icon, which helps people, is very unpredictable and does not depend on an iconographer. Orthodox manuscripts or the reverses of Medieval icons often contain the phrase: “The image wrote itself…” Sometimes the icons come into being through iconographer’s hands very quickly, and sometimes they appear portion by portion, and one never knows when it will be possible to paint next time. It can remain untouched for weeks or even month. It does not depend on subject. It depends on when “God wills to descend next time”. One must have patience and to wait.

    Once my late friend, and a specialist in Eastern Christian Spirituality wrote that any object or person separated from the world is ugly unless something else shines through it.

  9. Mary Avatar

    In my church there has been an emphasis lately to see the world as evidence of Satan or the Enemy. If something bad happens, “the enemy has stolen our peace”, or “Satan is behind this”. So there is great emphasis for prayer teams to go about the neighborhood to pray and bind Satan. If one doesn’t readily join a group, or ask for public prayers during church, he just doesn’t understand the power of prayer and is spiritually immature. I’m not sure what to think about this. I don’t know that they would disagree with the idea that the beauty of God’s creation is an icon to the beauty of the Creator but it seems that their vision is more about the evil one and his power in the world. Can anyone help me to clarify this from an Orthodox understanding?

  10. Romanós Avatar

    And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, 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!
    Genesis 28:16-17

    This passage, in slightly different wording, was chanted as an introit by the choir of my family church, the parish of Saint Mark, in Portland, Oregon (Episcopal then, now, schismatic Anglican). It was my favorite introit, and the chanting of it, even though it happened only once a year on the anniversary of the dedication of the church, is indelibly engraved in my memory, and I can chant it still.

    We were a very high church congregation, but then it was a flawless act, covering unbelievable wickedness and hypocrisy. Little did I know it at the time. To me, the place was all magic, and in a good sense. It was in that darkly sparkling nave that I saw and venerated my first real ikons, old Russian ones blackened with the centuries, for ours was a unique parish, commemorating the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope of Rome, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, in every mass.

    We were moved from that old church, into real Orthodoxy, the Greek Church, by a fortuitous accident, just as the old ship of Episcopalianism was about to disappear beneath the waves of the world’s seductive charms. The parish of Saint Mark almost followed, but at the last minute threw its lot in with one of the new continuing Anglican groups, and it has floundered ever since. Only later did I find out what depravity was hidden beneath the brocaded chasubles and immaculate altar frontals.

    This is a comment of sad reminiscence, but also a testimony that the Lord in His divine economy and faithfulness can still lead us to the Truth, to Himself, out of Babylon, and still preserve for us the tokens of His saving grace. “Oh, how dreadful is this Place, this is the house of God, and gate of Heaven, and men shall call it the Palace of God” (Introit for the dedication of a church, The English Hymnal, 716).

  11. Karen Avatar

    Mary, I really sympathize with your dilemma! I am Orthodox and come from an Evangelical and Pentecostal background where I learned this perspective as well (about “binding” Satan, etc.). From where I now stand, I would say that you would do well to focus on the world as Icon as Fr. Stephen writes here and on Christ. Focus on Christ and what He is speaking to your conscience about where your own motivations and actions lie with respect to obedience to His commandments in the Gospels. As I’m sure you know, these are summed up in the commands to love God and to love others as He has loved us. The teachings and judgments of your fellow church members about what constitutes spiritual maturity are subject to error and not reliable. It is very possible they are merely misunderstanding and misinterpreting portions of the Scriptures. God can make His judgment/wisdom plain to your conscience if you focus on HIm, not others’ opinions.

    From an Orthodox perspective, the real danger from Satan lies not in what he can do to us in terms of affecting our material circumstances, but in his ability to use our desires and fears to twist our hearts away from trust in Christ and the commitment to obey His commands regardless of our circumstances, and instead focus our attention and energies on something else (Satan and his antics, for example, but anything other than God will do!). If we take the Apostle Peter in his attempt to walk to Christ on the water as an example of what it means to trust Christ (Matthew 14:22-32), we see that Peter was safe so long as his focus and trust were on Christ. Christ never told him when he sank that Satan was to blame and that he was to rebuke the storm and waves or Satan and/or swim back to the boat, and Peter only sank when he took his eyes off Jesus and was only in danger of drowning until he again found Christ’s Presence more compelling than that of the tossing waves and remembered His power to help. Christ doesn’t command all of us to walk on water, but He does command us to love Him and love one another with the kind of love with which He loves us (just as impossible as walking on water without His help!). We learn from the book of Job in the OT that everything Satan does is with God’s permission and completely under His control. I have consistently found that in this respect, I can trust the Lord to take care of Satan without my help. As I understand it, our real calling from God is to struggle with the help of His grace to bring our hearts into complete submission to Christ and His love (demonstrated by following His command to love others as ourselves). As I said, my experience is that when we do this, the Lord takes care of the rest.

    From an Orthodox perspective, though, this does not mean that we will always be preserved or rescued from difficult circumstances in terms of our earthly life–rather, many times these will increase (and God allows these to test our love and faith)! But it does mean that God will use even evil and difficulty for HIs good purposes in our lives, which is to conform us to the image of Christ in His self-sacrificial love and mercy so that we become fit to dwell in His Presence (which is true life itself!).

    Finally, if what I am saying rings true to you yet you find you are undermined in your efforts to retain this perspective by the teachings and attitudes of fellow church members, this might be an indication not that you are doing something wrong, but that you are simply in the wrong church. In that case, you can trust God in His goodness to lead you where He wants you to be and where your progress toward spiritual maturity will be genuinely supported and encouraged. Mary, please forgive my long-windedness and feel free to disregard anything that is not truly helpful to you in your situation!

  12. Mary Avatar

    Thank you, Karen, so much for your very thoughtful reply. It helps me enormously.

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