The Texture of Life and the Kingdom

There is a “texture of life” that cannot be reduced. It has a richness that rational descriptions cannot capture. Though we battle with powerful forces that draw us towards the destructiveness of sin – there is written deep within us a hunger for wholeness and the capacity for God. In the words of St. John, “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

This texture also belongs to the Kingdom of God, though in even greater measure.  Christ Himself brought the Kingdom into our midst. Wherever He went the signs of the Kingdom followed: the blind received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were received back to life, and the poor had good news preached to them. How do you measure the gift of sight to a blind man, or the joy of a family who receives back into its midst one whom they thought dead?

The Orthodox Tradition, which is often described by many as “mystical,” is not “mystical” in any sense of “esoteric” or “strange.” Such adjectives for the faith are simply a reaching for words to describe a reality that is richer than any merely rational scheme or metaphysical explanation. It is the largeness of a Kingdom that cannot be described or circumscribed, and yet is found in the very heart of the believer. What words do we use to describe something which dwarfs the universe and yet dwells within us?

It is the texture of depth – or to use St. Paul’s expression:

“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

This is not merely a statement that nothing has the power to separate us from God, but that nothing has such height or depth as the love of God. It is a rich mixture of images – from the measurement of space, to the angels of heaven, to the elements of time – nothing reaches to the end of the love of God – the very stuff of His Kingdom.

It is for such reasons that I always find myself repelled by efforts to reduce doctrine to simplified formulas. Doctrine – the teaching of the faith should not reduce our understanding but enlarge it – to the very point of silence – and beyond. It is why it is so frustrating to try and explain icons. No one has an argument with the presence of words in the Church – the icons do the same things words do – only with color and in the language of silence. I can enter the Church, remain in silence and yet see (and hear!) something other than the incessant chatter of my own mind. The icons speak with the texture of the Kingdom – opening windows and doors that transcend every height and depth, things present and things to come.

Becoming aware of this texture requires the careful attention of an Orthodox life. Our lives are often filled with tensions and judgments with jealousy and greed – all of which serve to deaden our hearts and make us blind to the true character of the Kingdom in our midst. The Kingdom is reduced to slogan – a cypher for a set of opinions. Patience, inner stillness, love and forgiveness are the disciplines that make it possible for us to perceive the texture of the Kingdom. It allows its depth to be formed in our hearts.

The stillness of an icon should be approached with a stillness in our heart. The rhythm of the liturgy should be allowed to become the rhythm of our souls. The words of Scripture should not sail over our heads but echo within us. The texture of all these things is the same texture as that being formed within us by the work of God’s Spirit. It will become the texture of our true existence.

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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51 responses to “The Texture of Life and the Kingdom”

  1. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen asked:

    “What words do we use to describe something which dwarfs the universe and yet dwells within us?”

    Question of the century? 🙂

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The icon, More Spacious than the Heavens, spoke to me the first time I entered an Orthodox Church in 1986 at St Mary in Wichita. She spoke to me again this past Sat. while I was their for your retreat. Special.

  3. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    – nothing reaches to the end of the love of God – the very stuff of His Kingdom.

    It is for such reasons that I always find myself repelled by efforts to reduce doctrine to simplified formulas. Doctrine – the teaching of the faith should not reduce our understanding but enlarge it – to the very point of silence – and beyond. It is why it is so frustrating to try and explain icons. No one has an argument with the presence of words in the Church – the icons do the same things words do – only with color and in the language of silence. I can enter the Church, remain in silence and yet see (and hear!) something other than the incessant chatter of my own mind. The icons speak with the texture of the Kingdom – opening windows and doors that transcend every height and depth, things present and things to come.

    In a world where love has been commodified, such words about love as the texture of the Kingdom ‘sail’ over people’s heads as you say, Father. I used to want to talk about the theology of icons in the Orthodox Church. But doing that reduces it to a sort of ideological thesis. To the ears of one living outside the Orthodox Way, such words fall flat without life. Christ says, “He who has ears, let him hear”.

    In contrast, you also describe ‘the echo’ in the heart. Indeed, this is a very good expression. When I heard a non-Orthodox clergy member give instructions on how to “use” the Jesus prayer, there seemed to be no echo in my heart. I’m unsure if it is due to the ethos of the non-Orthodox training of the clergy, the heart of the clergyperson, or my own heart as a listener. But it appears to be consistent regardless of which confession they are from if they are not truly a Hesychast.

    When I speak of the doctrine of the Church, particularly in mixed company of non-Orthodox, sometimes I might sound very academic or secular, as this is increasingly where I am most of the time. Inevitably, I guard myself and what I say and, as a result, may not be saying anything at all worth saying.

    I pray that when I speak of these matters, I might say only what is needed, leaving the rest to silence.

  4. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father, you said, “I can enter the Church, remain in silence and yet see (and hear!) something other than the incessant chatter of my own mind.”

    Indeed this has happened with me too. Because of your words, I have the courage to admit it.

  5. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I am too much wrapped up in my own thoughts! Help!

  6. christa Avatar
    christa

    You say it well Dee. The tension I feel when I want to tell the good news of orthodox worship and faith to family and friends; but they want to talk doctrine and that is not what I want to convey. I can only trust that my life and actions spring forth from the Love that God gives to me by grace. And remember it does not revolve around me feeling rejected.
    My participation in worship is mostly tears, sorrow and joy. It is going from myself to and through the world to God and then God reaching down to lift us all up.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I give tours of our Sanctuary rack year during our Lebanese Dinner. It is a unique experience of silence, both my own and those taking tour. I have to watch it that I don’t over explain. Our guests: some do not say much or ask much, they just absorb what they see with a little orientation from me. Others ask a lot of questions. I have to listen to answer well.
    Each year, I am in awe of how much is communicated simply by the Cross shape of the worship area.
    Indeed, the Mystery of the Cross is what the shape and the icons communicate. Each time I attend, more is offered to me if my heart can receive it.

    Christ is merciful.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    each year not ‘rack’ year

  9. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I like when you share about the tour you give Michael. Is there somewhere online where I can see inside your church?

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The home page on our web page shows a lot: http://www.stgeorgecathedral.net. If you scroll down too.
    Nevertheless there is a great deal one misses by not being there. The Presence is sometimes quite remarkable.

    I am greatly blessed and honored to give the tours.

  11. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Wow Michael … so beautiful and so inviting!

    I am convinced that if I was in the U.S. I would be Orthodox by now. Orthodoxy in the U.S. is much different (I think) than Orthodoxy in Germany.

  12. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    In terms of openness and mission I think …

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Also if you click on the blue button you can see an on line version of our brochure. The Cathedral was designed and built in part to be a witness to the beauty and glory of Holy Orthodoxy thanks to the anonymous generosity of our affluent parishioners

    One special icon that is not in the brochure: the first icon to be written of St. Raphael of Brooklyn. He is special to us for many reasons. Not the least of which that he sent us our first priest when we were still young and a community of Lebanese immigrants.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Everything’s different in America…mostly, it’s because of the Americans…

    My wife and I enjoy watching murder mysteries on TV…we’ve seen pretty much everyone in Great Britain get murdered… So, we moved on to Europe with an App that makes that possible (with subtitles). I think my favorites are the Italians…very Italian. But, I saw a program, set in Venice (I had read the detective series before – very Italian!. But this series was made by German TV, with German language, German actors…so the program was utterly NOT Italian. One of the strangest things I’ve ever seen (other than the Russian production of Sherlock Holmes). We gave up on that production and watched British re-runs… Miss Marple never fails to delight.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, I will remember you when I enter the sanctuary.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, if you have not seen the very British series: New Tricks you should

  17. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I am LOL Fr. Stephen! 🙂 🙂 🙂 Thanks so much!

    Miss Marple … I have never seen it but it is on German TV.

    They love Streets of San Francisco, Columbo, and even Little House on the Prairie here! American pop culture has endless reach I think!

  18. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    The whole world wears blue jeans, alas.

  19. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Michael … please do remember me when you enter the sanctuary. Your church looks so beautiful!

  20. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “The whole world wears blue jeans …”

    Sometimes you speak titles of books Fr. Stephen! 🙂

  21. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Christa,
    Your comment about your experience in worship is beautiful. It is so true that one should not drown in feelings of rejection in such circumstances you describe. Thank you for your comment!

  22. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    “Patience, inner stillness, love and forgiveness are the disciplines that make it possible for us to perceive the texture of the Kingdom.”

    On the one hand, I long to SEE as I should. To recognize God “everywhere present and filling all things”. So see the reality of the war that rages around me and within me so I might rightly respond to that reality in my words, thoughts and actions. But, on the other hand, I’m sorely lacking in “patience, inner stillness, love and forgiveness”. It sometimes feels like a chicken and egg thing. If I saw Reality, perhaps I would have more patience, inner stillness, love and forgiveness? But at the same time, it’s the pure in heart who then see God.

  23. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Andrew. What you describe really resonates with me.

  24. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Andrew,
    I think that when we direct our attention to Christ Crucified – only then do patience, inner stillness, love and forgiveness become possible. Everything is there –

  25. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    Thank you Fr. Stephen

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As a total aside: Henry Adams practically invented Social History with his efforts almost 200 years ago. A magnificent book Mont St. Michel and Chartes in which he look at the societies of France by analyzing the construction and architecture of the two cathedrals: Mt St Michel built in the Romanesque period and the High Gothic masterpiece of Chartes Cathedral.

  27. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    This morning at prayer I looked more intently than I normally do at my icon of the crucifixion of Christ. I was hoping that patience, inner stillness, love and forgiveness might become formed in me through this veneration. Fr. Stephen said that “everything is there” in the crucified Christ, but trying to meditatively capture the “everything” is a tall order. I´m not sure what really came out of my time this morning with Christ and the icon of His crucifixion. I´m not really sure what I should have been looking for.

  28. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Often, we think too much when we try to meditate. We can’t really “think” of everything (though “everything is there”). Generally, when I stand before the icons – in silence – I simply work at being still – outwardly and inwardly. To be present to the Crucified Christ is also to be present both to all suffering in the world and the love of the suffering God in all things. And sometimes, my head is so noisy that all I can do is be a noisy head standing in front of the suffering God – and He takes my noisy head into His suffering as well.

  29. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen.

    It´s so hard to get used to the idea that I don´t have to think about anything, I don´t have to know everything, and I don´t have to always be doing something.

    Jesus is there waiting.

  30. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Many years ago, when I was in seminary, I bought my first icon. I had read a “little” in Orthodox theology, but nothing really about icons. I had no experience or guidance. I recall praying and trying to “meditate” before the icon – pretty useless. For one, I think I kept trying to “read” the icon (we’re so text oriented). I don’t think I generally understood much until experience-over-time began to teach me. When I venerate an icon – the focus is not so much the icon as who is represented – it is a way of being present to them and them to me. Like friends – sometimes there is lots of talk and sometimes there’s just being together. It’ll come.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you make a point that has been rumbling in my heart since my mother told me so long ago that “God is real! It is your job to find Him!”
    Implicit in her statement is that God is a Person, not a feeling nor an idea.
    I went by that assumption tacitly but it was not until I first walked into St. Mary and was confronted with Mary and Jesus reaching out and embracing me through the icon: More Spacious Than the Heavens; that I began to realize how critical that understanding is to a life of faith. I find it much easier to interact with a person: Lord or Saint than I do with an idea. Persons are always intra-related even when we do not want to be. The worship of ideas is idolatry is it not?
    When I contemplate my icon of St. Luke, the Blessed Surgeon of the Ukraine, or any icon, as Person that blessings come.
    Our Lord is merciful

    The last couple of

  32. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    Coming from a Protestant background (like both you and Father Stephen) might make (have made) approaching Orthodox iconography more difficult for all of us. My early experience has been similar to what each of you describes.

    I think we cannot view aligning ourselves properly toward the Kingdom as something that ever becomes akin to flipping an electronic switch such as listening to music on our phones. Because worship is participatory, it is more like practicing an instrument that at first we’re very unskilled with, and the result can be discordant and discouraging.

    I mentioned that I’ve been listening to St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” Two observations I’m taking away from that are that even a towering saint struggles, having days in which the practice goes easy and days (and nights) in which it is difficult. Second, my efforts are so feeble to expect comparable results.

    For example, St. Augustine strove to prefer prayer to all else. He wanted God to make him consider every other activity inferior to time he could spend praying. He seemed to understand that this was a necessity of his truly acquiring the Pearl of Great Price.

    I think patience and persistence are elements, but also, then, accepting God’s will for us, in place of our own. In the instance of icons, perhaps we are looking at the icon desiring a certain experience, rather than being receptive to the intended experience.

    In my own prayer, I am often aware that I want to be able to “check a box” and move on in my worship, rather than considering whether I am doing all that God would have me do. (Just to call up an example: Am I angry with someone and not forgiving of them?)

    As you mention the icon of the Crucified Christ, perhaps a question you could ask yourself while looking at it is something about your own crucifixion with him. From Father Emmanuel Clapsis: “Being attentive and hearing the stories of the afflicted and oppressed people and responding to their needs with compassion, care, and love and actively working against the causes of suffering provide opportunities to participate in God’s mercy and become true icons of His presence in the world. As Christians, we see the presence of the suffering Christ in our suffering brethren.”

  33. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    What makes an icon different from, say, a beautiful piece of religious Renaissance art? Can´t they both be equally venerated?

  34. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Mark. Really good thoughts. I so appreciate them.

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I’m not sure what Father Stephen is going to say about your question of veneration of icons v.s. Renaissance art. There is a history in the Orthodox Church when icons were banned and then re-instituted. There was an awareness that life in the Holy Spirit was diminished without it. There is an awareness (and even more than awareness–of inter-participation) of who is in the icon itself, the hand, and the experience of the person who made it, which is participatory in the worship of Christ and in the life of Christ. The worship I’m describing is Orthodox worship.

    It seems to me me your question is similar to asking what is the difference between the Bible and non-canonical religious poetry, or what is the difference between the words of Devine Liturgy and personal prayer. We could have both. But they are different. The Orthodox Liturgy brings about an abiding in Christ in an Orthodox Way.

    Roman Catholics venerate statues, while Orthodox do not. They also venerate the ‘bread’ of Christ by putting it on display, and the Orthodox do not do this. This difference resides in the theology itself concerning the icon. The Orthodox adhere to this such that in Pascha, the veneration of Christ on the cross involves the veneration of an icon rather than a 3D corpus on a 3D cross.

    I suspect I haven’t really answered your question. Similar to what Mark is saying, experience reveals the differences that you wonder about over time. I could go on about the theology of the icon and my own experience, but I’m not sure that would be helpful. I was not Protestant nor Roman Catholic before I entered the Church. Ironically of all unexpected things, chemistry taught me a lot about icons as a medium to understand our reality before I ever understood what they are in Orthodoxy.

  36. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Last, I should add that when I refer to Orthodox theology, I’m not referring to ideas we entertain in our heads. Rather, I’m referring to a lived experience involving body, heart, soul, and mind in communion with Christ and His Church.

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    There is a style “icons” found in any number of Orthodox Church, particularly from the 19th-early 20th centuries that is often called the “Italian School.” Generally they are bad attempts to do a Western-style painting rather than Byzantine. Many faithful have venerated such icons – some of these icons even weep. So…there’s that.

    However, the general Byzantine style developed in the life of the Church in such a way that they conform to Orthodox doctrine and practice – they are among the many things that foster Hesychasm. Western-style art has a very different object in mind and a different purpose. It’s not “wrong” in that it doesn’t pretend to be “right.” It’s just art. But it’s sort of the difference between reading a novel about Jesus versus reading the Scriptures. It’s not nothing – but it’s not reliably the same. The Seventh Council declared, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words…” That’s it’s point. One of the failings of Renaissance-style art is the attempt to reduce the gospel to mere history (of some sort). The Scriptures are “iconic” in nature and we have largely forgotten that in the West – and have no eye for it. We have muted almost everything there is about noetic experience.

  38. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, in western art the painter is always present, the person in the picture is a creature of the painter.

    In icons the person, say St. Raphael of Brooklyn, is the focus and his/her Creator. Both are revealed and, in some way, present

  39. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you so much Dee, Fr. Stephen and Michael.

  40. Bradley David Avatar
    Bradley David

    Matthew,

    I’ll share what I have learned regarding Icons. Maybe it will be helpful to you. Fr. Maximos Constas, a brilliant scholar, and monastic, has given a few talks on this subject. He finds several distinctions between Western religious art and Orthodox iconography. First, what makes icons distinct is the very act of veneration and the use of them in our Liturgies. They are not merely art. We bow, prostrate, and kiss them. Priests perform specific acts toward them during the Liturgy in directing prayers toward them, etc. Fr. Maximos says he isn’t aware of any such practices in Western Christian communions. Next, western religious art during the so-called renaissance abandoned traditional iconography forms that were in prior times common to all Christendom and instead embraced pagan expressions of the “rediscovered” Greco-Roman tradition. These expressions had at their center a humanism and voluptuousness that is absent from traditional iconography. Forgive my ramblings here are some links to some good talks on the subject by Fr. Maximos and Jonathan Pageau.

    Here is a brief discussion:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMmvuQ1lycQ

    Here is a more detailed lecture:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGcygfkqT8g&list=PLZJMXY-b5yLi4xbv-Gm4MuJVN7VgVExsZ

    Here is a good discussion by Jonathan Pageau on Renaissance and post-Renaissance art.

  41. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    Describing noetic experience is very difficult in this (US) culture. Inevitably, it is described as a subjective experience divorced from the vaulted ‘objective’ observation. And I was about to write objective experience, but that would almost seem like an oxymoron. I have no idea how to express what is going on with icons without a description using words such as ‘noetic experience’ because the word seems almost abstract rather than substantive to ears not accustomed to its use.

    When I was a catechumen, I looked it up in a dictionary to understand it. And yet, because I was attending services then, I knew there was more going on that I couldn’t see. But I sensed it at some level. I’m not even sure when the noetic became a common experience. But it helped a bit that I was aware that it was more common in my mother’s (Seminole) generation. And due to her, I had had a tangential experience of someone else’s experience. Perhaps this is also why it is so important to be present in person for Divine Liturgy. The communion of the Church supports such experiences. I’m not so sure that can be conveyed so easily over the internet.

  42. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Doesn’t noetic mean essentially intellect?

  43. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    In an Orthodox context, I think it is the adjective form of nous (so experience relating to the nous).

  44. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    It’s more than what we typically think of as intellect. Father Stephen can explain better than I. But there is a saying of bringing the mind into the heart that helps to cultivate the nous.

  45. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I should also add that in the reference to bringing the mind into the heart , this isn’t a mental exercise but prayer in communion with the Holy Spirit.

  46. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I found this article Father Stephen wrote, which might be helpful:’https://glory2godforallthings.com/2019/02/23/knowing-with-my-knower-the-nous/

  47. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Noetic is sometimes translated that way – and it’s quite misleading. The nous is the “organ of perception” by which we perceive God. God is not an idea, an intellection. A reason I tend to use the term “noetic” is simply because we don’t have a good Western word that suffices as a translation. It’s difficult to translate, particularly, in that noetic experience has become quite rare in Western cultures.

    I would suggest reading the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins for a suggestion of noetic experience – it is deeply perceptive. Hopkins, who was a Catholic priest and a brilliant poet, was particularly captivated by the Real Presence in the Eucharist and consistently pondered what that meant for the whole world – quite Orthodox, frankly. Read him, see what he’s doing. Listen to it. And then ponder what there’s not a word for.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What part does repentance have in the noetic?

  49. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Dee and Mark and Fr. Stephen.

    “organ of perception” … so very interesting.

    We have discussed this before, but I would like to revisit it again please. When I was in charismatic evangelical circles, I tried (at times) to distance myself from my intellectual musings via “divine experience”. Sometimes things happened in the assembly or at a conference (though I must admit not very often) which might have touched my organ of perception; something may have happened that went beyond my own intellectual understanding.

    Is there any way to be sure what happened in those settings was (or wasn´t) a divine experience; an engagement with the nous and/or my organ of perception?

  50. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I think it’s something we continue to ponder. I had 3 years or so of the charismatic movement and came away with similar questions. I was certain of a fair amount of delusion – but there were things that I think were noetic in character. For one – they were the least describable. Noetic experience often has that quality. The most pernicious aspect of charismatic experience is the use of active imagining – sort of picturing in the mind – and then describing to others and ourselves in very “objective” terms. “God spoke to me and said…” when what actually took place was, “I imagined God speaking to me and saying…” or something like that.

    There is a long, sad history with such “experiences.”

    Today, we live in “mass culture” in a manner that is exacerbated by the nature of our media. I’m very cautious about every mass experience these days. They are almost certainly ungirded by delusional experience. God save us from crowds.

  51. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen

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