Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Boring Icons

[From the Antiochian Village in Pensylvania after a glorious game of soccer that was worth the pain]

All that the Church does is iconic. In fact, all of creation is iconic, and the Church functions as our teacher helping us learn how to read with the inner eye the Word of God that surrounds us. This reading with the inner eye is commonly called contemplation. The Fathers of the Church teach us that one way we begin to know God is through the contemplation of the “natural essence of created things.” This is strange language for many of us.

When we contemplate the natural essence of created things, we are contemplating (thinking deeply about) what the things we see and can touch reveal about God, ourselves and what is really real. This contemplation on physical things, what I called above “reading with the inner eye,” is a very different kind of thinking than most of us are used to. Most of us are used to thinking about ideas and theories that describe and explain what we can see and touch. This way of thinking is commonly manifest in explanations of why things are the way they are. Professors in universities are not the only ones who use this way of thinking. Every time we explain to ourselves why someone does something or acts in a certain way, we are creating theories. “She says that because she is jealous.” “The Prime Minister suggests that because he is a neoconservative.” “The priest says that because he thinks he is important.” Such statements are all the fruit of our normal way of thinking—we all automatically create theories to explain to ourselves why the world and the people around us are the way they are.

Contemplation is a different process; we might even say an opposite process. In the contemplation of the natural essence of created things, we look at what we see, and instead of trying to explain it, we try to see it, really see it, see it as it is. And when we begin to see, our seeing becomes much more like reading than mere observing. Just as a book begins to speak to us, so also what we contemplate also begins to speak to us. However, whereas a book speaks to the rational part of our mind (the part that constructs theories), the inner reading of contemplation speaks to our hearts, or what the Church calls the nous. The nous is the part of our mind that knows without reason, that understands without being able to explain.

Contemplation is not something we are good at, so God in His mercy has given us the Church. The Church helps us learn how to contemplate though icons. Everything in the Church, as I have said, is iconic: the liturgy, the architecture, the hierarchy, and yes, even the icons are icons. It sounds like that last example (“icons are icons”) is a truism, but it is not. Many Orthodox Christians have not yet learned to contemplate icons as icons—as physical objects that participate both in the reality of physicality and human art, and also in the spiritual reality of the prototype, the reality of what the icon reveals. Through contemplating the icons that the Church present to us, we come to know reality (what is real and true about God, ourselves, and the universe) in ways that transcend reason. By learning to contemplate what the Church gives us, we begin to be able to contemplate all creatures and discover what the Holy Spirit is saying in them. Doesn’t the Church teach us that the Holy Spirit is “everywhere present and filling all things”?

Perhaps this is the reason why Church services are so “boring.” The Church is teaching us to stop thinking with our reason (at least for a few minutes) and to pay attention to our nous. For people who are used to having the rational part of their mind stimulated at all times (even in their sleep through dreams), this lack of rational stimuli may be experienced as boredom. But what some of us experience as boredom is really the invitation of the Church to contemplation, to knowing beyond reason, to encounter with God through reading with the inner eye the icons the Church has put before us.

No comments: