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.
Truly beautiful. Thank you.
Amazing. Continue to be a blessing
Thank you, Fr. Stephen!
Thank you…I needed to read this today.
Father, thank you. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, may I add this stillness is not “inactivity, but, in an apophatic way, quite active. The “symphonia” God invites us to participate in with Him is filled with action, purposefulness, and movement. The difference lies in the quality of the action and movement. It is peaceful and not haphazard and hurried. But it is most definitely “busy” about the Father’s business.
Thanks for this rich and beautiful post. Much for the mind to ponder.
And to pick up on Fr. Barnabas’ comment, about the active stillness, and to draw in music (symphonia) — some of the most demanding and challenging musical compositions to play are those with many long, sustained notes. Because then the fingers (or lips, for wind players) have “no place to hide” like they might during the busy, active passages. That is, the note just is, and the musician has to take care to shape the note itself and to understand how it fits into the overall phrase – a single, sustained note may be the most active beats/counts in that passage and therefore the most challenging.
“What words do we use to describe something which dwarfs the universe and yet dwells within us?”
You expressed, Fr. Stephen, something of my continuing experience in the months since I became Orthodox. I have compared my new “view” to entering a cathedral that is amazingly deep and vast. I appreciate these further thoughts on the way icons fit. I have much more to learn and am grateful. God is very good.