Some thirty years ago I was doing doctoral work at Duke University under Geoffrey Wainwright. I was drawn to Wainwright on account of his commitment to liturgical tradition and practice as the ground of theology. A course that became a turning point in my studies was on the nature of language in theology. Like all work in the program, it was not a course filled with answers, but a careful discipline of asking questions. So much depends on the questions we ask – apparently you don’t get answers to questions you are not asking. I immersed myself in our assigned readings but found myself without a rudder. There is so much to say and think about language that the topic easily becomes overwhelming. Reading in some unrelated material, however, I stumbled across a quote from the acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” It created a question for me: “What do icons do with color?” I wound up writing a paper on the “iconicity of language.” Wainwright wrote a comment in the margin that likely changed my life: “I think you have your dissertation topic.”
That comment took me down a road that has yet to end. The dissertation became a thesis as my doctoral work got side-tracked. I returned to parish life but with a knowledge that I could no longer speak about the icons from outside the Tradition. It was seven years before I was received into Orthodoxy with my family. But that day also seemed to be the day I was united at last with the family of icons that had become so many windows into heaven.
The work I did in my thesis was not just about language. It was an immersion into the doctrine of the holy icons in the Councils and the Fathers that became a window into the whole of Orthodoxy. I have since said that if you take one rightly-painted icon, you could use it as the basis for teaching the whole of the Orthodox faith. Some twenty years into my Orthodox priesthood, I am more convinced of this than ever. Most importantly, this is not a statement about an idea – it is a realization based on the depth of experience and understanding that comes within the Orthodox life itself.
A story is told from the Soviet period of an old grandmother who had a very precious and valuable icon. The state wanted to place it in a museum. She refused. Those who had come to take the icon reasoned with her, “It is a great work of art. In the museum, thousands of people will be able to see and appreciate its beauty.” She responded, “Icons are not for being pretty. Icons are for kissing and praying to.”
That story found its way into my thesis. It captures a simple understanding. If you do not venerate an icon, you cannot see it. You can see a work of art, but nothing more. The appreciation of art is often nothing more than sentimentality, an abstraction and entertainment. Icons are not art (at least in that sense). “Art” is a modern invention, or, perhaps, a perversion from the Renaissance. Like the cave paintings of early humans, the true instinct of art (properly understood) is religious. What is pictured on the wall of the cave is also what is seen and hunted in the world. What we know from the study of primitive peoples is that those actions are religious/spiritual in nature. We no longer know what the cave painters would have said of their work, but we can be certain that it was about what was portrayed and not the portrayal itself. The art made something present.
The collapse of what is portrayed into the mere portrayal is a move that extends far beyond art. It represents the destruction of spiritual perception, replacing it with “thoughts.” It oddly creates an alienation between human beings and the world in which they live, in the name of the world in which they live. When a human being becomes an object among objects, life is reduced to our thoughts about objects, then to our thoughts about thoughts, opening into an abyss of solipsistic meaninglessness.
Isaiah says, “All flesh is as grass…but the Word of God abides forever” (Is. 40:6;8). The “grass” of our existence always collapses when it is divorced from the Logos. The created order was brought into existence out of nothing. When we seek to reduce it to that same existence, there is nothing to sustain it. I’ve often marveled at the science of the sub-atomic world. The further we peer into its mysteries, the closer we come to seeing that there is “nothing” there. Our lives are lived, as it were, in the foam that rides on the waves of the sea. We are fools when we only see the ever-disappearing foam and ignore the sea beneath it. All that we see rides upon and within the providence of God. To know that is to know God.
It was this larger reality (the true reality) that my immersion in the theology of icons made known to me. My first experience with icons was in college. I bought a print, mounted it, and tried to make it part of my prayer life. I didn’t know what to do. Looking at the icon, I kept waiting for something to happen, for some thought to occur. It just sat there and so did I. It was art, and nothing more. In my later study, exemplified in the words of the Russian grandmother, I learned that you cannot “see” an icon unless it is venerated. The window to heaven only opens to love.
This is a key to all noetic experience. Created in the image of the God who is love, we are never who we truly are apart from love. Our culture has reduced love to a category of emotion when, in fact, it is ontological. There is a passage in The Way of a Pilgrim that has stayed with me for years. It gives something of the sense of the world that begins to be visible through the window of icons. It is a revelation of the iconic nature of the whole created order.
When I began to pray with the heart, everything around me became transformed and I saw it in a new and delightful way. The trees, the grass, the earth, the air, the light, and everything seemed to be saying to me that it exists to witness to God’s love for man and that it prays and sings of God’s glory. Now I understood what I had read in the Philokalia about the “creature’s knowledge of speech,” and I saw how it was possible to communicate with God’s creation.
It is not uncommon for people to experience a certain glimpse of this. When we view the world, or even an individual with love and compassion, we begin to see what had previously been hidden. But we soon become distracted and attend to other things and become caught up in the anger and frustration of modern life. We then dismiss the earlier experience as nothing more than an emotional moment, a mood that has now passed. For the Pilgrim, the icon that became a window into the truth of existence was the Name of Jesus invoked in the Prayer. I hear the same thing described by the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus who walked with the risen Christ:
“Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Lk. 24:32)
Icons, divorced from veneration and the love of God, fall into art and the emptiness of a crumbling ontology. The same is true of us as well. We die for lack of love. “Faith,” St. Paul says, “works by love” (Gal. 5:6). Vladimir Lossky described faith as a “participatory adherence.” I can only understand such an expression in terms of love – an extension of the self towards the other in faith and loyalty (adherence). This is not a single action but a mode of existence (“the just shall live by faith”).
What we see in Christ is the abiding loyalty of God towards us and our reconciliation in the Kingdom of God. That reconciliation is not an abstraction or a notion, but a noetic reality whose perception is received in the gift of love. What we see is the coming of the Kingdom of God. Though we now see through a glass darkly, we are promised that the veil will eventually be removed. What we now see as icon, we will then see as the end of all things, in which God will be “all in all.” Come, Lord Jesus.