the human vocation to make the hundred thousand billion galaxies with a hundred billion stars into paradise

This is from “Darwin and Christianity – Part 8: The Genesis Account (part 2)” recorded as a podcast on “Speaking the Truth in Love” for Ancient Faith Ministries by Fr. Tom Hopko. Here he is talking about the first chapters of Genesis and describing how God made the Garden of Eden:

So there’s a real question here whether the entire creation was paradise from the beginning. In this narrative, it doesn’t seem so. It seems that paradise is only where man is, and it’s only where man is in communion with God, where man is adoring God, obeying God, keeping God’s commandments, and his job is to make all of creation into paradise. I’m even tempted to say nowadays maybe it’s the human vocation to make the hundred thousand billion galaxies with a hundred billion stars into paradise and to do so in the power of the risen Lord and the Holy Spirit in the age to come. That might be it. Who knows? But in the beginning you just have this little garden of Eden, this little paradise spot.

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.]

a secret weapon within our divine image

When God made us in His divine image, this included a hidden divine capacity that has been revealed and perfected by Jesus Christ as our salvation. This secret weapon carried within our divine image is God’s humility and His joyful willingness to suffer. We correctly describe God as infinite and omnipotent, but He is capable of smallness to the point of death. This voluntary suffering and humiliation cannot be comprehended by the demons, and the Devil’s schemes still do not account for this factor in God’s nature. Satan’s mighty efforts are all completely undone by God’s ability to be small and to suffer. Another way to say this is that God values communion (shared life) over glory (while Satan values glory over all else). Ultimately, glory and beauty are revealed as being built upon deeper truths that we cannot typically see. In God, strength, beauty, and glory are built upon voluntary (and hidden) weakness, homeliness, and humility.

What Jesus Christ does is to join divine life and love with human sin and death (as both the first complete human and also fully God). By making humans in His own image, God made possible this seemingly impossible union between His divinity and human suffering. This hidden feature of our design (completed by Jesus Christ) means that we find God perfectly united with us only within our greatest points of need, powerlessness, suffering, and death. What Satan did not realize about divine or human nature is that they were compatible to the point that God remains all-powerful even as a dead human. Furthermore, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, humans can now be united to the fullness of God’s life only in their own deaths. This entirely undoes the schemes of Satan from the inside out (or from the final objective backwards).

Jesus Christ both accomplishes this union of divine life to human death and also shows each of us how to participate in this union. As Scott Cairns writes in The End of Suffering:

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than He came to trump the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others. On the contrary, He came to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival—in Himself.

He did not come here to undo our choices, but to move through them victoriously, and to show us how we might likewise move. He did not come to eclipse us, or to overrule our persons. On the contrary, He came to endow our persons with the self-same unending life.

“I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).

…A more likely translation seems to me to be “what is yet to be done.”

…What the fathers and mothers of the church have taught me is that inevitably each of us will, in one or in a number of ways, partake of Christ’s suffering, and that these experiences will help us to apprehend all the more how we are both joined to Him and how we are joined to each other.

We may well have occasion to ask—as Christ Himself asked—that the cup be taken away, but we will fare far better if that request is followed by “yet not my will, but Your will be done.” We will fare far better if, like the Theotokos, we answer the call of the messenger, saying, “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

…In mystical synergia, He collaborates with His Body, now and ever. In appalling condescension, He remains Emmanuel, God with us. Whereas we had brought only death and brokenness to that mix, He has brought life and wholeness.

As I’ve written in an earlier post:

Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.

In all this, it helps to recall that sin is not primarily about legal guilt. Sin is primarily about a desire for (and an aiming at) anything other than God’s love (for which we are made and which is the only thing that enables us to fully become the unique person we are made to be). Sin is therefore a desire for anything apart from its communication of God’s love (which is a desire for a lie because all created things communicate the Creator’s love). Sin is an inclination toward (or a step toward) a falsehood and the unmaking of our unique personhood—that is our death. However, Jesus Christ has gotten to the end of this road before us. Jesus united God’s own fullness to our final self-annihilation and carried God’s life into our grave. God has met us at the very end of our desperate flight away from Him. This has made voluntary death into our ultimate weapon against sin (our tool for learning to find and to know God’s love). We are not to pursue our death, but we do accept our death as the end of our failures and as the means by which we can be united to God’s life.

Therefore, in this Advent season, do not fear smallness and suffering. Instead, wait to find God within your own smallness and suffering just as the shepherds and the wise men found Him come to us all as a baby and a refugee.

it is more than slightly frightening to assimilate the notion that God finds us lovable

From Patrick Henry Reardon’s book Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption (Volume 1 of 3: The Incarnate Word).

It is difficult, it is bewildering, and it is more than slightly frightening to assimilate the notion that God finds us lovable. It is among the most astounding truths in Holy Scripture. What could God possibly find lovable in us?

Indeed, even some Christians are so bewildered by this idea that they resort to subtleties to parse away its paradox. They may explain, for example, that God, being love, had to do so, even though He finds nothing intrinsically lovable in us. It is taken for granted, in some Christian circles, that God could not possibly find human beings desirable. It is assumed as obvious that there is nothing in us that would attract Him. It is impossible for God to love us for our own sake, we are told, but He does so because of His loving nature. He is forced to love us, as it were, because love is His definition.

Let me suggest that theories like this are difficult to reconcile with what God has told us about Himself—and us. In Holy Scripture He describes Himself as a Bridegroom rejoicing over a bride, who is the apple of His eye. He speaks of Himself as a Father who celebrates the return of a faithless son, in whom He recognizes His own image. Surely, these are the teachings that justify that beautiful adjective by which Holy Church addresses God: philanthropos.

When the Church calls God the “lover of mankind,” She affirms an important truth about the human race: God finds man attractive.

…Even the souls in hell are the object of His relentless affection, because they are formed in His image, the same image He saw on the day His hands gave them shape.

beautiful madness called laughter

From The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton:

It means that somehow or other a new thing had appeared in the cavernous night of nature, a mind that is like a mirror. It is like a mirror because it is truly a thing of reflection. It is like a mirror because in it alone all the other shapes can be seen like shining shadows in a vision. Above all, it is like a mirror because it is the only thing of its kind. Other things may resemble it or resemble each other in various ways; other things may excel it or excel each other in various ways; just as in the furniture of a room a table may be round like a mirror or a cupboard may be larger than a mirror. But the mirror is the only thing that can contain them all. Man is the microcosm; man is the measure of all things; man is the image of God.

…Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself.

experienced through our bodies

In The Four Loves, [Lewis] writes, “We were made for God. Only by being in some respect like him, only by being a manifestation of his beauty and lovingkindness and wisdom and goodness, has any earthly beloved ever excited our love.” That clearly is the Augustinian wisdom: “Thou has made us for thyself, and therefore our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” But then Lewis goes on to correct Augustine’s definition of evil as loving creatures too much, writing that it is not that we have loved them too much, but that we did not quite understand what we were loving. When we see the face of God, we will know that we have always known it. In A Grief Observed, Lewis says of his wife’s beauty, “Of her, and of every created thing I praise, I should say, ‘In some way, in its unique way, it is like him who made it.'”

…The beauty of God is even experienced through our bodies. Save for the body, one whole realm of God’s glory, all that we receive through the senses, would go unpraised, for the beasts cannot appreciate it, and the angels are pure intelligences. The beauty of nature is a secret that God has shared with us alone, Lewis wrote. That may be one of the reasons why we were made, and why the resurrection of the body is so important.

…As Lewis says in that little mystical masterpiece called the “Heaven” chapter in The Problem of Pain[,] each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? … For doubtless the continually successful, yet never completed, attempt by each soul to communicate its unique vision of God to all others (and that by means whereof earthly art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations) is also among the ends for which the individual was created.

From C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness and Beauty (Baggett et al) in the essay “Lewis’s Philosophy of Truth, Goodness and Beauty” by Peter Kreeft.