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. Advertising and propaganda have long used language in this distorted manner.

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. “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.”

 

56 comments:

  1. Ah, I found your answer from the original post in January of 2019:

    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. Intriguing. I can say that the pivotal moments of faith have been in loud silence. That silence sometimes came before or after words but in itself was not words.

  3. There are some people I know who seem to pursue theology to learn more and more. Me, I am still trying to digest St. Athanasius “On the Incarnation”

  4. The “reissuance” of language, vocabulary, definitions is a most brilliant strategy of the devil. Re-define, re-historicize, re-contextualize, and reissue communication in such that words mean nothing objectively. No one can talk to each other with meaningfulness as it has no grounding.

    There is a principle in Protestantism that the law reveals sin so preaching the law circumnavigates worldly wisdom and goes to the conscience. I’m wondering if there is merit here. It wasn’t long ago that I would have dismissed the idea having reacted somewhat against my Calvinist past. I know the answer to “What do I do now that I am convinced I am sinner?” would be very different in Orthodoxy. Maybe we do spin our wheels staying in the realm of intellectual argumentation. But I wonder if the issue of being contingent as a creature may be the answer. I really have no idea. If you listen to Lewis’s addresses when he was asked to speak to a younger generation, he was totally shocked at their objections. In “Is Theology Poetry” he addresses the assumption that theology is merely poetry, but he only has to because words have already been reduced to subjective.

    J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism was largely calling out how the “liberals” had just toyed around with theological language such that you could redefine anything, keep the same terminology, and convince others you were well in the vein of “orthodox” thinking. He is a major figure in the fundamentalist/liberal controversies and a champion among conservative Presbyterians. Exposing the deliberate manipulation of speech seems an imperative job for Christian communicators.

    But his concern was totally valid. The same thing goes on within Orthodoxy all of the time. People who stretch the meaning of words, or their possible meanings, to the point that a word can in no way mean what it originally did. Authorial intent is gone. And it becomes clear why theological battles were fought over words, it’s really very simple in the end. If words can mean multiple things, then it is just as important to ensure words mean “one” thing and not another, as it is that they are understood correctly. If words, dogma, are the path to salvation, or the guardrails for salvation, words must be fought over. While the fact that Oriental Orthodox and Orthodox are not united is very sad, I can at least appreciate the concerns. I guess what I’m getting at, is that the project today of communication is very much like it was for defenders of Orthodoxy and we must learn their methods with the dogma traditioned to them. Methodology is important and we must figure it out. The reason Orthodox reject Scholastic apologetics is that they start with man’s reasoning and sensory experience without any regard to bias, to the fact that facts need interpreted. The conscience and our mortality, our contingency, our fear of death – somehow this has to be brought out or they will not seek salvation when there is nothing that we need to be saved from – and neither will we if we do not keep this before us. Somehow, our apologetic, and by that I mean how we communicate, must find a way through language such that it cannot be subject to subjectivity. Someone could be quite loving and quite inept at the same time. I understand that what we need most if we care for the salvation of others is our own salvation.

    Tell me what you think of this: underneath I think I imagine others coming alongside us in our own path to salvation either before, during, or after we have “Acquired the Spirit…” Part of me feels this is wrong, that I should not expect to help others until after. Part of me feels it makes no difference because we are all in progress. Part of me thinks, loving others with the truth of Christ, is part of the path to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. And I can imagine each idea being right. That someone might tell me to go “into my closet” or “into the desert” or “into” somewhere, where I come out healthier, more whole.

    God bless you Father,
    Matthew Lyon

  5. Matthew,
    I think that, for the larger part, it comes down to the heart and its intentions. I have had conversations in which a word is explored for all of its possibilities, and the conversation is a joy, because the one with whom I’m speaking is of the same heart. That is a joy. There are other conversations in which, even when the same words are being used, there is no joy because the one I’m speaking with is not of the same heart. In that case, you always feel “used” in some manner – that the words are being used in order to gain some sort of power or control.

    When I was among liberal Episcopalians, I often had that feeling – that the words of the tradition were being coopted to serve as images of something they were not. Their meaning was being violated. When Athanasius borrowed the word “homo-ousios” from earlier usage (where it had a sort of modalist meaning), he consciously gave it a new definition. But he employed it precisely because it was impossible for Arians, even semi-Arians, to say it. It was a “word too far,” for them. The Cappadocians, in their work, managed to reconcile many of the semi-Arians (those who truly believed that Jesus is God, but were resistant to homoousios as a term) – but they clung to the language of Nicaea is essential.

    There is a subtle perversion of traditional language in the group known as “Perennialists” who insist that there is a truth deeper than the words and therefore relativize the words we use. The Fathers certainly held to the notion of a “deeper” meaning – but not in a way that relatived the words.

    I think I ran across something the other day that tried to label me as a Perennialist – which I decidedly am not – largely because the writer does not understand the right relationship between the meaning “beneath” the words and the words themselves. That there is a proper, true iconic relation, is not a statement that weakens the words – it strengthens them. Without that relation, we run the danger of Nominalism – in which there are only words.

    The answer, always, lies in the coincidence of hearts. If our hearts coincide – then we will find common language. If our hearts do not coincide, language will always be just one more division, or an instrument that bludgeons, etc.

  6. Father, thank you for your persistent reminders concerning the meaning and value of silence. It is hard to practice and resist the compulsion to speak and think obsessively.

  7. “The answer, always, lies in the coincidence of hearts. If our hearts coincide – then we will find common language. If our hearts do not coincide, language will always be just one more division, or an instrument that bludgeons, etc.”
    Very true, Father.
    How I long for this coincidence of hearts! It truly brings forth joy. It enlarges hearts. It heals souls. And allows for a peaceful silence.

    A thoughtful post, Father. Thank you.

  8. Paula,
    A proper way to understand our daily (moment-by-moment) goal is that our hearts coincide with the heart of God. That, I think, can be approached through the giving of thanks. To give God thanks (always and for all things) is also to say, “Let my heart agree with Yours.” St. Paul would say of this, “Be of One Spirit.”

    I read somewhere recently that we cannot be saved by defending the truth. It’s actually not enough. I think a mistake that many, who are young in the faith, make is to take on defending the faith too quickly. I’ve seen a few lose the faith in that very activity – and, if they don’t lose the faith formally, they become estranged from it in their heart.

    The Word of God is “Yes, and Amen.” according to the Scriptures. Applying ourselves primarily to that task is the best way I know to preserve ourselves in peace. There is much that is wrong in the world – and in our lives – but none of those things saves us.

  9. Yes, Father…to give thanks … to coincide with the heart of God and say “Let my heart agree with Yours”. Very good, Father. Thank you.

    A thought I had after reading your response: even when not sure of the most helpful course to take…to speak or not to speak…I can be sure that God’s heart is one of reconciliation. Knowing that, whatever I do, let it be with a heart of unity with God and my fellow human beings.
    One thing I have noticed with myself…that when something is said that I take as divisive, my heart rate shoots up. I mean immediately. Our bodies will tell us when we are not in line with the will of God. There are other somatic reactions. But they all begin in the heart. It takes a great deal of determination to stop, get up, and walk away from that, and go and talk to the Face of Christ and plead for help. But I have found almost imperceptibly that He does give us the grace where over time you find a decrease of these reactions.
    There will always be times when our”buttons are pushed”. Most of the time I think this is done unintentionally (I give the benefit of the doubt here). So when your heart rate shoots up and you start to tremble, or your stomach tightens – Stop. Look at Jesus, and see how He would gently set that aside, and out of focus.
    Father, I got that from your teachings, where you say to gently set the “noise” aside.
    I pay attention, believe me! It humbles me to say that I am almost 66 years old, and still need to turn to these elementary practices!
    So, yes and amen to God. Stick close to Him and you will be close with your brother.

    Father…thank you.
    I feel like St Peter in the boat, shouting “we perish”!
    No…we won’t…by God’s good grace, we won’t…

  10. Paula,
    I find, quite often, that my own thoughts (as reactions to this or that) are the things that set my heart racing, etc. I’ve had one of those yesterday and today that keeps popping up. It is when I sit down in the presence of God, get a little quiet, and remember that He is working all things together for good, I am able to quiet my anxiety, and give thanks. It really will be fine – in Him.

  11. Very good point Father….it is indeed my own thoughts that set my heart racing! I mean, it is not as if my thoughts are generated from without.
    So yes, what is there to do but place yourself in the presence of God. He really is working all things for good. Somehow, He conveys that when we quiet down a bit!

    Thanks Father. Yes, all will be well.

  12. Fr. Stephen, like you my mind tends to go in a million directions at once, and sometimes my heart-rate races for no real reason that is apparent. Learning to calm the mind and stop the racing heart is a lifetime challenge I think for us. The heart racing part has me on a cardiac monitor for 30 days, but I wonder if there is really a reason for it. If the things that continually seem to bombard us these days – at home, at work, and in trying to go to church or at least stay a part of it – become too overwhelming -maybe the “silence” is a place we all need to go more often? Just sit and empty the mind – focusing on Christ – and ask for “A Word”?
    I think we are all so used to the “noise” around us all the time, that the “silence” seems something we need to fill with words or entertainment. Our minds are so used to stimuli. Quiet and Silence are so underrated.
    Words being stretched or changed in their meanings was brought to my attention this morning. Someone said we needed to change the phrase “Master bedroom” or “Master Bathroom” to a different word. Because “Master” was a racist term. The definition of the word incorporates MANY ways of using it and to remove the word from our vocabulary would be horrific. “Mastering a skill”, a “masters degree” – the word has so many completely non-racist meanings. It is a sad sign of our times, that people are seeking things to be offended about – when there is so much going on that we need to be praying for and about these days. Lord have mercy upon us and save us!

  13. Merry,
    Since we are psychosomatic unities (brain and body are one thing), some things that are quite physical can drive our thoughts. For example, prior to my heart attack 7 years ago, I ignored the fact that my blood pressure was a bit “high.” Afterwards, they put me on meds that lowered it (diet and exercise had been pretty ineffective). It’s much easier to manage symptoms of anxiety if they’re not being produced by problematic blood pressure. I also learned to breathe better.

    Very silly things about language issues.

  14. A favorite saying of Mat. Juliana Schmemann: we have to be quiet sometimes so we can hear what we are trying to tell ourselves.

  15. I just had a conversation with an Orthodox friend of mine. He described how he knows he is in the presence of a holy person: His upset of the moment, his anxiety, all of those things, just melt away without any words being exchanged. He is fortunate enough to have encountered two such men in his life. I have been blessed to have been in the presence of one such man.

    I try to stay clear of doubtful disputations. “Defending the faith” particularly by those young in the faith can quickly develop into that because it can easily become defending one’s own choice/opinion, seeking external verification of the inward reality.

    Such things do not seem to concern saints.

  16. Father
    Your words on calming down thoughts in the presence of God – working all things together for good – reminded me of the saintly Archbishop Anthony Golynsky-Mihailovsky’s opening statement in the remarkable little book, “two elders on the Jesus Prayer”.
    He exclaimed there that the quintessence of the Jesus Prayer, somewhat paradoxically, is Christ’s words, “not my will but your will be done”…
    Especially as his statement is – in a sense- a take on your, “let my heart agree with Yours.”

  17. Thank you for this Father Stephen

    Of late I have noticed that there is so much noise – which is sometimes visual, but often associated with the endless babbling [sic] of ‘debate’, or ‘argument’ (neither word seems to properly fit what is going on, which seems more akin to incohate anger). This noise has caused me more and more to seek silence, often withdrawing even my gaze from ‘news’ outlets, which are noise filled ‘images’.

    Regarding perennialism, of which I admit to knowing nothing – I wonder if you might clarify for me. My sense is that the underlying truth of our words is Essential. All languages for example work differently but when words are well used they point beyond themselves (are iconic) in truth. So we cannot translate directly (as you have previously remarked), but rather we might stand together to gaze in the same direction as our words indicate, and thus know the Truth of the words we use, which is known in that silent gaze.

    There is more to the Logos of Life than simply that which is heard (1 John 1:1)

    I admit that this is perhaps a litle rambling, but like all words we are reaching towards, in order to touch and by Grace, See ?

    Blessings upon you

  18. Let us pray our Lord shows us how to accept without question and to respond with love to the prayers; works; joys and sufferings of this day as actually sent by our Lord, our God.

  19. Eric,
    My understanding of perennialism is somewhat limited. I take Richard Rohr and Ken Wilbur to be two of its notable representatives. Their mistake, to me, is in making of words a sort of pattern that describes reality, which is ultimately reductionist, rather than as actual instantiations of reality. They cut down the trees and put them in a tree museum so to say. Chesterton describes this perspective in the chapter “The Maniac” from Orthodoxy: “they are universal only in the sense that they take one thin explanation and carry it very far. But a pattern can stretch for ever and still be a small pattern. They see a chess-board white on black, and if the universe is paved with it, it is still white on black.” One of his main theses is: one goes mad by the effort to explain the universe rather than to live in it.
    But I was also curious about your comment about perennialism, Father.

  20. Eric, Jordan,
    The perennialists essentially think that there is some “perennial” wisdom, embodied and expressed by everything – as in every religion. As such, the surface words serve merely to cover over some deeper thing. In a manner of speaking, they are Gnostics. The only attack I’ve seen on my work that used the notion of perennialism was from someone who seems to be an extreme literalist. I suspect that between such literalism and gnostic perennialism, he sees no other options. So, if you’re not an extreme literalist, you must be the other thing.

    But the Tradition (including the NT) is replete with allegory, typology, various ways of understanding that there is a deeper, mystical, meaning beneath and within the Scriptures – and all of creation. I have sought to draw this out in a manner that people can perhaps understand it better. I have found it very fertile for entering into union with Christ. Of course, the danger is that in departing from some extreme literalist treatment you open yourself to all sorts of false charges. To this, I can only say that it comes down to a coincidence of heart. Those who will hate you and falsely accuse you will never be convinced otherwise – apart from a change of their heart. So, I just keep writing, etc. Sometimes, hearts coincide and it is good. I have no control over any of these things.

  21. Father/others,

    There is a false dichotomy that usually arises any time the word apologetic is used. The assumption is that it is always some intellectual defense of the faith using argumentation. I am 4 years Orthodox. My zeal makes people uneasy – not in person, but on blogs it seems. In Calvinism, when someone converts to the ideology, there is something called the “cage phase”. Everyone seems to want to go and fix everyone with this truth in a very aggressive way in large part. It is false zeal with good intention. The good intention is that for them, the Gospel had been distorted and this restores it. That’s really the only reason in their case that they are off. But what is interesting is – and this goes without realization – say you spent 30 years in the same church and you have a handful of people who are zealous for evangelism and the rest who think and chime, “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” Those people are very uncomfortable with anyone with any zeal for communicating effectively where words as icons matter. But there are usually underlying assumptions. One, that people are more persuaded towards Christianity if we are very nice to people and don’t offend anyone with words. Two, that evangelism drives people away from the faith. Three, that words as icons, words with objective meaning, used for the purpose of bringing out the meaning of reality, don’t work anyway. Four, that anyone who would want to bring others with themselves onto the path of salvation, must be some sort of overzealous nut and should just leave people alone. And then to compound the matter, there’s an assumption that someone who converts to Orthodoxy – really, this would be unique and wouldn’t apply to other groups – must wait years and years before they have anything worthwhile to say.

    Silence does need put in it’s place as a valid form of communication between ourselves and God, and ourselves and others, and we need reminded of it. So, please continue to remind us.

    On the “coincidence” of hearts, I agree, and disagree. The “coincidence” can occur spontaneously/randomly with a person already in a position to coincide. Underneath it may suppose some form of determination/fate/serendipity. The people who we cannot automatically “coincide” with, we have the possibility of opening a window with icons/words. To assume that there is not a potential for this, and I’m not saying you are, but it’s one of these assumptions people who are “silent” towards others carry all of their lives, also assumes a pessimism toward man not warranted in Orthodoxy. The assumption that there is nothing you could say that would make any difference in someone else’s life, until you had theoria, or a super-abundance of the Holy Spirit, makes icons/words, to have no inherent value unless you add value to them – or that – until God determines/molds/moves by the Holy Spirit the other; unless He acts alone, everything will fall flat, deflate, and we may do more harm than good. In all of these internal objections (and also the very good possibility that those who are always silent with others, that they are so out of fear of man) again, there is this pessimism towards man unless we have been perfected or near perfection, or unless God had fated the “coincidence” it’s for nothing. Again, I’m not pegging you with this Father, but others potentially.

    What I mean, and I feel like it shouldn’t be so hard to explain, is that as Christians, we have a basis for a working epistemology, for grounding human rights, for grounding language objectively, etc. Where we have an opportunity it seems to me, is when/where we can speak lovingly into the lives of others, and I do really mean lovingly, while showing the cracks in their worldview and offering hope at the same time. People who have only known Classical Apologetics will not know what I’m talking about.

    But why go on anyway with these long posts I make. Well, partly I’m caffeinated. But it’s because I totally agree with you, words/icons matter. To the extent that language, which will include the delivery, reveals/icons reality, we have some hope in our own salvation and the salvation of others – otherwise dogma would play no real part in salvation. It seems to me the better we are at having/creating external/internal dialogues in the lives of others that we have already have or are regularly having with ourselves, where they are questioning the ground of reality, their inherent push towards a teleological/eschatological reality, realizing where their own ideas contradict each other, and have some hope of stability in God – then silence may become a possibility. When we show forth the Incarnation, Pascha, Pentecost – the internal reality with the content of the reality in opposition, transcendentally, to really what amounts to heresy, how can we not expect God to move with us in some way? This is not zealous pragmaticism, it is optimism due to Pascha. To relinquish our optimism for pessimism doesn’t seem like an option.

    I was telling a friend the other day why I spend a lot of time on things like this because I probably do just come across zealous. I said, you know, you have some people who would just chuck it all and go to a monastery (Orthodox or Buddhist or whatever) in their search for truth and sit under a rabbi like figure and imitate their life and see if it works out. Most people are not like this. Most people will not come into Orthodoxy and just experiment to see if it works. They will want to know why they should put in the effort. The only reason, I told him, that I put forth effort for myself and others (limited as it is) – is so I and they will want to put in the effort. We cannot persuade others, or ourselves, without pointing out how other ways of thinking fail.

    Isn’t this often the same methodology we use internally? Say someone struggles continually with a particular sin. Maybe it’s objectifying people? What is the solution? Incarnation, theosis, Sainthood, potentiality and inherent worth being made in God’s Image. That’s the internal criticism that comes into play or should if you’re a Christian. Ridding yourself of objectification will take a concerted effort, but why make the effort if you removed Christian theology? Why ever get started? There’s no reason that transcends you or anyone else. There’s only opinion. Opinion does not hold the conscience. But what if you could persuade someone that human dignity only exists in the world with men and women made in God’s Image. What have you done? You exposed a contradiction and offered a solution. This doesn’t save the person or you, it puts you potentially on the path of salvation and makes the effort worthwhile. Niceness, ongoing silence, makes you no different than any other nice, quiet person. I find it interesting that when talking about giving, usually high on the list of things you could give as worthwhile in Orthodoxy, is an effort to speak truth to people – but this usually gets trashed at the outset as harmful zeal. There’s a caricature in everyone’s mind that is a strawman. Who will do both the work to become loving, full of grace, and also willing to speak, and be silent? The person convinced it’s worth it. How will they be convinced? If you automatically exclude yourself because God has to do it, because words don’t matter only actions, there is – I hope I’ve pointed out – a bunch of contradictions. Then, if you see them, you correct yourself. And I’ll go correct myself over my lack of silence and writing too much on blogs.

    God bless you,
    Matthew Lyon

  22. Father,
    I have not thought of you as a perennialist by the way. Though I think Orthodox who are toying around with re-defining, or the notion that something has never been defined, morality, may be co-opting Orthodox interpretive methods to their causes.

  23. Matthew,
    Though I write(!) frequently about the importance of silence – obviously, I write. I’ve produced about 2500 articles and written something well north of 10,000 comments, responses to over 70,000 comments. I did not write for the first 8 years of my Orthodoxy, even though I had been a writer previously as an Episcopal priest. It was entirely intentional – but it turned out to be wise. I also have found that I work things through better as I write about them. There are a lot of articles that I’ve written that will never be published because they simply failed to be what I intended – or failed in some other way.

    Mostly, I ponder the work of these blogging years. A well-read article will have somewhere over 10,000 – 20,000 views. Our tiny community of comments is sort of misleading in that manner. We don’t “see” the 10,000. I get private feedback in emails from those who don’t wish to comment in public. What I’ve seen over the years runs the entire gamut of responses. I try to avoid argumentation – though I clearly offer critiques of various things. Mostly, however, I simply marvel and wonder at the work of grace. The “coincidence” of the heart, it seems to me, requires grace, regardless of the persuasive arguments it might have encountered. The words matter, no doubt. But there is that inner mystery that belongs to God – and the soul. The largeness of that mystery belongs to God’s eternal providence. In that providence, I am called to write, to bear witness to what I know. Sometimes, by God’s grace, things happen in another soul. By my count, this has happened thousands of times over the years to thousands of individual readers. But, if you asked me how, I would be mute. Reason can, occasionally, be an on-ramp to such an encounter – but, in my experience, it’s almost the least effective such thing. My suspicion is that modern man’s thoughts about his reasonableness is mostly a delusional fantasy. We are hearts with a brain.

  24. ” it comes down to a coincidence of heart. Those who will hate you and falsely accuse you will never be convinced otherwise – apart from a change of their heart. So, I just keep writing, etc.”
    Father, I so appreciate your conclusions!
    I really do appreciate the word “coincidence”. Some words just fit so nicely with the desire to contemplate the mystery of human existence. The mystery of existence itself coincides with the mystery of human existence. To help us begin to grasp these mysteries, we are given words that allow for an appropriate mental image. I mean, our thoughts consist of mental images. Yes, words are icons!
    More thoughts! …
    Linear thought I suppose has it place in some areas of study. But when it comes to a quest for existential meaning, there is layer upon layer that reaches into the sublime. There are thresholds that you dare to enter. You proceed further up and further in with revelations God has afforded you, yet at the same time you proceed with a ‘blank slate’, knowing nothing at all. You will understand an inherent universal hierarchy of orderly existence in the created and Uncreated, and at the same time you will encounter ‘coincidences’. You will recognize ‘coinherence’. In being shown these truths, you will recognize it in the form of ‘enfolding’ and ‘unfolding’. Existence is contained within a Person. It is ‘enfolded’ within Him, the Logos. And revelation of truth ‘unfolds’ to those who care to know. But you will have to be open to its reception. You will have to present yourself with that ‘blank slate’.
    And it would help greatly…well, even more… if we desire truth, it can only come from knowing ourselves in Christ. That is the beginning of understanding the mystery of humanity, and all existence. Truth Himself. Jesus Christ. The Alpha and the Omega. The Beginning and the End. The Author and the Finisher of all things, in the heavens and the earth, and beneath the earth. All things coincide in Him.
    But here’s the caveat. To know ourselves in Christ, it is as St Paul said: it is to “know nothing except Christ and Him crucified
    We must die first, and die daily. To “the self”.
    You really are not able to fully ‘coincide’ with another without some extent of dying to the self.

    So now, I come back to earth! To this false reality of secularism. To the lie of modernity. To the insanity of political correctness. We do indeed live in a very real tension. This is why I believe it is a matter of spiritual life or death to coincide with others who live life knowing the Kingdom of God is come. It strengthens the seal we have been given in the mysteries – the sacraments. It edifies. It gives life and meaning. We need that ‘coinherence’ because without the ‘other’ there is nothing to coinhere to. Which means there is no enlivenment. It is a zombie state. Living dead. Lifeless animation. Strangely bizarre. It is the dying stage of being Comfortably Numb.
    To coinhere also implies a two-way conversation. Or even a two-way silence, where you simply know there is unity. But usually (but not always) before the silence there is conversation…a sharing of hearts that edify each other. There is no need for competition or a contest of experiences that imply having “a one-up” over the other. There is instead a “giving” of both, each dying to the self.
    It is rare these days to encounter this. But when you do you hold on to it as a thing cherished. As a treasure.

    A little addendum…
    Father — Before posting this I checked back to see if more comments came in. Well, yes they have.
    Matthew, Eric, Jordan – thank you all for your thoughts.
    Father you said:
    “Mostly, however, I simply marvel and wonder at the work of grace. The “coincidence” of the heart, it seems to me, requires grace, regardless of the persuasive arguments it might have encountered. The words matter, no doubt. But there is that inner mystery that belongs to God – and the soul. ”
    May I be bold enough to say that in this thread of conversation our hearts (all of us) are trying to coincide?!
    Indeed, this is by the grace of God!
    Anyway, I am going to post this. It is lengthy. Hard to be short and sweet sometimes!
    Thank you, and all Father’s readers for taking part in this ‘coincidence’ of hearts 🙂

  25. Dear Father Stephen,
    Words matter. A lot. Especially, I think, for those of us who (even after 82 years) have a long-standing difficulty operating from the heart. Your words; Dr. Pastistas’ words; words from many other sources that make one stop and consider. The words pile up, and repeat, and point. And then, once in a while, something happens, or something is said, and some of those words come together, and the penny drops, and the veil pulls aside just a little, and something to which those words pointed becomes Real. The moment passes, but things, somehow, are not quite the same anymore.
    Your words are a blessing. Thank you.
    Marjorie

  26. Paula, the biggest indictment of modernity and the secular is that they are linear. Saul was linear. Satan cannot live in an existence that is iconic. He always flattens. Even his temptations are reductionistic. Of course if one follows the linear far enough one ends in prelest reduced to the state of “me” alone. Connected to no one without co-incidence with anyone. Is that not the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?

  27. Merry’s comment above is an example of that reductionism. Reducing the word “master” to only slavery. What if the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian: ” O Lord and Master of my life…”
    Or modern quest to remake God into our own individual image instead of the other way around.
    Icons reveal who we are in God and connections to one another.

  28. Michael,
    Yes, the linear, the reduction, the shallowness of such an outlook…this is all true. It is also true. of course, that we are made in God’s image. It is also good to remind ourselves that Christ took on our carnal image. Here:
    “…who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Phil 2: 6-8

    So Michael, we can know all those things you mention. They help set lines of demarcation. We also know we are made in His image. Considering those verses in Philippians, we can know and believe what St. Athanasius said – “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” – after all this is our belief in theosis. So far so good.
    But looking at my own heart, if I were truthful I would have to admit that I have glossed over a little too quickly our call to be “obedient to the point of death”. Meaning of course, to die to myself. I want to be a “little Christ”. I carry His name. I am one of His. But to be in His image means – ultimately – to give myself wholly to Him. It also means to give myself wholly to the ‘other’, that being our ‘neighbor’. Those we enter into relationship with. It is the setting aside of my ‘reputation’, my ‘high opinion of myself’.
    I speak a lot about unity. I have said many times that I grieve over division. But incredible as it seems, I nonchalantly mosey past the dying-to-the-self part. I tell you, by looking at our Saints, our Martyrs, and especially our Desert Fathers (who too were made in His image!), and the degree of asceticism they practiced in order to die to the self, it is no wonder I said “for me? Impossible!”. So I continue to suffer from the passions! Well, something needs to give if I want to be closer to my Beloved.
    Because, among other names, that’s who He is.
    I know this dying does not happen overnight. I know in hindsight, by the way that God has dealt with me, that just as He has always been with me when I had no mind or thought of Him, He will be with me now, in the dying. It takes time…it is a process…and, to use a familiar phrase, it will be a ‘joyful sorrow’. It will be hard but it will be good. It will be good, because death-transformation-life is the very plan of God’s salvation in His Son. I don’t see any way around it. I can ignore it, but it’s still there.
    Fr Stephen is very good with teaching us – very patiently and kindly, taking care not to shame – where and how to begin. Giving thanks and saying ‘yes’. Reassurance that God is ever doing His good work in us, through our sins (quite the humbling truth). Pay attention to the symptoms of anger and go ‘sit in the presence of God’. In silence, or not. Just go. These efforts seem effortless, but they are not. Pride is very resistant. But in seeing our efforts, our willingness, He gives more grace.
    So Michael…I can have all that good, helpful, and indispensable knowledge. But until I begin to do a little dying I am afraid my heart will not be in agreement with God’s. At least not in the degree that I would like it to be. He wants better for His people. He welcomes us to participate in His plan, to bring all creation into unity with Him. But in order to do this, we need to die. And it is a more painful death than a physical one. It takes a death to our enormous ego!
    Mercy!

  29. Paula dear to Christ it is easy to want to be Christ like without the Cross and the grave– wanting to go straight to the Resurection and all sorts of signs and wonders. Personally, I have only truly known God’s mercy when I have failed, suffered pain and or significant loss. I a stiff necked man.

  30. Well my dear brother… as we are reminded, we are saved through our sins…our failures. Surely God is merciful.

    I must say, I know more than a little about being stiff-necked.
    And I respect your uniqueness as the one and only Michael Bauman. And even better, I get to call you ‘brother’!

  31. Father,

    I’ve had these conversations with others before, usually clergy, and I think part of the disconnect is the unique position a priest is in versus laity. The amount of “hurt” people that will show up on your door just far outweighs the types of interactions laity have with others on a regular basis. It’s not that others aren’t hurting, but that the openness required usually isn’t there until people are at a low enough point to look for help. Many Christian laity almost deliver the Gospel in such a way that God is primarily a fix to their depression, lack of something; He meets a psychological need. It isn’t that this isn’t true, that God is necessary for psychological wholeness. But in many cases, if they presuppose God exists as their mental/family/financial help, they are left in a strange situation where God is never their Master. No one’s going to come to me when they need a priest, and so, the coincidence, seem to be more intentional on the part of laity. As to linear thinking, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Your run a thought out to it’s logical conclusion and you see where it self-destructs, then offer hope/stability in God, who loves you and is also your Master. Something like that…

  32. Can anyone explain the Holy Silence icon, like the one that Fr. Freeman includes in the post? Things like:
    Why is it called “Holy Silence”?
    Why is Christ portrayed as an angel?
    Why the peculiar nimbus?
    Thanks!

  33. Edward,
    This particular icon is associated with Isaiah 9:

    For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
    and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

    In the Greek Old Testament, “Wonderful Counselor” reads “Angel of the Great Counsel.” Christ is obviously not an angel – but is portrayed in that manner as an iconic reference to this verse. The association of “hesychia” (silence) with everlasting peace would seem obvious. I don’t know why the nimbus is portrayed in that manner – other than the use of the the 2 colors – red for his human nature and blue for divine.

    Here is a detailed article you’ll find of interest: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/the-blessed-silence-icon-and-lots-of-noisy-talk-about-it/

    He has some odd speculations based on Margaret Baker’s 2nd Temple theories – which I would not endorse.

  34. Edward thank you for your question to Fr Stephen.
    This icon is one of my own in my icon prayer corner. I obtained it when I had learned it was an icon that Met Kalistos Ware has and is partial to in his prayers.

    I’ve wondered about the eight pointed star that you have asked about too. I’ve seen it portrayed in many ways across orthodox icons. In some cases it is the shape of the mandorla around Christ. I’ve looked up the symbol in a few of the icon books I have, but none mention it specifically.

    Curiously, it is also a symbol of “Breathmaker” in my mother’s Florida Seminole culture as well.

  35. Thank you for your words, Father Stephen, but I am troubled by the icon you choose to represent them. My words will not have wings, but is it not rather less than the manner in which Our Lord can iconically be represented?
    I only say this because I am troubled by it, and perhaps others are as well. I understand it to be symbolism, but we have such a gift in the incarnation of Christ, His being able to be seen by us in human form, with so many edicts concerning the suitability of this that I am troubled by such symbolism as wings signifying silence, an angelic form to the image as depicting Christ, a concept which needs to be explained, even to the Orthodox. I realize there are many symbolic representations that indicate his presence, even just a hand reaching down in one corner of an icon, which is lovely. And some of those would not be self-evident to all. I guess it is just the angelic physical representation that bothers me, sorry.
    This is a small thing in light of your overall post on the quality of silence, which is very beautiful. Thank you.

  36. I got stuck puzzling over the quotation about “the obscurity used by the Scripture, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding.” Surely it’s not saying that revelation is not really revelation. So, does this refer to the allegorical element that you have discussed in the past, Father Stephen? Or does it mean that we need help in interpreting scripture, or at least a guide. Or simply that we should rest in the words themselves, and not over analyze. I’ve often felt that there is a lot in scripture that I cannot understand, so I trust our priests to help me, and I avoid discussions with friends who ask for explanations of what may seem to them to be contradictory elements.

  37. Albert, I also don’t engage in attempts to explain away the contradictory elements of Scripture. It is fruitless because there are indeed contradictions in Scripture, extremes and opposites abound in both the Old Testament and the words of Christ. Many Christians today are consumed with trying to answer a world obsessed with reason by dragging that which transcends reason down in shriveled attempts to resolve tension. My own gut sense is that revelation is not passively received, nor grasped in the hands through reason, but received in the active struggle along the path of self-abandoning love. That is why the understanding of Scripture is always beyond those who do not love Jesus Christ, and part of the ascetic path for the lover. No historical or critical method can ever grasp the heart of revelation which is yielded only to love, and which gathers up the rationality of the cosmos into that which fills and transcends it. Those are my own thoughts anyway.

  38. Juliana,
    I appreciate your thoughts on the excellence and perfection made known to us in the Incarnation of Christ. However, the icon (which is a perfectly traditional Orthodox icon) portrays the Old Testament vision of Christ as the “Angel of the Great Counsel.” And, apart from the “wings” uses the image that could only be known because Christ became incarnate. St. John the Baptist is often portrayed with wings because he is described as “I will send my messenger before Thy face.” In Greek, the word “messenger” is the same as the word “angel.” It is simply a way, in painting, to convey the words of Scripture. It does not mean that John is or ever was an angel. Nor does this icon mean that Jesus ever was or is an angel. It is “iconic” language for the word “messenger.”

    The Fathers of the 6th Council wrote, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” To insist that we cannot do with color what the Scripture does with words is an improper understanding of icons. It would be the same as insisting that the Scriptures “not say that.” The icon says what the Scriptures say.

  39. Albert,
    St. Basil’s “silence” of the obscurity in Scripture is not simply that they need explanation (though sometimes they do). Rather, it is the silence that only understanding in the depths of the heart can make known. Many simple sayings of Jesus that people imagine themselves to understand are, in fact, not truly understood. If they were, then there lives would be totally different. “Love your neighbor,” is understood by very few, for example. The Scripture uses many tools and devices (including allegory, typology, etc.) to “hide” its deeper meaning – but mostly, it’s just the fact that the very truth itself is contained in words. How can a finite thing (a word) contain the infinite? It does – but only the true enlargement of the heart can begin to know – truly know – its meaning. It yields itself to us as we grow in God. “Then we shall know even as we are known.”

  40. Reader Christopher “The understanding of Scripture is always beyond those who do not love Jesus Christ”. I like that because it is not as simple as it first seems. It is profoundly true but it raises the question in my heart “How do I come to love Jesus Christ?” There are a cascade of other questions that could follow.

    The Scriptures themselves describe many different ways both directly and indirectly.
    But of course the nature of love is such that it always takes us “higher up and deeper in”. It can be both blissful and painful as layers of sin are removed. Tears often water it’s course. Ultimately it would be impossible if He did not first love us and place that love at the core of what it means to be human.
    Thank you

  41. Dear Father Stephen,
    Your words of your article and comments are always edifying. When I first read the opening words from scripture, I thought of the work that I do, usually characterized in this culture as some sort of ‘independent’ study of nature. Such an approach is ill suited to hear the hymns of God’s words in nature’s silence.

    I hope that what I attempt to write now will not be seen as too much playfulness in the light of your edifying work. But while I was reflecting on nature and the discourse I have with God through nature (that we all can and might have with God through nature) I remembered an incident while I was working in a lab as a student. The incident offers a rather humorous reflection of our culture’s tendency to speak in a rapid-fire cadence–almost violent like a machine gun. For some reason I’m not able to speak in a similarly fast way (although I try). And neither do I have the brain wiring to access the language when it’s spoken in such a manner either. It can be embarrassing. And it is often annoying to my husband while we watch a movie and I ask him to translate what’s said at a slower speed.

    So here is a description of a (almost) conversation in which a student working in a fumehood next to mine said to me. Her voice was raised in alarm and she turns to me and says,

    “Dieunoawaterschtractershtirhbee!!!???”

    Her expression was desperate, her eyes showed fear, but what came out of her mouth sounded like something I would hear in an old Chipmunk cartoon. I hesitated, thinking as fast as I could. I couldn’t translate so I looked into her fumehood to see whether some disaster had taken place. I couldn’t discern anything wrong, so haltlingly I asked, “Pardon?”

    And so she said again,

    “Dieunoawaterschtractershtirhbee!!!???”

    She seemed devastated, her tone was pleading. But I was too embarrassed to ask her to repeat again. Thankfully the TA was walking by and I grabbed his arm and said, “she needs help”.

    And then she said the same thing again to him. Ironically he was not embarrassed to say that he had no idea what she was trying to say and he told her to slow down. And then she did. Here was what she was trying to say:

    “Do you know how to extract a stir bean”?

    If you don’t know chemistry and not familiar with the weird stuff students do in a lab, this may still sound like gibberish. But here is the translation: a “stir bean” is a small magnetic bar that is used to stir solutions in beakers while they sit on a magnetic stirring plate. She had poured the contents of her beaker into a separatory funnel (used to separate liquids into layers like oil and water). However, she had accidentally dropped the magnetic bar into the funnel as well and it was blocking the funnel from pouring and was preventing her from completing the separation process.

    The TA helped her get it out.

    Words indeed are like icons. As you say Father, they can hold an infinity of meaning. Let us speak carefully, lovingly, and may God help us to listen in silence.

  42. Dee,
    One of my first jobs after high school was as a carpenter’s helper. The lead carpenter was an old man from the back country whose dialect was almost impenetrable to anyone outside Appalachia. I have entertained people over the years with direct quotes that I remember which do not sound like anything other than gibberish. Strangely, I understood him.

    Among the dialect patterns was the replacing of “th” with “f,” so that “Thirty three” came out as “furdy free.”

  43. Father Stephen,

    Regarding the man that you apprenticed with and his Appalachian dialect… It’s a bit of a roundabout story, but hear me out.

    I am Serbian, and in Serbian, we do not have the “th” sound (if you do, you have a speech impediment; as far as I know, no Slavic language has that sound). So, borrowed words that have that sound (“th” in English, “theta” in Greek, and so on) get mapped to a hard “t”. One of those borrowed words is the name of the Holy Apostle Thomas, whose Serbian name is Sveti Toma (hard T). In Russian, however, the Greek “theta” got mapped to the “F” sound, so the Apostle is Sveti Foma.

    You encounter a strange man, who is unintelligible to others but has this peculiar speech pattern that matches the Russian language phonology, in your formative years, and decades later you find yourself an Orthodox Christian and a Rusofile. Fanciful? Maybe. Probably. Coincidence? I think not. 🙂

  44. Your comment Father made me smile.

    I recall such a dialect in my childhood as well, when as a family we traveled through Appalachia country and stopped at a gas station. In those days someone came out to fill the tank and clean the windows, and on that occasion said a few somewhat indiscernible but friendly-toned words. I remember this occasion with fondness. It felt like a different country as a child.

  45. Milos,
    Several English dialects substitute “f” for “th” in their pronunication. When I first saw this in Slavic languages, it was, indeed, quite familiar to me. The Appalachian dialects, spoken in and near the Eastern mountain range in the US by that name, are, in fact, derivations from the so-called “Scots-Irish” who settled them. They were people from the “borderlands” between Scotland and England, as well as in the area of Northern Ireland, where they had been transplanted by the English, since, being fiercely Protestant, they were placed in order to “pacify” the native Catholic Irish. That, of course, never worked out. In the early 1700’s and for quite some time thereafter, many immigrated to America and settled along these mountains (and elsewhere).

    They were fiercely independent, and very self-reliant. Many of them were strongly supportive of the colonial war of independence, having long been accustomed to shooting at Englishmen. 🙂 I fair amount of my ancestry traces back to them – though my father’s family were thoroughly English. They, however, also fought in the colonial efforts to gain independence from England. My native dialect is a modified version of the Appalachian – there are four or five distinct dialects – and I understand them all pretty well.

  46. Language is fascinating and dialects even more so! They really do pinpoint a particular locale.

    Dee’s last comment reminded me when a group of us drove down to Florida for Spring Break. At one point we stopped somewhere down South for gas and for directions. Moments after the fellow commensed to speaking, our faces went blank, waiting for him to finish so we could thank him and move on. Not one word did us Yankees understand! And the man was speaking English!
    For a while there I remember thinking, is he just pulling our leg?!!
    I laugh!
    Dialect…and slang – fascinating!

  47. There are probably more dialects here in the Southeast than almost anywhere else in the US – at least “thick accents.” Perhaps NYC might rival it. It is an area where I think I can understand almost all of them…but it takes an ear for it. I think there were about 5 or 6 that came together near my hometown alone.

  48. The “thick accents”, yes Father, there are many along the East coast. It is a tribute to diversity!
    My father, who was quite the entertainer, was really good at ‘doing’ the local NY accents. It was done in good taste…it seemed a fun way to revel in our differences. An ice-breaker, if you will.

  49. Thank you so much, Father Stephen, for answering in depth my troubled post. I realize that I don’t express myself well, and I by no means wish to quarrel with your important message of the conveyance of silence as a condition in which we can positively dwell. That this is an historically ancient icon was news to me as I had not seen it before.
    I do have a ‘but’, which I hope I can express non-argumentatively. It is just that I love icons so much and there are some that deviate from our church’s unfolding of their message. In Ouspensky’s “Theology of the Icon” he expresses it as historically proceeding through an age of symbolism in which depictions of Christ were symbolic for reasons of safety, but then after Christianity was ‘out of the closet’ so to speak, and the theologians and fathers of the church were formulating answers to deviations from the message of Christianity there was made known the link between the icon and the Incarnation, and that was codified with regard to the icon of Christ in the Quinisext Council most specifically. I quote from Ouspensky: “…the Quintisext Council required a direct image and discarded the symbols which did not represent Christ in his concrete humanity…”
    I am by no means an expert when it comes to the edicts of the various councils, and I only emphasize this one because it speaks to my heart as to the authenticity of icons in our church and their connection to Christ’s appearing in our midst. I know, it isn’t in our Creed, so I don’t want to be dogmatic about it, just to express a very slight misgiving. Please pardon me if I offend.

  50. Juliana,
    The sort of thing that Ouspensky is describing refers to, for example, portraying Christ as a Lamb, rather than as a human being. Of course, in the West, that canonical exclusion never seems to have caught on. In the particular case of this icon, the form of Christ is that of a human being, despite the angelic wings. It is, of course, much later than the Quinisext Council. Ouspensky, it seems (or so I have learned), described a rather stricter regime in the painting of icons than was ever entirely the case. I think he was striving to bring a better, more Orthodox order, to what had become a very Westernized attitude – producing religious art rather than icons.

    There is much more discussion of this going on these days with the strong revival of iconography. I would say that when Ouspensky is taken as the canonical spokesman for Orthodox icons, there will be many times that you’ll run into contradictions and have difficulty. I prefer his approach and find it very compatible with the dogmatic teaching of the Church – but over the years I’ve worked at taking Orthodoxy as it is and not as I would demand that it be. This particular portrayal of Christ has examples found in Greece and Russia, and on the Holy Mountain, as well.

    When I see such things, I simply let them be what they are. But I understand, full well, your hesitancy.

  51. “Creation has a sacramental purpose: it reveals God.”

    That first sentence is absolutely brilliant.

  52. I was recently drawn to buy an icon of Saint Ignatius in which he is being attacked by lions. The story that the lions did not eat his heart because the Name of Jesus Christ was literally inscribed in it is a perfect expression of this quote by him. In spite of the incredible “noise” engulfing him in that moment, he was still able to maintain the silence in his heart and hear the Word of Jesus Christ imprinted there.

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