This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).
Central to the transformation involved in Christian life is learning to see, for our vision has become distorted by the fall, and salvation involves learning to see aright. Saint Maximus the Confessor speaks of “The dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything” and St John of Damascus writes that “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” writes St Irenaeus and he is often quoted as saying that. But he continues immediately: “and the life of a human being is the vision of God.” This is a vision that we need to learn.
It is common to speak about the importance of beauty for Orthodoxy. Sometimes the example is given of the conversion of Russia when the emissaries of Prince Vladimir were sent out looking for a religion. After visiting the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, they wrote: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”
We see here that the Liturgy is profoundly revelatory, enabling us to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Within the Church we are able to see a new way of being – even if in a fleeting and fragmentary way – that we recognise as fundamentally true, and as that around which we wish to shape our lives. But this is not given to us in any final way, for our vision remains blurred, our hearts remain divided and Liturgy requires hard work and commitment.
It is also common to speak about the importance of icons for Orthodox Christians, and they are indeed important. However, there is also a danger in this, and I have found that many people do not actually find them attractive at the first encounter. They jar with our expectations of what art should be, they are not necessarily comforting and can feel somewhat strange. Like the beauty of the Liturgy, theirs is a demanding beauty, one that asks us to be open to another way of seeing. They are not ours to “use” but they ask us to be receptive and open to change our own perceptions.
Thus, learning to see and the purification of our vision is of fundamental importance. The Fathers of the Church used two mountain top encounters to speak of this experience. The first was that of Moses on Mount Sinai in which he had to let go of his own ideas and encounter God in darkness, realising that God is far beyond all the ideas that we have of Him. The second was that of Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, in which the Apostles Peter, James and John were enabled to see His true glory. In the liturgical texts for the feast of the Transfiguration we are told that that they were able to see it “insofar as they could bear it.” The vision is open to all, but our task is to learn to see with the eyes of faith and to seek the purity of heart which the Gospel tell us will allow us to see God so that His glory may shine through in our lives.
To be continued…