Pay Attention! See What You See!

It has been said that the whole of Orthodox theology and teaching can be found in a single, well-executed icon. I believe it to be true. Over the years, I have found that certain icons have been invaluable in efforts to teach a class of inquirers or catechumens about certain aspects of the faith. Those “certain aspects” could easily be expanded until, time permitting, the whole of the faith would be expounded. I daresay that some evenings in such classes, the students probably thought that time was permitting.

My thoughts turn to this understanding each year as we approach the “Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy,” the first Sunday of Great Lent. Ostensibly, it commemorates the return of icons to the Churches in the year 843, after the final condemnation of the iconoclast heresy. It is worth noting, however, that it is called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” and not the “Return of the Icons.” The Christian world outside of Orthodoxy remains clueless to this understanding, assuming that it is a lot of fuss about some pictures, about which they themselves remain dubious.

Like so much else in our world, we see icons only fleetingly. The culture glances at them and says, “Oh. A religious picture.” We see much of the world in the same manner. Our lives are marketed to us, primarily under the guise of emotional experiences. We are sold things for the sake of “enjoyment.” One enjoyment passes into another as we seek to construct a “good day.” In our enjoyment, we are diminished.

Consider this passage:

Attention, from this point of view, means to accept what is given just as it offers itself to us, whether in our basic engagement with the plain sense of a word or phrase, or in our perceptual awareness of the physical appearance of an image. It means a readiness for, and an openness to, another form which is different from me, which actively approaches me from outside of myself, offers itself to me as a gift, welling up to the surface from some mysterious depth. (from The Art of Seeing, by Fr. Maximos Constas)

Throughout an Orthodox service, the Deacon bids the faithful: “Attend!” (translated variously). It calls our wandering minds back to the thing at hand and tells us that our attention is required. In the placing of icons in the Churches and in our homes, the Church also says to us, “Attend!” It means for us to stop and look at the world, and, when well executed, an icon is able to say, “Look at the world in this way!”

The world we live in cannot be described as “iconoclastic,” for it is filled with images. But the images it gives to us, and the veneration it invites for them, are distorted. Even for the Orthodox, there is a great temptation for our own icons to become distorted. This is especially so when they are reduced to “branding.” “We are the Church that has icons!” God has not given them to us in order provide us with tokens of our tribe – that is nothing more than allowing ourselves to live on the level of marketing.

The icons are holy. They reveal to us the truth of God-with-us, and the truth of His relationship with the created world. The world we inhabit has lost its mooring. It wanders among the ruins of the world that went before, as often as not, defining that lost world as an enemy in order to hide from its own aimlessness. Fundamental words are losing their meaning, pressed into political meanings to serve the powers of this age. The Church proclaims that no words have meaning except as they find it in the Word Himself, no images are revealed as truth except as they reflect the Son, who is the express image of the Father.

We need to pay attention – holy things are for the holy. And we must pay attention to what God has given to us. Pay attention to the Word, so that we may understand all words. Pay attention to the icons, that we may understand all images. Pay attention to yourself, so that you may remember whose gift you are and why He has given you.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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40 responses to “Pay Attention! See What You See!”

  1. Sally Brower Avatar
    Sally Brower

    “Pay attention to yourself, so that you may remember whose gift you are and why He has given you.”
    Indeed. Father.

  2. David Gilchrist Avatar
    David Gilchrist

    What a wonderful picture!
    Russia c.1900?
    Who is it by?

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nikolai Kharitonov – 20th century. It’s “Religious Procession at Pskov-Pechersky Monastery”

  4. Peter Avatar

    I’m increasingly encountering discussions regarding the importance of attention. You might say I’m paying more attention to them. The more I pay attention, the more that I realize I’m not paying attention. Lord have mercy on me.

  5. Patricia Avatar

    ” . . . why He has given you.” I’m not understanding that. Almost sounds like a typo, though I can’t imagine you typing a typo. What am I not understanding ?

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Pay attention to yourself, so that you may remember whose gift you are and why He has given you.”

    I am tagging along with the gifted them in the quote from Fr. Maximos. And closing the article out with the observation that we ourselves are also God’s gift to the world. But we can only begin to know that if we rightly pay attention to ourselves.

    “Pay attention to yourself” was a common admonition among the desert fathers – a call to remember who we are as God’s creation, etc.

  7. John Avatar

    How do the sacraments apply to your admonition?

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Of course the sacrament of the Eucharist is at the very heart of the Liturgy – during which we are repeatedly told to pay attention. There is a fullness in the sacraments that, I think, it is especially important not to overlook. For example, we are told “in faith and love draw near,” when we come to receive. There is an admonition to lay aside all earthly cares, etc. Indeed, the Eucharist is an enactment of the way of life, culminating in the giving of thanks – “thine own of thin own we offer unto Thee.” In the same way, our existence is Eucharistic, every moment, we rightly say to God, “Thine own of Thine own…”

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paying attention to heavenly reality often times closer than hands and feet is the door way to communion with Him and His mercy. Every little effort to fast, pray and forgive during Great Lent bears fruit. Our struggles will continue against the world, the flesh and the devil but they are can only distract us.
    Fasting helps pacify the flesh, prayer the world, forgiveness keeps the devil at bay as his great weapon is remembrance of wrongs.
    “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” includes all three plus the over riding virtue of humility.

  10. Jeanie Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

  11. Mike N Avatar
    Mike N

    Father Stephen:

    It is well said that;
    “Fundamental words are losing their meaning, pressed into political meanings to serve the powers of this age. The Church proclaims that no words have meaning except as they find it in the Word Himself, “

    It seems like a lot of words are being redefined in not so subtle ways by many in our culture. It makes it hard to have a discussion when word meanings change so much. It’s a good reminder for me to listen more and talk less.

    Can you recommend some reading to help me understand to understand how to approach Icons. Particularly, how they reveal to us the truth of God-with-us, and the truth of His relationship with the created world. Maybe this is not possible apart from being in fellowship with the Orthodox Church. But I figured it didn’t hurt to ask.

    Do you have a favorite Icon of a saint that you have found particularly helpful.

    Thanks for your consideration.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Icons of the Mother of God (those known as the “Vladimir Mother of God”) have been of particular help to me. They have a tenderness that I like.

    There are many books on icons (so many more than when I was first studying them theologically back in the late 80’s). It depends on the kind of approach that is needed with the icons. The best theological introduction that I know is Ouspensky’s, The Theology of the Icon.

    But praying with icons is, in many ways, quite simple. The icons are there, and we pray. It’s sort of a creation of context – the icon is not a tool for prayer, but they are a means of “making present” that which is pictured. But the picture is not fully what its subject is. Christ is present in His icon, but the icon is not Christ. This is different from the sacrament – Christ is not only present in the sacrament, but is present as the sacrament. But, of course, the sacrament is not for looking at, or just about Him being present. The sacrament is for eating (in the case of the Eucharist).

    Icons, for the Orthodox, help shape the context of prayer (in certain places). So, we set aside a place in the home, a home altar, or a “beautiful corner,” as the Russians call it. There we place the icons, and there we pray. There may be a place for candles, etc., as well. Though, I think there are icons in every room of my house. A room would seem somehow empty without them.

    But, part of the context, is learning to remember that, whenever we pray, we always pray with and in the Church. We are always surrounded by the saints. Over time, it comes to just seep into your pores.

  13. Dean Avatar

    “Over time, it comes to just seep into your pores.”
    My wife rubs a medicine each day into her skin. It is hidden from those around her. Yet it silently does its work. This “seeping” of icons is also a hidden work of Christ in our heart. Much of His work in our heart is hidden even to us. The transformation will only be revealed when we stand in His presence.
    Thank you Father Stephen.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, Dean: indeed “seep” is a good word for the process. But my first experience with an icon was when I first entered an Orthodox temple. The sanctuary was not larg and there was the Mother of God Platytera above and behind the altar, filling up one side . At first I was overwhelmed and stepped back but then I looked and her arms were outstretched welcoming me to her Son. Although it took several months to be received, it was a done deal for me at that point.
    That particular icon was an awakening as soon as I saw her. Still, the quite, unseen work goes on.

    Father, would you comment on why some icons draw some people, while others do not?

  15. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Michael, I think we are attracted to certain personalities. I believe that is a factor in the icon that attracts us. And sometimes a Saint is sent to us and when we encounter them they speak to us and we know it. And sometimes we are attracted to a saint or a scene that calms or nourishes us or inspires us to hold on to our faith and draw us in closer to Christ.

    On the side , recently I’ve started to pray to my guardian angel regularly. I have no icon, but in the prayer I feel their presence nonetheless.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael, I’m sure there are many factors, much as Dee has suggested. There’s both the notions and associations within our own selves, just as there are realities of the saints involved. And then, there are combinations and factors that we simply do not understand.

  17. Mike Avatar

    Father Stephen:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think the visual is helpful. I have prayed at times for eyes to truly see and ears to truly hear and the wisdom to respond. I think we miss a lot.
    I truly get seeing through a mirror dimly as Paul says in the Letter to the Corinthians.

  18. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    “It means a readiness for, and an openness to, another form which is different from me, which actively approaches me from outside of myself, offers itself to me as a gift, welling up to the surface from some mysterious depth.”

    One roadblock to truly seeing in this way is our consumer mindset. In many ways of course, but in particular Fr. Maximos’ quote talks about about us being open and ready for something which is different from not only ourselves but also from what we expect. “Good” consumers have the practice down to a science and have come to a point of efficiency where they’ve figured out what works best for them – and then they mainline it, guzzling it down as fast as they can.

    Whereas true seeing is not about consuming but about being open and ready for whatever comes. In a crass sense it might be something which is “consumable” or it might not. What we see in front of us is other, not necessarily ours. We simply coexist with it.. Whether or not we benefit from it in any way should not even be a question that comes up right away.

    But our modern habit is to do just that, and in so doing we have become very efficient, consuming the other so quickly – judging it to lack value and moving on. One trick I’ve found is to take the good and meter it out. For example, try eating one M&M at a time, with at least a minute in between. The same idea with potato chips. My own observations are that a) I get full way faster, b) the food in question soon reveals itself to not taste nearly as good as I thought it did, and c) I’m slightly depressed because I find that what I was actually looking forward to was the act of binging, not the food itself.

    I think one requirement for being open and ready is to slow down and let what is in front of us to give itself to us, rather than us grabbing and consuming it. This wolfing things down is simply a bad habit which can be changed over time, but which is made more difficult because of the modern stream we flow in where consuming things faster has inconspicuously become heralded as a virtue. Who hasn’t been chided for not having watched the whole next season of a popular Netflix series in a week’s time?

    I long for the way of seeing things which you speak of in this article, but I despair when thinking about how to learn it in this world of sensory inputs which is flying by me even as I take time out to pen this entry.

    God have mercy on our souls!

  19. Byron Avatar

    Wonderfully stated, Drewster!

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Maximos says in another place:

    Paradox and contradiction seem like negative values, they make us uncomfortable. But this is precisely the point: only things that contradict the mind are real, there is no contradiction in what is imaginary. The exertion of human rationality to vitiate paradox, to suppress contradiction, is ultimately an exercise in self-delusion. It is the failure of true attention, the refusal to experience a change of mind.

    The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography

    Much the same can be said of Scripture. The “deep” things are often hidden within contradictions and paradox. A problem with the historical method (whether that of historical literalism or of historical critical studies) is that nothing is “hidden,” nothing is “beneath” the text. For me, I think that the best things are always beneath and within. God likes to hide things.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “God likes to hide things” … and yet the life in Christ is a more or less constant revelation… not unlike the way Drewster suggested eating except it is even better than we thought.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    God likes to hide things because He likes to reveal them. Christianity is always apocalyptic.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I do not know how to say this so it comes out correctly, but many times, He has revealed Himself in the course of suffering as when I was shown the Ressurection after half my heart was torn out when my late wife died and countless smaller things. Are we so obtuse that He has to “hit us up the side of our head with a tire iron” to get our attention or is that just me?

    Like Job He restored my heart 40 fold but still, at the time it was a bit like sitting on the dung heap picking at my boils. Yet now I can say: Glory to God.

  24. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, again, Fr. Stephen,
    I have noticed that the icons we have in our home “reached out” to us. Varied are the stories in which they/and we have found each other. Some have been given to us, others we were drawn too by their stories as presented by different blogs, or with the OCA daily Saints. Each of them has played specific roles in our lives and have been wonderful companions in intercession.

  25. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m not sure what question you had that the article addresses.

    I have a different perspective from the author, who appears to lean on one side of the American political spectrum and points to the other as ‘the danger’.

    One important message I learned from Solzhenitsyn was how ‘the line’ is drawn through each of our hearts.

  26. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Michael I’m from a group of people my family and those before who would say that they have indeed suffered such atrocities— by the hands of self professed Christians.

    On account of this history I’m less inclined to look at political sides and more at what goes on in our hearts

  27. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    There is significant irony in my personal circumstances. Here I am pushing against the proposition of political divides while I suffer under them. Because the ‘conservative’ perspective is frequently raised in Orthodox blogs and here as well, I may well appear to be pushing against that perspective. The truth is I’m under attack in real terms here and now from both sides. Neither political side appears to me untainted by passions and ill conceived (ie biased) rehearsals of past sins.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I can understand that You are right. Your people may be similar to martyrs, IMO. I have some significant emotional/spiritual ties with Native Americans.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee and Michael,
    For what it’s worth, Dreher has recently stated that he seriously neglected and overlooked tragic dangers from the right-wing of the political spectrum and has been working to deal with that oversight. But, that said, the problem with every political approach is that it is inadequate. It’s narrative of the world is insufficient and misleading. That we have been nurtured in political thought is one explanation of why our culture is as shallow and meaningless as it is. Bumpers are entirely enough space to express the depths of political thought for us.

    The thinness of American political thought is matched by the thinness of American religious thought – the simplistic and reductionist notions of America’s home-grown versions of Christianity. Indeed, that have a common source and are merely expressions of the same thing in two different keys.

    I do not think that authentic Orthodoxy can be blended into American political thought and remain authentically Orthodox.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, neither do I. I know Dreher’s background and bias. I was responding to the content of the stories of those who were punished for Christ’s sake. That gave me perspective on why Jesus reveals Himself during times of existential suffering. Part of it, for me, is that is when I am humble enough to listen. Part of it is that it also gives me practice of a sort in reaching out to Him when I am in felt need.

  31. William Avatar


    I wonder if you might have a word for how to “see what you see” in the context of the crushing meaninglessness of a wage slavery desk job, where what you see for 8 hours a day, every day, is the cold glow of a computer screen and the numbers on a paper you are to enter into the machine. I’ve tried to bring this up in confession, but the only words I hear make me feel like I’m doing something wrong for feeling this way, adding to the weight of it all. I’d like to be thankful–and I am–for all the blessings God has given me. But, try as I might, I can’t help but feel that this work pulls me away from everything that I love and am thankful for, making me feel more dead inside each day.

  32. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    No one has replied yet, so I am going to – my heart nearly froze when I read “the crushing meaninglessness of a wage slavery desk job, where what you see for 8 hours a day, every day, is the cold glow of a computer screen and the numbers on a paper you are to enter into the machine.” I went through something like what you seem to be going through, many years (well, decades, really) ago. It was extraordinarily difficult and awkward and costly, but I quit that job. Never in my life have I made a better decision.

    I don’t know how old you are, or what your other circumstances may be, but this is your LIFE. I know full well that jobs are hard to come by. But you sound like you are living hell on earth, and you don’t have to. You don’t have to. Could be difficult. Perhaps you are at a point that you can understand that there are much worse things in this life than ‘difficult’.

    May God give you strength and direction.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I echo Steve Gage’s thoughts. Nonetheless, there are situations in which we find ourselves stuck sometimes. I think that we have to bring something else to them – something that allows a small break (mentally, spiritually). More than anything, however, is the difficulty that comes with resentment. If it is possible to work towards a neutrality towards the work, it will help.

    I would recommend readings along the lines of Father Arseny (it’s a book) that describes a priest and some others in the Soviet Gulag. They survived – and still had an inner life of grace. It’s something that can provide a comfort – and a sense of companionship, that others have also suffered. We can ask their prayers.

  34. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    Father Stephen,
    “More than anything, however, is the difficulty that comes with resentment. If it is possible to work towards a neutrality towards the work, it will help. ”

    Now that you articulate it this way, it seems very true to me. I resented being in a position where I felt like I was betraying myself. Or maybe more truthfully, I resented being made to feel that I had to present myself as being happy and successful when I was miserable. We make our own cages. At some point you need to take some responsibility, and the resentment can block that.

    And there are others to think of, too. Life is complicated, ain’t it? God is good – glory to God for all things!

  35. Salaam Avatar

    “But, that said, the problem with every political approach is that it is inadequate. It’s narrative of the world is insufficient and misleading.” So true and yet so much the opposite of what is sold the masses in a democracy. And in the modern era. Was it you, Father, who said that at least in ancient times only the princes had to deal with the temptations of politics. Today we all do.

    William, I, too, have been working at a profession (IT) I hate for 27 years now. I am looking forward to retirement in six years! In the meantime my work is to constantly remind myself to thank God (profusely) for all things. I heartily second Father’s suggestion of reading the Father Arseny books. I have read them multiple times and continue I do so.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have been mulling Fr. Stephen’s statement on the temptation of “politics”. While true in the limited sense of the government of a polis, local regional, or a kingdom; in a broader sense we each of us have to guard our hearts against all sorts of political temptations. The Evil One’s temptation of Eve was “political” in nature; be obedient to God or rebel and rule in His stead.
    Today’s ideological, partisan battles are of the same nature. Even the nature and value of work is not far removed from Eve’s.

    Thus my earlier statement that all martyrdom has a political context from the Protomartyr Stephen on. St. Paul engineered his martyrdom in Rome for a reason.
    Even those persecuted within the Church Herself suffered due to politics.

    There is no victory except in and through the Cross. To partake in that victory requires that we each experience the Grace of God in the midst of our own lessor sufferings.

    The temptation as we suffer seems to me to be making the suffering about ourselves. That leads either to self-aggrandizement or despair.

  37. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Personally, I try not to get involved (but admittedly not doing that here) in conversations that over generalize victimhood throughout all geographical places of Christendom. There are real and extremely heinous circumstances to which we should not turn a blind eye. And then there are circumstances where the topic of martyrdom or victimhood becomes a kind of code to obfuscate observations and taking responsibility for bad behavior among American Christians.

    In the past I used to point fingers at American Protestants (for good reasons). But with the numbers of converts to Orthodoxy, it seems some of the outlook that belonged to other groups is beginning to meld into Orthodox circles (speaking mainly of blogs). I have some chagrin about all of this, But accept that I’m in this boat, this Ark of Christ, for the long haul. But now without the rose-colored glasses.

    Please, Father, forgive me for the tone of contentiousness. These are issues that I am dealing with in one form or another. I’m not sure whether expressing these thoughts here are productive for my own soul, but I’m hoping that expressing my outlook is helpful for some of your readers. But if not, I ask for forgiveness.

  38. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, forgive me if I in any way added to your stress. Martyrdom is not when somebody does not like you, neither is oppression. You are correct that some folks cry foul at any opposition and that is vexing.

    God bless and strengthen you Dee and lead you to a glorious Pascha

  39. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Michael,
    Thank you for your kind words. I sincerely appreciate them. May God bless you also in this Holy Lent and glorious Pascha.

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