Words As Icons

Creation has a sacramental purpose: it reveals God.

For from the first making of the world, those things of God which the eye is unable to see, that is, his eternal power and existence, are fully made clear, he having given the knowledge of them through the things which he has made (Rom. 1:20)

This is inherently true in things as they exist in nature. However, it becomes another matter as things pass through the hands (and lips) of humankind. We were created with something of a god-like function. In the story of Adam’s naming of the animals, God brings the animals to Adam and waits to see what name Adam will give them. Naming is not the role of creator, but it bears a similarity.

In this same manner, we take the world and fashion it, giving it shape and purpose. A tree becomes a house; a rock becomes a tool. This becomes much more complicated when what is being made consists of words. Fr. Georges Florovsky described doctrine as a “verbal icon” of Christ. The iconic nature of words makes them to be among the most important elements in all creation.

Perhaps a particularly acute aspect of words is their ability to distort and misrepresent. And so, from the earliest times, there has been a prohibition against lying. The importance of speaking the truth is emphasized repeatedly in the epistles of the New Testament, even though it might easily seem to be a minor matter of morality.

In our culture, words cascade at a never-ending pace, many of them disincarnate without reference to anything true or real. Arguments abound. Words are spoken like weapons, used for effect and not for meaning.

It is significant that Christ describes the devil as the “father of lies.” In Genesis, he speaks the world’s first lie: “God has not said…” He is the anti-logos.

The modern world has turned its attention to language. Mass communication has raised the power of the lie to new levels. Marxist theory (which holds a treasured position in many corners of our culture, particularly in academia) insists on the re-working of language as a tool for social change (and control). In this model, culture itself becomes a lie and a tool of the lie.

Language is the gift of God, uniquely human. Within it is borne a power to reveal, indeed a power that is deeply related to the act of creation itself. In Genesis, God creates with speech. It is the means by which we pray, the primary means of communion with others. Words are physical objects, passing from our mouths to the ears of others. We touch each other with words. Speech has been made worthy to serve as a sacrifice before God.

The Tradition has also valued silence. St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” We have this from the theologian, Vladimir Lossky:

The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, attributed by St. ignatius to those who in truth possess His word, echoes the reiterated appeal of Christ to His hearers: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside. St. Basil moves in the same direction when he says, in his passage on the traditions: “There is also a form of silence, namely the obscurity used by the Scripture, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding of the teachings, for the profit of readers.” This silence of the Scriptures could not be detached from them: it is transmitted by the Church with the words of the Revelation, as the very condition of their reception.

This silence, the reverence for words and the truth which they reveal, is almost lost in our age. Orthodox believers (to focus on ourselves) often multiply our “words without knowledge” as part of the same cultural drive to shape and control. Our proper task is not to shape and control, but to reveal. That requires that we must first and foremost be silent until the word given to us in that silence is truly heard, perceived and incarnate within us. In truth, if you do not live what you say then you do not know what you say.

There is a practice within the tradition in which someone goes to a holy elder and “asks for a word.” That encounter is, most often, quite terse. It is not a request for an explanation, much less mere speculation. It can, indeed, be no word at all:

Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.” The old man said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”

I found this verse in Proverbs that aptly describes so much of our modern conversation:

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet. (Prov. 29:9)

If there is no quiet, it is certain that the word of Christ will not be heard.

41 comments:

  1. The icon that accompanies the article is quite peculiar. It is an icon of Christ, portrayed as the “Angel of Silence” (Hesychia). The angel is often portrayed with a scroll that says: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is mute, so he openeth not his mouth.”

  2. I am trying to learn to be silent; it is hard to not react in our culture. Many thanks for this, Father.

  3. Father, how timely this is. Last night our womens group began a new book journey. It is about time and despondency. The book urges people to find that place within and be with God – meditate and just be in the moment with Him. We discussed how the constant electronic communications; instant gratification and expectation of such; has changed how we relate to each other and to God. How reality is shaped for many in the role-playing games and interchanges over social media – not in the relationships to other people and God that really matter. Learning to be silent and go within to really talk to God, and mostly to listen, is something we all need to learn to do more. In the busy world around us – posts, meme’s, tweets, snapchats, and instagrams are a constant flow. To disconnect from it all and sit in silence is a goal I am going to work on. To give at least 20 min a day to silence and meditation. The Jesus Prayer was suggested.

  4. “In truth, if you do not live what you say then you do not know what you say.”
    This is where I feel I need more consistency. I must live what I know to be true. If I don’t, I not only do not know what I say, but the words that I do say ring hollow, with no real essence, life. They are not living words which can impart life.
    In a culture of death, by which we are surrounded, we usually only hear dead words or words that bring death from half alive people.
    As little water can keep a small plant alive, so that “small” word spoken at the opportune moment can breathe out life to the hearer. “…A word in season, how good it is!”

  5. Fr Stephen,

    Thank you so much for this.

    On my prayer table are three icons. An icon of Christ, an icon of the Theotokos, and this icon of Holy Silence. When I came across it I knew instantly I needed it to be in my icon corner. I pray that I listen to it more attentively.

  6. Dean,
    No of us do this with anything like the kind of consistency that is needed. But if we love, are gentle and kind, generous with others, the chances are greater that our words will conform to the icon of Christ.

  7. Thank you Father…another gem of a post. Seriously important and enlightening. How helpful to realize the “prohibition against lying” as a reflection of the value, and the impact of the misuse of words. I never thought of it that way, rather like you said, thought of it as a moral law.
    I also like your description for the devil as the “anti-logos”. Pretty clever, Father!

    But too…I seriously laughed hard at your response to Brandon. I am so glad you appreciate jokes and humor. I do too. I notice also that it is best and most considerate, if you are going to joke, that it be about yourself! Even in humor, I sometimes err and joke at an inappropriate time. And I know…I just know… at times I irritate some very seriously minded people with my sense of humor. That’s disappointing…!

  8. It is a gift to rightly use, and a blessing to hear, humor in Sunday’s lecture, I mean homily : ]

  9. Thank you, Father. Your word icons have inspired me in a way you probably did not intend.

    I am currently reading Animal Farm with my honors English class (sophomores). They are struggling to make connections to themselves and our culture. After reading your post, I began rewriting my lesson plans to include a discussion on the distortion of truth in the book and our culture.

    In all my classes, I have been implementing times of silence from phones, etc. This can be difficult because of the push to bring technology into the classroom and because my students are so connected to their devices. Even still, the practice is bearing fruit though begrudgingly.

    And, yes, I find myself struggling with silence. Often in my morning prayers, I sit before my icons and just breathe with an occasional Jesus Prayer escaping my lips. These moments are too rare for me.

    Again, thank you.

  10. Real humor is situational, relational and often reflective of pain. At it’s best it reveals shame in a manner that allows everyone to bear it better.
    It works best in the moment of silence just before the reveal. That moment of recognition of the shared human condition. Even Fr. Stephen’s example hangs there allowing us to complete the story internally in the silence if expectation. Real humor creates just such moments.

    Real humor has nothing in common with the recitation of vugarity that elicites an embarrassed ‘laughter’. It is lazy and cynical manipulation that adds to shame rather than revealing it. Distances us from each other rather than bringing us together.

    Interestingly enough my two favorite comedians were also quite vulgar: John Carlin and Richard Pryor but their vulgarity came from a place of suffering with others not for the vulgarity itself. Each was also quite capable of telling their stories without the vulgarity.

    It is a great defect of electronic media that humor does not translate well in it. Anger and all sorts of other narcicissms do, but not humor.

    I remember a line from the play “The Lady’s Not For Burning”:

    “Shall we laugh? For the sake of laughter! It is surely the surest touch of genius in creation. I ask you, if you had been making man, stuffing him full of such hopping greeds and pashions that he had to blow himself to pieces as often as he can conveniently can manage it, would you have thought of it? The phenomenon of cachination is an irrelevancy that almost amounts to a revelation”

    I am sure God has a chuckle or two over us from time to time.

  11. That’s good, Michael. I’m glad you elaborated a bit more on the subject. I had in mind the pain and the shame behind it but didn’t have the words. The remainder of your comment…well said!
    My dad was an emcee, as a band leader. He was quite the entertainer. And a good joke teller. He’d collect them…write them down and memorize them. Even told funny stories at the dinner table. The ‘off-color’ ones were for adults only. Interestingly, there was an unhealthy element of shame that affected all of us and the whole extended family. So, you are right in your assessment.
    That is an interesting quote you ended with. Also learned a new word for LOL: cachination !
    Thanks Michael.

  12. Father…love that verse! Thank you Jesus!!

    Michael….just dawned on me…that’s *George* Carlin. Yeah, I liked him too….

  13. Father, this is truly the most beautiful thing I have ever read. It touched me in a way I think will be unforgettable. Oh, and I loved the icon, and will try to get a copy of it, hoping to get more drawn to silence…Thank you

  14. ” so the air is full of singing, my head is loud with the labor of words. Though the season is rich with fruit, my tongue hungers for the sweet of speech. Those the beech is golden I cannot stand beside it mute but must say: it is Gordon while the leaves stir and fall with a sound that is not a name. It is in silence I hope is, and my aim a song whose lines, I cannot make or sing sounds men’s silence like a root. Let me say and not mourn: the world lives in the death of speech and sings there.” –Wendell Berry

  15. Perhaps this pushes the conversational envelope a bit but laughter is, at its most natural, an expression of joy. Humor can help us to bear shame together but to laugh together is to joyfully embrace a natural communion with Life, IMHO.

    I will never forget, watching young children (toddlers and slightly older) one morning while others were in church. While the children were laying on the carpet playing with toys or just looking around, one child hopped up onto his feet and took off running across the room in no particular direction, laughing maniacally with sheer joy! My first thought was: How long has it been that I have laughed so at nothing more than life? It was quite a moment.

  16. Byron, I know what you mean. Thank you for your comment. Sometimes it happens In Liturgy in those moments, inevitably a young child does something endearing to make me smile and warms the heart. I think laughter in simple joy is something we learn from each other in loving families.

    I suspect but don’t know that someone who knows how to make a good joke has suffered and perhaps developed this talent to lift their minds from a heavy focus on their pain. I was in a hospital once when someone demonstrated this talent and I was grateful for it.

  17. Fr Stephen,
    I ask for your patience as I describe a couple reflections. Your words are always inspiring and stimulating and inevitably invoke such reflections. I hope you don’t mind my sharing them.

    The first is in the scripture John 10:3-4 “To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”

    In the experiences that were most salient in the beginning of my conversion process, I heard the Lord’s “voice” in the silence. The first time His voice was most clear, was when I was alone and my attention was focused on an equation, and looking as deeply as my ‘eyes’ would allow into a ‘window’ that might reveal what my heart searched for. And yet I had no words for what I searched for. I didn’t let myself know I was searching for God.

    And again I heard His voice in the silence as I went down into the baptismal waters.
    And again I heard His voice in the silence when I approached the Cup for the first time.

    All in that Silence was holy.

    Glory to God for His Holy Silence.

  18. Father, you’re words, again, are a comfort. Once again, I think of the journey in/of my (heart and) mind to the wholeness of the one storey. Having perceived for so long the dualism of two storeys, and now that the transformation of living, not divided, but in one storey is known to me, your words about sacrament always catch my eye.

    When I encounter a truth like the one in this post, I often use modern or two storey thinking to “try to fix it.” I begin thinking, “Now what do I need to do to think this way?” or “What behaviors shall I invoke?” But it occurred to me today that this habit is essentially an effort to conjure the mystical God of the two storeys. Which is basically what I have done all my life. What are the hoops? What are the steps? What’s the formula? I’m beginning to better understand King Saul’s error in summoning the medium.

    Just like there no formula or mystical solution for driving my car to the grocery store, there is no formula or magic to come to God or to talk with him. I drive my car in the same world that God is already in. If I can drive, I can talk to God. He’s here. He’s everywhere present. And if words are icons, a means to know whom they represent, then I need only read them, use them, meditate on them, and be confident that they, like all that God has made, speak of his glory.

    Thanks be to God. Unlearning these old habits is a joy to my heart. God is near. What joy it is to be in his presence.

  19. Jeff thank you so much for your words. Indeed it is easy for us to think God is far away. It seems the Way becomes revealed when we are most humble. “… a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise…”. It seems the fastest way that I trip and fall on my face, is in those moments of pride and vanity. Thanks be to God a good pratfall wakes me up— but hurts my bum and reveals my pride. Needless to say I pray for humility a lot!

  20. “In truth, if you do not live what you say then you do not know what you say.”

    Amen, Father 🙏💗

  21. In the silence, I am frequently attacked by thoughts that are not at all healthy. I have struggled against these by trying to practice the Jesus Prayer. However, I find that the simplicity and receptive aspect of this prayer allows me to say it and still engage with the unhealthy thoughts that come into my mind, similar to going on autopilot when you are driving home and arrive without remembering how you got there. In an effort to combat these unhealthy thoughts, I have recently started chanting one or more of the daily services from the Horologion whenever I find myself unable to resist such thoughts. This seems to be a much more effective method for me personally because it requires that I focus intently on the words I’m reading. The beginning can be a bit rough and bumpy, but a profound sense of peace often comes into me once I get going. It strikes me that the words of these ancient services and their specific arrangement, written by the holy Fathers of the Church and chanted daily in monasteries throughout the world, are indeed icons! Thank you for this wonderful insight.

  22. Thanks Fr. Stephen!

    How clear the Holy Spirit speaks in the silence…especially when i read your blogs!

    So funny : I like jokes. I think they’re human. I’ve been a joke for years: “A priest walks into…”

    Your message gives new meaning to scriptures like,
    “Be still and know that i am God” Psalm.46:10
    “When words are many, sin is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” Prov.19:10
    And the famous quote, “Silence is also an answer”

    Thank you for another inspired lesson.

    I enjoy my thoughts that i think daily when meditating on your blogs. I have experienced so much change since i found your blog.
    I’m not a Greek Orthodox Christian but I’m starting to feel like one with every blog i read and every topic i study through Orthodox materials!

    I am shocked that i was taught that the Orthodox Christians where basically a cult and now that I’m studying the Orthodox faith its seems like everything else is a lie or at least a watered down version of the Christian Faith!

    PS: Loving the material on Mary – wow how did the modern church miss all the revelation hidden in Her!!

    Anyway thanks again,
    Glory to God for ALL things!

    Jp

  23. Thank you Esmée La Fleur for this testimony, so sincere and touching ….
    I also live this reality, and I can say how much the fight is necessary … we really have the means to support it ; if we “hold on” it gives us subtle strengths and encouragement that raises us …. what graces this fight and the forces given to us ….
    A paradoxical sentence comes to mind of a man of deep faith and prayer who was Catholic :
    “I began to listen, to enter into silence, O incomparable master, the” system “then became defeated because I was no longer required to maintain it. ”
    This sentence always questions me ….
    And also St Issac the Syrian, in its beautiful depth …. “More than anything, love silence, because it brings you a fruit that language is powerless to describe. Let us start by doing violence to silence us, and then, from our silence will be born something in us that will bring us to silence, may God give you to feel this something that is born of silence ! ”
    Oh, deep joy, in real freedom, I do not know it but God also gives to have only the intuition …. As the Lord is good with all his encouragement !

  24. This is hard for me to explain, but it seems silence does not mean the absence of thought, as if to make the mind a blank slate, but rather the suppression of the clamor, the noise, thoughts we hear that Father has reminded us are simply distortions of reality.
    I can not just will my thoughts to stop, to “be silent”. I find this during prayer when unwelcome thoughts intrude. That’s the best way I can describe it, because they are intrusive. So we are told to gently “push them aside” and continue in prayer. The more I let it trouble me, the worse the intrusion becomes. Perhaps in time these intrusions lessen? I don’t know…
    I am not sure if I understand what this “silence” is. It is like trying to describe how you know God is with you, and you with Him. It is a description that is elusive to me, not silence itself, but the description. I think this is a result of trying to rationalize, qualify and quanify, too much.
    I tend to be concrete in much of my thinking. I have also found that since becoming Orthodox this way of thinking is beginning to change (thank God for that. He does the impossible!) Hard to describe. All is not what appears to the naked eye. And if we “hear” when our ears are bound to worldly things, it will hinder the ability to hear God.
    So what is this “silence”? Does it come about through the realization that we are weak in and of ourselves and can do nothing apart from God? It seems that for many of us it is not until God withdraws some portion of His grace, where we find ourselves in despair, the noise and clamor of our thoughts and words reduced not so much to “mute-ness”, but groaning where words simply fail, that we finally, as clear as a bell, hear Him. How is that?! This is exactly what happened to me. If anything, it is this type of silence I can relate to. If there is another silence that is on a “higher plane”, it is that which eludes me.

  25. Father Stephen,
    You rightfully often write of being kind and generous. I just now saw that the go fund me site of our dear friend Agata has raised nearly $4,000 for the burned out orphanage in Greece…this from the wildfires there this summer. What a blessing for the orphans!
    Paula, AZ. I have found that simply praying the Jesus prayer very slowly helps keep at bay unwanted thoughts. For me it helps to do
    this in the dark…less distractions. I’m still a neophyte at it!

  26. Dearest Dean,
    Thank you for mentioning the fundraiser on the blog. I did not want to presume Father’s blessing about posting here, although he generously shared my request on Facebook before.

    I am making this final effort of adding a little to the remaining balance of the collection before I call it “completed”. It has been a very interesting learning experience both about giving and receiving charity. Father even told me that “Fundraising is a world of its own …. it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the worthiness of the cause or the goodness of people involved”. How true!

    Please know I am very grateful for all of you who gave – and if anybody else would like to join this last effort with even a $5 donation, it would be greatly appreciated.

    Father, I hope you don’t mind if I post the link… Thank you again Dean for your help in spreading the word…

    https://www.gofundme.com/rebuild-athens-orphanage

  27. Esmee,
    Your comment and circumstances that you describe reminded me of a couple of things.

    One was of a Nativity icon. At the bottom of the icon is Joseph contemplating his vision and perhaps the very scene of wonder of the incarnation of Christ. And near him is an old man with a cane. Apparently this old man was tempting Joseph to question and doubt Who and what circumstances lay before him. Even the Theotokos pondered these things in her heart. I can’t imagine that these thoughts happen without struggle.

    In response to such struggle I interpret your description of saying aloud the prayers of the hours, to be undergoing a process that Fr Stephen describes as “further up and deeper in”. This instead of giving up or giving in to the ‘old man’.

    God bless you in your struggles dear Esmee. And thank you for revealing to us what helped you.

  28. Esmee,
    When thoughts begin to overwhelm me, I’ve also had the experience of the Jesus Prayer seeming to be “not enough.” It’s not the prayer, per se. But, I suspect, the mechanism of the brain that engages it. I do something similar to you in such circumstances and turn to reading a Psalm or changing the prayer in various ways. Singing is extremely effective. St. Paul advises: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”

  29. My mind can have an incessant flow of thoughts most days. Father, I am often comforted by remembering your words of “getting out of my head”. I think most of my thoughts come from wanting to consume thing (especially Orthodox things), and also to make everything better for myself and my family.
    Recently, i have been trying to recall the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet,” Alef, the letter beginning Gods mysterious names. It is rather the sound made before a sound comes out of the mouth, or for that matter the chatter in my head. I’ll also will default to the doxology. I am either humming or chanting it. i feel like some days, I have to try many angles to find silence. Some days are easier than others for sure.

  30. This is interesting (to me, anyway), and I wonder how it may tie in with out discussion on silence (emphasis mine).

    The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and it has no capacity for language.

    In other words, …people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits and facts and figures. It just doesn’t drive behavior…. Sometimes you can give somebody all the facts and figures, and they say, “I know what all the facts and details say, but it just doesn’t feel right.” Why would we use that verb, it doesn’t “feel” right? Because the part of the brain that controls decision-making doesn’t control language. The best we can muster up is, “I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right.”

    This is from a Ted talk (the rest is generally pretty worthless–all about marketing) and I find the observation that the part of our brain that makes decisions has “no capacity for language”. Our verbal noise is just that, noise, in many ways. This may tie in, in a biological sense, with Father’s writing on silent reverence to revealed truth(s):

    This silence, the reverence for words and the truth which they reveal, is almost lost in our age. Orthodox believers (to focus on ourselves) often multiply our “words without knowledge” as part of the same cultural drive to shape and control. Our proper task is not to shape and control, but to reveal. That requires that we must first and foremost be silent until the word given to us in that silence is truly heard, perceived and incarnate within us. In truth, if you do not live what you say then you do not know what you say.

  31. So, by silence do we mean not talking? Ok, that is not difficult to understand. Or do we mean silence in thought ? I am really sorry to split hairs here…it is a nuisance isn’t it? I think it is as Father says: a “cultural drive to shape and control”. Forgive me.
    I think it best to look at it from another angle.
    Byron…I think you hit on something helpful…Father’s quote about “silent reverence to *revealed* truth(s).” There is a vast difference between attending to “noise” as opposed to revealed truth. Actually, when I am in place of relative peace (and quiet), both externally and internally, and encounter a truth that I never “knew” before (revealed), I don’t have to think about being silent. It in itself silences me.
    Also Byron…the “it doesn’t feel right”…I take to be that gut feeling or instinct. God created us as such and it is good that He did so. We do not have to depend on rationalizing every single thought and situation, but rather can know ‘instinctively’ and proceed from there. Just some thoughts…!

    Interesting conversation…. about Words as Icons and the Sound of Silence….

  32. Many Years ago when the late and blessed Archimandrite Simeon was my Spiritual Father, he told me not to engage or worry about the evil thoughts that are just passing through. Important not to dwell on them. Once we start engaging and fighting them, it is the equivalent of poking a hornets nest with a stick. This was his incredibly helpful advice.
    Also, I find watching less tv, internet, etc. Creates a quieter environment in the mind and heart for prayer.
    Silence is the peace of God, and is only disturbed when we panick at evil thoughts and fear them. To dwell on them gives them authority and substance. Better to ignore and let them pass.
    I am still learning how to put this into practice. The aim is to fill ourselves with Christ and not the evil one.
    Enjoyed this article Father. Any advice or correction on what I have written would be very helpful. Thank you.

  33. Mario Nazaris,
    One of the many reasons for the common practice of setting aside time in the “wee small hours of the morning/night” – for the Jesus Prayer (or any other brief & incessantly recurring “invocationary” prayer) is that we can then take most seriously what you say, and valiantly apply it. Not that we won’t at other times, but, those times are authorized towards this far more exclusively, so even mandatory concerns can be made to wait for later. We then ignore all worries and thoughts (evil or good) that might be passing through or even vehemently assailing us. We dwell on nothing other but our presence before the Lord. We also generally, if possible, repeat ‘Lord Jesus Christ’, ‘Have mercy on me’ or ‘Glory to you’ etc. . without having any particular petition in mind. . Our quintessential foundation is rather: ‘. Let it be according to your will’. Also, at those stints we have the greatest time distance and freedom from conversations, tv, internet, etc. The uncreated stillness and peace of God, is the only thing we offer our focus towards and respect the authority of.

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