What does it mean to see God? Are there special places to look, or particular ways to adjust our vision so that we might overcome our blind-spots about God—or much else?
I spent the fall of 1996 in traction in hospital, and the spring of 1997 learning how to walk again after a nearly fatal accident. So I had a lot of time to read, and that included some sermons of St. Augustine of Hippo, one line of which has remained with me a quarter-century later: “Our entire task in this life, dear brothers, consists in healing the eyes of the heart so that they may be able to see God.”
So, the great Latin doctor of North Africa suggests, we can see God, but it will be a struggle to do so until the end. This, of course, is captured in St. Paul’s famous line about how we see “through a glass, darkly” but in the age to come will see face to face.
What gets in our way of clear vision now? Arguably the single biggest obstacle to seeing God clearly is our propensity for idolatry which, the universal Catechism says (no. 2113), “remains a constant temptation.”
In her wisdom, the Church knows that you cannot replace something (idols) with nothing and expect most people to make do. Human weakness abhors a vacuum. So in place of the various people and objects we tend to divinize (“idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God,” that same paragraph of the catechism reminds us), the Church’s pastoral solicitude led her historically to take a risk on icons.
Iconography is commemorated in the East at the outset of Lent, whose first Sunday is often called the Triumph of Orthodoxy, commemorating the vindication of iconography after the seventh ecumenical council in Nicaea in 787.
Conciliar decrees, ancient and modern, are invariably compromise statements, and Nicaea II’s declaration about icons clearly so for the Church was then riven by those who had already gone a considerable distance toward abolishing all icons, which is why we have virtually no surviving images from the ante-iconoclast period.
Sensibly down the middle, with due caution, and clearly aware of the risks they were running, but which they felt were underwritten because their decree reflected “the God-spoken teaching of our holy fathers and the tradition of the catholic church,” and that this teaching “comes from the Holy Spirit,” the Nicene fathers went on to “decree with full precision and care that” various images of Christ, the Theotokos, the angels, and the saints—including in mosaics and those painted, on walls, panels, vestments and sacred instruments—were blessed and approved to function as role models of holiness for the people.
How ought the people to treat those images, the danger of idolatry then as now being a universal temptation? The council once more proceeds carefully, advising us to pay these images “respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration [latria] in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature.” In other words, you may honor an image but never worship it.
Worship belongs to God alone. To worship an icon is at once to turn it into an idol. For some, the line between veneration and worship may not be entirely clear, but the Nicene fathers felt that this was a crucial distinction worth risking.
It does, however, leave icons in an exposed and vulnerable position, and outbreaks of iconoclasm are not just confined to the East-Roman Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries. They would break out again famously during the Reformation, and then in the West, according to Joseph Ratzinger’s great book The Spirit of the Liturgy at and after Vatican II in the Latin Church.
More recent scholarship has convincingly shown that iconoclasm—the willful destruction of images—is not confined to ancient and medieval Christianity or even “religion”. This is best exemplified in James Noyes’ invaluable 2016 study, The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam. With examples from Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, he shows that the destruction of images—even so-called secular ones—is always a prelude to a new politics. (We are seeing this played out even now in Russian attacks on Kyiv, which is an “icon” of Ukraine itself.)
The last quarter-century, however, has brought about a massive revival in Christian iconography, with icons now being found in many Protestant churches as well as Roman Catholic ones. I have for five years now run an iconography camp for students in the summer, who come from far and wide and consistently rave about it. This year, because of popular demand, we are running a workshop for adults alongside the students.
Icons, then, are (dread phrase!) a “safe space” today for those struggling to see God. The Church has said that in them fallen matter (that is, us) gazes upon redeemed and fully deified matter. They whom we see were once what we are—pilgrims struggling here below, divinization incomplete.
In turn—for icons are often described as a window—they are able not just to see us but also pray for and encourage us to run the race to the end when we gather around God’s table face to face. In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s memorable image from his Trinity Sunday sermon, we learn that in “the Castle of the Three-in-One, the plan has always been that we, those who are entirely ‘other,’ shall participate in the superabundant communion of life.”
May we use this Lent as a time for healing the eyes of our heart in order to see and share with others the superabundant life laid out before us now and in the age to come.
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