Truth, Lies and Icons



As verbal beings, we live in a world of icons. We experience the world in an iconic fashion. A major difficulty for us is that we have lost the vocabulary of iconic reality. We have substituted the language of photography. The dissonance between reality and our photographic assumptions has led us to doubt both. Man is an iconographer and needs to re-learn what that means.


Franz Kafka famously wrote: “The Lie has become the World Order.” It was a sobering estimate (by an unbeliever) of the nature of human reality. Lying, simply not telling the truth, can seem a minor thing. But Jesus and the New Testament seem to pay a great deal of attention to lying, and treat it quite seriously. There is more here than the mere abrogation of a moral tenet. It is a concern with something more “Kafkesque.”

The nature of truth and lies becomes clear if they are thought of in terms of being. The Church describes God as the “Author of our being.” In the writings of the Fathers, being itself, simple existence, is seen as a good thing, the first of all created good things. God brings us into existence saying, “It is good.” More than that, the Fathers teach that it is God’s will that we grow towards “well-being,” with the ultimately goal of “eternal being.” This, in terms of existence, is the path of salvation.

And this understanding reveals the nature of a lie: it has no true existence. That which is not true not only has no existence, but its very purpose is to obscure or destroy that which indeed has true existence. Fantasy and imagination, even though they have no true existence, are by no means inherently false. Only those forms which seek to distort, deny or destroy that which truly exists can be called “lies” rather than “fantasy” or “imagination.”

But this makes speech about reality (that which truly exists) very significant. The most obvious thing we can say is that reality itself and speech about reality are not the same thing.

In classical philosophy, the school of thought that describes words as only “in our heads” is called Nominalism. The names (nomina) of things are described as “nothing more than thoughts.” Those who argued otherwise (there are various types of such arguments) are called Realists. Orthodoxy, in its classical form, has always espoused some form of Realism. There is a relationship between words and thoughts and that to which they refer that is greater than simply being something “in our heads.”

One of the places where this debate took shape was in the debate over the veneration of icons. It is clear that images had played a role in the life of the Church from very early times. But that role was not questioned or explored until the 7th and 8th centuries. The debate was about more than the mere making of images. A greater and more pressing question was the veneration (giving honor) to the images themselves. St. Basil the Great stated a clear connection between the image and the subject of the image: “Honor given to the image is referred to its prototype.” Thus the honor given to an icon of Christ was, in fact, honor given to Christ Himself.

St. Basil’s statement was something of a simple assertion, without elaboration. But in the 8th and 9th centuries, St. Theodore the Studite developed a much more careful treatment of the question. He described an icon as a “hypostatic representation,” that is, a representation of the personal or particular characteristics of its subject (the personal is always considered particular rather than general or abstract). He further taught that what is represented is “hypostatically” present in the image. The image does not become what is represented – that would be a presentation of its essence. Instead, it makes present what is represented, i.e., the Person. St. Theodore’s treatment used the language that the Church had developed for speaking about the Holy Trinity, as well as the Person and Nature of Christ to speak about the Holy Icons. It is a treatment that is often forgotten or neglected.

St. Theodore’s teaching on this question manages to avoid Nominalist solutions. He does not say, “It’s just a picture.” He does not say, “It’s only connection to what is depicted is in the mind.” Like all of the Fathers, he is a Realist. There is a true, even ontological, relationship between the icon and its subject. But he avoids charges of “magic” by maintaining that what is represented is only hypostatically present.

His explanation makes it possible to say, “The man in the picture is Peter.”

Turning back to language, the same understanding says that words matter. They have an actual relationship with the reality of which they speak and it matters. Fr. Georges Florovsky once said that “doctrine is a verbal icon of Christ.” Or, as the Seventh Council said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

Of course, the palette of language is far richer than the palette of the artist. Words have “shades” of meaning and subtle hues that an artist should envy. But, in the teaching of the Orthodox faith, words have a grounding in reality beyond psychology.

Some have said that the modern world is inherently Nominalist. We believe that our words are only words, and only have meaning because we say or think they do. The “reality” they describe is, therefore, in our minds. There was a school of thought (Idealism) that held that there is no objective reality outside the mind, or certainly that it cannot be proved. That extreme position has never gained acceptance. However, the modern sociology of knowledge, in which perceptions, prejudice, etc. are given a dominant and controlling position, yields something of the same effect. Conversation begins to falter in the face of withering doubts about the reality or trust-worthiness of anything in our heads.

Words have something of a sacramental relationship with the reality they represent. Or, to be more precise, they have an iconic relationship with reality. Icons are not photographs, nor can words ever serve as a photographic or holographic substitute. But icons also carry more information than photographs and are able to make associations and connections that reveal the truth of reality (its foundational reality) far more profoundly than is possible in a photograph. Words have that same ability. Take the poetic sentence:

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

No photograph (and perhaps no icon) could carry as much information as this combination of words from Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” The many associations of “beast” (including the Beast of Revelation) do not “approach” – they “slouch.” It carries overtones of “slither” (and the serpent of the Garden) as well as other emotional content. And so the analysis would continue. It is a phrase that lives in my mind, capturing a reality both present and yet to come.

And this brings us back to lying. The struggle to speak the truth transcends mere morality. At its most fundamental level, it is a struggle to rightly relate to and participate in reality itself. To “live a lie” borders on not living at all – and is a synonym for hell.

To claim that the reality of our words lives only in the mind is itself a “lie” (not an intentional one, but simply not true). And even the photographic presentation of reality (as in all literalisms) fails to rise to the status of truth.

The Fathers held that the world-to-come (the Eschaton) was the truth. The Old Testament, they said, was a shadow, while the New Testament was an icon.

As verbal beings, we live in a world of icons. We experience the world in an iconic fashion. A major difficulty for us is that we have lost the vocabulary of iconic reality. We have substituted the language of photography. The dissonance between reality and our photographic assumptions has led us to doubt both. Man is an iconographer and needs to re-learn what that means. The result can be a movement towards the truth and a renewed confidence in our speech.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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97 responses to “Truth, Lies and Icons”

  1. David Armstrong Avatar
    David Armstrong

    You really ought to read “Beauty: A Very Short Introduction” by Roger Scruton. You’d find a friend there.

    Is there any relationship between the veneration of icons and our own development as icons of God in the cosmos?

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David, yes.
    Veneration is “right relationship.” It is required (in some manner) in order to truly see that which is being “re-presented.” It’s another way to say that it is love that reveals the truth of things.

  3. Robert Avatar

    Is it not more accurate to say that, “the meaning we ascribe to words have a grounding in reality beyond psychology”. Words are collections of symbols representing, unlike icons, different realities. An image of a tree represents a tree (and that particular image cannot represent anything other than a tree. But a particular word, “drop” for instance, has widely diverging meanings.

  4. Tullius Avatar

    Love this.

    But I’d like the distinction concerning photography to be parsed more fully, or perhaps you could give one or two more specific examples of the “language of photography” over and against the language of iconography.

    Is it just the pictorial version of the difference between poetry/parable and straight descriptive narrative (e.g. Biography)?

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No. I think you keep suggesting a form of Nominalism in this. The words themselves have a relationship. We do not just ascribe. It’s stronger than that. Interesting you should use the word “drop.” It’s onomatopoetic. Barfield (with Lewis and Tolkien in his train) would have said much the same as I’ve said here.

    We generally do not perceive the iconic function of language. We generally think we “ascribe” words. But the relationship is much stronger. It is true, Barfield would say, that time has a way of weakening the relationship. We become increasingly estranged from the world we inhabit.

    It is also why I say we must learn what it means to be an iconographer. St. Paisios said that to become a theologian, you first had to become a poet.

  6. Byron Avatar

    Father, if I understand correctly, it is the attitude of “veneration” that establishes the proper relationship and living in love that brings life to it? Is that how we balance the human as an icon and the Lord’s command to love one another? (Is the veneration of other humans only loving them in the correct relationship/manner)?

    I’m probably over-thinking this….

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The “language of photography” tends to think that the world is “literal” (“what you see is what you get”), or it thinks the language is just about itself and not about the world at all, or only when we want it to be. We’re even literal about our minds.

    True Realism, as believed by the Fathers, is almost impossible to the modern mind. It is also why modern man finds it almost impossible to actually believe in a sacrament. Underneath everything, he strongly suspects that there is only himself and a material world. True symbols are impossible for him. It requires a deep, deep conversion of the heart.

    The first time a modern man encounters a true Realist, he thinks it is all just superstition.

    Poetry is certainly related. But we think poetry is less real than prose, when a Realist thinks it is more real. I read recently that Boris Pasternak believed that a poet could change the world. Only a Russian today would believe such a thing. Americans have terrible poetry and no regard for poets at all. They’re almost gods in Russia.

  8. Beth Avatar


    Could you perhaps elaborate on how the relationship of words and reality is understood in terms of a bilingual person or even in things like translations? For instance, I have two words, in two languages for everything. And my experince is not identical when I think of things in the one language versus the other. The same thing will also appear different when discribed in the two languages. (For instance I cannot really pray in the one language) And also there are some words in one language that simply have no equivalent the other. Does the iconographic reality of things change when the words for it change or if no word for it exist at all?

  9. Emmie Avatar

    I cannot even pretend to completely understand this topic but on a certain level I do.

    This has been one of the most difficult parts of my conversion to Orthodoxy, that will likely take a lifetime to work out.

    When I feel called to a deeper faith by reading tales of the saints or miraculous interactions with icons, there is a part of me that has such difficulty walking through that door. It is as though I know that living in that kind of realism is the true death to self that Christ calls for. Because when we believe it even a little bit the way we encounter everything has to change.

    Thank you once again for the thought provoking post.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a good question, and why iconic is a better description than photographic. There are many, many icons of the Mother of God. They are all the Mother of God, despite differences in style, etc. There are somethings that a word in a particular language can say that nothing else can say and there are unique things about every icon. It is this “iconic” character of reality (and of language) that allows us to say these things without just making it all about the inside of our heads.

  11. Dino Avatar

    Words, icons, sacraments, whether I understand them or not, whether I wonder in awe or I am left cold by them makes no difference to their utterly real reality. It changes the cognizance of my ontological participation but not the ontology of the ‘object’ I share in and commune with. I might, for instance, have an awareness of Who it is I am invoking with the name ‘Jesus’, Who it is I am kissing when kissing His icon, Who it is I am devouring when partaking of Holy Communion, but, if I lack this awareness I do not diminish their reality made present in the sacrament of invocation, veneration or the Eucharist respectively.
    If the All Holy Theotokos had an awareness or not of Who it was She carried in her
    womb for nine months, this changed nothing at all concerning Who it was…


    being bilingual and with the same experience you describe (re- prayer), I think the above pertains to my lesser awareness in English (or any other language) as compared to my mind’s deeper aliveness in Greek.

  12. Dino Avatar

    Sorry I meant to say Beth…!

  13. Hubert Bays Avatar

    Thank you for this article, Fr. Stephen.

    It revealed to me a level of my own nominalistic thinking. I think for a long time I had regarded the Holy Icons as simply the thing in itself, much like a photograph yet done to represent the spiritual significance of the persons or events portrayed. I accepted the teaching of the Orthodox Church that we may represent Christ and the saints in wood and paint because Christ became flesh. I accepted the teaching of the Church that veneration of icons is good and appropriate because the veneration of the icon is veneration offered to the prototype. Yet I think I still regarded the icon as a sort of religious photograph that was still fundamentally disconnected from that which it represented.

    When I take your view and think of the icon as both the thing in itself but also a thing that is hypostatically connected to the person represented it has suddenly become much more real to me (no pun intended).

    I think I have also suffered under a post-Protestant skepticism or unease about the miracle working icons. I did not really doubt their existence, but somehow it just didn’t quite fit with my world view or my limited understanding of the Faith. Understanding the icon as hypostatically connected to the person it represents now makes the occurrence of miracle working icons much more understandable even though all of these things are still a matter of faith and not complete rational analysis or proof. Well, I am rambling.

    Fr. Stephen, if I have really misunderstood what you are saying and if you have a moment, please correct me.

    Thanks again for the article.

    H. Bays

  14. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    The word “drop” means something completely different in my mother tongue than it does in the English language – a completely different meaning is ascribed to the same word, the same collection of symbols, arranged in the same matter.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. And it participates in what it means, not just in your head. The color red can have two different meanings in two different icons, for example.

  16. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Well, then I confess I completely don’t understand what you mean.

    Different meanings are ascribed to the same word symbol, regardless this word in respective languages may (or may not) participate in what it denotes.

  17. Dana Avatar

    I wonder—what is the icon to the blind man?

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. It says there’s more to a word than just our mind. And it says that it’s not static. It’s not hard if you try. 🙂

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If I were blind, I would ask to be directed to an icon, and I would venerate it. What are you to a blind man?

  20. Byron Avatar

    Hubert Bay: When I take your view and think of the icon as both the thing in itself but also a thing that is hypostatically connected to the person represented it has suddenly become much more real to me (no pun intended).

    I understand and share your issue, Hubert. Recently, Father Ambrose gave me and another inquirer a tour of the parish church and elaborated on the significance of the space and the icons in it. I have admittedly had difficulty in seeing the union of the space and icons with heaven, the Lord, the Theotokos and the Saints during worship. I prayed constantly but have not “connected” visually as I think I should. This awareness is something for me to work on, I think.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It takes time. Russians (as I’ve noticed in my parish) are very careful, slow and still when they approach an icon and venerate it. I asked a Russian friend, “What do you Russians see when you’re before the icons? Why are you so slow and deliberate?” He said, “When you Americans look at an icon, you see a picture. When a Russian sees an icon, he sees God, or a saint.”

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was raised by Realist parents. They were a full generation or so older than any of my peers (my father 48 when I was born, my mother 40). My father grew up as a pioneer in the territory of New Mexico and actually lived for a time in a sod hut. In that wilderness, arid and empty (or so it seems) my father met God and began to experience the profound connection that every ‘thing’ and every being has with every other part of creation.

    My mother was a dancer who trained with Martha Graham and others of her ilk and she also had a deep connection to the dance-prayers of the Native Americans of the southwest. Through watching and doing some of the steps along with the heartbeat drums I had my first experience of sacrament. An experience that was later deepened in a theater history class in which the main text was the book: The Dancing Gods.

    Once I decided to follow Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Church was inevitable for me. Icons almost second nature. I will always be in remembrance of when I first stepped into an Orthodox nave: There was/is Mary, her arms outstretched in welcome and blessing with her son, Our Lord, sitting on her lap. It still brings tears to my eyes almost 30 years later. Then when the priest processed down the central aisle, the icon took yet another shape. I knew Jesus Christ was with him.

    It is one of my blind spots that I simply do not understand the difficulty some folks have with icons and sacrament. I learn so much when I take the time to just sit in front of an icon and look at it with open mind and heart. I frequently contemplate the icon of the Nativity in that manner, and a freshness is brought to my faith every time I do as I begin to realize once again that I am not alone and how much Jesus loves me.

    We don’t always have to look at places far away or wrap our minds into pretzels to garner an appreciation of these things. Echoes and intimations of what is real and present are literally (there’s that word) everywhere.

    Try picking up a common stone sometime and hold it in your hand with no thought of its composition or its commonness. Just hold it and allow yourself to feel it. Or as the poet said of a simple rose hip: “I hold in my hand a race of summer gardens…” As you hold a stone in your hand, you hold the mountains simple and majestic and all of the life that teams upon them.

    All of creation is imbued with the life of God and each part of it draws us to Him if we allow it. We humans have the extra ability of crafting the things of creation into specifically designed icons that reveal His presence and His glory in a specific way through a specific person or event. That is an amazing gift: to bring forth God out of the matter He has created.

    Glory to Him who is!

  23. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    That not-static dynamic points, in part, to social construct, does it not? 🙂

  24. Psalti Avatar

    The article and the comments have convinced me that I am a complete nominalist.

    I can barely understand what this article and the Fathers are saying and I find it very unsettling

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nominalism is our cultural idiom. It “makes sense” in our culture and is natural to how we think. It makes seeing and understanding difficult. Heck, it’s very difficult to write about this in such a way that can be understood. But the work is worth it – if it’s true

  26. Robert Avatar


    Don’t be troubled. It’s not as black and white as it is made out to be, or as as it may seem. I have yet to run across an unqualified “hard” Realist.

  27. Matt Avatar

    It takes time. Russians (as I’ve noticed in my parish) are very careful, slow and still when they approach an icon and venerate it. I asked a Russian friend, “What do you Russians see when you’re before the icons? Why are you so slow and deliberate?” He said, “When you Americans look at an icon, you see a picture. When a Russian sees an icon, he sees God, or a saint.”

    This reminds me: this comment from Agata about looking with your heart versus looking at your head (and perhaps the “Face to Face” article itself) might be of considerable help to some commenting here.

    (Michael’s post, especially wrt: the rock (and a basic understanding of fractals, geography, mythic thinking, etc.), is also of great value.)


    I’ve given that a bit of thought myself over the past year and a half. If I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that the world is full of these ambiguities and multiple meanings and uses and general messiness that a fully “rational”, “this does this”, perfectly neat 1:1 sectioning of anything is impossible except in the crudest and most violent sense. Nominalism is a part of the attempt: an attempt to put everything in its proper box, to prevent the reality of one thing from leaking into another to prevent the asking of inconvenient questions (or worse).

    (Personally, I find that the fact that this messiness is acknowledged and basic to Orthodoxy a great comfort and reassurance as to the truth of the faith, in stark contrast to the obsessive systematization of the Western traditions.)

    Then there’s how we define “social construct”. If all we mean by that term is “something generated and established through consensus among a group of persons”, then I agree, these words and meanings are definitely social constructs. But Fr. Stephen (cmiiw) seems to be inferring, given prior discussions, that it means “something generated and established through consensus among a group of persons which is totally arbitrary and has no significance or connection to anything else whatsoever outside of that consensus” which, at best, presupposes a negative that has not been demonstrated (and which the natural intuition/common sense would presume to be false).

    (Much of the problem seems to be the question of whether the statement “X is Y” necessarily implies that “X is merely Y”.)

    And then there’s also this:
    1. God is a person who made us in His image as persons
    2. God creates through His Logos, from nothingness into intelligible being
    3. We use our logos to make sense of everything, without which it is indistinguishable from nothing
    It would seem just as a matter of analogy that our personal understanding of the universe somehow partakes of the creative act, or at least its underlying form and pattern – even if our understanding used a good number of social constructs (in the first sense I gave, the second sense having been precluded – after all, where did those constructs come from?).

    (Forgive me if these paragraphs seem a bit disjunct – in my mind they are parallel, independent things pointing to the answer and do not string together into a single line that easily.)

  28. Psalti Avatar

    What can I or anyone do to become more of a realist like the Church Fathers?

    How should one approach the Icons, for example? What small steps can be taken to practice seeing the world rightly?

    I also find it troubling to think that our teachings are dependent on a particular philosophical system. But, I am not philosophically sophisticated, so I would like to understand more. Does this make realism a teaching of the church, for example?

  29. Elaine King Avatar
    Elaine King


    I felt very much as you do when I first started to come to the Orthodox Church. Icons were foreign to me. I was drawn to the faith, but I could not accept the veneration of what I saw then as mere images. Try this: try kissing the icon of Christ, mindfully, and as if you were kissing His hand. See if it doesn’t change your heart. Just try it. Certainly no one will find your action strange in any Orthodox Church. I came to the Orthodox faith wanting a relationship with Christ. I didn’t know it could be as simple as a kiss.

  30. Beth Avatar

    Thank-you Father for your reply.

    I think I may understand now — please correct if I have missed the concept completely:

    Every THING has a real ontological existance — this is the TRUE THING — the way it really is. In this way, every thing presents itself to us truely, and we experience that presentation or even revelation with our different senses, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands and even the nous for the spiritual things. We experience according to the health of these senses and we may have an incorrect experience if the organ is damaged. However this does not change the ontological reality of the thing. In other words if I can’t see red, it doesn’t change the apple. But the Thing itself always represets itself in a full and true way.

    Our words then are as near and accurate a a linguistic icon of the Things. The words develop culturaly by universal exceptance of agreement on the accuracy for the thing that they stand for. If person has a poor working knowledge of a language he may use the wrong words to discribe a thing, but it will be universally noted as a mistake on his side. Him calling a dog a bog will not be accepted as ok or correct, even if we know what he means.

    The lie then is different than the honest mistake in that it seeks to change as far as it can the very True Being and existance of a thing by diliberately using the wrong words. Not that it can really change the thing itself but it “wraps” it in a veil of misrepresentation –false representation. This is so as to confuse the senses and intellect to perhaps accept the Misrepresentation as the Real Thing.

    In this way our words should always be as truthful and real and true to the thing. To call a thing by its Proper Name, to linguistically represent a thing as honestly and fully as we know the thing presents itself to us.

    Is this correct?

  31. Jane Avatar

    How does one properly venerate an icon?

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nominalism didn’t come about as a philosophy until around the 2nd Millennium. The Fathers were Realists, on the one hand, because everyone, for the most part, was a Realist. It was not a particular philosophical system – but a world-view. Our modern world-view has come to separate us from any notion of participation. Things are things.

    Setting spiritual questions aside for a moment, modern physics is undermining many aspects of nominalism. We are far more connected than we have thought. And that’s on a pure materialist basis.

    But the Fathers also wrote with true spiritual insight. Their Realism was also grounded in experience. The Eucharist certainly presumes some form of Realism. We see bread and wine, yet we speak and eat Body and Blood. We say the Liturgy is heaven on earth, etc. All of Orthodoxy has this element of Realism. And it is either true, or we’re the most metaphorical Church in existence!

    But, it is true, and our doubting it won’t make it change. So, first, we can relax. We pray (unanxiously) as ask God to make these things more clear to us. No amount of staring at something makes this happen. But we can begin treating the world a bit more like we treat the sacrament, exercising some faith that there is more there than meets our modern eyes. I treat the icons as I would treat those whom they represent. It’s what our veneration is all about.

    A notion of some form of Realism certainly underlies the life and teaching of the Church (and the NT). Not a specific philosophy. Here’s a story.

    A woman, a convert with a Pentecostal background, went to her Greek priest and said, “I just don’t understand the veneration of Mary.” The priest listened to her Pentecostal/Protestant problems, and then said, “Go into the Church a sit in front of the icon of the Theotokos for an hour.” That’s all he said. She did it, and, as she related it to me, “At the end of the hour I understood.”

    I was astonished at this story. First, I was astonished at the priest’s suggestion. I would have gone into all kinds of explanations with her – pretty much certain that the problem was in her head. My approach, in that sense, was Nominalist as well. The priest, from the old country, was not. He knew that she needed the Theotokos to explain it to her. So he sent her to her.

    Be patient. Slow down. Sit quietly in front of the icons from time to time and pay attention. Heaven itself will speak for itself.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    That sounds pretty correct to me. I first began to understand and work with this in 1991 when I was doing doctoral studies and work on the theology of icons. I didn’t become Orthodox until 1998. But I still pay attention to it daily. It runs throughout my writing. But, I think we moderns are immersed in a culture that doesn’t believe this. That means that to a large extent this will always be a bit of a struggle. Some receive a great grace and it becomes easy. Some, like Michael, were fortunate enough to be sheltered from the culture’s blindness.

    Proper Name is such a sweet phrase!

  34. Byron Avatar

    Thank you, Elaine. I will attempt this although I have yet to venerate an icon (one exception; when I got “caught” in a line entering the Church during Pascha). I need to learn these things and will discuss them with Father Ambrose as well.

  35. Byron Avatar

    I will add that this is one thing that brought me to the Orthodox Church: humility before God and man. I now find myself pulling away from the actual act of humility and being more (too) observant. I realize I need to take greater part in the life of the Church but shy away from doing so. It is an odd place to be. Prayers are appreciated.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    So you don’t kiss on the first date?

  37. Agata Avatar


    You asked for a practical way to learn to live with icons. Fr. Stephen beautifully suggested to just sit in front of them, in silence and prayer. That is essential, to spend time with the Lord, His Holy Mother and His Saints as if with real people, friends…

    I’d also like to suggest one other thing. As you read/hear about the lives of the Saints, pick some that you have a special connection with, like their story, identify with their struggle on some level. Get their icon, start a little icon corner. Really address that Saint in prayers for the needs of your particular situation….

    When my kids were in early grades in Sunday school, I heard their teacher simply tell them that Saints are those who ran a race (of this life) and have finished it. And now they “cheer us on” as we still continue ours…. So it’s perfectly fine to ask them for help… That was something new I have never heard before and very helpful.

    You might choose a local saint. When I was struggling with looking for a new job, I prayed to St. Xenia of St. Petersburg (she is a Saint who helps with work, home and marriage issues – I had all three at the time!), but also every time I approached an icon of St. Alexis of Minneapolis, I asked him for help, saying “Holy Fr. Alexis, you know everybody in this city where you lived and served, and where I live. Please help, please find me something better, since I suffer so much in this current situation” (at that time I had a very challenging job, for help with which I prayed to St. Sergius of Radonezh, since I read once that he had difficulties with learning – I even found a prayer he prayed as a boy to help with his learning “disability”).

    With the help of St. Alexis, I got an unexpected email offer from somebody with whom I interviewed two years earlier and I got my dream job! Some might (and do) say that it was all set in motion by what I did earlier, but I know in my heart that it was a gift from St. Alexis!

    So keep your eyes open for Saints that you can ask for help and maybe even those who are reaching out to you with help. St. John of San Francisco is a great healer and intercessor. Go on a pilgrimage to Saint’s relics if you can. (that’s a whole other dimension of reality!)

    Icons truly make the Saints present in our lives. If you pay attention, you will notice icons “come into our life”. Often they seem to choose us, our life and our home.

  38. ajt Avatar

    My first experience kissing the cross (or icons) was when my family went up front for prayers to become catechumens and the priest said “Now, kiss the cross.” ‘Um, okay,’ I thought, ‘I guess I have to now that I’m in front of these people and they are watching me.’

    But, if I have had any reservations about kissing the icons, my children think it is the best part of the service. My daughter, 3 at the time, is the one who changed my perception about the kissing of the cross and icons. I asked her when we first became Orthodox why she kisses Jesus and the saints. “Because I love them, daddy.”

  39. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Jumping off of Robert’s comments…

    In my home we use a made up word “numummy.” Numummy means a drink. Example: “Where is my numummy?” The word has meaning in my home, in the collective mind of my family-not just in my mind. The word means nothing to my neighbor.

    Are you saying there is more to the word numummy than this?

  40. Tullius Avatar

    Thank you for your response. Before I became and English teacher, I studied philosophy with a great interest in Realism contra Nominalism. It is good to see the distinction played out in terms of actual understanding and experience of reality. It was an important area of study for evangelical thinkers like Dallas Willard, who was, I believe, very Orthodox in his thought and writings (emphasizing, in his own terms, the one-storey universe) even though he was rather protestant in other ways.

    You say that Americans have no poetry, and that is largely true, with obvious exceptions. Our current journals are filled dismal, embarrassing gibberish. But I will say that reading and teaching poetry (and classic fiction) has been one if the most significant factors in turning me toward Orthodoxy—a faith that carries one always beyond simple appearances or the merely literal (if there is such a thing).

    Thank you again. And thank you for your post on The Poetry of God, which I have shared to great effect with friends, family, and even former students.

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Apparently. Unless you are all lying.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I built a short icon stand for the Narthex that is children’s height. They love it. And I love to watch them love it!

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One very simple and direct approach that has stood me in good stead particularly when I first approached Mary: I go up to an icon and say something like “a lot of my friends tell me I ought to get to know you. I trust them and so I’m here to get to know you.” If you want to continue in the vein, just tell about yourself as you would any other person you wanted to know then be still. Seems to work for me.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I love poetry – but good stuff is hard to find. I love poetry in other languages as well. There is a brilliance and wonder in both Latin and Greek poetry that I adore. I want to learn more Russian so that I can sample some of their poetry. Poetry has a way of revealing words and the things behind the words. The simple juxtaposition of the right words can do amazing things. The poetry of theology does this.

    The one “coinage” that I take credit for is describing God as “transcendently particular.” It’s a wonderful oxymoron that works for me. In English, I suppose that George Herbert is my favorite.

  45. Kumar Avatar

    I’ve read of Fathers ‘lying’ to maintain grace and/or love or not to be or appear to “puffed” up in front of other people; does anyone care to comment. Like the little white lie used not to distort or cover up, but where used in love (like explaining to children the birds and the bees)??

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Intention is important.

  47. Mark Avatar

    In C.S. Lewis story ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ a picture on the wall serves a a portal to transport the children into the experience of another, apparently parallel reality. Somehow, all that I see, including “pictures” of saints or “religious events” can serve the same purpose. I always seem to be living on the surface of life in a way. Distraction and the pressure of the seemingly urgent keep me from the important and the possible.

    Scripture encourages me to seek the face of God, that He might lift up His countenance on me. But what does that mean? How can I see the face of Him who is spirit? And moreover is it a face that I’m really looking for?

    “Beloved now we are the children of God, but it does not yet appear what we shall be only we know that when we see Him, we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.”

    To me, a newbie”, so much of Orthodoxy seems to be about unseen realities, or rather Reality as the ancient tabernacle and temple were mere copies of the true one. Yet there also seems to exist the danger that to fall in love with the things that now appear (as the disciples were apparently enamored of the temple) is to forget that there are things more real. Perhaps the biggest lie is that what I see is all there really is.

  48. Robert Avatar


    Thank you for your response. Yes, as a “qualified” realist I hold to the first definition of social construct and deny the latter.

    There’s a paradox here, not unlike the free will/divine providence conundrum.

  49. Robert Avatar


    Yes, numummy is a good example of a social construct. Your social setting has ascribed meaning to a word (with reference to something in reality) which otherwise is meaningless to another setting. The mind plays a role, but it is not the **only** factor.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is not a “social construct.” It’s simply a word (made up) with a small usage. It clearly has a meaning and a reference. It also has associations. And it has a relationship beyond their minds.

    Examples of a social construct: Proletariat and the Class Struggle. It claims to have a reference, but often could barely manage to point to it. Instead,these were words that stood for an excuse for the destruction of many things and people.

    Another: The War on Women. There is no such thing but if enough people believe there is such a thing, they can be goaded into doing something those who made up the phrase want them to do.

    Another: Those people. Some people. Imaginary groups created by passive aggressive sorts.

    The world of politics is filled with social constructs. A social construct has very little, if any, actual referent outside of itself as an idea. It is not the same thing as language that you seem to be confusing it with somewhat.

  51. Matt Avatar

    So basically by social construct you mean, Father, something like a theory/model about the way the world works, which use is not to describe any quality inherent to the things it is supposed to represent, but rather to artificially facilitate a certain way of treating those things?

  52. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Words are not mere collections of symbols, nor do they exist in a vacuum. David’s “numummy” is an example of social construct in that it demonstrates that meaning is developed and ascribed not separately by isolated individuals, but in coordination with other human beings in a given social context (David’s family in this example). “Numummy” as social construct is not about a mere word or language (although that is part of it), but rather about the process and context in which meaning is ascribed and understanding derived .

    It is the radical nominalist philosophy of knowledge known as “social constructionism” (and the attendant political drivers) against which you level your criticism, and rightly so.

    But social constructs otherwise are not problematic.

  53. Tullius Avatar

    George Herbert is wonderful. How about Gerard Manley Hopkins?

    I also think it is worth your time to read some Richard Wilbur, if you don’t already have an opinion on him. Somewhat loosely related to your topic is this little ditty of his:

    The Proof

    Shall I love God for causing me to be?
    I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?

    Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
    And one free subject loosened all his grammar,

    I love him that he did not in a rage
    Once and forever rule me off the page,

    But thinking I might come to please him yet,
    Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.

  54. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I asked if there was more to the word “numummy” than the meaning my family has ascribed to it. Your replied: “Apparently. Unless you are all lying.”

    Since we are not lying, what “more” is there?

    Forgive me but I am truly confused. Are you saying the word has inherent meaning beyond my family? Does the word n-u-m-u-m-m-y inherently make present the reality of the thing that is a drink (beyond its social context)?

    I’m also interested in knowing if you agree with Robert’s last post above(?).

  55. Byron Avatar

    Father Stephen wrote: So you don’t kiss on the first date?

    That got a laugh out of me! I gave up on dating years ago in spite of an occasional foray now and then at the request of friends.

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Robert is making subtle distinctions that are too fine for me. What I mean is that the word numummy clearly has the meaning and the presence of the drink that you mean. Words are not universal. I am blind to Chinese, for example (or deaf). But I can “hear” in a number of other languages. Your family (a very small language group) hears nummumy and understands and its speaking is more than just a mental exchange. That’s what I mean.

    Our words are more than mental. They are sacramental or iconic.

  57. Patrick Avatar

    Doesn’t this raise some troubling questions about when icons depict something inaccurate (a common one that comes to mind is St. Paul on icons of the Ascension)?

  58. Bob Avatar

    Two questions that have plagued me since seminary-
    Is God language? and
    Is language God?

    My experience with icons has been to encounter the presence of God through them quite directly, though over time. Writing the Trinity over 8 months was an exposure to lots of very subtle aspects of revelation. They certainly have an ontology all their own. Not unlike encountering the poetry of Mary Oliver.

  59. Christopher Avatar

    Mark says upstream:

    “Scripture encourages me to seek the face of God, that He might lift up His countenance on me. But what does that mean? How can I see the face of Him who is spirit? And moreover is it a face that I’m really looking for?”

    His face is attested to from Genesis on – a nominalist understanding would reduce that (it’s only a mental picture) to a *mere* “ghost”, which is a substitute to mean an idea or at most a nebulous force that is not real in a realist sense. This is why I think the word “transcendent” can be misused, because what people sometimes are doing with it is a sort of nominalist twist – a way to escape the particular that scandalizes them.

    One way you might see if you have a nominalist view is right after some sin, go and stand in front of the face of God in your icon corner – do you feel shame? – not “mentally” or just “inwardly” in the abstract, but is it (even just a little) difficult to gaze upon the face of God, to physically lift your eyes and hold the gaze of God? Do you want instead to avert your eyes in shame? If so, then you are seeing something Real, something that is more than a *mere* representation, a *mere* symbol that has no reality other than to point mentally to the signified, which is itself yet another mental artifact because everything is a mental construct because there is no existence that is not conditioned by the mental/subjective in nominalism….

  60. Matt Avatar

    Christopher, that example could still work even if all of it was going on only in one’s head – you see the image of Christ and that triggers some memories, you feel guilty as a result.

    Perhaps a moral intuition about the antithesis of an icon might work even better. Forgive the disgustingness of the example (and Father please delete if this does cross a line), but the nature of the example requires a strong, instant moral intuition to appreciate:

    Suppose a child is subject to some horrible sexual abuse and all of it is caught in graphic detail in pictures and video by the perpetrators. This footage is found and the perpetrators are all caught, tried, convicted and imprisoned. The victim is no longer able to deal with their shame and kills themselves shortly after the perpetrators have exhausted their appeals. Some years after this the footage reappears somewhere on the darkweb and is shared throughout an unfortunately not-too-small community of sexual deviants who use it for their own pleasure.

    What is the harm in the latter group doing this, sharing and viewing and enjoying these pictures of people who could no longer be directly affected by their dissemination, aside from being a waste of time and possibly stunting their spiritual growth?

    I have seen people sincerely (or at least intellectually seriously) argue that there is nothing morally wrong with their actions at all – but even then they’re obviously trying to be contrarian and shocking because deep down we all understand that this is evil for reasons that go beyond the viewers’ mental and spiritual health.

    Under a pure nominalist position, that moral intuition is gibberish. But if you start with the assumption that the image-symbol makes present the information contained in it, whether good or evil, and that each person’s body (including those of the viewers) by that same mechanism bears/makes present the image of the Good, then the reason for that intuition is manifestly obvious and clear.

    This of course does not disprove nominalism – perhaps the moral intuition really is a false alarm and what these guys are doing is not that bad. But when we worship a God who is on record as saying “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”, and our standard form of penitent prayer is derived from the aftermath of a “perfect crime” that ought to have left no one the wiser, I don’t think that interpretation is open to us.

  61. Dino Avatar

    There’s a lot to be said about these ‘inaccuracies’ of icons – they’re obviously deliberate – and one must grasp their weighty significance, from which arises the ‘poetic license’ to implement them…
    If I was to start a list of such ‘inaccuracies’ (even just the ones pertaining to the intentionally jumbled up timings and appearances of various figures – as is the one you mentioned) it would be exceedingly long…!
    There’s some icons that are -literally speaking- one big inaccuracy, and they are the best ones…

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Absolutely not. In fact, this is where icons are superior to photographs. What you describe is quite intentional and not “inaccurate.” Icons do things with time and say things that a photograph does not say. An icon of the Ascension is not supposed to be a historical depiction. It is a theological depiction. St. Paul is present as the whole Church is present.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very good question. There was a heresy (or so it was deemed) in the early 20th century on Mt. Athos, in the Russian monastery that said, “The name of God is God.” Called the Imyaslava Controversy. It is still debated to this day and has been up for some review. The original condemnation did not do a very thorough treatment and was largely ignorant of the essence/energies distinction. I included some treatment of this in my thesis at Duke.

    If you look in Scripture at how the Name is treated, it is clearly more than just a sound or a thought in the head. I suggested that St. Theodore’s distinction with regard to icons would be the right route. Thus the Name is a hypostatic representation, to be venerated in the same manner as an icon. Both sides of the controversy acknowledged that the Name is not the essence of God.

    Generally, we would say that the essence is God. Essence answers the question: “What is it.” Person answers: “Who is it.” It’s why I thought St. Theodore’s distinction was so incredible, in that it considers the Person, but not the Essence. The icon is an image of the Person, but the essence cannot be imaged.

    So, we would never say that even “the Name is God,” much less “language is God.” But we can say that the Person of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) is hypostatically present in the Divine Name. Therefore, do not blaspheme nor take it in vain, etc.

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark and Christopher,
    To see God’s Face is the right and proper goal of the Christian life. First, to see His Face requires that we be able to face Him. Many have seen His Face, always in the Person of Jesus Christ. If you will, Jesus is the Face of God, or the only “Face” that we see. We see His Face iconically in icons of Christ.

    Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. If we have this hope, we purify ourselves.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A very graphic example, and certainly part of the modern darkness. Those who watch such participate in the crime they watch. It’s not all in the head. It’s even more than moral, its ontological. “His blood cries out…” Murder leaves a very dark, ontological stain and burden. Whole nations carry this. One of the unacknowledged results of our American history is the dark, ontological burden of our slavery past and our genocide of Native Americans. It’s not a mental thing – it’s an ontological burden. We sing, “God bless America,” but this becomes as much a curse (like the River of Fire) when we fail to rightly acknowledge our crimes and the stain that they carry. Our Nominalism also makes us think this stuff is merely moral, and so we do not rightly repent. We have no proper fear. But their blood cries out…

  66. Yannis Avatar

    I am reminded of:

    “whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof”.

    Under Nominalism, I suppose, this is not really telling us anything about our relationship to the cosmos – it is simply a tautology.

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matt: guilt and shame are not the same thing. In a sense, guilt is its own reward while shame, when acknowledged in God’s presence leads to repentance. Guilt is forensic; shame is ontological.

  68. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father Stephen, your mention of the stain of slavery reminds me of the work of my good friend, Fr. Moses Berry in Ash Grove, Mo. Among many things he is doing, he has a slavery museum which is largely populated with slavery artifacts from his own family including the iron neck shackles one of his ancestors was wearing when the Union Army freed him.

    Fr. Moses has taken the cruel and merciful history of his family (which mirrors the history of us all) and brings it into the Church. A large icon of St. Moses the Black watches over the museum. In that museum our shame is faced head on and healing happens.

    One can get a glimpse of the museum here:

    Anyone who can get there should. I believe it is only open by appointment now, but the facebook page should tell you that.

  69. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Opps, didn’t know but the physical presence of the museum is in hiatus and some of the artifacts are on loan until a building is built on his property. I am sure contributions are welcome.

  70. Christopher Avatar


    It is is interesting, it was somewhat difficult to follow your example because you yourself were showing the unreality of nominalism and then turning around and trying to bolster it and then take it apart (at least that is one way I read it):

    “Christopher, that example could still work even if all of it was going on only in one’s head – you see the image of Christ and that triggers some memories, you feel guilty as a result.”

    Not really – yes one could feel “guilty”, one could even feel “shame”, but that would be a mental, “moral” exercise that was independent of the mere “wood and paint” of the icon. Why, exactly, would you avert your eyes because the icon itself has no Real meaning or presence? And why, would you feel shame because God is a phenomenon of the upper story, and you and your sin are down here on the lower story? If it’s all in your head and not “out here” then simply make a mental turn, “re-imagine” it and it (the shame, the sin, God Himself) simply goes away. Does God really “care” about this small or great sin since it occurs “down here” and what he really “cares” about is some ephemeral spirit or attitude (one sees how quickly one is to the place of a modern person in his thoughts about himself and God).

    As you weave back and forth starting from the nominalist, your post ends with a Realist understanding, for exactly the reasons you state – thus, in the end the example I use (or yours) does not really “work” if it is “just in your head”, at least not in any sense longer than a few seconds, because that is how long it takes for “your head” to move on to a much more comfortable “well, it’s just in my head – it has no reality ‘out there’ and thus I need not feel bad about it”. The god of SELF (i.e. “you head”) is a jealous god and will not for long allow some small rectangle of wood and paint condemn it.

    Fr. Stephen,

    I wonder if photographs can be iconic. The example Matt uses for instance. Or the photographic “icons” of grandchildren otherwise iconoclastic protestant grandparents carry around with them in there wallets, or am I being too lose with the understanding?

  71. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks for the clarification. I agree.


    Thanks for your response. I was getting hung up on what I thought was Fr. Stephen’s objection to the concept of meaning within social context. Your comment on social construct helped flesh that out.

  72. Albert Avatar

    A friend of my sister (neither of them Orthodox) said she had studied iconography, then made a small icon–image of Christ’s face–on wood and gave it to her as a kind of prayer-gift; a spiritual bond, I suppose you might say; a reminder of their shared faith and prayers. I was tempted to say, how beautiful (both gesture and object) but it’s not a real icon. Then I edited out the last part.

    Later I started wondering about this: what makes a real icon? I was told that there are rules, but they should be easy to learn. Does an icon maker get a special blessing (as approval and a sign of commitment)? Are they like candles and water–once blessed and placed in a sacred space they open a door or window through God’s power?

    I grew up in the Roman church when statues were revered, sort of. It was a bit confusing for me because it seemed rather odd to put flowers in front of a statue or to kneel there and pray to the person represented. I finally concluded that it was all religious art, aimed at focusing attention and inspiring reverence, though not to the statue itself, or the murals, or the stained glass windows.

    I brought this attitude to my Eastern Christian church. It seems out of place, but I don’t feel out of place. I love the liturgy. I respect religious art. That’s about the best I can manage right now. If some Roman Catholics claim that miracles occur through saints’ intercession, I say OK, everything is possible with God. Same for the icons. No disrespect–still learning.

  73. neal Avatar

    Words are married to shapes. Shapes do not talk much.
    Worlds are married to shapes. One could master all the worlds, and all the talk.

    I think some could live mostly forever, and still be married.

    That kindness and grace just is right there, but has no words.

    Probably just flowers. Nobody much pays attention to the little things, these days.

  74. Matt Avatar


    If you think I was trying to advocate a nominalist position in that comment, then what it must certainly be difficult to follow as I was trying to support the opposite. 🙂 The nominalist arguments were raised precisely to be dismantled and shut down.

    My main purpose was to set another example that would be more difficult for a nominalist to explain away as it involved an observation about another person rather than the guilt or shame that could conceivably have merely resulted from one’s own introspection.

    Given your further elaboration, though, I suppose both our example moral intuitions are equally (in)capable of explaining away for a nominalist, except with away-explanations that are clearly incompatible with an Orthodox understanding of the Law and Scripture.

    Fr. Stephen:

    Agreed! My own country has taken a few valuable steps over the years in trying to address those sins, but not nearly enough – the ones taken thus far have all been reasonably politically expedient, while the government is still trapped in a very worldly fear of admitting any more wrong than they have to with respect to past and ongoing mistreatment of our indigenous peoples.

    (In other news, I too would like to know what makes an icon an icon – and if it’s possible to use another image as an icon that might not have originally been intended as such, e.g., a particularly striking picture of Christ in a Protestant work which image itself contains nothing heterodox…)

  75. […] Truth, Lies, and Icons by Fr. Stephen Freeman […]

  76. drewster2000 Avatar


    Thanks for your comment. Besides the reality of communicating with a saint, I believe one of the values of praying to them is that of putting oneself in the attitude of asking for help. In North America the plague of individualism is thick and widespread. We are by default cut off from everyone else. Reaching out is a forgotten skill for many and one way in which the poor are blessed above the rest of us.

  77. Agata Avatar

    Thank you for your thoughts on my comment.

    Asking a Saint for help requires some level of faith and just pain believing in their existence and powers of intercession before the Lord. Most people struggle at that basic level. But as Fr. Zacharias says, our faith is practical, even “scientific”: you make an experiment and see if you get the promised results (“be merciful, and see that you will obtain mercy; mourn prayerfully and God will comfort you; purify your heart and you shall see God”…). The Saints have been so generous in my life….. 🙂

    But you are certainly right that even with our dealings with people in our life we don’t ask for help enough.

    However, I am not sure that pride and individualism are the main issue, it’s something deeper. I grew up in a culture and family situation where asking for help, giving and receiving help was the norm and very natural. Then I married a person (an American) who viewed asking for help as weakness, avoiding responsibility, using others. Over many years, be it unknowingly, I assimilated that attitude also. Only now, having an opportunity to view that from a distance of time (and distance from that person), I see how infectious and damaging this kind of attitude is. And maybe Americans are more suspicious and weary of “being used”, since so many abused their generosity (foreign countries, welfare system). It’s often a fine line between asking for help and using somebody.

    I see this in my children now. Growing up with the father who drilled this excessive self-reliance into them, I see in them a reluctance to ask for help when I think they should. And when I offer help and “make” the child accept it, he seems to feel guilty, ashamed. If he has trouble accepting from his mother, how much harder it will be with others? (My mother always told me: “When somebody gives you something, take it and say ‘Thank you’”) 🙂

    But maybe I am over-analyzing this… That is why asking Saints for help is safe and effective. They don’t suspect any hidden agendas. I tell my kids to remember Saints in times of need….

  78. drewster2000 Avatar


    Individualism and self-reliance seem to be cut from the same cloth in North America, but it runs extremely deep in us, so much that many of the effects as well as the disease itself runs mostly below the surface. The very lens through which we view ourselves and the world sees us as being by default alone. This is one of the bedrock truths upon which we build everything else.

    The biggest problem with this belief is that….it is a lie. There is of course a sense in which it is true. Looking in the bedroom mirror reveals this much to us. But what we don’t see is:
    –our whole line of ancestors down to our parents, who give us so much
    –all the surrounding people that makes living possible and bearable
    –the air which give us oxygen
    –the earth which allows us to stand on it
    –God holding our very existence together, right down to the atoms
    –the list goes on…

    We are very much NOT alone – EVER!

    There is a balance between the person and the group, but in this part of the world the pendulum has been shifted so far to the *one* side for so long that it takes a lot of un/relearning over a large span of time to begin to understand this – and then even longer to walk in this new knowledge, reaching out – both to help and to be helped.

    For the staunch individualist it is just SO hard to believe that one can count on anything outside of himself. It’s just another fairy tale that the weak-minded console themselves with. What you see (through your individualist lens) is what you’ve got and that’s the way it is.

    God help us!

  79. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Agata, I see this attitude in myself a lot. I was raised this way and now I have internalized it and hold myself to it more than I’d like. In some ways, I am glad I do not struggle with measuring my worth monetarily. Unfortunately, measuring someone’s worth by their “usefulness” isn’t much better. It is another facet of modernism: utilitarianism. That is why it is so hard to ask for help: it is an acknowledgment that we don’t know something, can’t do something, or can’t feel something. And when we measure ourselves that way, then such an acknowledgment means that we are worth less. And that necessarily leads to shame. I don’t think I need to spend any amount of time describing what that means or how it manifests in my own case, but I think I can share a few insights regarding how to move past it.

    One helpful exercise is just to meditate on the love of God. He loves everyone. Whether we produce some amazing new theory or barely get through school, whether we “gain the whole world” or struggle to get by, whether we “make a difference” (and I *hate* that phrase, by the way—it is often used in a demonic manner) or “don’t”, God still loves us. God’s love is not dependent on how much we know or produce. We don’t gain any points by being “self-sufficient” (and that is another silly phrase; nobody is ever self-sufficient; we exist—at every level—as persons in communion).

    Another important exercise is to embrace the prayer “Thy will be done”. Even if we begin to move past defining ourselves by something other than God’s Grace, our tendency is still going to be to gravitate towards those things which seem to be bigger, most useful, more productive, etc.. That has to go. Our focus had to be serving God on *His* terms, however insignificant His requests seem to us at the time.

    And I think you are right about praying to Saints and asking them for help. That is the third thing: realizing (and acting out) the truth that our purpose is not to become more independent, but more *interdependent*. Asking for help is not a failure, but rather an embrace of our true purpose: communion.

    Obviously, there is much more to it than that, but I have found those 3 things to be especially helpful for me.

    drewster2000, those are good points, as well.

  80. Agata Avatar


    Thank you so much for your practical ideas on how to move past our conditioning of “worth and deserving”. As always and in everything, it’s prayerful turning back to God and acknowledging that everything is His gift and comes from Him. Nothing in this world is truly ours….

    Actually, I remember Fr. Tom Hopko said in one of his talks that the only things we truly own are: our sins and our free will. Even our bodies are not truly ours and we should treat them with respect and reverence they deserve. Because what we do to our own bodies (because of our “interconnectedness”) affects the rest of people around us. As stated in so many posts above, as Drewster said just now, individualism is The Lie. The Lie, that the serpent convinced Eve of, that we can accomplish anything without God… That we can be gods without God….

    Dr. Clark Carlton in a great article about his conversion story says this:

    “…As Christos Yannaras puts it, The fall arises out of man’s free decision to reject personal communion with God and restrict himself to the autonomy and self-sufficiency of his own nature.13 In other words, sin is the free choice of individual autonomy. Irony of ironies: that which I had been touting all of these years as the basis of true religion-the absolute autonomy of the individual-turned out to be the Original Sin!”

  81. Dino Avatar

    that ‘interconnectedness’ you mentioned is very profound indeed! Traditionally, in Greece many years ago, certain devout mothers would fast to cure their children from diseases. And it would work! and many miraculous such stories exist of one bodily discipline (the mother’s) affecting another body – and spirit – (her child’s) like communicating vessels…

    But even prayer for “me” personally, for my own “individual” union to God, is never ever “individual”…
    I sent you an e-mail that touches on this actually, but I’ll repeat again that the utterly focused, exclusive, solitary, fixation on God alone always makes one discover all others in Christ as well…
    We renounce everything and everyone for the Lord’s sake, and we discover that as we connect to Him this connects us to all others the way He is connected to them. In fact it is the only way to truly fulfil the second commandment, through the power of the first.

  82. Dino Avatar

    And this all implies that to achieve the 2nd commandment (through the 1st) we must (paradoxically) always keep a healthy distance from all others! It is a sine qua non…

  83. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Our provision always comes from God and God alone. He is the one who IS. We are each unique and uniquely known by Him therefore we exist, but we share the life and our nature with everyone else on the planet.

  84. Byron Avatar

    Father Freeman: Those who watch such participate in the crime they watch. It’s not all in the head. It’s even more than moral, its ontological.

    This made me think of the union of man and woman in marriage; they become one flesh in communion. The example given is a very dark mirror of that and this example even feeds into the discussion of individuality, interdependent-ness, and communion. What we do, good and evil, affects those around us as well as ourselves. Frightening, actually.

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima says, “Each man is guilty of the sins of the whole world,” or something to that effect. And it is true.

  86. Byron Avatar

    Yes, Father. To actually realize the extent of what that means–even our hidden actions and thoughts have affect–is quite frightening, but also quite relieving. There is little better than recognizing the depth and truth of our interconnectedness and communion.

  87. Byron Avatar

    As a further note, this discussion has really brought that aspect of life into far stronger focus for me. Sometimes it takes a while for realization to set in, personally. Thanks and blessings to God and to everyone here.

  88. Yannis Avatar


    And this all implies that to achieve the 2nd commandment (through the 1st) we must (paradoxically) always keep a healthy distance from all others! It is a sine qua non…

    Could you elaborate on the nature of the distance?

  89. Dino Avatar

    It is very easy for us to mistake attachment for love. And for all intents and purposes, it is not hate that is Love’s enemy but attachment.
    Monasticism makes a great deal of ‘renunciation’ as the first step on a ladder that takes us all the way up to Divine Love. Love of God as well as love of His image paradoxically starts with separation (renunciation)…
    We need to maintain a distance from all, “separated from all yet united to all” in order to love God with all our being.
    The necessary ‘hate’ of father, mother, daughter, etc and ‘self’ which Christ speaks of, exposes our “loves” as mingled with healthy doses of attachment motivated by the ego, it shows us that pure love is something different entirely, motivated and fuelled by the Great Other.
    Furthermore, the love towards neighbour (not just the love towards God) requires that we maintain a distance there too…
    The elder Aimilianos spoke of a “connecting distance” in our relationships with those around us. Not just as a prime manifestation of watchfulness and guarding of our non-attachment – for the sake of our attachment to Christ alone – but also, as a truly unifying force, (evoking the wise expression that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.)
    We ought to keep a reverent distance in our relationship with another, this is a distance that acts beneficially… It is not coldness, but respect. It is very dangerous for intimacy to become familiarity, for respect to be lost to an indiscriminate, presumtous candour between us.
    The result of this will finally be a rupture.
    To maintain unity, discretion and discernement must be preserved. Every relationship has its own peculiarities depending on the nature and the persons who compose it. But every relationship must be based on freedom, respect and love, otherwise it will never tend towards our spiritual perfection.

    “get on well with all but do not get on too well with anyone” as the Athonite saying goes…

  90. Dino Avatar

    Better still:
    * unhealthy doses of attachment

  91. Yannis Avatar

    Thanks, Dino!

  92. Aj Avatar

    What does an unhealthy attachment look like practically?
    I have never understood Jesus words about hating father and mother etc.
    How would I know if I love my husband or children more than Christ? Or if I am too attached to them?
    Aren’t we are supposed to love them to the point of laying down our lives for them?

  93. Matt Avatar


    your question immediately makes me think of two writings:

    1. the scene with the mother in The Great Divorce

    2. the final chapter of St. Maria Skobtsova’s “Types of Religious Lives”:

    A mother can often forget herself, sacrifice herself for her children. Yet this does not as yet warrant recognition as Christian love for her children. One needs to ask the question: what is it that she loves in them? She may love her own reflection, her second youth, an expansion of her own “I” into other “I”s which become separated from the rest of the world as “we.” She may love in them her own flesh that she sees in them, the traits of her own character, the reflections of her own tastes, the continuation of her family. Then it becomes unclear where is the fundamental difference between an egotistical love of self and a seemingly sacrificial love of one’s children, between “I” and “we.”…

    …Only that maternal love is truly Christian which sees in the child a true image of God, which is inherent not only in him but in all people, but given to her in trust, as her responsibility, as something she must develop and strengthen in him in preparation for the unavoidable life of sacrifice along the Christian path, for that cross-bearing challenge which faces every Christian. Only such a mother loves her child with truly Christian love. With this kind of love she will be more aware of other children’s misfortunes, she will be more attentive toward them when they are neglected. As the result of the presence of Christian love in her heart her relationship with the rest of humanity will be a relationship in Christ. …

  94. Agata Avatar


    Thank you so much for posting this link to the essay.

  95. Brandon Avatar

    Father- I know you’ve interviewed with Jonathan Pageau—what do you think of his brothers book “Language of Creation”? Also any relevant thoughts on Ludwig Wittgenstein and/or his private language argument?

    What book of Barfield do you most highly recommend?


  96. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve not read Jonathan’s brother’s book. I’m also not acquainted enough with Wittgenstein to say much. The thought that there is “no such thing as a private language” – does, however, seem right to me.

    Barfield is a very interesting addition to one’s intellectual breadth. He defies categories. His most seminal work, I think, is Poetic Diction. Both Lewis and Tolkien were strongly influenced by him on the topic of mythic theory (and language).

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