Hagia Sophia and the Evil Eye

The opening psalm of Great Vespers sings: “O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom have You made them all!” It is a line we hear so frequently in the Church that it is easy to overlook its significance. The universe of all created things does not simply exist – it exists in a manner that reveals a wisdom beyond our understanding. Nothing in modern science has diminished the wonder that is the unfolding order and beauty of creation. Indeed, the more we know, the more we should wonder.

Within the Orthodox tradition, there is a profound place for this wonder. It is sometimes described as “natural contemplation,” but, most often, is simply gathered under the heading of Divine Providence. It is a recognition that God makes Himself known in His providential care for all things. This account does not posit a self-existing, self-sustaining universe. Rather, it assumes God as the source of being and every goodness. In contemplating these things, we discern the hand of God (St. Dionysius the Areopagite clearly equates the Divine Energies and Providence).

It is this image of providential wisdom that lies behind the dedication of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul). It is magnificently portrayed in the massive dome, representing the heavens, suspended on the four pendentives that represent the four corners of the earth. It is the Church as all of creation. That same model, to a great extent, serves as an iconic blueprint for all Orthodox Church buildings, despite their many variations.

Of course, as icon, it points beyond itself and serves to make present what it represents. In that understanding, it is correct to say that we live in Hagia Sophia. Its dome is the dome of the sky that stretches above us, displaying the Wisdom of God. Icons have an intention of teaching us how to see. They are “eschatological,” always pointing towards the age to come rather than depicting history. Even historical events, such as those celebrated in a Feast Day, are iconically depicted in an eschatological manner which lies at the heart of their celebration. For we do not celebrate a feast as something that has happened – we celebrate it as something that is happening now, in our midst. The Church gathers, always, in the present moment of the Kingdom of God that is come in the person of Jesus Christ. “Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!” we say.

There is also something of an anti-icon within our midst. By this, I do not mean iconoclasm, per se, but the heart that lies beneath iconoclasm. That heart is the heart of envy. It is the traditional passion that is given the name the “evil eye.” Envy does not mean that we want what others have – that is mere covetousness. The Scriptures describe covetousness as “idolatry” (Col. 3:5). As such, covetousness is little more than desire turned in the wrong direction. Envy is much darker. Envy is the pleasure we take in the calamity that others suffer. It is the heart that says, “He got what was coming to him,” or that longs to see terrible consequences come to pass. Of all the passions, it is the darkest. It is able to look at suffering and smile. It was envy that crucified Christ (Matt. 27:18).

Iconoclasm, historically, is a will to destruction. It rarely has little more than post-traumatic excuses and explanations. Irreplaceable beauty (including the lives of innocent people) are caught up in its insanity. In the 1640’s, England was captive to the madness of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan armies. The iconoclasm that left very little medieval art and religious devotional items intact was not the work of the Reformation. It was Cromwell. What was set in its place was the tyranny of radical Puritanism, outlawing Holy Days, dancing, and ushering in its own reign of terror. It was a madness that lasted only ten years but left a historical stain in Britain that likely remains to this day. America was deeply related to that cause and carries many of the same seeds within it. The Puritan impulse (which does not create wonder or beauty) irrupts with some regularity in our culture. Many call it “progress.”

Because envy is a passion, it does not have a natural end. It cannot be brought to a completion or satisfied – for it is insatiable. Our natural desires, such as hunger, sex, thirst, etc., can all be satisfied because they have a proper end. It is the passions, not desires, that wreak havoc on the world. The love of beauty, as a natural desire, particularly enjoys and delights in fulfillment. We do not look at the Mona Lisa and long for one more brushstroke. Hagia Sophia does not cry out for extra stories and wings. Oftentimes, the passions take over proper desires. We see a young teen want to look twenty-five and realize they should have been satisfied with being a teen. The extremes of the modelling world are nurtured by corrupted desires (passions).

Consumerism often asks us to worship in the temple of envy. Envy cannot create beauty, but it can sell stuff.

The recent crisis surrounding Hagia Sophia being re-purposed as a Mosque is about the pain of a lost temple. The temple was lost, however, in 1453, not 2020. And though Islam is iconoclastic, the “re-capture” of Hagia Sophia was as much about seizing a Turkish-Islamic “icon” as anything. They have not sought to destroy it, but to use it for a perverted end. As painful as that use might be for the Orthodox, it is, fortunately, not the destruction of the temple.

There is, however, a very dangerous iconoclasm that resides within us all in the envy that infects our hearts. When Christ taught the love of enemy and to forgive those who hate us, He invites us to abandon the envy sown by the evil one. There is a deep fear by many, whenever His teachings in this matter are brought to a specific case. We fear that if our enemies are not resisted in every possible way, they will win. I once heard it said that to be a pacifist does not mean the end of violence, but that you will end up on a cross. That is, in fact, the case. Christ’s death on the Cross does not take place in order to destroy crosses. His Cross destroys death and does so by being a Cross, voluntarily taken up out of love.

That voluntary self-offering is itself the deepest wisdom of the universe. St. Maximus said that he who understands the mystery of the Cross understands the mystery of all things. St. Paul named Christ crucified “the power and wisdom of God.” That the well-ordered beauty of the universe is displayed most profoundly in the crucified Christ is indeed the very heart of the Christian mystery.

The world today seems to be suspended in the world of the evil eye. Our envy leaves us surrounded by enemies. It is an eye that does not reveal enemies to be what they truly are. Instead, it makes us complicit in whatever evil others might design, whether real or imagined. All of this takes place beneath the starry dome of holy wisdom that moment by moment reassures us that for those who love God, all things work together for good. It means that the primary question rests with the dome under which our heart resides.

39 comments:

  1. Thank you Father for this inspiring article. It comes at an opportune time for me and hopefully for others.

  2. It is important for us to remember and ponder that the wonder words and thoughts of the Fathers on Divine Providence and His many wonders were, generally, written during centuries in which our present troubles would seem like rather minor things. The previous Hagia Sophia was burnt to the ground by Orthodox Christians during the Nika Riots. The new one was built to replace it (and was ever so much larger and more wondrous). It took 5 years.

  3. Nice reflection, but you may need to brush up on your history of the English Civil War period, and in particular Oliver Cromwell. For example, theaters were outlawed by Parliament in 1642, while Cromwell was an obscure back-bencher. As for the iconoclasm – I’ve traveled a great deal in East Anglia (Cromwell’s stomping grounds) and please let me assure you that the medieval fabric of probably 98% of the village churches is still intact. More damage was done by the Victorian redecorators than Wiliam Dowsing. Cromwell actually suppressed the more radical elements among the Puritans, eg the Fifth Monarchy Men and the Levellers.

    The “progressives” you describe are. actually. the descendants of the New England Puritans who became unitarians and adopted the practice of radical social change. Richard Gamble, a historian at Hillsdale College, has written several books about these appalling people. I would recommend “A Fiery Gospel” which is about the Yankee hymn of hate known as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” They are the bad guys in your story.

  4. Well said! I have been consistently surprised that so many have been so angry and utterly hateful over this. The anger I can understand to a point, though I do not agree with it (as you note, the church was lost in 1453), but the bilious hatred for the Turks is painful to encounter. And stranger still, the bulk of the hatred I have encountered has come from non-Orthodox Christians, while the Orthodox I know have been the most forgiving. I ask these bitterly angry people, “And what would you have done here? Should we go to war? Or should we pray for the Turks and seek to find ways to bring them to Christ?” One such person even suggested demolishing the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, even if that meant an all-out cataclysmic war and the deaths of millions of Christians throughout their ancestral lands in the Middle East. To be filled with such malice is no way to live, and no way to live in Christ.

  5. “… Envy is the pleasure we take in the calamity that others suffer. It is the heart that says, “He got what was coming to him,” or that longs to see terrible consequences come to pass. Of all the passions, it is the darkest. It is able to look at suffering and smile. It was envy that crucified Christ (Matt. 27:18).”

    I am in the unenviable position, thanks to various circumstances of my own life (all things over which I had no control) to become aware of concrete forms of evil in high places in our world that most people cannot see and don’t suspect. The evil is exceedingly dark and grievous—aspects of it are coming to light and hinted at in snippets in our news every day, but few suspect the extent of it. As I confront it in reports and testimonies of others, I long for the exposure of the perpetrators and the permanent destruction of their power to do harm. You could say I am looking forward to the day of their judgment and condemnation, and deliverance of their victims, which likely for most won’t come in this life. Now I wonder is this envy? Or is it only envy if I would take pleasure in their destruction as an end in itself (rather than as an occasion for the liberation of those held in bondage and an occasion for the repentance of the evildoer)? What is the difference between envy and the longing for justice as the restoration of right order in the universe and the Lordship of Christ in all things? Is envy, perhaps, the passionate perversion of the longing for justice?

  6. J.H.
    Cromwell is an easy name to attach to what was done – though you are most correct in correcting me. Nonetheless, much damage was done by the Parliamentary forces to the Church. The American Puritans were simply cousins of the same. Just as the American Puritans morphed into many other things, including the Evangelicals of the 19th and 20th centuries, so the English Puritans morphed as well. The two histories go their separate ways, but, still, some describe America’s subsequent history as simply an extension of the English Civil War. I am not a defender of the Southern Cause, though my ancestors fought in it. My enemies (the bad guys) all dwell in my heart.

  7. I wonder if one symptom of envy is our use of the phrase ‘those people’?

    I am frequently reminded that Christ one might say almost hid himself amongst ‘tax-collectors and sinners’. We can have little sense of how those of Jesus’ time must have felt about tax-collectors. and their association with ‘sinners’, suggests that the latter were also notorious – ‘those people’.

    Those people for whom he died.

    Insofar as there is a remedy, is it not to also number ourselves amongst the transgressors?

    As to justice, I’d rather place myself in the hands of God’s than Man’s, any day. ‘Justice without mercy’ Lord have mercy

  8. Wonderful essay. I certainly don’t want to start a political argument especially in this hallowed Ground far from the ludicrous space of Facebook, however I am mystified how is The Battle Hymn of the Republic song of hate? Incidentally the opening words wer the last public words ever said by dr. Martin Luther King. I think the respondent missed Father’s point about how Puritans in there rather garbled thought could no longer recognize beauty and wonder.

  9. Thankyou for this very interesting and inspiring article Father.
    It’s so sad to see so much hatred by so many Orthodox Christians and others directed towards Turkey. Completely goes against our Christian values and way of life, and yet we expect God to be merciful!
    Also, I have heard from another priest that it was indeed envy/evil eye that crucified Christ.
    What a terrible thought, that our envy has the power even to crucify others.
    Would it be correct to say that this is on par with judging others, where we also have the desire for someone to be punished or destroyed?
    Better to crucify ourselves.

  10. I tend to think that the desire for justice (separated by a razor’s edge from envy) which Karen and Father spoke of has less to do with the actual punishment of the perpetrator and far more to do with the recompense of the victim. Especially regarding what Karen alludes to, I think that even the mere revelation of the hidden suffering (especially when it involves unimaginable suffering which remains meticulously concealed ) is part of that judgement. Perhaps the most important part.
    Whether we speak of a whitewashed genocide (like the Armenian) , a modern day sacrifice to Moloch constantly swept under the carpet, or some hidden agenda that people speaking of it are mocked of as conspiracists, with all such things, there is an element of grave injustice perpetuated upon the victims by the continuing fact that they are confronted by people telling them to hush up whenever they speak of the hidden injustice. Of course, only God knows how to manage this type of ‘vindication’ (of such revelation) , and when.

  11. Mario,
    I well understand the bitterness directed towards Turkey – it has a very long history of unrelenting persecution and annihilation of whole people’s – denied and defended to this very day. So, the pain of those stories is real. Thus, to resist the temptation towards envy in that case is a great spiritual struggle and we frequently fail. On the other hand, I think most of those who struggle with it, would not hesitate to Baptize a Turk and welcome them into the household of faith through repentance. These are difficult, difficult trials.

  12. Dino,
    It is very difficult indeed. The long-remembered attrocities of the Greek and Roman empires against the Jews, no doubt, fueled a great envy within them that darkened their hearts. That Christ taught and showed a way out of that morass is clear. Within a generation or two, over half a million Jews would die at the hands of the Romans and Jerusalem would be leveled. The Christians, we are told, were warned by prophecy and left Judea in time to avoid much of the slaughter. There is much that is apocalyptic in our time – when hidden things are made known. May God reveal His hand.

  13. Dino, another way of saying that is the desire is for restorative justice, not retributive. Amen. I believe that is my deepest underlying longing, but there are times at least momentarily when one sees the evil, it can erupt through the passions into the darker side. This is where the Scriptures’ injunction not to allow a root of bitterness to grow up becomes relevant.

  14. Karen
    I’m not sure restorative instead of retributive is nuanced enough.
    To stick with the 3 examples used in my previous comment (whether considering a whitewashed genocide or a whitewashed Moloch-like modern day barbarism or a mocked-at-its-mention large scale conspiracy) : what adds the most insult to injury is when perpetrators have the power to convince people that the victims and their supporters (and whistelblowers as they say nowadays) are mad. I am not sure the restorative revelation (if possible to all people) of the opposite truth (although indeed being restorative) is what ‘restorative justice’ would convey for most people.

  15. I agree Father
    I am part of the Greek Cypriot community in North London where we recently commemorated that dreadful invasion of Northern Cyprus on the 20th July 1974, also feast day of the Prophet Elijah.
    A very difficult situation , especially when you know many around you who had at the time lost everything, including friends and family members.
    My question is (apart from prayer), how do we influence them in a positive way to help with negative thoughts and feelings.
    And how do we help ourselves?

  16. Dino, I am definitely living the reality you describe using your three examples, even if only mostly inwardly and privately by what I witness (witnessing abuse of others with whom one identifies is experienced as abuse of oneself—we suffer with the suffering of Christ’s little ones), but I have also occasionally been shredded in comments on social media when I have ventured to bring documented light about an issue where truth/reality has been covered up by those with great power in media and I see the ignorance killing people. 😢) Restorative perhaps only communicates what I mean insofar as it distinguishes from retributive. Your comments here help me feel so much less alone. That is priceless to me, and I am grateful to the Lord for you.

  17. Karen
    That difficult feeling of aloneness is found in the difficulties of most saints. Psalm 94 is particularly apt in such cases my dear sister.

  18. I have been reading what I could find online of Saint Isaac the Syrian (7th century I think) and I am most taken by his insistence that God being Love is not the vengeful God one might interpret from the Old Testament. Saint Isaac’s claim is well founded in our liturgy which begins and ends with the message that God loves all of His creation and wants all men to be saved. Apparently Saint Isaac was made a Bishop, but very soon abdicated, after he was called upon to adjudicate between two men over a debt owed. He brought up a Gospel verse but was told to leave the Gospel out of it, which he said he could not do, and so resigned and became a hermit.

    My own father in Christ was very proud of a Russian ancestor who under communist government resigned his own post when it was put upon him to pronounce a death sentence on a citizen in his jurisdiction. As I understand Saint Isaac, love always trumps justice, and he says it was chiefly to clarify this to men in no uncertain terms that the Incarnation happened, and happened in the manner in which it took place. The distinction is that important.

  19. Juliana,
    St. Isaac’s insights have played a hugely beneficial role in my own spiritual healing and bringing me into the Church. Others like St. Silouan of Mt. Athos and St. Porphyrios of Athens to whom this blog has helped to introduce me have also been wonderful. 🙂

  20. Many years ago I studied the Stuarts ,
    a Scottish Dynasty which took over the English throne after Elizabeth I. Cromwell rose to power because of the reaction to these kings playing with French interests and Roman Catholic tendencies. He did his best to tone down the viiolent reactions to the Stuarts by being Lord Protector unfortunately with the help of the Army which was of extreme belief with Continental Protestant connections. He is buried with honour, in Westminster Abbey ,I think.
    American views are coloured by Irish school teachers as the Army devastated many Irish areas for supporting Stuart causes. Land belonged to Stuart appointed noblemen who then fled to Virginia and other Colonies.leaving the peasants to live with the aftermath.

  21. @Mario

    “It’s so sad to see so much hatred by so many Orthodox Christians and others directed towards Turkey.”

    My parents’ families were refugees from modern day Turkey. The surviving members of my father’s family managed to board on a ship in Izmir in 1922 when the Greeks were forcefully expelled from Asia minor. My mother’s family expelled from the shores of the Black Sea (around Trabzon area), the so called people from Pontus. They all came to mainland Greece and started new lives. I never heard a word of hate from my grandparents or parents. In fact my father would throw the odd Turkish word, like mashallah when he saw me growing up.

    No one hates an individual Turk and as Father said, one would wish everyone to be baptised and come to know the Truth. We have Turkish saints like St Ahmed Kalfas (24th Dec) who we pray to.

    The Turks as a nation however, like the Mongols of Ghengis Khan, have caused the death and destruction of millions of people. The Lord has permitted some nations to be like a plague of humanity. We learn from the fathers that since the Lord wants everyone to be saved, this must be in His unfathomable plan to achieve that. The story of Israel in the Old Testament teaches us that when His people did not trust Him, they lost His grace and suffered.

    The same happened with the fall of Constantinople. When emperor John VIII Palaiologos turned for help to the same Frankish Popes that blessed the destruction of the city by the crusaders in 1204, he lost the grace of God and the City ultimately fell in 1453. The inhabitants of Constantinople were butchered to such an extend, that even the conqueror Sultan Mohammed II was brought to tears, as we learn from sir Steven Runciman. The City fell but Orthodoxy survived, otherwise we’d all be Catholics today.

    I saw the document for the union of churches, signed by emperor John in the British Library in London. It is not publicly available. It was heart breaking. The emperor must have been under great pressure. He signed in red ink and his writing was jagged as his hand must have been trembling.

    Hagia Sophia is now a mosque. This can only be in God’s providence. The invasion of Cyprus was also in God’s providence. Modern day Greeks and Cypriots need to repent and trust only Christ. When Elder Paisios was asked when the Greeks will have Constantinople back, he answered, when they become better than the Turks. For the moment we do not deserve it.

  22. Dear Nikolaos
    I don’t disagree with anything you have said. Also, my comment is not intended to paint everyone with the same brush.
    Naturally, there are many who forgive.
    I am thinking more of the reactions about Turkey’s behaviour, especially on social media, facebook etc. They are so viceral, to the degree where they are calling for mosques to be converted into churches. Etc.
    There are many calling for revenge. We know this is not the way, as you say repentance is the only way. My apologies if I have created a misunderstanding.

  23. M Emberson,
    I assure you, I had no Irish teachers. My thoughts on Cromwell are largely colored by my years as an Anglican priest. He was not held in high regard there. But, much of the politics of those years were decidedly Tory for me. I think it’s possible to have a very judicious reading of Cromwell (other than his Irish venture – but we can hold many more responsible for the tragic treatment of Ireland). The Puritan movement in England was the mother of make-it-up-as-you-go Protestantism – which has managed to do far more unintended damage than is calculable. Nonetheless, I take your defense of Cromwell to note. He was much better than he might have been.

  24. Ah… The Stuarts. Long ago one my history professors who specialized in Tudor and Stuart England led off all of his lectures on the Stuarts with a description of a particular issue of the age and then saying that the logical course of action was “X” but being a Stuart, they did “y”. A family it seems that was grossly ill suited to the monarchy. Alas.

  25. Nikolaos,
    Thank you so much for your comment and for Elder Paisios’ words.

    I’m grateful for the voices such as yours coming from families who have experienced such tragedies and atrocities as your family experienced, speak of the love of Christ for their neighbors.

    May God continue to bless you with His grace.

  26. Nikolaos,
    I’m writing now, in full support of your comment, some of Christ’s words as He walked the long walk to His impending crucifixion, which He fully embraced for the love of the world. In His pending crucifixion, He faced and entered the passions of sin: envy, jealousy, political intrigue, anger and prejudice:

    (Luke 9:51-56)

    Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face, and as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village.”

    They needed to stay somewhere on their way to Jerusalem, so they walked further following God’s will and went to another village.

    “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the wold gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)

  27. Nikolaos, it is a hallmark of modernity that history be rewritten to fit the current narrative.

  28. Thank you, Karen! I came to Orthodoxy by way of Dostoievski discussions and a little backyard church that was taking shape at the same time. I never had researched Saint Isaac, though his homilies are mentioned twice in Dostoievski’s final novel. That work gave me a new understanding of authorship , the power of the written word, by which so much truth can be passed forward generation to generation. And, so much more! 😉

  29. Thank you for your words and prayers,Nikolaos.

    St Chrisostom of Smyrna endured and gave his life for the Lord. The atrocity of his death mirrors that of the Lord in the attempt of the Lord’s enemy, by that I mean the adversary, to humiliate and desecrate one of God’s own. His circumstances and willingness to stay with his flock and subsequent sacrifice of his life to stay with his flock, is humbling of our privileged lives and condescending, bitterly divisive attitudes we have against each other and even within our own Church in America. May St Chrisostom of Smyrna and St Paisios pray for us all.

  30. Father, please forgive me for writing this. I suppose it is a political comment and if seems too incendiary I trust you will remove it.

    I find it ironic how often I hear the words of rhetoric to “make America great again”, ever while we exhibit the avidity to be ferociously tear each other apart.

  31. And thus in the entropy of this world we are faced with a decision: to vote or not to vote whether it is nobler in the mind …. The desire to “end them is a futile hope as even Shakespeare showed for at end of the play the stage is littered with corpses while the ghosts of others lingers and Fortenbras has taken the kingdom.
    Still, there lurks as a goad what Fr. Alexander F. C Webster called in his book, “The Pacifist Option”, the zero sum dilemma. If we do not act and thereby do not do evil does our inaction mean someone else comes to harm. “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
    Does it make a difference which road to destruction we take or how we choose to travel it?
    After all the outcome is no longer just because the King has sinned but because I have sinned and no one else can rid me of it. Only God’s mercy saves us in any case.

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