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.