(excerpt from a talk with non-orthodox)
The word «Orthodoxy» is a Greek word, and it has got two sides to it: it is both right glorification of God and right faith in Him, and the first thing which we would say is glorification, worship. God is not someone about whom one can have notions, God is someone whom one encounters, and the English word «God» if you look it up in an etymological dictionary, proceeds from a Gothic root which means «one before whom one prostrates in adoration». So this is the first and basic sense which an Orthodox has of God — it is the One whom one meets and the One before whom one bows down in adoration. The first part of my sentence, 'the one whom one meets', is a very important one because we speak very often in all denominations, in all forms of religion, of the tenets of our faith, but the tenets of our faith are the expression of people’s experience, and it is not enough for a person to adhere to a world outlook or to a theology or to dogma to have a right to call himself either a Christian or a member of any other religious body. One has got a right to say, I am this and that, when it corresponds to one’s personal experience, when one can say, as an atheist put it in France in a book in which he described his conversion, God exists, I have met Him. This is, I think, an essential attitude of Orthodoxy to the approach to God and to the faith. Obviously we do not all experience God with the same violence, the same depth as St. Paul did on the way to Damascus but as long as we can not say, I know for sure Who He is, I have an experience of His, then we must say, My faith is borrowed, it is incipient, I do not yet possess it. It is still an intellectual vision or perhaps, an emotional approach, it is not life itself. And one of our ascetics of the present day put it to me in the following manner, «No one should dare call himself an Orthodox because to be an Orthodox means to know God as He is and to worship Him according to His holiness, worship Him in mind, in heart, in will, in one’s very flesh and in one’s actions.» So that this is the basic corner-stone of our attitude to Orthodoxy. It must be an experience personal, direct, possessed by us however frail and incipient but it must be our own and not simply a borrowed faith, which we repeat, of which we repeat the gestures or the formulas.
And yet formulas play a role because formulas or the various ways in which a faith can be conveyed are in the end the only way of conveying things. It is by the word that one can convey notions, even if these notions are beyond words. When we say «beauty», when we say «God», when we say «love», we use words, which in themselves are empty of meaning except for one who knows what it is about. It is impossible to convey in words the substance of things. Words are signs. And in that respect the doctrinal statements of every faith including Orthodoxy are attempts at putting into words what is beyond words or rather it’s an attempt at using words that will be openings and allow people to enter into an experience. I have mentioned beauty, I have mentioned God, I have mentioned love. Unless we have a slightest inkling of what these things are the words remain meaningless but the moment we have begun to discover the thing, then the words can be used for a deeper understanding in order to share the experience of others and thereby widening our own experience.
It is not only by words that one can convey ones faith. There is an old saying that no-one can abandon the world and choose for God who has not seen on the face or in the eyes of at least one person the shining of eternal life. It is because one meets someone who arrests one’s attention that one can say, There is something beyond what I have known hitherto.
But there are other ways in which meaning reaches us apart from the words, as I have already said: icons, you have them on the wall, are ways in which our faith can be conveyed. St. John of Damascus in the VIII century says, «If an illiterate person comes and says, ‘Tell me what the Christian faith is about’, take him to the church, place him before an icon screen and let him look.» And he will see several kinds of things. Well, place him before a screen is what he said. Now I am going to comment on it, I don’t want to charge poor St. John of Damascus with what I will say now. What you will see are icons, representing Christ, the Mother of God, saints, but also scenes taken from the Gospel: the Nativity of Christ, the Presentation to the
Now, if you turn to the faces, then you will discover other things in the same line. First of all you will discover that all icons represent personages, Christ, the Mother of God, angels, saints, facing you, never simply looking away from you because the purpose of an icon is an encounter, and one does not encounter a person otherwise than by being able to look into the face and into the eyes of a person. One does not encounter persons in profile. On the other hand, if you are prepared to look into a person’s eyes, you must be prepared also to be seen, for the other person to look into your eyes, and it is an enormous risk, it’s something which is very frightening at times; to disclose oneself so completely because one longs to look into the depth of a person’s soul.
An icon is a call to all of us, to the person who contemplates it to look deeply into the presence, into the presence of a saint, of Christ, of the Mother of God, of an angel. And if you look at certain icons you will discover that when demons are represented, they are always represented in profile, because it is felt that you can not look into the emptiness, the devastated emptiness of the demon’s eyes and remain safe.
Now, as far as faces are concerned, it is obvious that icons with a very few exceptions are not portraits. We have no portrait of Christ, of the Mother of God, of most of the saints. A few are nearing a portrait because the saints are contemporary to the artist but on the whole the aim of an icon is not to be a portrait. The aim of an icon is to convey an experience and not simply a historical fact. If you look at the icons of the Mother of God or of Christ, they are all painted according to the same principle as caricatures. You know what caricatures are made of: one singles out a few significant features and the rest is left alone because obviously (?) everyone knows that people have got cheeks and other parts of the face. But what is important is the eyes, the brow, the mouth or this and that. Those of you who may remember the caricatures of De Gaulle will remember that what mattered was his nose. Well, this is the same principle which is applied in painting icons except obviously that the aim is not to make fun of the visage, of the face and the aim is to convey something which is not amusing. And so you will find on icons eyes, eyebrows, foreheads, mouth, a basic expression; and the rest is there but it is of secondary importance. So that what you meet is what is expressive of the person and not the general universal features.
Now, in this respect, an icon is also something which is rooted simultaneously in the personal experience of the painter and in the common experience of the members of his Church. An icon is never a personal view how I imagine Christ. It’s never an invented countenance. And there it is an interesting rule which is given to the icon-painters, that they should never copy slavishly an icon which was painted before them, but at the same time they should never invent one because you can not invent a spiritual experience but you can not identify with someone else’s experience to the point of being what he was. And so an icon expresses a personal experience rooted in the experience of the Church. The icons of the Mother of God are practically always icons of the Mother and Child as the
And so an icon is always connected with a certain number of doctrinal views. We believe the Gospel in its integrity with, perhaps, a simplicity which may surprise a certain number of people in the West. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ was truly God become truly man, we believe that He was born of the Virgin, we believe that He lived, taught, was betrayed, delivered unto condemnation, crucified, died and rose again and ascended into Heaven. And all this is expressed in icon-painting as well as in the doctrinal statements of the Church. To us this is history, it is certainty, there is no question about it, and to us it is a demarcation line at which we would say, «This is Christianity, the rest is not or it is a Christianity which is adulterated, watered down, submitted to the fantastic judgements of people who try to put into acceptable imagery what is beyond the very understanding which we possess.» So that to us the Gospel stands, to us the Creed stands and stands as total reality not as symbols and approximations but it does not mean that a statement contains everything that is to be stated. As I said before, a statement is a door that opens. When we use the word «God» meaning «Him before whom one falls down in adoration», we speak of an experience, we speak of what happens to us, we do not describe God. And already in the IV century St. Gregory of Nazians said that if we collect from the Gospel, from the Old and the New Testament everything which God has revealed about himself, if we put together everything which the believers have experienced and discovered about God and try to make a completely (?) coherent image and say, this is our God, then we have done nothing but built an idol, because God can not been known in His entirety as little indeed as a person can be known in her entirety. To us the doctrinal statements of the Church, indeed the glimpses of Revelation which we find in the Old and the New Testament concerning God are like the night sky. Every glimpse is like a star but the spaces between the stars are as important as the stars themselves. It is the stars that give us the direction. If we could collect together in one flaming, glowing mass all the stars of heaven, we would have an enormous mass of fire and no sky left and no direction. It is because God reveals Himself in a glimpse, in a moment that we can know that much and as much as we can receive, perceive, commune to.
And as far as icon-painting is concerned, to come back to it for one moment, there is a very interesting feature in the theory of icon-painting expressed by one of our greatest painters Rublev, who lived in the XIV century. He painted always things temporal in three-dimensional perspective but all the things that were eternal, even on the same icon, he painted in two dimensions. Because his idea was that indeed you can see Christ riding into Jerusalem, you can see the disciples, you can see the people, the trees, the houses and you can stop to examine it and to see the relief, but things divine are shown to us in a moment, it’s a glimpse, and you have never time to place them into a perspective. You know, a little in the way in which when you look out of the window on a very dark night during a thunderstorm, and when the lightening flashes, you see things but you can not place them, establish a rapport of distance between them. You have seen but what is near, what is far, what is the exact shape? It is enough for you to have seen. And this is what we try to do doctrinally in our teaching and iconographically in our icon-painting — we try to reduce the elements of our faith to what was stated by the Scriptures and what is experienced in worship but we do not try to make out of our doctrinal system a sort of total natural history of the divine world. I remember having read the book by a Western theologian that starts with words: «Theology is a science of God as ornithology is a science of birds.» Well, it isn’t. It’s exactly what it isn’t. Ornithology can catch one bird after the other, examine it, plume it, cut it to pieces, and say everything there is about it and if you have got a tape-recorder even record its singing. You can do nothing of the sort with God. You can have a glimpse and fall in adoration, that’s all you can do about Him.
And so that informs also our worship. Our worship is based first of all on two things: on the fact that the only celebrant of a sacrament in the Church is the Lord Jesus Christ and the only person who can make real the event is the Holy Spirit of God. In the beginning of the liturgy, the communion service, when the priest has vested, prayed, prepared the bread and the wine that will be consecrated, when he is just about to pronounce the first words of the service, the deacon comes up to him and says, «And now, it is for God to act.» You have done all you could, you have prayed, you have prepared yourself in devotion and prayer, you have vested yourself, you have prepared the elements, but that this bread should become the Body of Christ, that this wine should become the Blood of Christ is something which no human agency can affect. You will pronounce words, you will make gestures but the act will be of God, He is the only true celebrant. That is a very important thing in our attitude to the celebrations.
On the other hand, silence plays a very important role in our worship. Quite often people who come to a church of ours say, «How bored your congregation must be: they stand and stand and they don’t say a word, they don’t sing; why?» If you ask a Russian about it and indeed any Orthodox, they will say, this is the most precious thing which we possess. We can come into the church and we are in the Presence, and this Presence is a quality of silence. You know, the French writer Georges Bernanos in one of his books presents us with a young priest who says that at a certain moment he perceived a silence that was not made of absence of noise but had density, was solid, real, and he understood that the silence was a Presence. And this is a very important thing because you can perceive the presence which is at the heart of the silence only if you keep silent. If you stand and become aware of this silence, if you listen to the silence, then you can gradually become aware of its depth and at the core of it recognise a divine presence. We have had examples of this. I remember a teacher of small children who tried to make them understand what silence is, that it has substance, and who allowed the form to go as wild as you probably know and then at a certain moment she said, «Sh-sh, listen», and everyone got quiet. And they discovered what silence was (that was of course before the (flood?). But it’s a reminiscences, you know like the first chapters of Genesis. So that is one thing, this sense of silence and discovery.
And I remember a man who came to us perhaps ten years ago or so. He was an atheist, he was to bring a parcel to someone in the church and he intended to come after the service because he expected no good from what was happening in the church. Unfortunately he arrived a little too early. So he sat at the back of the church and just waited. And what he told me later was that while he was waiting, he became aware of a density of silence he had never perceived in his life and of an atmosphere. So he said to himself, «O, well, yes, that’s collective hysteria, produced by all these people praying, that is the incantation coming from the priest and the choir, this is the sort of way in which I am drugged by the incense to which I am not used, it has nothing to do with anything.» And yet it bothered him and he decided to come later at the moment when there was no-one in the church. So I opened the door for him, he settled and I left him there. Later he said to me, «You know, it’s extraordinary: there was no incantation, there was no incense, there was nothing, no collective hysteria, and I still felt this silence had a density and I thought, is that what you mean by God?» Then he had another thought, he thought, alright, supposing that is God, what’s the use of God if all there is to Him is that He lives in this particular building and creates this atmosphere of deep silence? I need a God who will do something about me. So he decided to come and watch the people in church and after half a year he said, «You know, I’ve been watching them. I don’t know whether they are becoming any better but I see them changed during the service. Something happens to them, they are different from what they are in the street. I need being changed. Could you do something to integrate me?» And eventually after a couple of years he was baptised. So here is the experience of someone who came without any expectation and who discovered through the silence something important to him.
You may, being teachers, be interested to know how we teach our faith. Well, I could put it in a nut-shell by saying, badly, because if what I have said in the beginning makes any sense to you, it is not by making children to learn doctrinal formularies or formal prayers or any such thing that you make a person into a Christian or an Orthodox. He must be introduced into an experience. And an experience can be caught as one catches the flu, it is an infection, it’s not something which can be conveyed in a sterile manner. So that what we expect is that in the family people should have a sense of worship. I do not mean, do special things. It’s not by praying before a meal or not praying before a meal that one conveys a sense of a sacredness of the event, but I remember one of our young theologians saying, «Everything in life is an act of love divine even the food, which we eat, is divine love that has become edible.» And if the food is prepared with love, if it is served with beauty, if it is shared with reverence, if it is treated as a gift of God, a miracle, and for people of my generation and that of my parents this attitude is easy because we have gone so often without any food and in hunger, that really a peace of bread or any form of food is an act of God or an act of human love. So that is an example. The same could be applied to everything which is the life of the home — the way parents treat children and children treat parents.
I remember a scene that moved me very much. It was during the German occupation. I lived opposite a family, the family of one of our great theologians Vladimir Lossky. I came one morning on a Sunday to fetch them to go church, and I found the children, four of them standing side by side, and the father and the mother speaking to them and saying that they intent to make a confession and to receive communion, and they could not receive absolution from the priest and forgiveness from God if they did not forgive them the wrongs they had done to them. And they knelt in front each child asking for forgiveness. I remember another scene in the same family: three of the children being prepared to go to church and the fourth one not. And the fourth one said, «What about me?» «No, to go to church is a privilege, you have been so objectionable this week that you have no place there. You must first make your peace with your brothers and sister.» Well, this was a lesson, I think, much more convincing than the child being taken by the arm and dragged to church while all his heart is elsewhere. He knew now that he had no place in the church because the church is a place of mutual love and there was space for someone who had been a demonstration of carelessness and lovelessness.
We have, alas, Sunday schools. I say «alas» because it is an evil. It is an evil because Sunday schools exist only because families proved incapable of teaching their children all they have to teach. If the family could convey all the faith of the Gospel, all the glory of God, all the wonder of a transfigured life by the power of God, there would be no need of taking them to a Sunday school, because the Sunday school obviously attempts that very thing in circumstances that lend themselves very poorly to this. Within an hour, within two hours, within half an hour you can not convey what the totality of a transfigured, transformed life could convey. Yet, we use it because there are families in which this is not being done or families which are incapable of doing it simply. But it is not a good thing in itself.
Worship together with the grown-ups is a very important thing. One of the great things which the child discovers is that in church there is no such thing as a grown-up who is always right and a child who is always wrong or wrong when everything clashes with the grown-ups. Everyone is a child of God, yes, but a sinner who is in the process of salvation or otherwise, someone who stands before God exactly in the same terms whether he is as small as that or as big as anyone else. And that is a very important thing. We baptise and anoint with holy chrism the children at the same time which means that they are full members of the Church from the very beginning and already as babies in arms they receive communion. When they become a little bit bigger the moment they can stand on their feet, they are not taken by their parents to receive communion, they come individually with all the dignity they feel when they walk on their own feet and not the misery which they feel when they are taken under someone’s arm and hang like this to receive communion. It’s a very important thing. The sense of dignity is essential. God claims dignity from us, God is the one who respects our dignity and the children must be taught that.
They are taught also the elements of the faith and the Gospel in a simple and natural way if the parents or the teachers are capable of conveying things. But it is a vision of a life transfigured by faith and by the real presence of God that is the convincing power. I believe that apart from this one can adhere to the tenets of ones religion, one can not have the experience of it deeply within oneself. I can speak for myself, I have never received any religious education when I was a child because my childhood coincided with the First World War, with the Russian revolution, with the years of emigration, and there was really no time and no chance with homelessness and lack of food and moving from country to country. I must say to that, really to my shame perhaps and to your pleasure, that I was not a very mystical or devout child by nature. I was taken to church once a year for Good Friday, and I discovered on my first visit to the church a wonderful thing: I discovered that if I walked into the church about three paces, breathe deeply and inhale incense and then stop breathing, I fainted at once and I am removed for another year from the church.
This was, I must say, my last experience of religious education. Before that I have had one which was really not more convincing. I was a little boy at school in Austria and on the first week as I had been registered ‘Orthodox’ by my parents who did not realise that in German speaking countries Orthodox means orthodox Jew, and to be an Orthodox Christian you must be Greek Orthodox, I was sent to the rabbi; and I settled in my place, and the rabbi looked round us and said, «Why haven’t you got a little cap on your head?» And I said, «O, because my mother told me that one should never have a covered head in a room because there may be a Crucifix or an icon.» He looked at me and said, «You are a Christian?» I said, «Yes!» «Out of here!» Out I was in the corridor and then the headmistress caught me for (loan?) a boy of seven and said, «O, you are a Christian», and took me to the Roman Catholic priest, who looked at me, asked for my name, for a few details and said, «What, you are a little heretic! Out of this place!» And this was the end of my religious education in words and in examples.
Well, I think, I will stop here my introduction to Orthodoxy. If I can answer questions I will, but you are welcome to ask.
Metropolitan Anthony Sourozh
Metropolitan Anthony Sourozh
When the Lord instituted at the Last Supper that mystery of our faith which we call the Holy Liturgy or the Eucharist, He gathered round Himself His Disciples, both those who were later to be faithful even unto death, and also the one who was already prepared to betray his Master...