Once a week I teach a class at a local alcohol and drug treatment program. It is on the “spirituality of recovery.” Recently I shared Marmaladov’s speech from Crime and Punishment (at the end of this article). There were tears in the room. For many, the version of the gospel they have heard only condemns. Most of the men I meet want to get well, to get sober. Not all of them believe that God is actually on their side. Marmaladov’s speech is wonderfully “over the top.” Do we dare believe that God will be (is) so kind?
As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”
When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2:14-17)
What struck me as I listened to it was a unique quality of Christ as God incarnate: everywhere He goes the icon of the Kingdom forms around Him. In this particular gospel passage, the image is that of the banquet at the end of the ages, the Messianic banquet. And as Christ warned others, the harlots and sinners have gotten there ahead of them (Matt. 21:31).
Every meal that Christ shares in the gospels, because of who He is, cannot help but be the Messianic Banquet. Every table becomes an altar, every meal, the Eucharist.
Before approaching the Holy Cup at Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians say in unison:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first…
It is not unlike the beautiful communion prayer of the Anglican reformer, Thomas Cranmer: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table…”
It is the true image of the great banquet – a gathering of the unrighteous with the Righteous One, the unworthy with Only Worthy. This is the other side of the “Narrow Door.” Here the difficult path is not marked by asceticism, but by a humility, indeed a humility wrought by a broken life. I have encountered such humility many times, and have frequently found my own “religious” accomplishments soundly rebuked. I do not need anyone to remind me that 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that “drunkards” will not inherit the Kingdom. But, O strange wonder, many of them will be found in the Kingdom while others are thrust out! Dostoevsky’s Marmeladov explains why.
…”And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek…And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us, ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘O Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say,’This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him…and we shall weep…and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!…and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even…she will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!” And he sank down on the bench exhausted and helpless, looking at no one, apparently oblivious of his surroundings and plunged in deep thought. His words had created a certain impression; there was a moment of silence; but soon laughter and oaths were heard again.
I believe with all my heart that God in his mercy through the love of Christ will grant to even a drunkard or murder for that matter Salvation and assurance of Life in the world to come. The important thing is that we repent turn form the lifestyle and come open hearted to HIM..
Jesus in Revelation 21:6 stated “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.”
The main thing is that we do our part and overcome. We too must make an effort to open our heart to the one who gave so much. when we are weak, he makes us strong. It is even in a state of addiction that the way maker can make a way where there seems to be no way!
As someone who is a part of a fellowship of men and women for whom Marmeladov’s words are pure music….I understand why you have seen your hearers brought to tears when you read it. Thank you so much for sharing those words here.
“This is why I receive them…not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this”
Nancy, if I may – I am in no way minimizing the importance of repentence. However, the beauty of these words (to me) is that there is no mention at all of repentence. While these words are taken from a novel, I believe them true of our God.
God knows that there are some among us, so damaged, hurt or ill, that they are not even able to make a meaningful repentence in the way we might think of it. They think of themselves as unworthy of love – so unworthy that they cannot conceive of being invited to the banquet even if they begged. They are not those who have given up self in humility but rather those who never had a (healthy) self.
God loves these ones very much, I believe. It is also our call to love them and treat them with the dignity that may help them to heal – so that they can begin the journey toward God. Blessings to all on this journey and to all who minister to them.
Father Stephen – I love the painting/icon by Nesterov. Do you have any link to where this image might be obtained for reproduction? I do not want to violate copyright but would love to share it with others. The image itself is profoundly moving. Many thanks. (Great post, as always.)
Fr Steven I have been sober a long time I too do work at the local treatment center. One comment I always make, that seems to hit home. The question why is your windshield so much larger than your rear view mirror? The answer
because where you are going is way more important than where you have been. I was the groundskeeper in Oregon at The Annuncnation Church in Oregon for twenty years till I retired to Florda. I got sober with the Grace of God and the help of Ft M. Tate and his wife Teresa and a good sponsor/ any way keep up the good work I look forward to all your posts and keep a folder for when I need a little kick in the pants. God bless you and thank you
Mary Benton..try google images
Touching…I seen a few hard core alcoholics turned around by Christ´s love and forgiveness. For one, my father, as you would say a death bed conversion…as well as many, and even one a total transformation from a hard tough heart and face into a gentle loving face before he died. God´s love, mercy and grace transforms…..if we allow it.
I can speak only for myself, but I find humility strictly in recovery and sobriety. When my addiction is active, I know only degradation and deprivation, which while superficially similar to humility, are actually quite different. Strangely, in my own case, the deeper my degeneracy, the more swollen my pride; the more hungry my ego for autonomy and self-absorption.
I agree – there’s no great anything in an active addiction. Self-loathing rather than humility is more accurate. My experience with those in treatment is an experience with the wounded (actually this describes everyone I know). Generally, they didn’t invent their self-loathing, etc. I think of the dark night of addiction as a vivid picture of Hades. I think of Christ entering into that Hades and making possible what is otherwise impossible. The now-sober souls whom I have gotten to know are perhaps the most profound witness to the existence of God that I’ve ever seen. I’ve always thought of the Marmeladov speech as being more about the radical grace of God than the state of “Drunkards.” It is an icon of Christ’s compassion.
“I think of the dark night of addiction as a vivid picture of Hades”
Yes. Absolutely. The sense of being trapped in the self, with no possibility of authentic and loving contact with another, combined with a sense of “no exit,” is frightening and awful — in short, hellish.
Keep thy mind in hell PJ, and despair not.
I agree and empathize with what you are saying. It is correct, and one cannot advance in the spiritual life until he reaches a certain freedom from all that, (while retaining his full awareness of potential for total slavery), yet, remembering St. Nilus’s paraphrasing of the Psalms concerning this matter, (very much in the same vein as Marmeladov): “God remembered us not in our purity but in our humility”, makes me see the pride of the “pure” as something, say 5 or 6 steps away from Grace while, on the other hand, the degradation of the enslaved addict seems to be just 1 or 2 steps away…
As Elder Paisios has said, God has ways and means to humble all. However, (spiritually), it is a far greater loss to have your holiness taken away (if your source of pride becomes that with the Enemy’s cunning ‘help’) in order to return you to humility, than to take away your looks, or wealth, or wit etc.
I’ve never been strung out on anything but religion so I might be missing the point of something here but stuff like this invariably angers me. Any god who refers to people created in his image as “swine” is an ass. I have never met the parent of any addict who has died of an overdose and who has referred to that child as a pig. No loving heart speaks that way of their own offspring.
Again, this really upsets me. The whole point of this little quote is to convince people that they are worthy. So if someone thinks they are worthy but they are still addicted, are they then condemned?
There are not enough descriptive expletives to describe what a horrid person such a god would be who spoke in this manner.
I couldn’t disagree with you more.
In the depths of my addiction, I was a swine of swine, an absolute degenerate. I once robbed my 11-year-old brother. I snatched my Downs Syndrome brother-in-law’s video games to pawn. I lied, cheated, manipulated, stole … I loved nobody but myself and my junk.
My mother — a frank lady, bless her soul — more than once called me a wretch. She wasn’t describing my true nature, of course, but rather the pitiful state into which I had fallen.
It made me angry at the time, but eventually I saw that she was 100% correct. And, though the accusations always angered me, they also caused me to reflect on my actions, and thus (slowly, painfully) moved me toward a “moment of clarity.”
My mother is flawed like anyone else, but her love for her children knows no bounds. Of that I have no doubt. Yet she rebuked me to my face. It is always loving to speak truly, though the truth often hurts.
My mother never stopped loving me. She tried to help me in many ways — though I abused her constantly. I am grateful that she always dealt not just charitably, but honestly, with me.
Surely, it is because Our Lord is truly the Lover of Mankind and Our God (in Spirit and in Truth) works in the hearts of men (and women) that Dostoevsky’s words can be used to teach/enlighten/comfort as you are able to Fr. Stephen. This is a blessing, thank you! I am reminded of a quote I read recently: Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, “Can a person lay a new foundation every day?” The old man replied, “If you work hard, you can lay a new foundation every moment.”
Hmmm. Our life experience is so different on some levels. “Ye are swine,” he says – stating what they already think of themselves. This is a novel, not Scripture. Others in my life, at the appropriate moment have been able to name me for the pig I am, and helped save my soul. I hope my own father would have named me for the pig I was at certain moments – not because he didn’t love me…but because he did. I did as much for him…and it turned out very well (because it was spoken in love). It’s about getting out of my self-imposed Hades, not maintaining my Bourgeoise since of self.
In the novel, Marmeladov is indeed a swine. He’s not only a drunkard, his daughter has been forced to become a prostitute to support the family because he doesn’t, and he would steal money from her to drink. He’s not a swine – he’s worse than that. Telling him so is not an insult, it’s an echo. But the nature of the novel is the unexpected thing that happens – they can enter paradise.
It is, for its day and time, an outlandish demonstration of the love of God and a complete reversal of expectations. It’s not unlike Christ’s scene with the adulterous woman.
Mary, Here’s a higher definition version of Mikhail Nesterov’s Holy Rus. Isn’t it just something?!
John and Fr. Stephen, I think context and intent make the meaning–not the words themselves. Your exchange reminds me of an autobiography I read of a very compassionate Christian woman who early in her teaching career decided to teach in inner city schools. (One of those inspiring stories of really gifted teachers who love the kids they teach and go above and beyond the call to reach them.) She had to take an innovative approach to discipline in order to teach the kids to respect themselves, each other and her. I remember one incident where she kept a youngster after school for misbehavior and made him sit in a garbage can! It was a bit of a humorous way (in context) to get his attention. When he protested and said “What do you think I am? A piece of garbage?!” She retorted something to the effect that no she didn’t, but that he apparently did by the way he had behaved. It was the start of a turnaround in the young man’s relationship with the teacher (and with himself). All that is to say, I think it is important to understand context, and we all have a tendency to project our own experiences onto situations that only superficially resemble our own. This is also an example of how very much our own backgrounds color how we hear anything–including Scripture.
Andrew, thank you for the link to the Nesterov. Breathtaking…
John, the artist has managed to capture the sense of the eschaton (if not it’s true meaning) without having to resort to symbol (in the modern sense of the word). You are quite right, it is simply breathtaking!
Thank you, Andrew, for the link. It is an incredible image. (If anyone knows how to obtain a print, I would be grateful.)
Is the creepy, shadowy guy in a dark cloak on the right hand side supposed to be the devil?
Thank you Father,
I have met some very inspiring people who are battling addictions. They are engaged in the hardest fight anyone can fight, which is the difficulty to control their harmful addictions. Often this leads to real humility and compassion for others and their struggles.
Antony Bloom once said that the Church and AA are alike in that they both contain people in need of healing, but that in AA people have come to acknowledge and admit their sickness , while most people in the Church have yet to truly admit and acknowledge their sinfulness. Thankfully we have a merciful God!
That “creepy shadowy guy in a dark cloak” is not the devil. I’m pretty sure that is St. Sergius of Radonezh. He is wearing the great schema that monastics are clothed with after years of spiritual struggle.
(Your question kinda made me laugh though.)
PJ – I don’t think he looks creepy. To me he looks like an older man, holding something that looks like a rosary. (Though I admittedly know nothing about the painting.)
The painting has many powerful features but to me one of the most striking aspects is the many responses of the people to Jesus – look at the various postures and expressions and styles of dress. It makes me think how, in some ways, all of us here (and around the world) have a unique response to Jesus. Our responses can still be beautiful, even if not all the same – and they are not always the same at different times in our lives.
Father Stephen – You did not mention why you chose this for this post but it seems quite fitting as it shows the kingdom being for all people…including the fellow on his knees, who appears to be feeling very unworthy to be in the presence of Jesus…
He reminds me of the figure of the devil in the nativity icon.
PJ, I understand why it may look that way to you. Those of us raised in the west and not used to Russian full monastic garb tend to associate it with Rasputin or the occult (though it represents the very opposite!). If you don’t know the association you might not understand that he is a very holy monk. It could also look that way because of the way the painter has suggested little lights near the eyes that make it look almost as if he could be wearing glasses (don’t know if they existed in the 14th century, tho’!). In some of his icons, St. Sergius has very intense blue eyes.
I also assumed that Nesterov was depicting the various ways people react to Christ, and thus the schema monk (in black garb)could be seen as being so preoccupied with fulfilling the laws of “religion” (using his prayer rope) that he fails to see Christ.
This would not, though, make sense of the painting’s title, so I could well be wrong on that one.
Thank you as well, Fr. Stephen, for a wonderful post. I find that the “narrow road” of continual repentance, asceticism, praying the Jesus Prayer, etc. is such a breath of fresh air for myself as a convert to Orthodoxy that I can easily end up “striving on the narrow road” for all the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. This post serves as a reminder that we are compelled to the narrow road not by a cold set of rules by by the love of God revealed in Christ. Repentance is best when it is a response to God’s love.
* should read BUT by the love of Christ
The Schema-monk has a halo. He is St. Sergius of Radonezh. Generally, a Schemamonk is older in Russian practice and is tested and proven in the spiritual life. The concern with “outward” religious matters rather than the inner would be very atypical of a Russian Schemamonk.
The point of Nesterov’s paint, “Holy ‘Rus,” is a depiction of Christ Himself appearing in Russia (an anachronism, though there are such legends), with saints behind him, and being worshipped by the people (peasants, etc.). It draws no moral point – rather it is a depiction of a Russian ideal.
I don’t see any halo…?
I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something weird going on with those three figures on the far right hand side: Why is the girl staring blankly into the sky, rather than at Christ? Who is the older woman (who looks rather like a man if you observe the face closely) grasping her (rather than staring at the Lord)?
I’d love to speak to the fellow who painted this. Very intriguing.
Father, aren’t the halo’d Saints on the left (behind Christ), not on the right for the viewer? I thought PJ was referring to the hooded monk on the right who appears to be using his prayer rope and seems simply to represent the monastics.
Picture of St. Sergius (on the left), by Mikhail Nesterov.
Vision of the youth Bartholomew (St. Sergius) — Nesterov (1889–1890)
Fr. Stephen and PJ – I can understand what you are saying. It seems to me that this sort of shocking truth-telling was the way that Christ addressed the Pharisees – not to condemn them but to save them. I understand that.
My objection is that the people about whom god is speaking are already dead. I find it hard to believe that one in that state who can actually see god and hear him etc would consider himself anything but swine (even the holiest among us). In truth, I highly doubt that those who are expecting that they somehow “made it” or that their lives pleased god even in some small measure would, in that place, look on those around him and not think, “I’m not really any different from them after all.”
This, to my mind, is why Christ hung out with the sinners; they already knew that they were unworthy.
My point is that in such a context, I cannot imagine a decent god rubbing it in and calling them out. There is no one who is righteous (nope, not one) so singling out those who you and I think of as the dregs is, at least in my estimation, rather like pointing out that some of the pigs are dirtier than others. They all need a bath, if you ask me.
(Additionally, I think that a decent god would look even on the most staunch atheist and say, “Dude, I don’t blame you. Wanna come in?” Seems to me that this life is full of enough crap to throw people off that no one is going to get it right.)
What troubles me about this piece is that it underscores our human nature to eschew certain types of people and presume that we are somehow better than they. “They are swine” implies that some people aren’t. But when you get right down to the essence of people, the differences between us are not so marked.
I just don’t take kindly to anything that gives others an excuse to look down on someone else.
PJ – I would argue that your mother calling you a wretch didn’t come as much of a shock to you. I suspect you already knew it. If you had died, would she have said the same thing at your funeral? Or would she have spoken about how deep down you had good in you but that your addiction changed you? From my experience at such funerals, I have always encountered the latter and never the former.
I think you’re getting all hung up in irrelevant points on the Marmeladov speech. It’s a fairly famous passage in one of the great works of world literature. But you seem to be missing its point – arguing about it like it was a literal presentation. It’s outlandish, totally over-the-top and is meant to be. But its “over-the-top” quality is that it takes the culture’s expectation, “Ye are swine,” and turns it on its head. All the drunkards in my life really like the passage.
John Shores –
I guess we all have our reasons for reacting to certain passages the way we do…but it seems like you are needing to portray “god” as a bad guy. From what you have shared about the god you were taught, I suppose that is understandable. But you have tossed out THAT god and rightly so.
The God that I write about (and many others here as well), is the one who went out to the highways and byways to invite in the poor, the lame – EVERYONE – to attend His banquet. There was no instruction to leave out the drunkards or the atheists or the searching agnostics 🙂
God/Jesus did not call people “swine” – a character in a novel did – to make a point about God’s radical acceptance of those who feel most unworthy of acceptance.
No, Jesus didn’t call anyone swine, but He certainly wielded his tongue like a sword when it was called for. Viper, fox, sarcophagus, tomb, hypocrite, greedy, self-indulgent, wicked, liar, evil, dog, snake — all from the mouth of the Lord.
We must be careful not to tame Jesus of Nazareth. He was not a serene oriental yogi, a stoical sage, a unflinching and immovable Buddhist monk. Nor was He the perfectly dispassionate God hidden under a cloak of skin. He was a man in full, truly human, earthy and simple, likely an expert carpenter, seething with vitality, who wept and laughed, who fasted weeks on end yet feasted so as to earn the name winebibber, who scourged defilers of the temple and stood up for an adulteresses in the clutches of a religious mob, who exulted and despaired, who was moved to pity and stirred to charity by man’s weakness — and man’s aspirations to glory.
that is a very different reading of Scripture you have just described from what the Holy Spirit has taught the Orthodox Church. I generally see ‘a Christian’ in your words until a comment you make somehow manifests a ‘Roman Catholic’. I am sorry but, the (authentic) Orthodox Christians I know read Scripture completely differently. In a manner similar to what Saint Silouan clearly stipulates in that incident when he encountered a certain man who seemed to ‘enjoy’ the fact that some might ‘justly’ be condemned to hellfire. He, in the understanding that the Spirit of God imparted him on encountering the living Christ in a similar fashion to the Transfiguration, would have none of that!
This “ye are swine” discussion is pivotal, crucial – for you but frankly for most Western Christians of any flavor. And to be honest it once again hinges on whether or not you accept that God is good – and He loves you.
If you don’t, then almost nothing He can say will be the right answer and calling us swine is just rubbing it in as you propose. If you do – and truly believe that you are loved by Him – then almost nothing He can say will be the wrong answer.
It is in this way that good friends can call us vulgar names and we know that they are not dissing us. Either they said it kiddingly or they are chastising us a bit for something we did. But we don’t feel wronged by them because we know that deep down they love us despite all that.
And in the same way people on our hate list can say almost anything and we are guaranteed to find a way to see it as them trying to tear us down. This is because we know instinctively that they must be out to destroy us. They are bad and they don’t love us.
Once you believe that God is good, that He loves you – and that He would never, ever do evil to you – then you can listen to Him call you swine and have it be a positive experience. (Note: He doesn’t make a habit of this.)
Until then it is just insult heaped upon insult.
St Silouan’s knowledge of Christ -in the Holy Spirit- was similar to the shocking revelation of His boundless love testified in the life of the Apostle Carpus of the Seventy (described by St. Dionysius the Areopagite in Letter VIII).
It culminated in the vision of Apostle Carpus (who had lost his patience with two sinful men; one a pagan luring Christians to perdition and the other an apostate from the Faith, wishing their punishment by death). The Lord Christ Himself appeared to Carpus and said: “Strike me; I am prepared to be crucified again for the salvation of mankind.”
I would never call this understanding of “Viper, fox, sarcophagus, tomb, hypocrite etc”– an understanding that is paradoxically ‘overridden’ by “the Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9)-, as “taming”…
I’m having a little difficulty following you.
What I will say is that certain Orthodox cultivate a Christology that is definitely more … Alexandrian? … than I am comfortable with, strongly emphasizing the “ortherworldliness” of Christ. At worst, this borders on a sort of Apollinarianism, wherein the incarnation is reduced to a mere avatar, God merely “wearing” flesh. Certainly this tendency is buttressed by the lack of realism in Orthodox art, its unswerving devotion to iconography. The devotion to the humanity of Christ which so colors Latin Christianity after end of the first millennium is something of a distinguishing mark of the west, and though vulnerable to criticism, it is generally a positive development. (I know I’m speaking in broad terms here; bear with me…)
Finally, I don’t think the full range of humanity expressed by Jesus is at odds with the love and God which seeks the salvation of all men.
That said, the widespread abandonment — and eventually, in Protestant lands, the total abandonment — of iconography, certainly led to defects in western Christology. Lots to ponder … Would make a good thesis, the influence of art on theology and vice versa.
Speaking of art and Theology I will use a simple example. The fact that Western depictions of Christ on the Cross concentrate on the realism of His historic humanity, depicting anguish and a literal-historical “INRI” inscription, whereas the East depicts an utterly serene Christ with the (non-literal) inscription, yet theologically profound- “The King of Glory” speaks volumes…
One can see Christ alive, resurrected even, as the apostles did on the road to Emmaus yet fail to recognize Him in that time-space defined state of His human presence as Who He truly is. On the other hand, He becomes recognized -as the omnipresent God- the minute He “disappears” from our bodily perceptions, after the breaking of the bread…
Yes. I think both are essential, but then I’m an avowed dualist (as in, the church must breathe with both lungs).
Both the west and the east would have to make concessions, yes. Concerning the extent of these concessions, there are minimalists and maximalists. I find myself closer to the former camp, though I recognize that there are significant obstacles to be overcome — cultural, theological, and, sadly, political. The history of the schism is much more nuanced than we’re often lead to believe. I’m reading Aidan Nichols and Georges Florovsky on the issue at present…
drewster2000: Thanks for your comment – I felt like you understood what I was trying to say to John S. – and said it better.
PJ – I’m certainly not out to “tame” Jesus – though I understand what you mean. I feel it is most important to strive to be open to knowing God as He is. This is a struggle for all of us, I believe, as we need to be aware of how our problems, issues, experiences, etc. might slant our view of God to what we want Him to be (or fear Him to be).
While all of you are more knowledgeable about the schism than I – and it is a worthy topic – what I am referring to is not just an East-West issue. All people of all faiths can very easily slip into re-making God – without knowing that they have done so. Sadly, many wars (personal and global) have been fought on this basis.
Thank you, Mary.
Honestly I wasn’t trying to rephrase your thought, but I’m glad it worked out so well. (grin)
Marc, you have a good point but persecution does not get rid of heresy or disputes just forces us to put them on the back burner.
PJ. Only one thing needful. The Pope has to put aside his claim to universal primacy and control. All the bishops then have to submit in love to a Council to work out the theological details. Shouldn’t take any more than 300 or so years.
Marc, there is the rub. For unity to come requires two things, that we preach the Gospel (what Gospel?), watch and pray. The 300 year figure is to express our unknowing of the time but I thought it was generous given the 1000 years we’ve been officially split.
Even optimistically the continued disunity dilutes the Gospel.
The ‘two lungs’ theory just makes me itch. It is not what the Nicene Creed says, yet without a miracle that is the best we will get.
St. Paul wrote two things that we hold in balance. Christ was incarnate “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” and “Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.”
I think it would be accurate to say that the ‘subject’ of Orthodox iconography (as distinguished from art that may originate from the ethos of Orthodox culture) is deified, glorified humanity – both that of Christ himself and of those whom He has glorified. It is an eschatological window into the Kingdom of God through which finite humans are drawn into the infinite. Unlike ‘realistic’ depictions of a subject/person wherein the focus is finite, in Orthodox iconography the viewer himself is finite and beholds/looks into (to whatever extent spiritually possible) the infinite. The perspective of normal art is the perspective of natural human vision with a vanishing point off in the distance. In Orthodox iconography, this perspective is reversed: the viewer himself is the vanishing point, and he beholds/contemplates the infinite vistas of the mystery of eternity.
This doesn’t in any way disparage the beauty of art or cause us to view ‘normal’ art as somehow deficient, but it is at least some of what distinguishes what we would understand as iconography from art in general.
Primacy would have to be reimagined, not rejected. But I really don’t want to get into a discussion about the pope.
Could you help me a bit here with the understanding of the terms “icon” and “iconic”, in light of some of the discussion above?
Case in point, Nesterov’s painting above. It is a beautiful painting and, to me, is a sort of spiritual window. Looking up Nesterov, it says he painted art and icons. How does one distinguish between what are just his beautiful religious paintings vs. an icon?
I’m not trying to split hairs about word meanings. As an outsider to Orthodoxy, I want to have a clearer sense of the proper use of the term. I know you have written of this elsewhere (too much comes up if I search “icon”) – if you don’t want to repeat yourself, I would appreciate being directed to the most clarifying passages. Thanks.
Properly, “icon” in Orthodox terminology refers to images painted according to a generally received pattern of subject and artistic “grammar.” That “grammar” includes inverse perspective (the image seems “flat” at first, but, upon inspection, it is clear that buildings and other things “open out” rather than grow smaller in their distance). This is one aspect among a number of things that distinguish properly painted icons. “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” is the doctrine taught at the 7th Council. Thus icons must conform to certain conventions so that they are true “theologically.”
Icons are not “historical” representations, thus the realism of renaissance and later Western styles is not iconic. Such paintings can be described as “religious art,” and may be quite moving, even “transcendental” in quality, but are not icons. The popularity of such art, called the “Italian School” in Orthodoxy, became popular starting in the 17th century or so, under the Westernizing influences of the Tsars and their court from Peter the Great forward (to make a huge generalization). Such religious art can be found in many Orthodox Churches and some are even accounted among the “miraculous” icons of the Church (though they are not properly icons). Some are quite popular among the faithful.
But icons are dogmatic statements, like the Scripture, and are not determined by popularity or miracles.
Nesterov is a wonderful painter of religious art, and some of his art decorates some great and important Churches. What I have seen stands where you would expect an “icon,” but, though beautiful, is not a true icon. Unless he has work of a sort I’ve never seen, I would not call him an iconographer.
The painting above is not an icon.
Mary’s comment alerted me to the fact that you have a search box on your web page? Is this a new feature? What success have you had on this? Just curious.
I’ve always had a search box. It will search content. I find it useful, myself. I’m still building the “database” by cataloging articles tying them to the new system of tab searches at the top of the page. The search box will search on words, perhaps combinations of words (perhaps).
Thank you – this is helpful. I had seen online a claim that there was an icon he painted in a Finnish church but, upon closer examination, I suspect that the writer was not using the word icon correctly.
Nesterov belonged to a school called the “Symbolist” movement. Some of the works of those in this group have a very “ethereal” and “spiritual” quality. I think many people see this and mistakenly think “icon.”
Thanks Fr. Stephen, much appreciated.
Bless father …
Father … I read and i cry … I read and I cry … I read and i cry ….
Harlot … drug addict … Drunk … GRACE OPENED THE DOOR INTO ORTHODOXY …
I found the Master … at His Feet i cry some more …
I found the Table of which i am UNWORTHY!
Father …. I READ … AND CRY
dust and ashes
with a broken heart
I think that you are actually Orthodox! Every protest you make is fully dealt with in Orthodoxy but not in Western religions. I recognize your sensitive and principled questions as the very same ones I asked before becoming Orthodox and after I had trid all the other religions. And I held the same suspicion and distaste for hypocrisy, self- righteousness ,elitism, judgmentmentalism and sham rituals. It was a wonderful surprise, once I got past what seemed so odd to the Western eye in Orthodoxy , and began to comprehend the richness and depth and humanness of the Church. We pray for all mankind, not just ourselves, BTW.
We believe in equality of people before God. We are all sinners and must not judge others. God is merciful even to me ‘the first among sinners’ as we say in our communion prayer. We are all equally undeserving of God’s mercy ,yet we have hope in it. And we have real help in struggling with our sins. We have confession and counsel( not punishment) and communion to heal our diseases. Read St Ephraim’s prayer. God is actively at work within us.
If anything can lead a person to humility, it is the hopeful assurance that God Himself is working within us. This is the Prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow
Lord, I do not know what to beg of You;
You alone know what is needed for me.
You love me more than I know
how to love You.
O Father, give to Your slave that for which I do
not even know how to beg.
I do not dare to ask for either a cross
or for consolation;
I am only standing before You
with my heart open to You.
You see my needs, which I do not even know.
See and deal with me according to Your mercy.
Purge and heal me, humble me and raise me;
I am in awe before You
and I am silent before Your will
and unfathomable ways for me.
I am bringing myself as a sacrifice to You;
teach me to pray.
And You,Yourself, pray within me. Amen
Orthodoxy is not legalistic and punitive, but understanding of our frail humanity and our need of healing It may look ritualistic and overly structured, but once you get familiar with it,you find a rich and deep and loving home.
I recommend that you read the Church Fathers. Or listen to the podcast ‘A Word from the Holy Fathers’ on Ancient Faith Radio on the internet. God bless your honest search.
I have read and re-read this blog and the comments posted. Mary’s comments about allowing Christ to shine thru each and everyone of us was right on and what Father speaks of in every post, not just this one in particular. That is the Christian message.
I believe much of the confusion people have, is understanding our original state as we were in the garden. The wrong idea of original sin, which is so prevalent in our world has caused this confusion. The wrong idea that we must do certain things to get into the kingdom. That we were created sinful. We were not. Our lives should be spent finding who we are, not who we think we can create!
The ironic thing is that all that has come out of this wrong thinking about who we think we can become and what we can do, is a heresy that has infiltrated our culture. It says, that I will do a couple of good things, fight for some cause I believe in, but still be part of this world culture and I should be fine when my life come to an end. That’s what I see everywhere. In church, in schools on bumper stickers. I find it indigestible.
Find Christ thru prayer, fasting alms giving, there we will find ourselves. Have mercy on me.