Venerating Icons – It’s So Much Other Than You Think

In 1991, I sat in a room at Duke University with Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanely Hauerwas, and Susan O’Keefe. The purpose was the defense of my thesis, “The Icon as Theology.” I was an Episcopal priest, who was turning his doctoral work in Systematic Theology into an M.A. and heading back to parish life (a long story, that). The defense was friendly, thorough, with few surprises. The one major surprise, of course, came from Hauerwas. His question caught me off-guard in that it left behind academic questions and became intensely personal (that’s typical Hauerwas – there are no hiding places). His question was straight-forward:

“Do you believe the veneration of icons to be necessary for salvation?”

The loaded part of the question was quite intentional on his part. Anglican priests take an oath at their ordination that “I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain all things necessary to salvation.” It had been drilled into me at a certain point in my life and my answer should have been a knee-jerk repetition of my vow. Instead, I was mute. What he had done was to bring me to see something my soul had pushed into the background. What was interesting and academic was suddenly revealed to be a matter of existential authenticity. What did I believe?

After a time of quiet, I stammered out my answer:

“I know that my oath of ordination says that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation. However, I believe that the veneration of icons is necessary to its fullness.”

It was the first time the thought had occurred to me. In truth, it would be some years before I fully understood what I had just said. My response was more a matter of instinct than understanding. I knew it was true. I was not entirely sure how. The upshot of that day came the next morning. I woke up with a clarity of soul. I knelt by my bed and prayed, “Oh God, make me Orthodox.” I meant two things by that: first, I wanted to become Orthodox; second, God was going to have to make me. That second point was simply my awareness of my own cowardice and the duplicity of my soul. It was not an act of bravery or noble conversion. It was an acquiescence in the face of what I now saw to be true. At least half of me wished it weren’t so. The rest of me was willing to be dragged into the Kingdom of God. It took seven years for that prayer to be fulfilled. There were heel marks on the entire length of the path.

Here are some mature reflections on the act of veneration:

No spiritual activity permeates Orthodoxy as much as veneration. For the non-Orthodox, veneration is often mistaken for worship. We kiss icons; sing hymns to saints; cry out “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” And all of this scandalizes the non-Orthodox who think we have fallen into some backwater of paganized Christianity. It is not unusual to hear Orthodox who more or less apologize for this activity and seek to minimize it. “We are only trying to give honor to the saints, etc.” What is lacking, all too often, is a vigorous explanation for the work of veneration and its central place in the Christian life.

The normal mode of “seeing” in our daily world can be called “objective.” We see things as objects, and nothing more. Indeed, we see most people as objects unless we have reason to do otherwise. Sometimes we see people as objects in order not to see them as otherwise. But this objective viewing is an extremely limited and limiting way of seeing anything. Veneration brings us to a different form of seeing.

It is carefully noted in the accounts of Christ’s resurrection that he is unrecognized at first, and on more than one occasion. Mary Magdalen mistakes Him for the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus talk with Him while they are walking but do not recognize Him until the moment at which He disappears. The disciples who are fishing do not recognize Him until after they have a miraculous catch of fish.

The silliest explanations of these failures to recognize are the ones that try to attribute it to grief. The stories clearly have something else in mind. This “something else” is particularly revealed in Christ’s encounter with Mary Magdalen. She thinks He is the gardener and wants to know to where the body of Jesus has been moved. But suddenly this “gardener” calls her by name, “Mary.” And she recognizes Him.

What has taken place is the change from an objective seeing to a personal seeing. It is only in the realm of personhood that we experience communion. We do not and cannot commune with “mere” objects. The Resurrection, among many things, represents the triumph of the personal over the objective. The Resurrected Christ cannot be seen in an objective manner, or, at least, He cannot be seen for who He is in such a manner. It would be more accurate, or helpful, to say that He is discerned, or perceived, rather than merely seen. Both “discerned” and “perceived” imply something more from the observer than simple seeing. (In truth, “seeing” should be more than “mere seeing.” In Greek, the verb, “to know,” is derived from a root meaning “to see.”)

Veneration is far more than the acts of bowing, kissing, crossing oneself, offering incense or lighting candles. Those things become veneration when they are offered towards the person who is made present in an icon. An icon that becomes an object ceases to be a true icon and becomes mere art, or worse, the object of a fetish. The Fathers taught that an “icon makes present that which it represents.” The veneration of an icon is an encounter with a person.

It is worth noting that in one of the better treatments of the theology of icons – saints are generally painted “face-to-face” rather than in profile. Judas and demons are frequently seen depicted in profile, on the other hand. There are exceptions to this rule, some by the hands of very competent iconographers. Nonetheless, the general observation remains important. We encounter persons, as person, face-to-face. The impersonal, objective treatment of another person is an act of shaming and inherently hides our own face from them.

At some point, the Church’s use of iconography became distorted and became the Church’s use of art. Art is interesting and serves the end of beauty (when done well). But this development in the Church (primarily in the West, and occasionally in the East as well, as certain styles were copied) represents a turning away from the icon as encounter and the objectification of human beings and nature. It is among the many serious steps that created the notion of a secularized world.

Jesus, as an artistic subject, is equally accessible to all. His use in art renders Him as object. Indeed, Jesus is frequently used to “make a statement.” But this is the anti-icon, the betrayal of the personal as made known to us in the Resurrection. Christ becomes historicized, just one object among many to be dissected and discussed.

Of course, Christians are free. We may decorate our lives with art as we choose so long as we don’t confuse art with iconography, nor religious sentiment with spiritual encounter. But our engagement with art can easily overtake our experience of icons. Our culture knows how to “see” art, but icons remain opaque. Only the true act of veneration reveals what is made present in an icon.

I can recall my first experience with an icon. I had bought a print from St. Vladimir’s and mounted it. I would have it in front of me during my prayer time. I would look and think, and look harder. I think I expected to “see” something or for there to be a trail of thoughts inspired by my looking. But it was simply empty. I was a young college-age Anglican at the time and had no idea how to find my way into the world of an icon.

Some decades later, I became Orthodox, having written a Master’s thesis on the theology of icons and come to understand them. The summer following my conversion, I visited St. Vladimir’s Seminary for my first time. I was surprised when I walked into the chapel to see that the icon of the Virgin on the iconostasis was the original of the small print I had begun my journey with. And then I could see her. All of the journey seemed intensely personal, without accident or caprice. She had brought me home!

This is something that veneration begins to reveal to us. We do not think about the saints or imagine them. In their icons and our veneration, we come to know them. We see them face-to-face and even learn to recognize them and their work and prayers in our daily lives. The world is not accident and caprice. It is deeply intentional and personal, and conspiring towards our salvation.

The “objects” in our lives are nothing of the sort. It is only the dark and callous objectivity of the modern heart that has so disenchanted reality. We imagine ourselves the only sentient beings marooned on a small, blue planet in space. We wonder if there is “life” out there, as if there were anything else anywhere.

The world is icon and sacrament. But it cannot be known until we see it face-to-face. And you will not see anything face-to-face unless and until you venerate it. Veneration is a word that describes the proper attitude to the whole of creation. Listen to these sweet words from St. John of Damascus (7th century):

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.

 

 

71 comments:

  1. Father bless.

    A powerful piece for a high-church confessional Lutheran to consider as I inquire (academically and spiritually) into Orthodoxy.

    Is there any place I might find your master’s thesis on the Theology of Icons? I’d like to read it, as icons and their veneration are absent in my own faith tradition.

  2. Thank you, Father

    Your article helped deepen my understanding of veneration.
    By the way, the word ‘answer’ is misspelled in the third sentence of the second paragraph.

    Patrick

  3. Isn’t veneration of the icons or anything else a form idolatry? The Holy Scriptures says we are to worship God in spirit and in truth, not before images in any form.
    Thank you for your thoughts and wisdom
    Victor

  4. I am waiting for the delivery of my first commissioned icon – The Guardian Angel. I justified the expense to my husband as the “one thing needful” for me. Whenever I go into a church with no icons, I feel that it is empty. What a treasure this is for Orthodoxy! Thank you Fr. Stephen!

  5. Your piece brings a couple of memorable instances to mind. I had been raised in a pious home, my father being a Baptist preacher. A series of events in the early 60s led me to turn from the faith I had embraced as a boy of eight and become an atheist/agnostic. To say my college years were turbulent is an understatement. God, Christ and the Church having been disqualified as contenders in my search for truth, I studied literature and took up “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as my rule of thumb. My search was most circuitous and torturous but ultimately, to my great surprise, it led to Jesus.
    A significant milestone in that journey was an experience in which I mystically sensed the presence of God in nature. It was at the place we would go for summer vacation with my family as a boy on the intracoastal waterway in South Carolina. To get to it, you turned off the highway and went down a one-lane driveway of sand that wound its way through a mile of pine forest, crossed a small bridge (it was technically an island, though not really far out in the water at all) and made another curve of about a hundred yards or so to pull up at the house. There was no TV, no radio, just barely electricity and well water. I loved it, and that time we went there between my junior and senior years of college, I really needed it. It might have been between my sophomore and junior year. I’m not sure. At any rate, I needed to get away from it all. By then I had done a fair bit of everything I had wanted to do, had figured out a good bit of what life was NOT about, and was starting to get rather depressed about the whole thing. Just being there was therapeutic. Nothing but live oaks draped in Spanish moss overlooking an expanse of marsh grass and then the waterway. No traffic but the occasional faraway barge, no sounds but the birds and insects and wind in the trees. I had gone down to the dock to just sit by myself one afternoon and enjoy the sunshine and sea breeze. I hadn’t taken along a book to read. I hadn’t even taken anything to smoke. I wasn’t trying to learn or find or figure out anything, impress or parry anybody. I just wanted to be alone and chill.
    After a while, I had the distinct impression that I was not alone. Have you ever gone into what you thought was an empty room and later realized that someone else was there too, but without actually seeing or hearing them? You just sort of extra-sensorially sensed their presence? Or like when you feel someone looking at you? It was like that. It gradually dawned on me that someone was communicating with me through the whole concert of color, texture, sound and smell that was like some kind of language or music. It wasn’t weird or ominous at all. It was totally positive—beyond positive. It was affirming and uplifting and reassuring and personal. I had never experienced anything like it. I wanted to respond but didn’t know how. I didn’t hear a voice or see anything at all that wasn’t absolutely normal and natural. It didn’t have a definable beginning or end. It didn’t lend itself to interpretation. It wasn’t like I got a message or had any kind of knowledge imparted to me. I simply didn’t have a category for it. All I can say is that it happened, and I regard it now as my burning bush encounter.
    Some time later, one of my few close friends converted to Christianity over Christmas break. This was someone I would spend countless hours with, passionately discussing politics, poetry, philosophy etc. and yet, when I saw him again after break I didn’t recognize him at first. I simply saw someone sitting on my front steps but had no idea who it was. He didn’t remain unknown even during conversation, as was the case with our Lord and the disciples on the way to Emmaus. I did realize who he was in fairly short order, so I have an idea of what it must have been like for Luke and Cleopas.
    I am a recent convert to Orthodoxy, having sort of studied my way here over the course of the last several years, and am slowly wrapping my western brain around it. Your writings have been most helpful, this one on icons especially so. Thank you very much.

  6. As I read this, I can’t help but wonder if there is something dangerous about photography (of people especially) and of the implicit claim that it makes to have captured reality. The sheer amount of photographs that any of us sees in a given day is staggering and unprecedented: reading the news, flipping through Facebook posts, paging through catalogs or magazines. On any given day, we probably see far more pictures of people than we actually encounter as living, breathing human beings. It seems like this has to contribute to the “seeing other people as objects” that you mention, whether we intend it to or not. Pornography is the most egregious example–though pornography in a general sense existed long before photography.

    Of course “dangerous” does not necessarily mean “evil” or “wrong”, and I don’t wish to make any judgments of those who take or enjoy photographs–for I am one of them, too! Still, I wonder if there’s something that requires caution here.

    Your thoughts, Father? Am I being too dramatic?

  7. Icons drew me to Orthodoxy (from early childhood) in a way I do not understand to this day. Glory to God for his mercy toward me.

  8. I have felt a dryness in my venerations of late; if one is not careful, it is easy for it to become a motion we go through. Many thanks for this, Father.

  9. Victor,
    This is a misunderstanding that confuses veneration with worship. If veneration were idolatry, then everytime you looked at a picture of one of your children and felt great affection, it would be idolatry. Saluting the flag or singing the national anthem would be idolatry. Kissing your spouse would be idolatry.

    Worship is quite different. We offer veneration to many things and give worship only to God. Worship is more than expressing feelings, even great feelings. Worship, ultimately, is the offering of sacrifice to our Creator and the Giver of All Things (God). Worship belongs to God alone.

    The misunderstanding is largely due to several sources – the false teachings of Islam attacking Christianity – and the false teachings within Protestantism that attacked many things associated with Roman Catholicism – not because they were wrong, but because Protestantism came to irrationally attack all things Roman. Take time to read the 7th century work of St. John of Damascus https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/johndam-icons.asp

    It does an outstanding job of explaning all of this.

  10. Tim of the north:
    I share your reservations about photography and especially the ubiquity of it. Note that even though we have glorified saints who have been photographed, we still paint icons and venerate them. The icon is more “real” than the photograph.

  11. TimOfTheNorth,

    I’ve wondered the same thing, Tim. Having worked around many Native Americans, I’ve often encountered the idea (once widespread among Native Americans–now, not so much) that being photographed steals something of your soul.

    Most people, I think, would discredit this as superstition, and the idea can obviously be pushed too far. But I do think there is something to it. Particularly, I recall beautiful moments of communion being rudely interrupted by someone who wanted to photograph the event. Conversations must cease, activities must end, everything must bend to the will of the photographer. I even remember after a group prayer had disbanded a certain photographer who had missed the chance for a picture had the group re-assume their positions to “look like you’re praying” for the camera. These occasions feel forced and invasive–even soul-stealing–to me.

    This description doesn’t characterize every photograph I’ve taken part in, but it describes enough of them to make me wonder if the Natives weren’t on to something…

  12. MamaV and Tim,
    I want to intervene before we go off in a wrong direction. Icons are not superior to photographs – not really. A photograph is, indeed, an image, and clearly an accurate image. Icons, painted in the Byzantine style, however, are a depiction that is also a theological statement. They serve the Church’s purposes better than photographs. However, we should not disparage photographs any more than we should disparage creation itself. The problem with photographs is within those who use them wrongly, not in the things themselves.

  13. Will— wedding photography definitely fits that bill. Looking back at your wedding pictures you will see perfect images of things that were staged, having nothing to do with the actual marriage.
    Not me of course, I didn’t pay a professional photographer who needed to boost their portfolio. 😉

    Today’s photography seems calculated to destroy real memory. Which might do something to one’s soul…

  14. Thom,
    You must have left something off your question. Perhaps you’re wondering what Hauerwas thought of the response? As I recall, we “unpacked” it some, and then moved on. He was very supportive of the thesis, suggesting that I should publish it…which I never did…long story.

    One thing I will say – the number of Orthodox publications today, as compared to 1991 is incalculable. The internet did not exist. Thank God for a theological library such as Duke’s. I was able to read everything in English that was available at the time on the theology of icons – and a fair amount in other languages as well. You had to dig through card files and bibliographies! How primitive!

    There has since been a renaissance in icon painting as well. My attention soon turned away from academic studies and back to parish life and to the catastrophes surrounding the collapse of traditional Anglicanism (largely complete now in certain areas). I applied to Archbishop Dmitri in Dallas in 1994 (a mere 3 years after this story) to be received into the Church. It was another 4 years before he decided when and how to do that. The wheels of Orthodoxy ground slower then than now.

    I have maintained some contact with Hauerwas over the years – not always directly – but I know that he’s aware of my work. I think Orthodoxy was and is off his radar screen. He’s much more knowledgeable about Roman Catholicism. Of course, he remains a Protestant, one of the few whom I think is worth a read. I always learn from him – even when I want to argue with him.

  15. “We may decorate our lives with art as we choose so long as we don’t confuse art with iconography nor religious sentiment with spiritual encounter.”

    How would you describe both religious sentiment and spiritual encounter? What differentiates the two? Is it possible to have a whole life full of only religious sentiment, no matter how open to spiritual encounter that we believe we are?

  16. Father,
    Thank you.
    I was thinking how I might explain to my wife’s sister and husband who are Foursquare something of what you wrote.
    They might say that they do not pray to the dead. I would answer that God is the God of the living, not of the dead. He conversed with Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration. The souls under the altar in Revelation cry out to God. “Yes, but we only pray directly to Jesus, not to some saint,” they may add. Well, do you not have a prayer chain at your church and ask others to pray when someone is sick? Don’t forget that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They are alive in the very presence of God. We ask them to intercede for us as we would any other brother or sister in Christ. For us Orthodox, the curtain has been pulled back and it is glorious! If we could only see, as Father notes, we would perceive that we are surrounded by a great panoply of witnesses as well as an untold number of angels, ministering spirits, sent to support us throughout our life and worship. The Church militant is asking for the aid of those who have triumphed in Christ as well as of all the other heavenly host.
    Our Church is shimmering, alive with the saints of all ages, present with us in their images in church as well as in our homes. It is not simply four blank forlorn walls we look at, with maybe a cross, as in our former church. Ours pulsates with the presence of the living God in Christ, His Mother and all the saints. They are family. When there, in their presence, my heart is home.

  17. Thank you, brother Stephen! You have given me pause to ponder and meditate on your carefully and wonderfully expressed words. Yes, the world and all that is therein is an icon, and it is we who choose what we will venerate. To be sure, whether we are of God, or not, we will venerate the icon(s) that most closely mirror our own state of being.

  18. Father
    You brought to mind that the very Fall itself is actually an eating from the ‘tree of knowledge’ of the world as desacralised and objectified ‘accident and caprice’ (rather than ‘deeply intentional and personal, and conspiring towards our salvation’.)

  19. I want to add something to the thoughts around photographs. Recently, a co-worker went to Italy for vacation. She provided a photo of where she stayed and the view from the balcony, with the following statement:

    That was my view [to] which no pictures can even come close.

    Perhaps it is not the photograph of the view that is the issue to discuss, but the life of creation in the view itself. Maybe it is a matter of the “fullness” that is in that life. Father’s post speaks of the “artistic subject” and that may be all that is communicated in a photo. It is the difference between being able to take part in the life of creation or just observe the rendition of it. Just thinking out loud.

  20. David Bolick,
    Thank you so much for your story. Reading it I was engrossed and deeply moved. I was wondering what exactly you were experiencing, since these things are so hard to explain. But when you said it was like when you feel someone is looking at you, that helped a great deal.
    When you said that it had “no definable beginning or end”, I thought of Christ’s words in St. John’s gospel “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Don’t know what to say except His presence was revealed to you. We know He is with us, we feel such a presence in worship, prayer, Church (I think there’s an element of expectation at those times), but unexpectedly like you describe, is just pure beauty, like being bathed in it…indescribable, but you did a good job!
    Must’ve been a life-changer for you.
    Thank you very much for sharing this, David.

  21. Carol,
    One of the errors of our age is captured in the word “sentiment.” In that, we have a set of feelings that we treasure or enjoy (or otherwise) – that never really move out of being feelings into actually shaping how we live and what we do. A true spiritual encounter will change your life – either for the good – because we embraced it – or for the bad – because we turned away from it. Sentiment is useless (or worse). If there is a God (and there is), then we should never settle for less that truly knowing Him – pursuing the truth. For if there is a God, nothing else matters. If there is no God, nothing else matters.

    The modern world nurtures opinions and sentiments. They are useful as passions that enslave us, so that we will shop or vote in a certain way. But we’re simply living as pawns in somebody’s game when we live in that manner. Jesus is always Someone we die for – never less than this.

  22. Thank you David Bollick for communicating so well such a difficult to communicate (yet easy to experience) thing as (can be) our Creator’s multifaceted caress, perception, communication, or contact.

  23. Thank you, Father Stephen

    What comes to me in seeking a description is ‘participatory seeing’ – a form of knowing ‘together’

    A vague echo of this is a recent conversation regarding spiritual counsel ‘via Skype’. I suggested that this was in some deeply significant sense inadequate. Pondering this article and associated thoughts, it is about such counsel as participatory, which requires the real presence of the other.

    Somewhat akin we might say to ‘believing in’ for example the Resurrection, not as an ‘objective fact’ ‘out there’ but as a simply perceived reality which one somehow is having shared with you, something Present in the fullest sense

    I struggle with words but perhaps that’s only right

    Blessings

  24. Eric,
    “Participatory seeing.” Vladimir Lossky defined faith as “participatory adherence.” This very rich phrase suggests something of what you are describing.

    Imagine you walk into a railroad station (how quaint) to meet someone. You have been longing to meet this person for a good while with great anticipation. Everyone whom you see that is not this person quickly becomes someone whom you “don’t see,” simply an object filed under the heading of “not him/her.” But, when at last you do see the looked-for person – everything else disappears – the people, the train station, the waiting. Your entire attention is on the face of the looked-for one where you read all of your hopes and anticipation. This is the purpose of the icon.

    It sounds like an example out of Dostoevsky – works for me.

  25. ” For if there is a God, nothing else matters. If there is no God, nothing else matters.”
    Father, that’s just classic. I almost wanted to say that it would make a good bumper sticker, but it sounded too cheap. But it would make people stop and think…or I would hope so!
    I like your analogy of the person looked-for in the train station, too. That so well describes what it is like standing before an icon: “Your entire attention is on the face of the looked-for one where you read all of your hopes and anticipation.”
    Thank you Father. Your words reflect the intensity of your faith. And it’s catching…

  26. As soon as I finished reading this I thought to myself, “You’ve really written something here, Father.” Glory to God, you most certainly have.

    I’ve been a convert since the summer of 1992 (seems like a longer time when I type it), and no one has ever helped me see it so clearly.

    To thank you is not enough. You’ve helped me find the words I’ve been looking for for a very long time. I’ll be grateful to you for the rest of my life for this. The least I can do is pray for you, and this I shall.

    May God continue to bless your thoughts and words.

  27. Thank You, Father,
    On Your example for the purpose of the Icon (November 18, 2019, at 7:46 pm):
    “… οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτῶν ἐν οὐρανοῖς διὰ παντὸς βλέπουσι τὸ πρόσωπον τοῦ πατρός μου τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς. (Ματθ. 18,10)

  28. Interesting read… thank you for writing this, I certainly learned something new.

    However if icons are not for ‘seeing’ in the English sense of the word but rather for helping to know or discern the person, then what’s the need for a physical image? Can’t these people (or God, in the case of Christ), be discerned from scripture and prayer?

    I’ve also never understood the reason for venerating anyone other than God. To some extent I understand asking the saints to intercede for us, not that I think it’s necissary for many reasons. But when God says “…I will not give my glory to another…” (Isaiah 42:8), could anyone explain to me how you reconcile that verse to the practice of venerating icons that make present persons other than the persons of God?
    Many thanks!

  29. Veneration and worship. It is impossible to worship without veneration being a part of it but worship is so much more. My perception is those who mistake veneration for worship have never really entered in to worship or have forgotten. That was certainly true of me until I was in the Church for some time. Then, during the silent entrance at the heart of the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts one Lent, I knelt in shared silence as the priest carried the pre-sanctified gifts, the Body and Blood of our Lord past me. Quite suddenly, I felt a hand on the back of my neck, holding my head down, I could not look up, it was not possible. I felt that if I even tried, it would be a sacrilege because I knew who’s hand it was. It was a moment of holy dread. I almost could not breathe but I dared not struggle. When the priest had finally entered the altar carrying the gifts, the hand was lifted from my neck. I had had one moment with a sense of real worship. I was in the presence of the Holy Sacrifice, once and for all that was offered before all worlds.

    Even the personal encounter with a saint through an icon is not that. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God–really it is.

    God is merciful and I have never had such an experience as that since, but it taught me without doubt that worship is far more than I thought it was. Most days, I seem to only be capable of somewhat tepid veneration. But, I will never forget that moment. Even thinking of it now, many years later makes my heart, unbidden, sing in joy.

    Forgive me father, if this is overly personal, but it is the only touchstone I have to express the difference between veneration and worship.

  30. Jo Y-J
    Perhaps it helps if, instead of “veneration,” we simply say, “love.” I am suggesting in the article that you never even “see” the people around you unless you love them. Icons help us “see” because we’re not creatures of the mind, strictly speaking. The icons in the Church, most commonly, not only picture the person depicted, but are something of a theological and teaching instrument as well. When we enter an Orthodox Church, we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” The icons remind us that this is so. Otherwise, we would just be surrounded by a great cloud of our anxieties and self-centered worries.

    God does not “give His glory to another,” but He is also “wonderful in His saints” (Ps. 67:36). The saints, if you will, are not a depiction of some other glory – they are a depiction of the glory of God. There is no description of God in the Scriptures in any of the prophetic visions in which He is not surrounded with a heavenly host – that is a vast crowd. Rev. makes clear that it’s not just the angels – but vast numbers of saints.

    Many Christians have been falsely influenced by bad doctrine and imagine God as the “Alone.”

    Also, when we ask theological questions based on “what’s the need,” we are wrongly assuming that heavenly things are driven by some necessity. That is an attempt to reduce heaven to some sort of rational set of principles in which things exist only because they are “necessary.” In fact, things exist because of love – God’s love. God’s love knows no necessity. It is wonderful, overflowing, abundant, ridiculously generous and kind.

    I have seen Churches that have reduced things to rational necessity. They are cold and bare – unlike anything in all of creation.

    I confess that there is much about Orthodox life and understanding that do not begin to become clear except through practice. Protestant Churches generally came into existence through rational argument. Orthodoxy came into existence, after a fashion, at Pentecost. It did not have to argue or reason. It’s struggle has been to be faithful to what it was given, and to maintain the unity of the faith in the bond of peace. Love is its only necessity. Admittedly, we fail miserably in our loving.

  31. Your comments on sentiments are very helpful, Father. I find I get stuck in the process of cleaning out some areas of my home because of sentimental attachments to things. Your comment that sentiments “never really move out of being feelings into actually shaping how we live and what we do” describes my paralysis precisely. These things that I hang on to generate a variety of feelings–some joyful, some grieving–but in the end they rarely motivate me to do anything other than sigh wistfully. I suppose these material things are just a physical representation of the larger spiritual struggle to set my heart on things that endure.

  32. Father,
    You have mentioned that we only truly see someone that we love. I think of the old song, “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” I have known and loved my wife for over 50 years and still love looking into her eyes.
    No, icons are not a “necessity.” But they allow us to look into our friends’ eyes. It is such a blessing and privilege. Our chapel of the Dormition has over 300 icons drawn on every conceivable place. What a welcoming space in which to worship God surrounded by such a multitude of friends, as well as rubbing shoulders with our brothers and sisters.

  33. Dean,
    I think your observations do a great job in explaining “fullness.” It’s not necessity we need – it’s fullness. You can be married without love. But you’ll never know its fullness.

  34. In the litanies we pray “deliver us from all necessity…”
    I grew up in one of those groups described by Fr Stephen; narrowing it down to what was absolutely necessary (in their view) for worship, and forbidding anything else. By their own admission, worship and piety were driven by necessity. This could occasion all kinds of arguments, because nobody can ever quite agree on what is absolutely necessary. This theology of course trickled down into the lives of all who were taught that way… imagine being a young mother with small children who feels she can only do what is necessary, and only do things because they are necessary! It becomes a very stressful and enslaving way to live.
    I was quite astounded and befuddled at the “deliver us from necessity” request in the litany, and by my priest’s talk of maximal worship, when I was dipping my toes in the Orthodox waters. It is a completely “other” way to think; that everything we do is from Love. We don’t worship this way because we “have to”, we do it from love. And as we grow toward Christ, this becomes our motivation in all of life as well. How this looks in my own life, I am only beginning to discover.

    To those who are worried about veneration of icons, I hear you. I feel that at the Protestant churches I went to, at best the service was veneration of God (some hymns about God, talking about God, a prayer or two). To see that same honor paid to the saints is really alarming! It was only when I experienced true worship of the holy Trinity that I could see veneration in its place. When we enter heaven in the Eucharistic Liturgy then everything shifts into perspective.

  35. I think the Orthodox veneration of saints invariably contains connotating overtones of God’s sanctifying grace being the thing worshipped, rather than the venerated saint. We never worship the Saint, that’s ridiculous, but God, whose energies are enhypostasized in, yet another “repetition” of, Christ – the venerated Saint in question. This is quite bold and imprecise language but, it’s true that we are exclusively focused on the One and Only God, despite being so humanely led to Him through His beloved servants who have Him abiding in (and acting through) them.

  36. I believe icons can noetically change/touch the heart beyond our rational thoughts, through the sanctifying grace they convey that acts on our hearts.

    My experience with this is one week I was helping with a project for helping choose icons for an iconostasis. I was trying to match various icons, and creating collections of various icons online. My entire week was so ever sweetly saturated with gazing upon so many icons…and it felt heavenly. It brings us to our true citizenship, in heaven, and to our true friends, our heavenly friends, the Saints, who love us with pure love from God. The experience that week showed me that icons truly open the heart to Christ.

  37. Father, I started this response this morning after reading half of your post and just now had a chance to get back to it. Forgive me if it turns out to be a non sequitur in regards to other comments.

    Father, your words here, especially those regarding the habit we practice of objectifying our world, others, and ourselves, neatly coincide with similar thoughts I have been granted lately. It has recently occurred to me, or become more clear, that I have practiced the habit of objectifying the entire world and also my life in it. And by world, I mean the physical manifestation of it and the people who inhabit it.

    I know I am guilty of objectifying women, a sin I must confess often. And one I ask prayer for; that the Lord would grant me continued growth in resisting. But I have only recently realized my need in this regard is greater than I realized. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, I do this constantly. I see people, not as persons, but as mere representations of ideas or problems. It is not easy to know this about myself and even harder to stop doing.

    But, it is this realization that has also given me more evidence for my attraction to the Orhodox way of being; for it is slow and real. It does not demand the ability to categorize and define so that my resulting theology saves me, but rather…it demands me.

    It demands my willingness to embrace real people that are really there. Through those within my range and those removed from my proximity, I imagine that God says, “I am here, and I ask that you greet your brothers and sisters in My name. Honor them by giving yourself to them and thereby you honor Me. In My image are they made, and through your veneration, you lift them up to Me. In lifting them to Me, you love your neighbor as yourself. And, you humbly accept their love for you. I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

  38. Outstanding. My short go-to response when asked about the icons is that they are venerated, not worshiped, and that they are venerated for the people and events depicted in them, all of which are the works of God.

    What usually happens, is that the other person first ‘establishes’ that we worship icons, and then we’re expected to defend against that. Get mired in that, and the other person assumes they’ve won the argument. Not so.

  39. So here’s a question. If a Christian finds himself MWL and lacking the fullness, our culture says by all means pack it in and start over with someone else. What is the true Orthodox Christian response to such a trial?

  40. I don’t recall if I shared this before – please forgive me if I repeat myself in relating this powerful experience. I know I mentioned in a previous thread that I have been learning to paint icons and believe that God has led me to this. Oddly I simultaneously lost my interest in secular painting and photography, both of which had been major hobbies. Now I see that they were but stepping stones that, unbeknownst to me, were leading me to this place.

    I must qualify this by noting that I am not a particularly good artist. While initially that seemed troublesome, now I know that that is not the point. If God wants the icon to be completed, it will be – often despite me rather than because of me. If I “objectify” the image, I am in trouble. And this is unfortunately easy to do when I am in over my head in terms of technique. My focus then can be drawn more to the how rather than the who. But God reminds me and this experience was a profound reminder.

    I was painting an icon of the Merciful Jesus (based on the original image given to St. Faustina). The image is one of Jesus standing, drawing back His robe to reveal His great mercy pouring out of His heart as blood and water – simultaneously brilliant light. The icon was almost complete and, as I was painting in some detail, my hand touched the area of His heart. And I felt Him present, His mercy alive and present – how can I describe it? I can say this without a trace of sentimentalism because I wasn’t looking to feel anything – I wasn’t even paying attention to where my hand was. But when I felt the Presence, my jaw dropped and I said out loud (to no one but Him), “Oh my…oh my…”

    And this relates to Jesus not being recognized after the Resurrection… I recall reading the Scripture a few years ago and discovering the word “reveal” there (John 21:1). I had never noticed it before. They saw Him but only recognized Him because He revealed Himself. I find it extraordinarily humbling that Christ would reveal Himself through something that I painted – but then again, He is constantly revealing Himself – in and throughout all of Creation. My primary task when painting an icon is to stay out of His way, lest my prideful, objectifying, sinful self should distort what He seeks to reveal in that one small moment.

    I believe that it is profoundly important to make and venerate icons. But I believe it is more important – even essential – to become an icon. An icon of Christ. This is what it means to be a Christian.

    God forgive me.

  41. Thank you Fr Stephen

    Im not sure what blessed me the most – your post or all the comments!

    This was wonderful to read:John of Damascus: In Defense of Icons https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/johndam-icons.asp , Thank you for sharing.

    Your opening statement with Hauerwas question and your answer reminded me of when Jesus was brought the coin with Caesars face on, and His great answer. I’m sure it was not the same motive from Hauerwas, but your answer was from the Holy Spirit.

    “It is not necessity we need – it’s fullness.” – awesome!

    Bless
    Jp

  42. So here’s a question. If a Christian finds himself MWL and lacking the fullness, our culture says by all means pack it in and start over with someone else. What is the true Orthodox Christian response to such a trial?

    Christian, where else shall we go? There is only one Church. Abide in it. As Father stated, lovingly remain to pray. God will work within the trial.

  43. I think that the objection to venerating saints is not only because it’s confused with worship, but because in our democratic mind set, we object to any kind of hierarchy.
    We just don’t want to elevate any human above another.
    Yes, we look at and kiss the photos of our families and loved ones, but they are just like us. It’s a big step for a Western mind to think that the image of another human being belongs in church, and should be given honor.

  44. I’ve been thinking about this article for the past couple days. You’ve convinced me of the importance of veneration. I would love for you to further flesh out how to cultivate such a posture of veneration.

  45. I’m trying to think about this from the perspective of those steeped in modernity, and who object to the veneration of icons. My comments are not about Orthodox perspective.

  46. Lynne,
    I find that the modernity’s equalisation of all humans is a ‘downwards’ (Marxist/Maoist if you like) one – the Church has an “upwards” glorification and worth-assignment of humans.
    The first is “un-personing” while the second is “personing”.
    Sorry to make up new words…

  47. I also believe sects of Western theology that hold to “total depravity” as well as holding to the belief that people are innately born with Adam’s sin find veneration difficult because it is difficult to believe in the innate goodness in people…the possibility of theosis in this lifetime…and of sainthood. How can this be (saints in glorification worthy of veneration) if in these Western theology belief systems in Christendom, people are born “fallen”?
    I thank God He showed me the path to Orthodoxy. In Orthodoxy, which has been healing to my soul in this way and so many ways, we believe people are born “good”, in the image of God. We believe in the possibility of theosis and of glorification unto sainthood. We are born with a sin nature, with the possibility to sin, but we are not born “fallen”. We can always, at every moment, have the possibility of turning to God in repentance, no matter how many times we fall, out of choice.

    When we read the lives of the Saints, we come to know this possibility, and we can ask their prayers for our lives when we give them due honor for their victorious race, for their love and glory in Christ. Just as we should honor our elders in this lifetime, for example, we should honor the Saints, and to the utmost. They help us to truly receive Christ. Their images written in Holy icons are our windows to them, to give them this proper honor.

  48. Dear Fr Freeman,

    You mentioned the “…cowardice and the duplicity of my soul” in conversion to Orthodoxy. Can you expand on that? I ask not to pry, but to see how it correlates to my struggles as I feel the pull of Orthodoxy. Thank you for writing this article.

  49. I think that the objection to venerating saints is not only because it’s confused with worship, but because in our democratic mind set, we object to any kind of hierarchy.

    Lynne, this is very true. I have had numerous conversation with others and when I (somewhat inevitably) offer that “there is no democracy in heaven, there is a throne”, the result is a look of extreme confusion and more than a little angst. Many people seem to project democracy into heaven and color their perception of God with it.

    Just as we should honor our elders in this lifetime, for example, we should honor the Saints, and to the utmost. They help us to truly receive Christ.

    Anonymous, this is so true. And we should also honor all people in this way. If nothing else, they help us to better practice humility and “truly receive Christ”. There is so much to unpack in honoring and venerating the Image of God within all humanity–even within those who act as our enemies.

    I am reminded of my priest’s advice to give to the beggars on the roadside because the giving will draw us closer to Christ, not because doing so, in any way, helps solve the issue of poverty. In the same way, we honor our enemies by venerating the Image of God in them because it shapes our heart to love God and love them as He does.

  50. Harold,
    There’s more to the story than I would care to share, but I brought it up, so I’ll share a bit. “Cowardice” is something I would describe as a personal issue for me – probably not noticed by other people – but I’m well aware of it myself. The “duplicity of soul” is a “double-mindedness.” I think my years as an Anglican nurtured (unintentionally) a habit of keeping things together by avoiding conflict where possible (a common habit of pastors). It’s one thing to work for peace between people – that can be quite good. But if keeping peace comes at the cost of personal integrity – saying nothing when you should say something – or being “brave” in words only but not in action – things like that.

    My conversion required me to act against pretty much every comfort position in my life. It need not be so for everyone – but it was for me. I had some folks who wanted to “do my story” when I converted (I had a bit of notariety as an Anglican). I told them that I would prefer not to – that I was entering Orthodoxy as a penitent and not some brave, conservative warrior. I meant that very deeply.

  51. I want to second Anonymous comment that because theosis is not part of the telos of being in Christ for basically every other Christian group, this makes veneration an exercise in foolishness/something unnessarcy/idolatry/etc. – to most Protestants.

    Veneration is only due to those who have actually used their will in synergy with God. If this is impossible as in any monergistic system, whether formally or logically and imaginatively (as in Augustinianism/Calvinism/Evangelicalism/etc.) you get a breakdown.

  52. Thank you Father! Please bless. Forgive me if this question was already addressed, but how should we place icons in our homes? Prayer corner(s), obviously, but what about filling (some hyperbole) our homes with icons? Is this improper, in that they are each meant for prayer, love and veneration and an excess may turn them into artwork? Or is it a good practice in that we are surrounding ourselves with the saints?

  53. Paisios,
    I always suggest that people start slowly and let icons “find” them. They have a way of doing that. Someone gives you one, etc. I always believe it to be significant when a new icon finds its way to my home. It will often have a way of telling you where it needs to be. Perhaps others can share their stories?

  54. In struggling with certain issues, I found just that — that icons would turn up that addressed my needs. I also put them wherever they seem to want to go. In my personal opinion, as long as one is truly “venerating” in one’s heart (cherishing, respecting…) then the number or place is not a problem

  55. Our Lord has been so good to us concerning Icons! We were married in the Episcopal church in 1986 and were gifted or purchased the Icon of Christ the Teacher shortly after that (I don’t remember which) but this Icon appears in many family photos over the years. We always placed it where we could see this with friends and family, but we didn’t have a prayer area until we became Orthodox Christian in 2006. We added Our Theotokos and patron saints; the wedding at Cana among many others. Glory to God!

  56. Recently i acquired the softener of evil hearts and placed it conveniently beside the crucifix.

    Looking at it , i was not looking at the form of paint , tempera , or egg yolk and gold but a shared memory in history. Something more ! The icon was like visual words to me.

    Minutes later i had a glimpse of her sufferings that she undertook as i shifted my gaze to the crucifix . Two righteous and innocent people , mother and son , suffering for the salvation of mankind.

    It was too a good reminder not to complain or grumble for the holy theotokos suffered greatly without complaint but with humility.

  57. My Roman Catholic boss has an interesting relationship with saints. When I first started work for him and a file would be lost he would ask St. Anthony to help find it. The file always showed up. Not knowing he was praying to St. Anthony of Padua (not Orthodox), I got him a small icon of St Anthony the Great. He put it on a shelf in his office where it watches over him to this day over 20 years later. A few years ago he brought me out of the blue what has become my favorite icon: Jesus rescuing St. Peter as he was sinking.

  58. Michael,

    My boss is Catholic, too, and does the same thing! I also thought she was referring to St. Anthony the Great. 🙂

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