Words As Icons

Archpriest Stephen Freeman | 31 January 2019

Creation has a sacramental purpose: it reveals God.

For from the first making of the world, those things of God which the eye is unable to see, that is, his eternal power and existence, are fully made clear, he having given the knowledge of them through the things which he has made (Rom. 1:20)

This is inherently true in things as they exist in nature. However, it becomes another matter as things pass through the hands (and lips) of humankind. We were created with something of a god-like function. In the story of Adam’s naming of the animals, God brings the animals to Adam and waits to see what name Adam will give them. Naming is not the role of creator, but it bears a similarity.

In this same manner, we take the world and fashion it, giving it shape and purpose. A tree becomes a house; a rock becomes a tool. This becomes much more complicated when what is being made consists of words. Fr. Georges Florovsky described doctrine as a “verbal icon” of Christ. The iconic nature of words makes them to be among the most important elements in all creation.

Perhaps a particularly acute aspect of words is their ability to distort and misrepresent. And so, from the earliest times, there has been a prohibition against lying. The importance of speaking the truth is emphasized repeatedly in the epistles of the New Testament, even though it might easily seem to be a minor matter of morality.

In our culture, words cascade at a never-ending pace, many of them disincarnate without reference to anything true or real. Arguments abound. Words are spoken like weapons, used for effect and not for meaning.

It is significant that Christ describes the devil as the “father of lies.” In Genesis, he speaks the world’s first lie: “God has not said…” He is the anti-logos.

The modern world has turned its attention to language. Mass communication has raised the power of the lie to new levels. Marxist theory (which holds a treasured position in many corners of our culture, particularly in academia) insists on the re-working of language as a tool for social change (and control). In this model, culture itself becomes a lie and a tool of the lie.

Language is the gift of God, uniquely human. Within it is borne a power to reveal, indeed a power that is deeply related to the act of creation itself. In Genesis, God creates with speech. It is the means by which we pray, the primary means of communion with others. Words are physical objects, passing from our mouths to the ears of others. We touch each other with words. Speech has been made worthy to serve as a sacrifice before God.

The Tradition has also valued silence. St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” We have this from the theologian, Vladimir Lossky:

The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, attributed by St. ignatius to those who in truth possess His word, echoes the reiterated appeal of Christ to His hearers: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside. St. Basil moves in the same direction when he says, in his passage on the traditions: “There is also a form of silence, namely the obscurity used by the Scripture, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding of the teachings, for the profit of readers.” This silence of the Scriptures could not be detached from them: it is transmitted by the Church with the words of the Revelation, as the very condition of their reception.

This silence, the reverence for words and the truth which they reveal, is almost lost in our age. Orthodox believers (to focus on ourselves) often multiply our “words without knowledge” as part of the same cultural drive to shape and control. Our proper task is not to shape and control, but to reveal. That requires that we must first and foremost be silent until the word given to us in that silence is truly heard, perceived and incarnate within us. In truth, if you do not live what you say then you do not know what you say.

There is a practice within the tradition in which someone goes to a holy elder and “asks for a word.” That encounter is, most often, quite terse. It is not a request for an explanation, much less mere speculation. It can, indeed, be no word at all:

Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.” The old man said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”

I found this verse in Proverbs that aptly describes so much of our modern conversation:

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet. (Prov. 29:9)

If there is no quiet, it is certain that the word of Christ will not be heard.

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