27 August 2009
26 August 2009
[compare to the earlier post on pornography]
The Mystery of Faith – Sacrament and Icon: "
Recent questions have been raised about the difference between icons and sacraments in the Orthodox Church. It is an easy place for confusion to occur – particularly when seen from the outside.
The Church in the West, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, developed a carefully-worded and defined understanding of sacrament during the Middle Ages. This definition depended on matters such as the authority of its institution, the intention of its performance, and the use of proper material (such as bread, wine, oil, etc.). Typical of Western Scholasticism, the definition took on something of a legal cast. During the debates of the Reformation, both the nature of the sacraments as well as their number became a topic for disagreement. Classically, Rome said their were seven sacraments. The majority of reformers argued that only Eucharist and Baptism were sacraments and offered varying accounts as to what actually constituted a sacrament. Underneath this Western understanding of sacrament (and not intentionally related) was a growing world-view which would eventually become secularism. Sacraments increasingly became defined as unique and special moments within the otherwise secular world where the presence and authority of God were made available to mankind.
The various Protestant movements sped quickly towards a secularized world-view such that in most Protestant Churches today, the sacraments have all but disappeared as interventions of God and have become “ordinances” or simple acts of obedience to Christ. Even in those places where some lingering sense of “sacrament” remains – what remains is unclear.
The place of these same sacraments has a very differing history within the Eastern Church. Among the Orthodox, those actions which the West defined as sacraments, were more commonly referred to as mysteries. This name (from the Greek word translated variously as secret or unknowable) seems particularly to have come into usage from the fact that these mysteries were not part of the public life of the Church in its earliest years, but part of its hidden, inner life. Thus to this day in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, at the end of the liturgy of the word, the Deacon exclaims, “Let all catechumens depart!” etc. The liturgy of the faithful (the blessing of the bread and wine and the communion of the Church) begins with the exlamation, “Let us the faithful, again and again in peace pray unto the Lord!” Catechumens (unbaptized) were required to leave the service. Only the faithful (the Baptized) were allowed to be present for the Mystery.
In early practice, the mystery of the Holy Eucharist was only observed by those who had been Baptized and Chrismated. Baptism itself was also not observed by non-initiates in the mysteries. But these “mysteries” were not taught as speculations about the nature and character of a sacrament. The clear teaching and consensus of the early fathers was that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine, truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. No particular effort was made to ask how such a thing was so (indeed, I have often wondered if it is not somehow “impious” to ask such a question). By the same token Holy Baptism was understood to be a union with the death and resurrection of Christ, a Baptism into the Body of Christ, the remission of sins, the cleansing from all unrighteousness, etc. Its treatment was similar to that of the Holy Eucharist. The reality of Baptism and what it accomplished were simply part of the teaching of the Church: the how was not a particularly interesting question.
One short aside: nowhere do we find in the early fathers a teaching of a merely “symbolic” or “memorial” treatment of the holy mysteries. Indeed, mere symbolism would have to await the development of nominalist philosophy before the idea could have been expressed – the idea had no place within the canon of ancient thought.
The relation between sacrament and icon first arose as a question during the debates of the 8th century in the East that eventually resulted in the 7th Ecumenical Council. Those who opposed the making and veneration of icons (which was already a settled practice of the Church) put forward the argument that the “Holy Eucharist was the only true icon” and only the Eucharist could be venerated (some iconoclasts also held the Holy Cross to be a venerable icon). The response of the Orthodox (those who venerated icons) was that the Holy Eucharist was not an icon (image) but the actual and true Body of Christ. Thus a distinction was articulated. Icons are representations – though they are not themselves that-which-is-represented. And icon of Christ is not Christ-Himself (certainly not in the manner in which the Church holds the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ).
St. Theodore the Studite is the father most associated with the language that spoke definitively about the representation found in icons. In this case the how of representation seemed important. The Christological and Trinitarian language of Person (or hypostasis) and Essence (ousia) were a commonplace within the Church’s theological language and understanding – having become settled in meaning during the 4th through the 6th centuries. St. Theodore said of icons that they were representations of the person of Christ (or a saint) but not of His essence. Indeed, by definition, an essence cannot have a representation. There is no such thing as the picture of man, only of a man. Thus an icon of Christ affirmed that He had become a man, and not simply man in some generalized form. Christ truly took upon Himself human nature (ousia) – but that nature must be encountered in the person of Christ. St. Theodore’s teaching on the holy icons was thus an affirmation of the earlier councils of the Church and affirmed the veneration of icons as an expression of the fullness of the Orthodox teaching.
An icon “makes present that to which it refers” is also a statement of the 7th Council. But the presence encountered in an icon is a “representation of the person” (hypostatic representation in the language of St. Theodore) and not the same as the reality itself of the Holy Eucharist.
To move away from the language of the councils – it is possible to say that in the Mysteries of the Church – we participate in the Divine Life itself (in Eucharist, Baptism, etc.). In conversations with the West, the Orthodox Church sometimes affirmed seven mysteries as did the Roman Church. Sometimes there were more mysteries affirmed (monastic tonsure was a common addition). The primary affirmation of the Orthodox was that they certainly did not have anything less than Rome. Some have said that there is no limit to the number of Mysteries – this might be so – but is not a matter of dogma. Rather, it is accurate to say that the Church understands that God has united Himself to us and us to Himself and does so particularly in the Holy Mysteries of the Church (not to say that He does not do so in any other manner).
Additionally it is true that the world has an iconic character to its existence. Things not only are what they are – but they also point beyond themselves. The secularized view of the world sees things as simply things – relations existing only as mental constructs. Such a colorless view of the world has become one of the hallmarks of modern thought – and – I believe – a powerful element within the sadness of contemporary man.
The Church taught in the 7th Council that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” thus likening Scripture and icon rather than Scripture and sacrament. We encounter Christ iconically in Scripture – His presence is made known to us. Truth is given to us – but as representation and encounter. This is a very different way to think about Scripture – certainly not the same as the propositional truth of many Reform thinkers. Propositional truth works well and instinctively within a secularized world of just things. Truth becomes an idea rather than an encounter.
We can and do know Truth – but propositions are truth in a diminished form. The words about icons, for instance, are true (so I believe). But the words about icons are not the same thing as standing before an icon with wonder and veneration and encountering Christ personally. The Scriptures, read rightly, are an encounter with the living Lord. But frequently that encounter has no words that can express it.
At Vespers, the Church traditionally sings Psalm 104(3): “How manifold are Thy works, O Lord: in wisdom hast Thou made them all!” This veneration of the works of God (for such is the meaning of veneration in its Orthodox sense) is a recognition of what, and Who, we encounter in the works of God. Icons are called “windows to heaven.” One of their chiefest purposes in the modern Church is to teach modern man that windows exist. We do not live as a thing among things – but as fearful and wonderful creations in the midst of a manifold creation itself made in wisdom.
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory – these are the words of angels who see what we refuse to see and what the icon of creation constantly reveals to us – if we but had eyes to see.
There is a traditional distinction between icon and sacrament (or mystery) – but both hold in common the good news of the Gospel of God’s love. Both open heaven and earth to us as encounter and participation (though in manners that differ). Learning to live in such a world (and with such a God) can be a difficult journey for modern man. We are, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “men without chests,” we have lost the knowledge of the heart. Icon and Sacrament are a restoration of that knowledge – salvation for chestless men.
25 August 2009
From the “Return of Scipio” blog: the entire text of “Future Present”: "
To my dismay, the blog The Return of Scipio seems to have disappeared, and I cannot seem to find an email address with which to contact that blogger. So…to ensure his post “Future Present” continues to be available, I am posting its entire text. (I know it is cached by Google, but I plead ignorance of how long it will stay there.) If “Scipio” contacts me and wants this post taken down I will certainly do as he asks. But here is the text of what I think is an outstanding piece of writing, raising questions I think everyone in the West should consider.
An archeologist, while rummaging among the ruins of our fallen civilization, met a ghost from the long dead race of Americans. The wraith boasted much about what we had been as a people.
“We died in the hundreds of thousands to end slavery here and around the world.
We invented Jazz.
We wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg address.
We went to the moon to see how far we could hit a golf ball.
We lifted a telescope into orbit that could see to the edge of the universe.
When people snuck into the country against our laws, we made parking lots and food stands off to the side of the road so they wouldn’t get hurt, and we let them use our hospitals for free, and we made their children citizens.
We didn’t care what God you worshipped as long as we could worship ours.
We let the People arm themselves at will. Just to make sure.
We gave everybody the vote.
We built Disneyworld. Just for fun.
We had a revolution so successful it was still going strong two and a quarter centuries later.
We had so many heroes, even at the end, that we felt free to hate them and burn them in effigy.
We electrified the guitar.
We invented a music so compelling that it rocked the world.”
The archeologist asked, “If you accomplished all of this, then why did your nation collapse?” The ghost answered, “Because we went insane.”
The ghost took a breath and said, “We traded beauty for ugliness, truth for lies, liberty for comfort, love for indifference, responsibility for frivolity, duty for entertainment, history for sound bites, and children for pleasure. We had gold, but we tossed it aside and replaced it with cleverly designed dross. We turned men into women and women into men and marveled at our new creative power. We stopped looking up to Heaven and began to keep our gaze firmly fixed on the ground. We abandoned the old God for a host of hip, cool and slick new ones.”
“Those new gods turned on us. At first they granted us our every wish. They laughed with us. They danced with us. We all ate, drank and made all sorts of merry. All of us exulted in our power. And then…” Here the ghost stopped for a moment. His mouth was half open as if trying to speak. His body shuddered as it remembered an ancient terror. “But there were some among us who felt something was wrong, dreadfully wrong.”
“They warned us, you know. They begged us to cease our national madness and return to the days of our forefathers. At first they were just annoying, and we laughed at them. But they became louder and more insistent, and so we asked our new gods to rid us of the pests. And they did. Our gods simply required that we all get special marks on our bodies, but the pests refused to get them. But soon they began to disappear. Terrifying stories emerged about their fate, but we closed our ears and our eyes. Soon the few that remained ran off to the hills. Sometimes we would hear about them, but mostly they vanished from our memory. We were glad that they were gone, and we all laughed together and rolled with the good times. But…”
“We began to change. Where we had once looked into the mirror and seen men, now we saw animals, beasts in fact. Some of us even seemed to walk on all fours and make animal sounds. We prayed to our gods, and they answered that all was well, that we were becoming as they were, that we were becoming as gods. And then things began to break down.”
“Everything. Our machines, our laws, our finances, our systems of government and trade—they all seemed to rust away and no one any longer understood how they had functioned. There arose among us those who claimed to be able to fix things. They promised they could return us to the good times. We marveled at their speech, their handsomeness, their resumes, their attire. They seemed to be especially blessed by our gods. But something was odd about them.”
“They never smiled. Ever. We thought it was because of their deep concern for us. We believed these men and placed them over us. But things became worse, much worse. Our new rulers demanded more of our treasure and we gave it. Our new rulers demanded more of our children and we surrendered them. Our new rulers demanded that we live only in certain areas, join only certain groups, think only certain things and say only certain words. They said that all of this was necessary for the good of us all. Soon the way we had been just faded away. It seemed that we had always had these men over us, that we had always given them what they demanded. We began to see pictures of these men everywhere, even in our homes, even in our empty churches. More and more of us started to walk on all fours and make the sounds of animals. Those that did looked content.”
“And what about you?” laughed the archeologist as he shook his head. “Did you go on all fours?”
“No. I remained standing until the end.”
“It happened suddenly. There was that knock on my door, a bunch of uniformed men, some yelling. I called upon my wife and children, but they were on all fours braying like donkeys. I began to scream. My best friend across the hall opened his door to see what was happening, but then he went on all fours and started to low. I ran and the men chased me. I made it into the street. Everyone I passed was on all fours. Some were barking and some were cackling. Some were yelping like hyenas. I prayed to the gods that they might save me. But they laughed, and it was an odd sound, like the laughter of demons. There was pain like shafts of heat passing through me, a rush of warm liquid, and then all was darkness. And now I am here walking among these ruins and talking to you.”
The archeologist thought for a bit, and then leaned into the ghost and asked him in a lowered voice, almost a whisper, “So what about those old stories of Heaven and Hell? Are they true?”
“Yes. They are true.”
The man’s eyes grew wide. “Then where did you go when you died?”
“I was shown both of them. In Hell there were still all those images of our rulers. And everyone there was on all fours and making animal sounds. In Heaven I saw men walking and speaking. And there was music. I had forgotten what music sounded like. And there were none of those images.”
“Then why did you not stay?”
“I was told to come here and warn you.”
“Warn me? About what?”
But the ghost was silent. He smiled and seemed to be slowly backing away from the archeologist. At last he just faded away.
The man stood for a moment, shuddered and then walked away from the ruins. On the way home he saw the same things he had always seen, but now for the first time in memory they shocked him—streets covered with images of the rulers, lines upon lines of people on all fours making the sounds of animals, rust everywhere. He stared at the mark on his hand, and tried to rub it off. But it would not come off, it would never come off.
And all around him was heard the laughter of demons.
Like I said, I would hate to see this disappear into the void of erased cyberspace!
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24 August 2009
O ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who didst give to thine Apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach thy Word; Grant, we beseech thee, unto thy Church, to love that Word which he believed, and both to preach and receive the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
20 August 2009
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (August 20, 2009): "Man of the century! Woman of the century! You see such terms applied to so many today--'golfer of the century,' 'composer of the century,' 'right tackle of the century'--that the line no longer has any punch. But the 'man of the twelfth century,' without doubt or controversy, has to be Bernard of Clairvaux. Adviser of popes, preacher of the Second Crusade, defender of the faith, healer of a schism, reformer of a monastic Order, Scripture scholar, theologian and eloquent preacher: any one of these titles would distinguish an ordinary man. Yet Bernard was all of these--and he still retained a burning desire to return to the hidden monastic life of his younger days."
18 August 2009
The pornographer's dream: or, the problem with contemporary worship: "There’s been a lot of speculation in recent years about why so many evangelicals are converting to Rome and to Eastern Orthodoxy. I wonder whether the highly experiential focus of contemporary worship might have something to do with it.
The New York singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega has an entertaining song entitled “Pornographer’s Dream” (from her 2007 album, Beauty and Crime). In the song, Vega asks what kind of woman a pornographer would dream about:
Would he still dream of the thigh? of the flesh upon high?
What he saw so much of?
Wouldn’t he dream of the thing that he never
Could quite get the touch of?
It’s out of his hands, over his head
Out of his reach, under this real life
Hidden in veils, covered in silk
He’s dreaming of what might be
Out of his hands, over his head
Out of his reach, under this real life
Hidden in veils,
He’s dreaming of mystery.
It’s a nice idea: the pornographer, from whom nothing is concealed, dreams only of concealment itself. Unlike the rest of us, his fantasies involve not naked flesh, but a body “hidden in veils, covered in silk.” For the pornographer, the only thing forbidden is mystery, so that his fantasises are of clothed women, veiled flesh.
As an analysis of pornography, I think this is completely correct. The real problem with pornography is not that it is too erotic, but that it is not erotic enough. In seeking to reveal everything, to fulfil every fantasy, it destroys the very possibility of fantasy and eroticism. And so the use of pornography ultimately results not in erotic ecstasy or euphoria, but in mere boredom.
Perhaps all this can serve as a parable for the contemporary preference for experiential worship styles. Where every church service becomes the opportunity for a life-changing experience of the divine presence; where every song and sermon and prayer is designed to produce immediate emotional impact; where the whole Christian life is transformed into the pursuit of a “naked” experience of the divine – here, the final outcome can only be a profound and paralysing boredom. And for those subjected to such boredom, the only remaining spiritual desire is for a mysterious God, a God not merely naked and exposed, but clothed in ritual, sacrament, tradition.
Why are so many evangelicals converting to Rome and Constantinople? Perhaps their infinitely deferred quest for a Deus nudus has finally resulted in an unbearable boredom. Perhaps they’re dreaming of a God who is not always promiscuously available to immediate experience, but is instead “hidden in veils, covered in silk” – a more modest, and therefore more sexy God.
For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that we should avoid the pitfalls both of a promiscuous experientialism and of any reaction towards ritualism for its own sake. Instead of trying by our own efforts either to strip God or to clothe him, we should look to the place where God has both veiled and unveiled himself for us: in the event of Jesus Christ.
06 August 2009
O GOD, who on the mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thine only-begotten Son wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistering; Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may be permitted to behold the King in his beauty, who with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen.