My intention is not to give a systematic and contrasting series of talks to make Orthodoxy different from other faiths or Christian denominations, but to try to convey to you a certain number of things which I believe are Orthodox, are essential to Orthodoxy and may be useful for your experience, as it seems that they are useful in ours. And to begin with I would like, as a background for what I wish to say today, to read a page from a book by Father Alexander Schmemann, a young theologian who is the Dean of the Theological School in New York, called The World as Sacrament. On page 21, in his first address, he says:
`Christianity is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well Jesus made this clear. “Sir,” the woman said to him, “I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father… but the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship him.” (Jn 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ, who is both God and man, has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.
`It was this freedom of the early church from “religion” in the usual, traditional sense of this word that led the pagans into accusing Christians of atheism. Christians had no concern for any sacred geography, no temples, no cult that could be recognised as such by the generations fed in the solemnities of the mystery cults. There was no specific religious interest in the places where Jesus had lived. There were no pilgrimages. The old religion had its thousand sacred places and temples: for the Christians all this was past and gone. There was no need for temples built of stones. Christ’s Body, the Church itself, the new people gathered in him, was the only real temple, `Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…’(Jn 2:19)
`The Church itself was the new and heavenly Jerusalem: the Church in Jerusalem was by contrast unimportant. The fact that Christ comes and is present was far more significant than the places where he had been. The historical reality of Christ was of course the undisputed ground of the early Christians’ faith: yet they did not so much remember him as know he was with them. And in him was the end of “religion”, because He himself was the answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in him the life that was lost by man – and which could only be symbolised, signified, asked for in religion was restored to man.`
It is against this background that I wish to begin our talks on Orthodoxy. We will in the course of these talks have to face two kinds of realities, which I believe in certain ways are in conflict and in certain ways must be understood as a harmony: The fact that on the one hand we do not want to belong to one of the many religions of mankind but that Christianity is something new, not a way of being distantly related to God, but a way in which God and man are unfathomably close, a way in which there is no need for this search, and on the other hand we will have to make sense of, or to reject in certain cases, the way in which in Orthodoxy, as in every one of the Christian Churches, forms have appeared which have given to Christianity all the appearances of a religion among the many.
Anticipating what I wish to say later, I think we can say already that the answer to this bifocal situation, to this tension between two opposite things and affirmations and an experimental reality, does not reside simply in the fact that Christianity has lost sight of its essential vocation and its essential reality, neither does the answer reside, I believe, in the view that it has become part of history and is working itself out in history. I believe something more essential and more important is involved here. The deep basic experience of Christianity is something that occurs in the depth of worshipful silence like everything that happens between persons. And on the other hand, this reality must be conveyed, must be – not made available, because it cannot – but must be made closer by a system of means of communication and I think it is the appreciation of these various forms and expressions as means of communication that can put them into the right perspective and give them a meaning, a place, and a rightful place, against the background out of which they seemingly are excluded.
Whatever way we try to convey the experience of Christianity – and I will try in the successive talks to take up, one after the other, a certain number of ways in which it can be and is done – we are trying to convey in the form of language or gesture, of colour and line, of dramatic presentation, something which is rooted in the silence of a contemplative soul. What is to be revealed, what is to be conveyed, is something which is always on the other side of the image and not what the image presents either crudely or with finer elaboration.
I know that I probably make excessive use of analogies and images, but here I would like at the outset of these talks to put forth one image which I believe will be useful later in more than one way. I think that all these means of communication – theological statements, history, liturgical worship, etc. – can be represented as a stained-glass window: A stained-glass window is visible only if there is light on the other side. If there is no light, it appears only as a dark patch in the wall. If we try to investigate this dark patch from where we stand, if we cast a ray of light from a torch towards it, it becomes only darker. We can see in this dark patch, perhaps, greater or lighter colours, or rather, more profound, more absolute and less absolute darkness. But this is all we can perceive. From where we stand, whatever effort we make to cast the light of our intelligence, of our imagination, upon the window, it does not reveal anything about itself, for the simple reason that it has nothing to reveal about itself. It has nothing to say about itself. If it has anything to say at all, it has got to speak to us about the light which is on the other side of the window, not about itself. If on the contrary there is light, then we discover the window according to our approach in different ways. We may read in this window a story, it may be historical facts, or parable or symbol, it may be the description in line and colour of something that happened, either in the life of Christ or in the history of mankind as seen by the eyes of faith. It may be a symbol that is also meant for no other purpose than to convey truth, experience, to us. This is a first and a simple approach which is legitimate and which is true in itself.
But there is something else that happens when we look at a stained-glass window: we do not perceive only in colour and line a story or a symbol, we perceive the beauty and colour and line. This is always already a perception of something which is beyond. As long as we look at the window in terms of the story we may be forgetful of the light behind it. But when we begin to perceive colour and beauty we become aware that there is light. The fragrance and the splendour of the window is conditioned by what there is on the other side, and ultimately both colour-line meaning and beauty are conveying to us only the light beyond, but in a way which is perceptible to us, in a way which we can apprehend. Once we have discovered it, the window becomes irrelevant, not in terms of beauty and art but in terms of necessity for the inner experience which it conveys to us in the first place.
This, I believe, is brought out in a very definite, precise way in the attitude of Orthodoxy to the icon. An icon is an image of the Lord, of the Mother of God, of saints; it is a face. There are icons which represent events, which fall into the same category of the stained-glass window, but I want now to discuss the icon as a face. The icon in its origin was surrounded with discussion, with argument, with violent tension because it was essential for the Christians to understand what the icon is, what it signifies, what is the scope of its message and the degree of truth it conveys. The icon of Christ was born from the faith of the Church in the historicity of Christ: if God had become man, if he had dwelt in the world in the flesh, if he had been visible and tangible, then he could be represented in line and colour. This seems simple; it is not simple at all. And quite soon a problem arose, not in the minds of people but in the conscience of people: Was this legitimate and was it true at all? We do not know the features of the face of Christ, so an icon cannot be considered as a portrait, as a true, an accurate likeness of Christ. It was not a reliable likeness and therefore it did not convey truth, it was fanciful and therefore it had no meaning. More than this, it was almost blasphemous simply to paint more and more faces of Christ which were fanciful and did not correspond either to historical reality or to anything.
The second argument against the icon was that it could convey nothing but the historical appearance, petrified, fixed, of Christ, an historical appearance that was not dynamic and therefore could not convey even the human personality of Christ, but what was worse is that the icon – as it was thought at that moment – could convey nothing of the mystery of the Incarnation, and yet this was the only thing that was to be conveyed. The Christians, as you have heard from the quotation of Father Alexander Schmemann, were not trying to recapture memories; they were living in a present reality. And so the outer form emptied of deep content was unacceptable. This led to rejection of icons; it led to theological thought, to reflection on what the experience of Christ was and how it could be conveyed.
And a certain number of points emerged out of these discussions: first of all the fact that indeed no one meant to paint an icon in order to make a likeness of Christ; there was no historical original for such a likeness which could be reproduced, and indeed it split the mystery of the total Christ into a humanity that could be fixed in line and colour and the very contents of this mystery that escaped the line and colour. But the icon was seen as an attempt at conveying an experience of Christ, not a likeness and not an invention. It was not an attempt at painting man in his greatness, height of perfection, and imagining that this would be Christ; it was an attempt at using human features without meaning them to be either beautiful or particularly significant in certain ways, but singling out those features which conveyed experience and were significant in reality.
If I may try to make myself clearer, I would say that between the icon and the caricature there is an analogy which is important: in both cases the aim of the drawing is to single out meaningful features that will convey this meaning to anyone who looks at it. In a caricature of course certain types of feature are chosen; in an icon, also in a portrait, certain other features are chosen. But the difference between a portrait and an icon lies in the fact that in a portrait, apart from those features which convey all the richness of a personality, an attempt is made at fixing also what is transient and what is perhaps ephemeral but was the face of this man in such a situation, at such an age, etc. In the icon everything which is not meaningful is cast aside, is dropped, and this results at times in great ugliness, but an ugliness that can be studied and can be perceived. Studied and perceived are two different things. One can look at an icon for a long time and receive a direct impact from it, one can look at an icon with a certain knowledge of the way in which things are being conveyed, look at an icon as one reads a book in a foreign language, the words of which or the idiom of which are known, in order to grasp the message.
The second way depends on two things, on the one hand, on human experience, on the other hand, on spiritual experience: only those things which are already known, if only germinally, by the person will be discovered in the icon. One does not simply invent meaning intellectually. The first way is much more universal. We all know from experience that when we see a face we receive an impression of it: we would say that this person was severe, good, evil, cruel, intelligent or otherwise. It does not require any analysis of the features if it is rooted in what we know of life, what has become our experience, either because we tried to understand faces or simply because we have learnt it from meeting people and experiencing their personality. The same happens to the icon: it conveys this kind of meaning. An icon, however, is not meant to convey nothing but the personal experience of the one who painted it. An icon is part of the total worship and the total experience of the Church. And this is why, within a given tradition of spirituality, icons which differ profoundly from each other are still akin to each other; they are complementary, they reveal a new side of the same subject if they do not contradict one another.
If you compare what I have just said about icons to what I have said about the stained-glass window, about the various means by which one can — in art and in music, in theology, in ascetical rules, in liturgical forms, in the concrete prayers of the Church, in the revelations of Scripture and so on, – make others participate in the experience already possessed by the total body, then you will be able to place all these things in their rightful place and leave to Christianity its complete freedom and significance not as one of the many religions but as a completely new situation of man in relation to God. And relation is religion, but in another sense: a knowledge of God which is beyond an accurate expression; it is a participation in the life of God.
I would like next time to take up another way in which truth or knowledge of God or experience, through a series of sequences of steps, moves from contemplative silence, from the vision, from the knowledge within communion, to the various ways in which it is formulated, – the sort of descending line from experience to doctrinal statements.
Answers to questions:
About representations of God in other religions – Buddhism, for instance, – are they icons?…
I think that it is a question of definition. An icon, the word itself, means an image and therefore to the extent to which an image conveys experience you can say it is an icon of a sort. I have been using the word ‘icon’ in a specific way because simply in our history a certain type of painting is called by that name. I am not entitled to give a definition and I have not the knowledge to give it, but what I think is characteristic of an icon, is that in line and colour a transcendental experience is being conveyed. This is the important thing; this experience may be full, it may be poor, it may be relative, it may be twisted; this is something one cannot judge so easily, because if you take even the most classical icons you cannot speak of an adequate way in which they convey the meaning behind; they convey something of the meaning within the limitations of the methods and also within the limitations of the person. And different epochs have conveyed different things, having become sensitive to one side or another of the total experience they wanted to convey.
There is a remarkable little booklet by Trubetzkoi on lectures which he gave before the Revolution and immediately afterwards on the Russian icons of the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries, and he traces, through the icons, the peculiar experiences of people, the experience both of God and of history, and God in history, which comes out. One of the things he insists on, which I just note in passing, is this: he says that in the period when the suffering under the yoke of the Tartars was incredibly great, it was not suffering that was expressed in the icons, because it seems that in order to express something you must distance yourself from the suffering, to have a reflective attitude, and in the period of the greatest tragedy it was not suffering, it was the other features that came out: the faith in God as the Lord of history, the Pantocrator theme, the theme of mercy and a certain number of other themes, while about half a century later, after the defeat of the Tartars, after the freeing of Russia, then the theme of suffering came out with incredible strength. People who had suffered had had time also to reflect, to perceive it and to express it against the background of their faith and total experience. So this continuous change is essential to the life of the icon. This is why icons cannot be fixed and petrified. It is impossible to say that the icons of the Russia, say, of the 15th century, are the perfect types and that those which follow or precede are of lesser quality. They are not. They may be perceived by us in certain respects, particularly from the technical point of view, as being of great perfection, but the fact, for instance, that since – say, the 18th century – icon painting in Russia has become pious painting but not icon painting shows that something has gone wrong in the Christian community. It is not a question of art: it is a question of the inner content… There is a human element in Scripture also: God is the same, but he is discovered with continuous newness in a renewed way and also expressed in renewed ways.