Icons in a Literal World

The Scripture tells us that the “pure in heart shall see God.” I have always assumed that this describes a present event and not a promise about a distant life after death. We do not see God now, because our hearts are not pure. In the same manner, we do not see the reality of the world – because our hearts are darkened. I am increasingly convinced that the “literal” world that we see is distorted by our own self-deception. It is not a problem with creation itself – but the distortions of our own falsely created existence. 

What do you see when you see the world and how do you see it? I have written much about the secular character of our culture and its “literal” view of the world. The world is what you see and nothing more. Significant events take their significance from their own relation to other literal events. Much that passes for Christian theology or “thought” belongs to this world-view today. Thus those who concern themselves with “prophetic” events are constantly working to make a connection between the words of Scripture and the “literal” events of today’s news. The coming of Christ is seen by them as an event that will fit within the headlines of the paper – and even fantasize about the difficulties presented to mainstream media when the event of a “literal rapture” occurs, and a significant portion of the population goes missing. It is a way to see the world – not significantly different than how any non-believer sees the world – and – I would suggest – deadly dull and wrong.

There are other ways to see the world. The “other way” with which I am most familiar is the world as icon. Of painted icons we say they are “windows to heaven.” Though no more than wood and paint, faithful believers find them to be something which points to something yet more – they both point to and make present here.

The house in which I live has a marvelous feature. The living room – dining room (more or less one large room together) has one entire wall as floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, the living room is cantilevered so that parts of two additional walls consist of windows as well. The effect is that the main living space of my home constantly includes the outdoors. In the Autumn the room is suffused with golden light from the leaves of the many trees that overlook the rear of our house. In the Spring and Summer, the room takes on a radiance from the many trees and flowers. Even in winter as the room looks out over the naked wood of trees and offers views of neighboring streets and houses – the room remains transformed.

To say that something is a window is to recognize both its “literal” presence as well as its “iconic” function. It provides both wall to enclose and yet reaches out to include. The world, I believe, when properly seen, does the same. There are occasional views of certain aspects of the world that make the most hardened, literal heart pause and recognize that something transcendent, or something which certainly hints at the transcendent has come into view.

I well understand that there are people who do not believe in God. Oftentimes when they tell me about the God they don’t believe in, I have to say that I don’t believe in that God either. But I do not understand people who live in our world and do not wonder whether there is a God – whether the beauty that refuses to disappear, despite our best efforts – is not reflective of some greater Beauty that refuses to utterly hide Himself.

My children (now adult) laugh at me for once having scolded them about “fairy circles.” We were walking in the woods in Durham, N.C. My oldest girl was 8, her sister between 5 and 6. We came on a clearing with a beautiful circle of mushrooms. “It’s a fairy circle!” I exclaimed. Despite late night readings of Tolkien and Lewis, both of them laughed at me and said, “Papa!” in their most disapproving, skeptical voices. My scolding was that they did not at least pause to wonder.

I do not believe in fairy circles, nor did I expect my children to. But I do wonder (and I still pray that my children do and often). I wonder because I believe the world to be iconic – a window that reveals more than a first glimpse. It reveals a beauty and a vastness that stretches beyond the literal. The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep. He dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven and saw angels going up and down the ladder. His response was iconic: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not! How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”

I want to fall asleep and wake like a patriarch.

Comments

  1. Walt Kennick says

    If we lose our sense of wonder, we will not see the simple as miraculous. Every day that I open my eyes, I am thankful for that miracle.

  2. Marion Latiolais says

    I have also been reflecting on this these past few days. Indeed the beauty of the created world, both the earth we live on and the universe we see, draw from us a response that even the most hardened atheist can’t ignore. The deeper response, at least to me, is when we can see the Iconic Prescence of God, indeed all of heaven, in those events, natural and man made, which we view as tragic.In a certain sense, we can say at these times that the veil of the temple is again rent asunder and we behold what is always present. Thanks for your deeply insightful posts. I share them with many of my non orthodox friends. I’ve also shared copies of your book, Everywhere Present. May God bless and keep you and yours. Marion

  3. John Sennett says

    Father, Bless. This post reminds me very much of the things which G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book “Orthodoxy” which I am presently reading. We all live in the most beautiful creation which is in itself, magic. Not the magic of lore and fairies, but the magic that God has created. May God continue to bless you and the work that you do.

  4. tate says

    I’ve enjoyed your blog for quite some time. It “lifts” me . But i find the font or the font size that you now use very cumbersome. It is difficult to read your blog now. it was easier before. I think it’s the font and /it’s size.

  5. George Engelhard says

    My first experience of finding the Transcendent in nature occured when I was 4 years old. A tree had dropped sedpods in our driveway. Some of them had been crushed by the car going over them. inside these seedpods was a furry ball of seeds. I held a whole one in one hand and a crushed one in the other and realized tha there was a furry ball of seeds in the whole one. I realized there was something greater than myself that had made these seedpods. I wrote a poem about it.
    The Seedpod
    A very long, long time ago when I was very young
    I opened up a seedpod and fond in it the Son
    And finding Him has set my course
    He’s named the race I run
    To finely open up myself and find I AM, the One
    This experience began my search for the Transcendent. It, also, began my rebellion. As a became more and more aware of the majesty and greatness of God, I became aware of my own insignificance and powerlessness. And I didn’t like seeing that.
    Agape’,
    George

  6. says

    Father, if you change the font again, please keep with a font that has serifs. I was taught by a newsletter editor long ago that blocks of type are much easier for our brains to read if the letters have serifs to sort of scoot our eyes along horizontally. I find that sans serif fonts do make it more of a chore to read blogs with perfectly good content.

  7. fatherstephen says

    Gretchen,
    Thanks. I like serif’s as well – and now you justify my likes. I’ll be looking at my options.

  8. Peyton says

    Serif-in, surf-in, seraphim, sufferin’ — the mind boggles!

    Firefox browser under Vista lets me increase / decrease the font size with Ctrl/+ or Ctrl/-. Meanwhile, I basically like the font, with the elegant ascenders and descenders (like Jacob’s dream?), but would prefer the caps to better match the ascender height. BTW, what is the font name?

  9. mary benton says

    Father Stephen – thank you again for a beautiful post, in whatever font.

    I am completely with you on the beatitude regarding pureness of heart. Last year, I wrote a post on “The Face of God” that I would love to share with you, if you have a moment. (The end of post relates more than the beginning.) If you care to read, here is the link:
    http://findhope-mary.blogspot.com/2011_02_01_archive.html

    (I’m not trying to use your blog to push my own, since I never know if anyone reads mine! Just want to share and celebrate common faith.) Thanks.

  10. CoffeeZombie says

    Regarding fonts, I’ve read that sans serif fonts are supposed to actually be more readable on screen, while serif fonts are better on paper. Not sure how true that is, though it does match well with my own general preferences.

    Anyway, about the post. Your story about fairy circles reminds me of one summer evening at my parents house when I looked out the kitchen window and saw fireflies in the woods behind our backyard. There were a lot of them, flickering and flashing about. So many that, for a moment, I forgot they were fireflies and saw fairies dancing.

    I don’t believe in fairies, either (though, sometimes I *do* wonder about them), but there really is more to this world than meets the eye. Perhaps this world-view was part of why, when I encountered Orthodoxy, I felt that it was more real than anything I’d experienced before.

  11. Karen says

    Mary, thanks for sharing your post with us. I printed a copy (giving credit to the source) to give to a friend who has been plagued with many kinds of suffering her whole life and now lives in a nursing home (at a relatively young age). I believe it will be very helpful to her as she frequently struggles with guilt in the same way.

  12. Elizabeth says

    Ok, since we’re talking about the new blog format, I have a burning question: ever since the change over, there has been a new little icon that shows up on the tab of my browser that this blog is open in. It’s a square image that is half black/half white. The black side has a tan or golden colored blob and then inside of that some more black shapes. What is it?

    Every time I see it I speculate. Is it part of a drawing of a guitar? Part of the profile of a cartoon face? Is it just abstract? I have no objection to it, I’m just wildly curious. My eyesight is suffering from squinting at it repeatedly. Please enlighten me!

  13. Elizabeth says

    It just occurred to me that I just posted the above in response to a blog post about literal-minded moderns not understanding the nature of icons. Please save me from myself! :)

  14. fatherstephen says

    Elizabeth. I haven’t got a clue. These little things get generated somewhere. When the blog first went on line it appeared and has been that way ever since. It doesn’t seem to have a thing to do with the blog itself. I think that aliens put them there. :)

  15. fatherstephen says

    Elizabeth. Ah! It’s called a “favicon” and is indeed generated in a mysterious fashion. This particular favicon is a creation of my developer, Guerilla. It is the closest thing they get to advertising on the site…

  16. PJ says

    I’ve also been pondering this enigmatic “favicon.” I think it is the left half of a gorilla’s face (gorilla for Guerilla).

  17. mary benton says

    Karen – I will offer a prayer for your friend tonight. I write a lot about suffering and you are welcome to share anything from my blog if it offers her any comfort.

  18. says

    I think the literal-mindedness of the modern world is related to our near-universal literacy. While the authors of Scripture were obviously literate, as were the Fathers, they wrote in and for cultures that were mostly illiterate. Literacy changes the way the mind works, and universal literacy changes the way culture works. Ironically, our literacy allows us to read the Scriptures and the Fathers for ourselves, but it might also distance us from their original audiences in a way that makes it harder for us to understand.

  19. Grant says

    I couldn’t agree more. It seems to me that materialists are fixated on the structure and composition of the window -the nature of the glass, its thickness etc- and forget that the purpose of a window is to reveal something Beyond, or let Light in. The world is to be looked through, not at…