Venerating Icons – It’s So Much Other Than You Think

Archpriest Stephen Freeman | 23 November 2019
Venerating Icons – It’s So Much Other Than You Think

In 1991, I sat in a room at Duke University with Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanely Hauerwas, and Susan O’Keefe. The purpose was the defense of my thesis, “The Icon as Theology.” I was an Episcopal priest, who was turning his doctoral work in Systematic Theology into an M.A. and heading back to parish life (a long story, that). The defense was friendly, thorough, with few surprises. The one major surprise, of course, came from Hauerwas. His question caught me off-guard in that it left behind academic questions and became intensely personal (that’s typical Hauerwas – there are no hiding places). His question was straight-forward:

“Do you believe the veneration of icons to be necessary for salvation?”

The loaded part of the question was quite intentional on his part. Anglican priests take an oath at their ordination that “I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain all things necessary to salvation.” It had been drilled into me at a certain point in my life and my answer should have been a knee-jerk repetition of my vow. Instead, I was mute. What he had done was to bring me to see something my soul had pushed into the background. What was interesting and academic was suddenly revealed to be a matter of existential authenticity. What did I believe?

After a time of quiet, I stammered out my answer:

“I know that my oath of ordination says that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation. However, I believe that the veneration of icons is necessary to its fullness.”

It was the first time the thought had occurred to me. In truth, it would be some years before I fully understood what I had just said. My response was more a matter of instinct than understanding. I knew it was true. I was not entirely sure how. The upshot of that day came the next morning. I woke up with a clarity of soul. I knelt by my bed and prayed, “Oh God, make me Orthodox.” I meant two things by that: first, I wanted to become Orthodox; second, God was going to have to make me. That second point was simply my awareness of my own cowardice and the duplicity of my soul. It was not an act of bravery or noble conversion. It was an acquiescence in the face of what I now saw to be true. At least half of me wished it weren’t so. The rest of me was willing to be dragged into the Kingdom of God. It took seven years for that prayer to be fulfilled. There were heel marks on the entire length of the path.

Here are some mature reflections on the act of veneration:

No spiritual activity permeates Orthodoxy as much as veneration. For the non-Orthodox, veneration is often mistaken for worship. We kiss icons; sing hymns to saints; cry out “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” And all of this scandalizes the non-Orthodox who think we have fallen into some backwater of paganized Christianity. It is not unusual to hear Orthodox who more or less apologize for this activity and seek to minimize it. “We are only trying to give honor to the saints, etc.” What is lacking, all too often, is a vigorous explanation for the work of veneration and its central place in the Christian life.

The normal mode of “seeing” in our daily world can be called “objective.” We see things as objects, and nothing more. Indeed, we see most people as objects unless we have reason to do otherwise. Sometimes we see people as objects in order not to see them as otherwise. But this objective viewing is an extremely limited and limiting way of seeing anything. Veneration brings us to a different form of seeing.

It is carefully noted in the accounts of Christ’s resurrection that he is unrecognized at first, and on more than one occasion. Mary Magdalen mistakes Him for the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus talk with Him while they are walking but do not recognize Him until the moment at which He disappears. The disciples who are fishing do not recognize Him until after they have a miraculous catch of fish.

The silliest explanations of these failures to recognize are the ones that try to attribute it to grief. The stories clearly have something else in mind. This “something else” is particularly revealed in Christ’s encounter with Mary Magdalen. She thinks He is the gardener and wants to know to where the body of Jesus has been moved. But suddenly this “gardener” calls her by name, “Mary.” And she recognizes Him.

What has taken place is the change from an objective seeing to a personal seeing. It is only in the realm of personhood that we experience communion. We do not and cannot commune with “mere” objects. The Resurrection, among many things, represents the triumph of the personal over the objective. The Resurrected Christ cannot be seen in an objective manner, or, at least, He cannot be seen for who He is in such a manner. It would be more accurate, or helpful, to say that He is discerned, or perceived, rather than merely seen. Both “discerned” and “perceived” imply something more from the observer than simple seeing. (In truth, “seeing” should be more than “mere seeing.” In Greek, the verb, “to know,” is derived from a root meaning “to see.”)

Veneration is far more than the acts of bowing, kissing, crossing oneself, offering incense or lighting candles. Those things become veneration when they are offered towards the personwho is made present in an icon. An icon that becomes an object ceases to be a true icon and becomes mere art, or worse, the object of a fetish. The Fathers taught that an “icon makes present that which it represents.” The veneration of an icon is an encounter with a person.

It is worth noting that in one of the better treatments of the theology of icons – saints are generally painted “face-to-face” rather than in profile. Judas and demons are frequently seen depicted in profile, on the other hand. There are exceptions to this rule, some by the hands of very competent iconographers. Nonetheless, the general observation remains important. We encounter persons, as personface-to-face. The impersonal, objective treatment of another person is an act of shaming and inherently hides our own face from them.

At some point, the Church’s use of iconography became distorted and became the Church’s use of art. Art is interesting and serves the end of beauty (when done well). But this development in the Church (primarily in the West, and occasionally in the East as well, as certain styles were copied) represents a turning away from the icon as encounter and the objectification of human beings and nature. It is among the many serious steps that created the notion of a secularized world.

Jesus, as an artistic subject, is equally accessible to all. His use in art renders Him as object. Indeed, Jesus is frequently used to “make a statement.” But this is the anti-icon, the betrayal of the personal as made known to us in the Resurrection. Christ becomes historicized, just one object among many to be dissected and discussed.

Of course, Christians are free. We may decorate our lives with art as we choose so long as we don’t confuse art with iconography, nor religious sentiment with spiritual encounter. But our engagement with art can easily overtake our experience of icons. Our culture knows how to “see” art, but icons remain opaque. Only the true act of veneration reveals what is made present in an icon.

I can recall my first experience with an icon. I had bought a print from St. Vladimir’s and mounted it. I would have it in front of me during my prayer time. I would look and think, and look harder. I think I expected to “see” something or for there to be a trail of thoughts inspired by my looking. But it was simply empty. I was a young college-age Anglican at the time and had no idea how to find my way into the world of an icon.

Some decades later, I became Orthodox, having written a Master’s thesis on the theology of icons and come to understand them. The summer following my conversion, I visited St. Vladimir’s Seminary for my first time. I was surprised when I walked into the chapel to see that the icon of the Virgin on the iconostasis was the original of the small print I had begun my journey with. And then I could see her. All of the journey seemed intensely personal, without accident or caprice. She had brought me home!

This is something that veneration begins to reveal to us. We do not think about the saints or imagine them. In their icons and our veneration, we come to know them. We see them face-to-face and even learn to recognize them and their work and prayers in our daily lives. The world is not accident and caprice. It is deeply intentional and personal, and conspiring towards our salvation.

The “objects” in our lives are nothing of the sort. It is only the dark and callous objectivity of the modern heart that has so disenchanted reality. We imagine ourselves the only sentient beings marooned on a small, blue planet in space. We wonder if there is “life” out there, as if there were anything else anywhere.

The world is icon and sacrament. But it cannot be known until we see it face-to-face. And you will not see anything face-to-face unless and until you venerate it. Veneration is a word that describes the proper attitude to the whole of creation. Listen to these sweet words from St. John of Damascus (7th century):

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.

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