I Will Go Into the Altar of God

Most of my early Church memories center around Sunday School (I think that we did not “stay for preaching” very often). The small Baptist church that we attended was about a mile from our house and was conveniently connected by a railroad track, generally inactive on Sundays. My older brother and I often walked along the track on Sunday mornings when the weather was pleasant. The earliest Bible verses I can recall were learned in those classrooms. One of those was Psalm 122:1: “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the House of the Lord.’” No doubt, our teachers wanted us to remember it and return the next Sunday. That is how my young mind understood the verse.

Of course, the Scriptures have layers and layers of depth. I could only think of the small, white church down the tracks and the older ladies who taught our classes. I had no stories, as yet, of the House of the Lord in Jerusalem, nor the place of a pilgrimage for Jews to go there (perhaps only annually). It would be many years, indeed, before I learned about the House of the Lord in the soul, and the Secret Place deep within it.

My brother and I had a companion on those tracks, one who would become very important later in my life. I had a small Bible, covered in white leatherette, that was given to me by my mother’s Sunday School class when I was born (as was done for other children as well). It was King James, with onion skin paper and gilded edges. It was mine. My brother tells me that we fell into an argument one day as he taunted me for carrying my Bible. “You can’t read yet. Why do you carry it?” (I had to be no older than five at the time). He says that I replied, “It doesn’t matter. It’s the Word of God!”

Our companion was in the very front of that Bible. Its frontispiece was the Virgin and Child, painted by Raphael (the “Sistine Madonna”). It was the only bit of color in the entire book. I would learn much later in life that a print of that Madonna hung over Dostoevsky’s writing desk and was his favorite. I can remember no conversations about her, or her presence in my Bible. No mention was made in Sunday School about Mary. She was not part of my family’s religious consciousness. But she was there.

I think to myself now that she was there like the little Bible was there. I did not understand anything of the mystery that dwells within her, her intercessions for the faithful, and such. I did not understand the words in the Bible itself. But the Bible was the “Word of God,” and she, the “Bearer of the Eternal Word – the Theotokos.” The presence was sacramental and iconic rather than rational.

I have long thought that devotion to the Theotokos was sown in my child-heart by that Madonna. I did not discover that devotion until I was in college, as a part of High Anglicanism and the rosary. When I did discover that devotion I remembered the picture. That little Bible was extremely worn by the time of my college years. It was my companion during the Jesus Movement, acquiring a hand-made leather cover.

She comes to mind for me at this time of year. The feast of her Presentation in the Temple is tomorrow. As a child, too young to read, she is brought to the House of the Lord. There she took up a ministry among the young virgins. This is described in the Protoevangelium of James, and, not surprisingly, is treated with skepticism by modern scholars. I choose to accept the story and the mystery that surrounds it.

The first great mystery in this matter is well-noted in the hymns of the feast. Mary is the “Ark of the Covenant,” she whose womb will contain God-in-the-flesh. Her entrance into the Temple is the return of the Ark to the House of the Lord. As is true of so much else, there are layers and layers of meaning in that event. The feast invites us into them.

Today, my thoughts are about the “inner Temple,” the “Secret Place of the Most High,” that lies within the deep heart. Today, she will enter that place, and as a little child will dance in the presence of the Lord. Today, she will take me by the hand and tell me that she has longed for this Day when I would join her there and dance in God’s presence, happy that she is there, and that her womb will make Him present for all, the salvation of the world.

I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the House of the Lord.’

Introibo ad altare Dei.   

28 comments:

  1. Wonderful. My grandmother had this picture in her house, and it brings back my memories of her and her abiding simple faith. I too have come to believe that Mary was always watching over me and protecting me. I think she was a kind of spiritual shepherd, a veil of protection, without my conscious awareness. She still is, quite actively, in so many important and essential ways. But now she is much more consciously present to me

  2. Who made the decision to put that compelling picture in those little white leatherette Bibles? What was that person’s or committee’s thinking, purpose? Was there any awareness that they were prefacing this Bible for Protestants with the Theotokos? Did they hope for certain outcomes? If they read your story of its influence on your life, what would they say? I can only wonder. God does, indeed, work in mysterious ways.

  3. I thought “the entry into the temple was one of those things that happened but was not talked about in the Bible.” Today at vespers I realized I was wrong. The reading was from Exodus and said something like, “and you shall bring the Ark of the covenant into the Holy of Holies and shall cover it with a vail.” My jaw literally dropped. I had always motored by that passage (getting to the exciting fire from heaven material) not realizing that it contained a prophecy of the entry. Of course, that may be due to the fact I had never read it in a liturgical context, and was from a tradition that didn’t care about Mary that much.

  4. Lewis,
    I am certain that, on the one hand, the picture would have seemed like a “Christmas Card” to them. That sort of white leatherette Bible was meant for presentation, not for reading. Interestingly, I read it so thoroughly in my late teen years (commune days) that I was wearing it out. It is hopelessly marked, even colored in. It’s still a treasure for me.

    I next encountered that Raphael Sistine Madonna in a life-size reproduction in the chapel at St. John’s Cathedral (Episcopal) in Knoxville, back in the early 90’s. She was a pleasant surprise. Most stunning of all was the discovery of the Dostoevsky connection (somewhere around ’05). Never underestimate the importance of icons in the lives of children. And, in my case, the Raphael Madonna was truly an icon.

  5. Dear Father,
    I love this beautiful painting of the Theotokos and Christ. I have no doubt she held your hand as you held your Bible, walking down those tracks. . It is a true icon. It beckons and transports us to the throne of God. It whispers the Love of God into our hearts. It brings forth the tenderness of Christ’s life to abide in our hearts.

    Thank you for sharing with us such beauty.

  6. In my view Western paintings can be beautiful works of art but they are not icons, because they tend to be sensual and do not aid prayer. Orthodox icons depict the spiritual dimension of the saints, trying to capture how they would be seen resurrected in their glory.

    Seeing baby Christ naked is unusual in orthodox iconography and the depiction of the Mother of God with rather realistic beautifully drawn contours of her body, is irreverent in my view.

    Having said all this I have to confess that I am repulsed by orthodox icons where the Mother of God appears with even slightly red coloured lips. Maybe I am too ignorant about icons and art in general.

  7. Nikolaos,
    All that you say is true, viz. icons. I would never place Raphael’s Madonna in a Church for veneration – it does not “work” in a normal, iconographic manner. Nonetheless, this particular religious painting has a striking history. V. Solovyev gave a copy of it to Dostoevsky as a birthday present, in that he knew how much Dostoevsky like it when he saw it in the museum in Dresden. It hung in a manner that was visible from his writing desk, and directly over the sofa on which he died (thus being among his last sights). A copy of it also hung in the Winter Palace where is was much beloved by the Tsar and his family.

    St. Seraphim of Sarov had a great devotion to a “religious painting” (certainly more circumspect than the Raphael). Nonetheless, some Western religious paintings (which were quite common in Russia for a couple of centuries) were known to be miracle working and to weep. So, apparently, God still works through them. Again, I prefer the various “Byzantine” styles in the Church itself.

    And, again, this particular painting/picture had a very personal effect on me and my journey. It served the purposes of God – which is more than we can say of ourselves sometimes. There’s nothing wrong in your description of your own personal reaction to Western religious art. Care should be taken, however, not to disparage the place it has had, on occasion, in the life of the Church. God surprises us from time to time.

  8. This mental image just melts my heart. A little Papa who is Eli’s age walking the train tracks to get to Sunday school. Do you still have that Bible? It also reminds me of the greater freedom that was allowed children in those days. My brother would have been 10. So, the 10 year-old was walking the 5 year-old down those tracks. Seemed normal…

  9. Nikolaos,
    I understand your response. I personally I don’t have such paintings in my home and have only the Byzantine variety of icons obtained through Orthodox sources.

    Nevertheless, I believe more than what is created by an iconographer can be called an icon in the spiritual and prayerful sense, in the way that we may access and experience the revealed, deeper realities of our life in Christ.

    Also, we have been told that the first icon, “not made by hands”, was created by a cloth placed on Christ’s face. We might wonder, what did the original look like? If we get too technical, we might surmise that it had no vivid colors at all.

    Nevertheless, I am partial to the Byzantine icons, and my daily prayer life revolves around them.

  10. Art within a Christian context can be quite a controversial topic. In Western Christianity, Roman Catholicism in particular, the use of paintings, statues and icons are allowed for veneration. All of this ranges from what some may term, the sublime to the tacky. What people like is down to personal taste and affordability. Well produced items are expensive, which is not surprising because of the quality of the materials and the time and effort expended by the artist. If a person is unable to afford an item of quality, what are they to do?

    On another note, in earlier times the Theotokos has been depicted breastfeeding the infant Jesus; sustaining the life of Him who gave her life.

  11. Nikolaos, Dee, Andrew, etc.
    It is actually a rather recent phenomenon that you find any strong Orthodox sentiments against Western art. Such was not the case for a number of centuries. That said, there is a helpful way of thinking about it. I would suggest that it would be similar to thinking about reading Scripture versus reading a novel. The Fathers said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” That is why there have developed unofficial “traditions” regarding how icons are painted (there are not “canons” for painting icons). The Byzantine style, in the various schools (Russian, Cretan, etc.), evolved a sort of artistic “grammar” in which the depictions in icons function in a theological manner.

    By the same token, religious art (simply to use a term to describe Western efforts), could be described more like a novel (less restricted in style, etc.). The range of such art can be extremely wide and less reliable, but also with aspects that are often not necessarily available by Byzantine methods.

    I would never say that something has been “more important” to me than the Scriptures, but it is certainly the case that I have been impacted by other writings, fiction and non-fiction, in a manner that was as profound as the Scriptures (not in competition). Had I never read Dostoevsky, Schmemann, etc., etc., my life would be immeasureably diminished.

    Orthodoxy properly produces beauty. Beauty transcends any purely “canonical” standard. Is Raphael’s Madonaa beautiful? Absolutely, and even comes with a history attached to its impact on important figures in Orthodoxy. We need more art, not less.

    Can something like Raphael’s Madonna function as an “icon” – the whole world functions as an icon. But we put the gospel on the altar, not a novel. The gospel of Jesus Christ rightly enlarges the heart – it does not diminish it. A life narrowed to some sort of canonical expression would not be fully human. So, I’m suggesting that there is a caution to be had when we start making rules that the Church herself has not made.

  12. Fr. Stephen, thank you for this explanation — what a beautiful perspective. This “enlargement of the heart” and experience of beauty are a key part of what draws me to Orthodoxy.

    I also recall someone (possibly you?) mentioning that a good preparation for monastic life is to read great literature, even if not explicitly Christian, because it deepens and enlarges one’s spirit (the root meaning of “magnanimous”).

  13. Fr. Stephen, I have a question about fasting. The Orthodox fast is often similar to a vegan diet. What would be a typical recommendation for an Orthodox Christian who is already vegan?

    I also heard you say in a podcast that when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they “refused the fast.” I had never heard this interpretation because I grew up in a tradition that doesn’t fast. Is this a common Orthodox interpretation of that passage (i.e., understanding it in the context of fasting)?

  14. I have just finished watching Niko Chochell’s wonderful presentation, “On Timeless Beauty.” You can find it on YouTube…just posted yesterday. I couldn’t copy the link via my phone, but it’s easy to find. It addresses all the questions raised here about whether Western art, etc can glorify God. He says all true art, to be true art, does so…whether the subject is specifically religious. It is a splendid presentation by an amazing Orthodox artist. All of these questions will also be addressed at the Festival of Orthodox Christian Arts which will be held February 18-20 at St. Constantine and Helen Orthodox Church (DFW area). The website is not yet ready to go, but as a teaser, Peter Bouteneff will be the Keynoter and the artists exhibiting are the cream of the crop. Some are specifically iconographers, but others are artists whose Orthodox spirituality is reflected in their “true art” , no matter the subject. Mark your calendars now!!

  15. Dear Father Stephen,
    I regularly visit your blogsite and am most grateful for your insights and wisdom.
    I do not wish to be pedantic but as an Anglo-Catholic Priest for 57 years, 15 of them as a bishop of the Traditional Anglican Church, I find it difficult to interpret your statement that “I will go into the Altar of God”. You will be well aware, from earlier days, that the opening words of the Confiteor ‘s antiphon, taken from Psalm 43 as “I will go unto the altar of God”; the psalm itself forming a substantial portion of that opening penitential devotion.The Confiteor, needless to say, has been a significant element in my celebration of the Holy Mysteries over these last 57 years.
    Yes, let us go into the House of the Lord, and with Our Lady enter the inner Temple that lies within the deep heart, as you so beautifully indicate; but to go “into the Altar of God”, eludes me.
    With my prayerful best wishes in Christ,

  16. I do like the comparison of the relationship between Orthodox iconography and the broader tradition of religious art to the relationship between the Gospels and other works (e.g. novels) that might also convey something important . . . During my exploration of Orthodox Christianity, I had a conversation with a priest about music, confessing that I missed Bach, Handel, etc. . . . he observed that, while it would not be appropriate as part of the liturgy, one could still enjoy it, saying something like, “Have at it, it’s just not part ‘church'”.

    Probably a similar dynamic.

  17. Bp. David,
    In the tradition regarding Our Lady’s entrance into the Temple, it is also held that St. Zacharias, as high priest, led her into the Holy of Holies. That place, in Orthodoxy, is understood to be fulfilled in the area behind the iconostasis, which is often collectively named “the altar.” The deep heart is also that same place, the place where Christ is bloodlessly offered up in our prayers.

    In Orthodoxy, the phrase from Psalm 43, most often rendered as “I will enter Thine altar,” is said at the conclusion of the preparatory prayers of the entrance before the priest enters the altar for the first time for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

    There are, of course, many points of similarity between East and West, but divergence as well. I hope this is useful as an explanation.

  18. EPG,
    Orthodoxy, rightly understood, fulfills what it means to be human and expands the truth of our existence towards that fulness that is God’s intention. The result is not a narrowed culture, a sort of Eastern Puritanism, but a greatness. The “glory” of Byzantium includes everything that marks human culture, all of the arts, etc. To me, one of the most exciting things we have seen in the growth, renewal, and freedom of the Church in Russia, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been a blossoming of things such as literature, music, and much else. None of that disappeared under the Soviets, but it has greatly expanded.

    By the same token, the young Church in America (Orthodox) is seeing some of the same things. It’s bumpy at times, but there have been some wonderfully creative works (cf. Benedict Sheehan’s masterful musical creations for the Liturgy, etc.). When Orthodoxy is healthy, it promotes the general health and fullness of culture. Of course, with cultural works, aesthetic questions arise. Not everybody “likes” the same thing. That’s just normal. There can also be things that are truly questionable – that’s normal, too.

  19. Father’s statement: “The deep heart is also that same place (the altar) where place where Christ is bloodlessly offered up in our prayers”; is a reality that has taken me 35 years as an Orthodox believer to get an inkling of in reality.
    One event that has been significant is since the middle of August I have been blessed to care extensively for my dear wife since the incision from her back surgery did not heal. She has been unable to drive or do much of any normal activity because of her large wound plus going to wound care three times a week.
    Through offering ourselves and our prayers up to Jesus as deeply as we can, plus a lot of repentance, His Grace has been/is more than sufficient. Our love for Him and each other has grown.
    In some way I cannot articulate, the bleeding of her wound, which allows it to heal, is in some way connected to the Blood of Jesus Christ.
    His mercy is overwhelming at times even as we have both lie exhausted by weeks end several weeks unable even to make Divine Liturgy sometimes. (Last Sunday as we got up to prepare to go we were both overcome by weariness and fell back asleep. My wife slept almost the whole day)
    Father, your explanation is helpful to me. Thank you.

  20. Forgive me, I can’t help jumping in and hope I won’t offend anyone, my apologies if I do. On the subject of non-Orthodox religious art, decades before I became Orthodox, I found that I was very pulled towards a variety of religious paintings, including some Orthodox icons, mostly of the Theotokos and Child, but also of some saints and of Jesus. For decades, I made a happy wander through antique shops, where inevitably there was one piece of art that called out to me and which joined my collection, purchased for a pittance as these works were no longer treasured. I re-framed them, restored them, and placed them on a wall over my desk at my work (solo business with no employees, in a private space), and without knowing it, created an icon wall, which came to take over the entire wall, all the way to the ceiling, but it consisted largely of non-Orthodox art (including some Oriental versions of the Virgin and Child which are particularly lovely). During the period of my life of the most conscious internal suffering, which was decades long, my “icon” wall had the same purpose and profound effect as any Orthodox icon does for me. I was greatly blessed by contemplating these works. I appreciate everyone’s comments from where they are coming from on this blog, but my own perspective and personal experience is that when God wants to speak to a human heart, there are many beautiful things on this planet and off of it, and any one of them can be a window into the heart and presence of God. My “icons” didn’t weep, but if they could have, they would have; they did serve as windows and mirrors and were literally light-filled for me in a dark time, and showed me the many facets of persons filled with God in a truly felt and profoundly moving way. When I started attending the Orthodox church, I concluded that I had always been Orthodox, even when I was attending my childhood church in the tradition of the New England Puritans. I note that there, where there was no art at all and a single unadorned cross, it was equally possible to feel the presence of God and see the beauty all around, and hear it in simple four-part hymns. It’s sort of a chicken and egg question, did I start out Orthodox and then find the Orthodox church, or was it the other way around — this is a conundrum, but I think the “Orthodox” church extends far beyond the walls of any physical church and group of people or diocese if we but knew it. I appreciate and respect very much the role of tradition, so much of which is very beautiful and moving, but God to me is greater than tradition or Tradition or any religious approach, and can work in ways we don’t expect and in places we don’t expect, even in the depths of hell and apparently God-less places and places we don’t approve of, which can also contain stark beauty, and entirely outside anybody’s liturgies. (Thinking of the Holocaust here.) Beauty, Good, Love and Truth are everywhere, but one has to be able to see it. I look everywhere for them, and they often surprise me, and just as often outside church as in it; I’m sure I would find them all over if I had the inner spaciousness to see them, and I wish I could. I wouldn’t want to limit what God can do in any way. Not everyone has the privilege of joining the Orthodox church, or may ever find or join the Orthodox church, but everyone has the privilege of seeking and finding God in the search out of a longing heart. Jesus said to seek and you will find, with no apparent limitations. I think my thoughts also apply to the music of Bach. That Bach’s music is not part of the Orthodox musical canon may be a fact, but I think we are missing out on one of the best vehicles into the heart of God through music I can think of for the fact that it is not. He unfortunately did not live back in the beginning centuries of the church, and used instruments and a musical structure that were not in the Byzantine tradition, and missed out on being included. If he had lived in Byzantium, I’m sure he would have been included. His music is as much part of church for me, Orthodox, too, however, as any canonically sanctioned music, which is also moving and expresses God. I often hear Bach’s music in my mind when certain texts are read or sung in church, and this does not seem to me to be a sin. Bach said he wrote everything, down to the most mundane little study piece, if that word can be applied to anything he composed, to the glory of God. The Glory is there to be found in all of his music. Thankfully he is not part of any prescribed tradition at this point, so everyone on the planet can connect with God through listening to it if they want to. It has a healing component to it as well, and the world is richer for having access to it. Listening to his, and some others’ works, is not just enjoyment to me, it is food and nourishment for the soul and spirit–I would not have gotten through life without it. He didn’t write for people’s enjoyment, although it is enjoyable to listen to — he wrote it out of devotion to God, as a vehicle for worship, and it shows. I guess I would encourage everyone to take a broader view of the action of God in human life. I know the times I have felt closest to God have been when composing church music that will never be used in an Orthodox setting, even though it is based on the same texts I hear on Sunday morning. It is a privilege to participate in creating a new thing, something one can only accept in humility and not ask why, and I would not want it devalued because it is happening outside of the correct liturgical setting. I am not willing to concede that some Western art and music are not potent vehicles for the Love of God and, if God needs them to, can function like icons. . . . Michael, on the subject of wound healing, I went through that for a year with a small wound – it turned out I was allergic to all of the creams, medications, lotions, bandages, gauze placed on it, and when a wound care specialist said to ditch all of that and see if it would heal by itself, nature took over. I don’t know whether this would be helpful or not, so take it for what it’s worth.

  21. In past times when most people were illiterate, the use of paintings, statues, stained glass windows, etc, depicting scenes from the Gospels, or from lives of the saints, had a teaching aspect to them. People could see visually, what they had been taught aurally. Thus having visuals aids to learning about the faith and for meditation and prayer.

  22. The presentation by Niko Chochelli that I referenced in yesterday’s post includes extolling the Beauty of Bach and Mozart…and all art that lifts our hearts and minds to see Beauty…and remember God.

  23. Thank you Seraphima, for small wounds surely. My wife’s wound was originally 7″ long and almost 4″ deep and over an inch wide right over her spine and was beginning to harden into that size permanently through infection and scar tissue.

    The wound is now greatly reduced but still not small but continually getting better through a combination of great, very human, care and Grace. We have also been praying to St. Luke the Blessed Surgeon of Crimea.
    The real point, however, is the great beauty and grace that comes from giving oneself to help another: my wife and me; the caregivers; even the other patients: It is a kind of a living icon. Somehow, by Grace, it is part of Christ’s sacrifice.

  24. Dear Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your helpful explanation of ” I will go into the altar of God”. It underlines diverging use of imagery and language which emerge from within our differing traditions. Your contextual explanation provided an enhancing perspective for me.
    Yours in Christ,
    +David Robarts.

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