Recovering the Millennia-Long Track Record of Praying with Icons in Christian Homesa

Bridegroom

Surviving the recent death of my mother after her five-year battle with cancer, my father (an ordained Presbyterian minister who works as a college literature professor) asked me for some simple suggestions regarding how to make use of icons in his home where he lives with my four youngest siblings. Two of these siblings are twin girls still in high school, and two are grown children who stayed home to help with my mother and to support their younger twin sisters. Even more recently, after my father made this initial request, he told all of us about his own fight with a second round of malignant melanoma (a fight that just recently started up again with the removal of cancer-filled lymph nodes and that will now involve more testing and treatments to come). Although these notes are written with my father in mind, I’m posting my thoughts here because I want to include some images and also because I may want to revisit my thoughts on prayer with icons at some time in the future.

In his desire to start making some use of icons, my father is referencing a brief passage in a book that has meant a lot to him recently:

“Icons” have a millennia-long track record with the people of God and can be a powerful way of keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind. We might arrange them tastefully present in each of our living and work spaces, so that they are always present in our visual field. We can thoughtfully use them to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts and to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being. [Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart, page 113.]

This passage from Dallas Willard has several key words and concepts to understand and unpack. Here they are in six key phrases.

First, “a millennia-long track record with the people of God:” Before starting to use icons, it is good to start learning a little about the history and the theology of icons (and to keep this up indefinitely as you are able). Here is a simple timeline that will suggest some broad categories in which to search out more articles and books about the use of images by God’s people across many millennia:

  1. God made humans in His own divine image (“icon”). Some Church fathers wrote that this is why humans were not supposed to make any images of God, because we ourselves are the image of God within God’s creation.
  2. In the wilderness, God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle that was decorated with many images of living things, reflecting God’s heavenly throne room, the Garden of Eden, and all of creation. These included images of various kinds of angels as well as many plants and animals. God was not depicted because God was a spirit and was beyond or above (enthroned upon) His creation (not just one of the many wonderful things within His created world).
  3. Each different Jewish temple built by Solomon, Ezra, and Herod followed this tabernacle pattern of ornate images—depicting living things from all parts of creation.
  4. Jewish synagogues (as they developed during the exile and throughout different parts of the world in the Jewish diaspora) were also filled with images of living things as well as many of the great Old Testament saints and prophets.
  5. From the earliest years, Christians adorned their churches and their graves with images of Jesus Christ, his mother, the martyrs, and other great Christians heroes (saints). Many early Christian churches (even house churches and churches in hiding, such as in the catacombs) looked like Jewish synagogues with ornate images. These early Christians also told stories of Greek-style portraits that were painted by Luke (the Greek doctor and author of two New Testament books) as well as of other early images that appeared miraculously, depicting Jesus Christ. As generation after generation of Christians wanted to write their own icons, many sacred patterns and expectations were developed and carefully handed down from one icon writer to the next, so that the key features of each icon would be protected and preserved in ways that would communicate clearly, again and again, across different times and places.
  6. With the rise of Islam, there was a strong pressure to clean up the embarrassing variety of images and strange relics (bones and clothing of saints, etc.) that now filled and cluttered Christian churches and monastic communities. These sacred Christian things were considered very grubby, foolish, superstitious, and idolatrous by the sophisticated, elegant, rational, and tidy Muslims who strictly forbid the use of any images of God and who decorated their mosques with only the most beautiful and sophisticated geometric designs (showing the transcendent beauty of God in ornate yet orderly ways).
  7. Some Christian emperors and clergy began to teach that the ancient Christian use of images and relics was barbaric and a corruption of the pure Christian faith. These were the iconoclasts who often cleaned up churches by force, pulling down icons to put them in storage, paint them over, or even destroy them.
  8. In the Seventh Ecumenical Council, all the leadership of the churches around the Mediterranean world gathered and agreed that the icons (which were so beloved by the people of God) were not only permitted but were required by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s incarnation, Christians should make images of His human person which, in its fullness, reveals God the Father to us. It was taught that icons of Christ and of Christ in His saints were an essential weapon against idolatry.
  9. One of the great defenders of these decisions by the Seventh Ecumenical Council was Saint John of Damascus who suffered and saw great wonders in his battle against a second great wave of iconoclasts that came a while after the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
  10. Finally, these holy images have helped people in their prayers (as powerful means of God’s grace) to come very close into the life of the Kingdom of God. So very many close and intimate experiences of God and of His saints (as well as so many astounding miracles) are associated with so many specific images. Many icons have their own special days of remembrance and veneration. To this day, some images also stream myrrh as a powerful testimony to God’s gracious and compassionate presence with us in our suffering. (Myrrh is one of the key ingredients used in the olive oil that anointed the dead body of Jesus Christ as His body was lovingly prepared for burial once all the hopes of His followers had been destroyed by his death.)
  11. To recap, here are the key ideas in this history of how God’s people have used images in worship:
      • Images depict our worship as taking place within all of God’s creation (as we are made to lead, protect, and support all things in the constant and never-ending praise of our wonderful and loving Creator).
      • Humans are made in God’s image.
      • Images of Jesus should be made because He is the fully human incarnation of God the Son (or Logos) who took the specific human flesh of the virgin Mary (who is then literally the Mother of God).
      • Icons of Jesus Christ (as well as icons of Christ within His saints) are actually a necessary protection against false worship and idolatry (that is from developing abstract and disembodied “ideas” of Jesus Christ within our own minds, hearts, and imaginations).
      • Icons help to keep us focused on the historical and embodied Jesus Christ who:
        • actually was born, lived, and died among us,
        • rose from the dead to reign with His glorified body from the throne of God in heaven,
        • and ministers to us through the material stuff of creation within all of the sacraments of His Church.

Second, “keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind:” This is true. Icons can convey complexity and whole story lines (multiple periods of time) as simply and simultaneously present with us in a transcendent current moment (a prayer that brings us close to God’s time which links together past, present, and future). However, it is also true that learning to read icons is as involved and intricate as learning to read any written text. In fact, all Orthodox Christian icons are properly said to be “written” and not “drawn” or “painted.” There are many resources for learning to read icons in general as well as in particular. It is always worthwhile to invest in some education regarding any particular icon that you are using or considering for use. A few key ideas to keep in mind are:

  1. Icons are intentionally two-dimensional and somewhat abstract (with a variety of perspectives and instances in time incorporated into one image). Much has been made regarding reverse perspective (also called inverse perspective, inverted perspective, divergent perspective, or Byzantine perspective) within Christian iconography. This is supposed to make the viewer part of the image or to make it seem as if the person in the image is actually viewing the person outside of the image. However, this technique probably has more to do with ancient drawing techniques and understandings of reality than it does with any intentional attempt by Christian iconographers to include the viewer in the image or to make the image into a two-way window. That being said, there are certainly more recent Christian iconographers who purposefully make use of this ancient reverse perspective to help the icons achieve an “other worldly” sense and to invite those making prayerful use of the icon to stand in another realm with Christ and His saints. This can be a blessing and means of grace.
  2. Another important aspect of icons is actually their frailty as human creations. Although they require practice to make and can be very beautiful in the eyes of anyone, they are not made primarily through technical skill or artistic genius. Icons are written primarily through prayer, and they often involve significant human errors or misunderstands while still carrying sanctity and truth as a line of devout connection to Christ or to those who displayed Christ with their whole life and person. In fact, the misunderstandings or errors in icons sometimes communicate meaning and truth of their own, or sometimes just reinforced the icon’s intent of helping to make otherworldly realities present to us.
  3. In addition to reverse perspective and to errors, icons often contain events from different points in time within one compact image. It is as if a modern cartoonist combined multiple frames into one frame. Almost all icons that cover a story will have this feature. In most nativity icons, for example, the infant Jesus is typically reclining beside his mother in a stable cave while also being washed by midwives near the bottom of the image. Sometimes, the same angels are giving instructions all-at-once to Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi.

nativity icon at st catherines monastery

Third, “arrange them tastefully:” It is certainly critical to consult everyone living in the home and to be tasteful. There is no “wrong place” to have an icon with you in your life as you seek to pray without ceasing. However, if you grow more integrated into church worship with icons, there are some ways to consider arranging icons, over time, that might be given to you by the practices of our wise ancestors in the faith (rather than simply being a matter of taste).

  1. An icon corner is normally near an eastern corner of a house so that you can face toward Jerusalem and toward the rising sun during your prayers (as all Christian churches have always done).
  2. Icons are often located in a corner of a room to promote praying in your heart (not before men), to eliminate worldly distractions, and to allow prayer to be more concentrated or focused.
  3. Often, in addition to the icon corner, a family will hang a small “portal icon” (usually of the Virgin and Christ Child) by the door, which is venerated by family and guests whenever going in or out of the house. If the portal icon or the icon corner is located so that it is visible when one first enters the house from the main entrance, an Orthodox Christian will traditionally venerate the icons before greeting the members of the house.
  4. In addition to a main icon corner as a primarily focal point for family prayers (when said all together), there will typically be other places (within private bedrooms or places of study) with smaller icon corners for each individual member of the home.
  5. Finally, icons are often paired or combined together in units that have a family connection. This is because the kingdom of God is truly centered on an actual human family. Every church altar space is lightly screened off from the congregation by three main icons arranged in the same way every time: Jesus Christ, his Mother, and his cousin John. In the Hebrew Bible, under several Davidic kings, the gebirah (“Great Lady”), normally the Mother of the King, held substantial power as an advocate with the king. We see this function throughout the Old Testament and also clearly at work in the wedding at Cana. It is good to have our vision of the heavenly throne room informed by these biblical images. Over time, it is healthy to have some simple reflections of such royal, familial, and traditional “church arrangements” within our homes. The Orthodox call the home the “little church.”

Fourth, “present in each of our living and work spaces and always present in our visual field:” This is a wonderful point. It is helpful (and a widespread practice) to have simple icons continually in view that are appropriate to each space where you live and work (including while at a computer or driving in a car). This is a support and reminder in our desire and our struggle to pray without ceasing—to have all that we do and think be an extension of our ceaseless prayers within the presence of God. In fact, God is always with us, and we are continually able to be present around His throne alongside the saints and angels who worship there without ceasing in the sunlight of His glorious presence.

Fifth, “to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts:” Not only do icons literal allow us to rest our gaze on the King and all the citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, but the church has consistently experienced the fact that God uses these beloved images as powerful means of grace (in a sacramental kind of way or as “little mysteries of grace” as the Orthodox would say). This grace is tangible and powerful against evil. It is not our own work, but a gift of God as we stumble and struggle toward Him by means of every means of grace that God provides.

Sixth, “to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being:” This phrase suggests that icons are a point of contact between different realms of reality that compose us and within which we exist. By “levels of our being,” I expect that Willard is referring to those that he writes about: the mind, will, body, social dimension, and soul. In The Abolition of Man, the entire point that C.S. Lewis makes is that modernity has made us into “men without chests.” At the core of our being is our heart (from the Hebrew or Semitic world) or our nous (a Greek word that is typically translated “mind” or “intellect” but that really indicates “our capacity to perceive reality directly without dependence on the physical senses” or we might say our “intuition”). This central area (or chest as C.S. Lewis calls it) rests between the rational thoughts of our brain and the desires, passions, or emotions of our stomach and other lower organs. Our ability to quietly perceive reality with a direct intuition (independent of both calculated thinking and of passionate emotions) should be our most basic capacity as humans and the capacity that we rely upon to give direction to our rational thoughts as well as to our emotions and bodily desires. However, instead, we typically live entirely within our brains or our bellies, and we have left our chests ignored, forgotten, and shut down. Icons can help us to recognize with (and in) our hearts that we are standing before God, at His throne, at all times. Icons can give us a place to rest quietly and patiently, listening for God in our chests. This is not achieved with our eyes or with our sharp mental analysis, but simply with a patient attention to God’s presence. All of God’s creation is made by Him to serve as a means of grace that can help to communicate His presence to us as humans. Icons of Christ and His saints are powerful means of extending this God-revealing quality of creation and of the incarnation into our homes and hearts.

Now to list a couple things that Dallas Willard did not say:

  1. Icons are indented to be aides in the prayer and worship of Jesus Christ (incarnate, resurrected, and enthroned in heaven). This can be done as private, family, or church prayers. If we don’t use icons this way (at least at some simple level privately), we run the risk of abstracting them and of failing to benefit from them as a means of God’s grace.
  2. Also, icons are intended for veneration. They are a tangible focal point and a means of expressing our commitment and love to Jesus Christ. As it feels appropriate and comfortable, it is a blessing to express this love in simple acts of kissing, kneeling, and prostration. This becomes much more understandable and meaningful at home when it is learned slowly (and practiced regularly) within the context of church worship services. However, it is a blessing to learn simple acts of veneration and love within private prayer and devotion even when this is not part of the practice within your church worship.

All this being said, it is best to keep everything simple and small at the outset. Once you begin to make use of icons in prayer, the practice tends to grow naturally.

Regarding what icons to consider starting with, I can give more thoughts if that is wanted. However, the key is really that you find icons that are meaningful and beautiful to you. Do some research and look at a good variety of options on your own. Ideally, the person making the icon should have a deep and prayerful respect for the long history of writing icons under the authority of the church. Here are two great places to purchase icons:

[Note on Christ the Bridegroom Icon at the top of this post: During the first service on Palm Sunday evening, the priest carries an icon of Christ the Bridegroom to the front of the church, where it remains until Holy Thursday. The three days of Holy Week it is there are dedicated to Jesus Christ as the central figure in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13). This parable is perfect for the week leading up to Easter, as its clear message is to be prepared for the coming of Christ. From the evening service: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant He shall find vigilant.” (Troparion of the Bridegroom Service) Given the eschatological undertones of the services, it might be expected for the Bridegroom icon to show Christ in Glory, or at His Second Coming. Yet the Icon shows Christ humiliated by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers (Matthew 27:27-31). In a cruel irony, the soldiers mockingly worshiped Jesus and through insults proclaimed Him rightly to be the King of the Jews. Crowned with thorns, cloaked in scarlet, bound and holding a reed, this is how Christ appears in the Bridegroom Icon. The crown is a symbol of Christian marriage in the Orthodox Church, and the ropes binding Christ’s hand are a near-universal symbol of marriage. The reed used as a mock-scepter is a symbol of humility, of a person that does all possible to bend in service to others.]

On the Death and Birth of Aragorn

“The funeral-boat of Boromir.” Anke Katrin Eißmann. 1999.

One month ago, my fourteen-year-old daughter told me that I should write a tribute to Aragorn for March 1st, the date of his birth and his death. I was proud that she had March 1st associated with Aragorn in her mind and flattered that she would want me to write a tribute to him. Therefore, with some advanced notice and a few snow-days in the interim, I wrote it.

Near the end of my first time hearing The Lord of the Rings trilogy read out loud to me, I can remember looking back on my first impressions of Strider and hardly believing that I had once mistrusted him. Tolkien’s roguish introduction to Aragorn in the common room at The Prancing Pony is a profound reason for the love that so many have for Aragorn. We first come to know Aragorn through the eyes of the hobbits, as a relatable yet mysterious character. In the rest of the story, we are introduced to his many names and honors only gradually and in small, appreciable glimpses. Collecting together material from all of Tolkien’s writings, Aragorn is exalted virtually beyond comprehension:

  1. one of the children of Lúthien;
  2. the son of Arathorn II and his wife Gilraen;
  3. the wielder of the sword Andúril (reforged from the shards of Elendil’s sword Narsil);
  4. Isildur’s Heir and commander of the Grey Host;
  5. crowned as King Elessar Telcontar (meaning “Elfstone” and “Strider”);
  6. the restorer of the divided kingdoms of of Arnor and Gondor;
  7. the last of the Númenóreans and the Elendili in the Third Age;
  8. the first king of the Forth Age;
  9. the last of the Dúnedain or Rangers of the North;
  10. and the husband of Arwen (son-in-law of Elrond), therefore a re-uniter of the two Half-elven families (Arwen being the daughter of the immortal Elrond and Aragorn being the 60th-generation descendant of Elrond’s twin brother, Elros, who chose mortality).

Long before Frodo Baggins encountered Strider just outside of the firelight in the inn at Bree, Tolkien himself had already been loving and developing Aragorn’s elaborate family story for several decades. Tolkien started to write the story of Aragorn’s exalted linage in 1914 at age 22 while serving in World War I, and Tolkien did not start connecting his humble hobbit story (written in the 1930s) to the story of Aragorn’s epic heritage until 24 years later in 1938 at age 46. These older epics were not inspired by Aragorn but led up to him, and they were not published until after Tolkien’s death (when they were first collected as The Silmarillion). This blending of worlds in The Lord of Ring ended up taking many years and being written in large part as a series of chapter-letters to his son who was serving in World War II. We hobbit-like people of this current age (pragmatic and democratic to a fault) are virtually incapable of reverencing Aragorn’s illustrious ancestry (the content of Tolkien’s first and deepest love). We fans are blessed indeed that Tolkien thought of hobbits in his midlife and then eventually found a way to bring them into contact with Aragorn and his world. This happy collision guided us gently into the final days of the Maiar, high elves, ents, and Númenóreans.

Aragorn ends up playing an essential part in this wooing of our imaginations when we first encounter him as the despised and enigmatic Strider. When Aragorn stands up to reveal his power and authority to Frodo and the other hobbits (leaving them with a terrible decision to make), this rough-looking Ranger of the North becomes a critical link between the humdrum world of the Shire and the mythic world of ancient men and elves. Aragorn’s own suffering in life had prepared him to play this part graciously and well. He was never frustrated by the ignorance of those around him regarding the many legends, peoples, and royal families of which he knew so much. One example of this is when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas explain to an impatient and suspicious troop of the Riders of Rohan that they are tracking two hobbits. A rider standing beside Éomer replied with a laugh:

“Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

Aragorn, more than most men, could do both. He could stride the green earth in daylight while defending the truth that we also walk in legends.

In his early years, Tolkien was systematically creating a mythic backstory that the barbarians of his island did not have. Tolkien literally worked backwards from the oldest languages and stories of his island peoples, creating the histories and the word-roots of multiple languages in a process of reverse-evolutionary legend-making. With the Númenóreans of Aragorn’s family tree, Tolkien was giving a proper mythic ancestry to kings such as Arthur (late 400s to early 500s), Alfred the Great (c. 847 to 899), Cnut the Great (c. 995 to 1035), and William the Conqueror (c. 1028 to 1087). By the time that Tolkien was finished, he had carefully crafted multiple languages and evolving alphabets (of elves, men, and dwarves) as well as complex dynasties for each of these races that covered many generations—leading all the way back to the singing into existence of the world by an exhaled order of powers who directly served Eru Ilúvatar (in the high elvish language of Quenya, Eru means “The One” or “He that is Alone” while Ilúvatar means “Allfather”).

Tolkien was filling in (for his own delight, initially) stories that sit behind the misty past of the English-speaking peoples—working in a layer of mythic time that was equivalent to the places of Cain, Seth, Enoch, Nimrod, and Solomon within the stories of the Semitic peoples from the Fertile Crescent to Ethiopia. This project was certainly born out of a great love for his own English people, but it was not done under the assumption that his ancestry was somehow uniquely noble. German Nazi’s were interested in having his books translated into German, and sent a letter to his publisher praising the books and asking if they could verify Tolkien’s ancestry. Disgusted by this inquiry, Tolkien wrote (on July 25, 1938):

If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Aragorn stands at the beginning of the age of men (were Tolkien leaves off all of his story telling), and it is clear that Aragorn’s linage extends to the people of today. Tolkien clearly desired to give the English people a mythic ancestor who could be a worthy source of pride. Aragorn himself honored all men and races of creatures, elevating the hobbits above himself at several points. Tolkien’s images of evil in his works speak boldly against all forms of corrosive power and pride. We see a portrait of this worthy ancestor that Tolkien wanted to give to his own English people in these words of Legolas:

In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him. But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien? Never shall that line fail, though the years may lengthen beyond count.

However, with The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien achieved far more than the story of a particular people. Anyone can learn to love Aragorn and the fellowship of which he becomes a part. Harper Collins publishing house reports official translations into 39 languages, and fans report quite a few more.

In college, a group of four dear friends and I began to call ourselves the Dúnedain. I do not want to take this tribute in a personal direction and to pay honor to myself, but I want to illustrate my own gratitude. Without presuming to speak for these friends, I can say that my own love for Aragorn was focused on his most relatable and basic of human traits: the loss of his parents as a child (to learn only late in life of his royal lineage), the long line of exiled and hidden kings before him, the love of a woman whose character and beauty humbles him, the endurance (along with his comrades) of mistrust and suffering while waiting in the wilderness over many years, his long watch-keeping on the outskirts of the Shire, his faithfulness to Gandalf through many risky and (sometimes) pointless-seeming assignments, his respect and care for a noblewoman who falls in love with him, his compassion for the fall of a great lord who could not pass by the opportunity to seize power in an attempt to restore his people and achieve much good. This long list fits into simple and familiar categories that anyone can appreciate.

But perhaps Aragorn’s most endearing quality in the end is his respect for the hobbits, his great faithfulness to them, and his ultimate trust in them. He starts by giving them the freedom to accept his help or not. He trusts them to take on the greatest task alone. He tracks two of them over many weary days in almost utter hopelessness. And he places them on his own throne at the end of all their labors. Aragorn admired the Shire-folk deeply, and this enduring love makes his humanity clear.

These simple qualities won my heart as a child and have left me (along with many dear friends and family) profoundly indebted. In later years, I came to learn that Aragorn followed in an ancient tradition of those who died on the day of their birth and of those who foresaw their coming death and accepted it immediately, with complete peace and contentment. However, these higher and mythic qualities are not what first won my heart. To this day, these epic elements only point me remotely to values and stories that I can barely comprehend. Like many others who have come to love Aragorn in the 64 years since Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, I’m still learning what this love means, and I expect to continue learning this until my own death.

“Strider.” Oil on hardboard, 24″ x 30.” ©2010 Matthew Stewart.

the depiction of the inner condition of the soul

The icon must depict externals, but also interior life, holiness, and proximity to Heaven. The principal means for accomplishing this is in the face, the facial expression and its look depicted on the icon; also, the rest of the icon must be consonant with that expression. It was on the depiction of the inner condition of the soul, hidden by the flesh, that our Orthodox iconographers focused their attention. The better they were able to accomplish this, the better the icon appeared to be. Often, there would be deficiencies in the manner of depicting various parts of the body – not because iconographers were doing it consciously, but because [their efforts to] accomplish their principal goal did not always allow them to give sufficient attention to secondary aspects of their work.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast in Monastic Wisdom.

what looks both ways

From Sounder by William H. Armstrong:

He looked out of the window too. “If you’re inside you look out, and if you’re outside you look in, but what looks both ways? That’s a riddle; what’s the answer?” …No one answered. “What’s the answer?” the boy repeated, and then he answered his own riddle. “The window is the answer; it looks both ways.”

This passage brought to mind the description of icons as “windows into heaven.”

I knew one who made his pilgrimage to springs

The Springs
by Wendell Berry
In a country without saints or shrines
I knew one who made his pilgrimage
to springs, where in his life’s dry years
his mind held on. Everlasting,
people called them, and gave them names.
The water broke into sounds and shinings
at the vein mouth, bearing the taste
of the place, the deep rock, sweetness
out of the dark. He bent and drank
in bondage to the ground.
Water
by Wendell Berry
I was born in a drouth year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.
Also, this whole essay by Wendell Berry is related. Here are two excerpts:
If you are worried about the damming of wilderness rivers, join the Sierra Club, write to the government, but turn off the lights you’re not using, don’t install an air conditioner, don’t be a sucker for electrical gadgets, don’t waste water. In other words, if you are fearful of the destruction of the environment, then learn to quit being an environmental parasite. We all are, in one way or another, and the remedies are not always obvious, though they certainly will always be difficult. They require a new kind of life-harder, more laborious, poorer in luxuries and gadgets, but also, I am certain, richer in meaning and more abundant in real pleasure. To have a healthy environment we will all have to give up things we like; we may even have to give up things we have come to think of as necessities. But to be fearful of the disease and yet unwilling to pay for the cure is not just to be hypocritical; it is to be doomed.
…What I am saying is that if we apply our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth, then we will have begun to make fundamental and necessary changes in our minds. We will begin to understand and to mistrust and to change our wasteful economy, which markets not just the produce of the earth, but also the earth’s ability to produce. We will see that beauty and utility are alike dependent upon the health of the world. But we will also see through the fads and the fashions of protest. We will see that war and oppression and pollution are not separate issues, but are aspects of the same issue. Amid the outcries for the liberation of this group or that, we will know that no person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that man’s only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy his place.
(If time allowed, I would copy a few short pages from Berry’s essay “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation” which clearly get at his frustrations with the way that we conceive of “nature” today and how this impoverishes our ideas about “environmentalism.”)
From The Silmarillion (a collection of J. R. R. Tolkien’s works, edited and published posthumously in 1977 by his son Christopher Tolkien):
It is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.
Tolkien is doing his own version of something akin to the points made in this passage from Tertullian (AD c. 155 – c. 240) in his work On Baptism, Chapter IV (which is echoed and developed metaphysically by many later Christian theologians):
The Spirit of God, who hovered over (the waters) from the beginning, would continue to linger over the waters of the baptized. But a holy thing, of course, hovered over a holy; or else, from that which hovered over that which was hovered over borrowed a holiness, since it is necessary that in every case an underlying material substance should catch the quality of that which overhangs it, most of all a corporeal of a spiritual, adapted (as the spiritual is) through the subtleness of its substance, both for penetrating and insinuating. Thus the nature of the waters, sanctified by the Holy One, itself conceived withal the power of sanctifying. …All waters, therefore, in virtue of the pristine privilege of their origin, do, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself.

And this all connects back, in various ways, to the Feast of Theophany.

attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity

Simone Weil on her birthday. First, from Gravity and Grace (1947):

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.

…We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.

Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.

…Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

From an April 13, 1942 letter to poet Joë Bousquet:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

On the Christian faith.

Last letter to Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, from a refugee camp in Casablanca (26 May 1942), as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas:

Wrongly or rightly you think that I have a right to the name of Christian. I assure you that when in speaking of my childhood and youth I use the words vocation, obedience, spirit of poverty, purity, acceptance, love of one’s neighbor, and other expressions of the same kind, I am giving them the exact signification they have for me now. Yet I was brought up by my parents and my brother in a complete agnosticism, and I never made the slightest effort to depart from it; I never had the slightest desire to do so, quite rightly, I think. In spite of that, ever since my birth, so to speak, not one of my faults, not one of my imperfections really had the excuse of ignorance. I shall have to answer for everything on that day when the Lamb shall come in anger.

You can take my word for it too that Greece, Egypt, ancient India, and ancient China, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflections of this beauty in art and science, what I have seen of the inner recesses of human hearts where religious belief is unknown, all these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ’s hands as his captive. I think I might even say more. The love of these things that are outside visible Christianity keeps me outside the Church… But it also seems to me that when one speaks to you of unbelievers who are in affliction and accept their affliction as a part of the order of the world, it does not impress you in the same way as if it were a question of Christians and of submission to the will of God. Yet it is the same thing.

Letter to Georges Bernanos (1938), in Seventy Letters, as translated by Richard Rees (1965):

I have sometimes told myself that if only there were a notice on church doors forbidding entry to anyone with an income above a certain figure, and a low one, I would be converted at once.

As quoted in Simone Weil (1954) by Eric Walter Frederick Tomlin:

Love is not consolation, it is light.

“Faiths of Meditation; Contemplation of the divine” as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas:

Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification. I have to be an atheist with that part of myself which is not made for God. Among those in whom the supernatural part of themselves has not been awakened, the atheists are right and the believers wrong.

…That is why St. John of the Cross calls faith a night. With those who have received a Christian education, the lower parts of the soul become attached to these mysteries when they have no right at all to do so. That is why such people need a purification of which St. John of the Cross describes the stages. Atheism and incredulity constitute an equivalent of such a purification.

Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation (1943) as translated by Richard Rees:

There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man’s mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties.

Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world.

Another terrestrial manifestation of this reality lies in the absurd and insoluble contradictions which are always the terminus of human thought when it moves exclusively in this world.

Just as the reality of this world is the sole foundation of facts, so that other reality is the sole foundation of good.

That reality is the unique source of all the good that can exist in this world: that is to say, all beauty, all truth, all justice, all legitimacy, all order, and all human behaviour that is mindful of obligations.

Those minds whose attention and love are turned towards that reality are the sole intermediary through which good can descend from there and come among men.

Although it is beyond the reach of any human faculties, man has the power of turning his attention and love towards it.

Nothing can ever justify the assumption that any man, whoever he may be, has been deprived of this power.

It is a power which is only real in this world in so far as it is exercised. The sole condition for exercising it is consent.

This act of consent may be expressed, or it may not be, even tacitly; it may not be clearly conscious, although it has really taken place in the soul. Very often it is verbally expressed although it has not in fact taken place. But whether expressed or not, the one condition suffices: that it shall in fact have taken place.

To anyone who does actually consent to directing his attention and love beyond the world, towards the reality that exists outside the reach of all human faculties, it is given to succeed in doing so. In that case, sooner or later, there descends upon him a part of the good, which shines through him upon all that surrounds him.

the Good God will of course take into account the age and conditions in which we live

From With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man by Saint Paisios the Athonite:

Question:

Geronda, why does St. Cyril of Jerusalem say that the Martyrs of the last days will surpass all Martyrs?

Answer:

Because in the old times we had men of great stature; our present age is lacking in examples—and I am speaking generally about the Church and Monasticism.  Today, there are more words and books and fewer living examples. We admire the holy Athletes of our Church, but without understanding how much they struggled, because we have not struggled ourselves.  Had we done so, we would appreciate their pain, we would love them even more and strive with philotimo to imitate them.  The Good God will of course take into account the age and conditions in which we live, and He will ask of each one of us accordingly.  If we only strive even a little bit, we will merit the crown more than our ancestors.

In the old days, when there was a fighting spirit and everyone was trying to measure up to the best, evil and negligence would not be tolerated.  Good was in great supply back then, and with this competitive spirit, it was difficult for careless people to make it to the finish line.  The others would run them over.  I remember once, in Thessaloniki, we were waiting for the traffic light to cross the street, when I suddenly felt pushed by the crowd behind me, as if by a wave.  I only had to lift my foot and the rest was done for me.  All I am trying to say is that when everybody is going toward the same direction, those who don’t wish to follow will have difficulty resisting because the others will push them along.

Today, if someone wishes to live honestly and spiritually, he will have a hard time fitting in this world.  And if he is not careful, he’ll be swept by the secular stream downhill.  In the old days, there was plenty of good around, plenty of virtue, many good examples, and evil was drowned by the good; so, the little disorder that existed in the world or in the monasteries was neither visible nor harmful.  What’s going on now?  Bad examples abound, and the little good that exists is scorned.  Thus, the opposite occurs; the little good that exists is drowned by an excess of evil, and evil reigns.

It helps so much when a person or a group of people has a fighting spirit.  When even one person grows spiritually, he does not only benefit himself, but helps those who see him.  Likewise, one who is laid back and lazy has the same effect on the others.  When one give in, others follow until in the end there’s nothing left.  This is why it’s so important to have a fighting spirit in these lax times.  We must pay great attention to this matter, because people today have reached the point where they make lax laws and impose them on those who want to live strict and disciplined lives.  For this reason, it is important for those who are struggling spiritually, not only to resist being influenced by the secular spirit, but also to resist comparing themselves to the world and concluding that they are saints.  For when this happens, they end up being worse than those who live in the world.  If we take one virtue at a time, find the Saint who exemplified it and study his or her life, we will soon realize that we have achieved nothing and will carry on with humility.

Just as in racing, the runner speeding for the end line does not look back toward those lagging behind, but fixes his eyes forward, so too in this struggle we don’t want to be looking back and thus left behind.  When I try to imitate those who are ahead of me, my conscience is refined.  When, however, I look back, I justify myself and think that my faults are not important compared to theirs.  The thought that others are inferior consoles me.  Thus, I end up drowning my conscience or, to put it better, having a plastered, unfeeling heart.

The Virgin today accompanies the Child in His first offering to the Father

Select hymns and prayers from the Antiochian Church’s Festal Orthros on the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (February 2)

From the Kathismata of the Presentation:

Let the ranks of angels be astonished with wonder, and let us raise our voices in praise, as we behold the ineffable condescension, the condescension of God; for He before Whom the powers of heaven tremble is carried today in the arms of the elder, and He alone is the Lover of mankind.

He that is with the Father on the holy throne, came down to earth, was born of the Virgin, became a babe for my sake; and is unbounded in time.

From the Kontakion and Oikos for the Presentation:

Let us hasten to the Theotokos, we who wish to see her Son brought unto Simeon. When the incorporeal powers looked on Him out of heaven, they were astonished, saying: Now do we see strange and wondrous things, incomprehensible and inexpressible. He Who made Adam is carried as a babe; the Uncontainable is held in the arms of the elder; he Who abideth uncircumscribed in the bosom of His Father is willingly circumscribed in the flesh, but not in His Godhead, and he alone is the Love of mankind.”

The Synaxarion:

On February 2 in the Holy Orthodox Church, we celebrate the Meeting (Presentation) of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple, wherein the righteous Simeon received Him into his arms.

Verses: The hands of righteous Simeon, as they bear Thee, depict, O my Christ, the bosom of Thy Father. On the second, Simeon received Christ in the Temple.

The Greek word for the feast is “Hypapante” [ee-pah-pan-DEE] which means “Encounter” or “Meeting.” However, this was not just some chance encounter. This feast, which closes the cycle of the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, reminds us that on the fortieth day after the birth of her first-born Son, Mary carried Him to the Temple in accordance with the Mosaic Law to offer Him to the Lord, and to ransom Him by the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:22-3). In one of many acts of extreme humility, the divine Word thus lowers Himself and submits to the law in order to fulfill it. This lowering is also Jesus’ first official encounter with His people in the person of Simeon. It is not only an encounter, but also a manifestation. Simeon bears in his arms the One he knows to be the Salvation of the world, “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” His endearing prayer, as found in the Gospel of Luke, endures in the Orthodox Church to this day. The Church considers this celebration as a Feast of the Theotokos in praise of her role in this Presentation, and her connection in the work of her Son. “Adorn thy chamber, O Zion, and receive Christ the King. Welcome Mary the heavenly gate; for she hath appeared as a cherubic throne; she carrieth the King of glory” (Aposticha of Great Vespers). The Virgin today accompanies the Child in His first offering to the Father; she will also accompany Him even to the realization of His sacrifice for humanity.

Unto the very God be glory and dominion unto the ages. Amen.

Ninth Ode of Canon of Presentation of Christ in Tone Three [with 16 short verses and 4 refrains]:

1. That which came to pass in thee we in no wise comprehend, not the Angels, nor we men, O thous Virgin Mother pure.

8. Thou, O Maiden Mariam, art in truth the mystic tongs, who within thy blessed womb hast conceived the Ember, Christ.

Of old they offered a pair of turtle doves and a pair of pigeons. But instead of them the divine old man and Anna the pure prophetess were offered to Him Who was born of the Virgin, Who was offered in the Temple, Who is the Son of God. Wherefore, they served him magnifying.

this hope and longing of creatures should be fulfilled

John Amos Comenius (1592–1670) was a great educational reformer (called father of modern education by some). He suggests that the Garden of Eden was a school for the childlike souls of Adam and Eve, and Comenius says that all schools should be modeled on that first example. Essential to this holistic vision, Comenius holds a high standard for humans to care for the flourishing of all material things and all other kinds of creatures.

[We needs schools that are] an imitation of the School of Paradise, where God revealed the whole choir of his creatures for (humankind) to behold.

…Just as it is better for a garden to be under a good gardener . . . so also it is better for any material things to be under owners who use them in their own right, provided that they know how to use them legitimately. There is a memorable saying of Solomon: “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast, but the wicked man is cruel” (Proverbs XII, 9). What cruelty is inflicted everywhere on all things that are put to improper uses through the wickedness of ignorance of men! The apostle hinted at this when he declared (Romans VIII, 20) that all creatures are subject to vanity, and that they pray and long and hope for deliverance from such iniquitous bondage. It is desirable in any case that this hope and longing of creatures should be fulfilled, and that everything everywhere should advance correctly, and that all creatures should have cause to join us in praising God (Psalms CXLVIII).

John Amos Comenius in Pampaedia (meaning Universal Education) an undiscovered manuscript until the 1930s. Quoted in John Amos Comenius: A Visionary Reformer of Schools by David I. Smith.

In another work, he says:

Everyone delights in harmony; and secondly, each of us is also nothing but a harmony.

a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God

And so there is, over and beyond our faculties, at the point where they originate, a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by him upon the abyss of void, posed as a living mirror of his life and being. In this mirror, beyond habitual consciousness, our interior gaze meets that of our Creator, outside the confines of space and time.

From The Song That I Am: On the Mystery of Music by Elisabeth-Paule Labat (translated by Erik Varden).

This passage was a generous gift this morning from a mother in the faith. I love this description of a “mysterious sanctuary” existing at “the point where our faculties originate” in which “we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by Him” and also where “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator.” In the last line, however, I would suggest that “outside the confines of space and time” should be amended to say “deeply within the confines of space and time.” Three realities indicate that our union with God is bodily (and therefore profoundly within the confines space and time):

  1. our being made in God’s image,
  2. the incarnation of God the Son (the Logos) as Jesus Christ,
  3. and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to ascend into heaven and to be seated on the throne of God.

God placed us in time and space as a means of communion with Him (who transcends time and space). Within the Christian tradition, I’ve read of three ways in which our communion with God is strictly within time and space:

  1. God is only in the present moment. The present is the only time in which we touch God’s eternity and commune with Him. We can be lead astray from God into the past (nostalgia or pride) or the future (worry or hubris). There are right relationships with the past (gratitude) and the future (hope) but only when we are grounded in our present communion with God.
  2. God only meets with us in our particular place (via our bodies and the material world that we inhabit). All of creation is designed to be sacramental and to bring our bodies into communion with God. Material things of all kinds (from the waters of baptism to the bones of saints) can carry great sanctity and be the gracious means of God’s communion with us.
  3. God stands at the door of our heart and knocks. All the saints who speak of communion with God in prayer speak of it as an inward but still clearly an embodied experience (or vision) of transcendent and unifying love, heat, or light. “To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing.” Our intuitive perception of eternal or ultimate truth and love are from the heart (a perceptive capacity that is called the nous). Our intellect (in our head) can perceive with bodily senses and can analyze these perceptions using rational thoughts. Our passions or desires were long associated with the stomach or liver. In between these upper and lower faculties is the heart. C.S. Lewis describes modern people as having become “men without chests” (in The Abolition of Man) because we have lost this middle capacity that unifies our thoughts and feelings with an intuitive inner vision of God’s love. This nous in our heart sees immaterial things, but it still has a strong association with a particular part of our body. Some desert fathers were very specific: “not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart …close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.” (This quotation and the one near the start of this bullet point are from The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, which I posted about here.)

Therefore, to enter this “mysterious sanctuary” wherein “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator,” we must not let our minds or our feelings run freely. We must “descend into our heart” or “stand guard over our heart” and listen quietly there for God. This is not an emptying of our intellect; it is not a denial or leaving of our body; it is not an insensibility to the surrounding world or to the input of our five senses. Instead, this communion with God in the quietness of our hearts unifies and fills all of these other things. Out nous allows all of our other faculties (sensations, thoughts, and feelings) to be made potent and meaningful while remaining only supportive agents of our primary purpose: this steady gazing and quiet listening of our heart’s interior ears and eyes. There we may learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

True, at this table of the Lord, we do feast outside of time with those from many other places and many others times. However, all of us gathered there are doing so within each of our hearts in the reality of our particular places and our present moments. In doing so, we mysteriously bring together many particular times and places—transcending, unifying, and sanctifying these places and times without discarding or annihilating them. Each present time and unique material place gives access to the throne of God, where all times and places have their origins and find their true identities.