Icons and Truth
by Father Stephen Freeman
Part of an excellent series of articles at Glory to God for All Things.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
In the last several posts I have written about the iconic character of reality – the world about us has the character of an icon. I have also noted the iconic character of language and of Scripture. There is much to say about what is meant by such descriptions as well as what it means to see things in an “iconic” manner.
I have made a contrast between what I have termed a literal view of reality and an iconic view of reality. In the literal view, things are things. What you see is what there is. In an iconic view, things point to something beyond themselves – they make present that to which they point.
However, there is much more to this than the mere act of seeing. To see an icon requires that we also be in relationship with that which it represents. Christ is present in His icon but is only made manifest to us because we are in relationship with Him. Thus I have said that to see an icon properly involves its veneration. Veneration is an expression of our relationship with that which is represented.
An important aspect of icons (in the teaching of the Church) is that an icon must be true. We cannot make icons of that which is not true.
I recall a conversation with an elderly iconographer. We were discussing a particular icon of the Russian New Martyrs.
“It is not an icon!” she declared. I remember at the time wondering what she meant. It clearly obeyed all the canons and conventions for an icon – those whom it portrayed were truly martyrs. She drew my attention to the portrayal of those who were pictured carrying out the martyrdoms.
“There is hate in this icon!” She exclaimed. A true icon can never contain hate.
She did not mean that an icon could not portray the martyrdom itself (often a gruesome event). Rather she meant that within the portrayal of the evil-doers, the hatred and anger of the iconographer could be seen. It was, perhaps, a subtle point. But it was a point that was quite vital to this very accomplished iconographer. For veneration and hatred cannot coexist. Hatred will create a distortion which is not healing to the soul but damaging.
The same is true whether we are speaking about seeing the world as icon or reading the Scripture as icon (or encountering another human being as the icon of God). A required element within the experience of iconicity is the purity of our own heart. To read the Scriptures rightly is to encounter the Truth and, in some measure, to be changed in the encounter. There is obviously a dynamic at work. I am not pure in heart (nor are any of us) and my vision is thus always distorted to some extent.
However, what we can bring to every event of seeing is a broken and contrite heart – a heart of repentance. It is also true that our repentance is not pure and our humility is always lacking. But God is merciful. We offer what we can of our heart – and He gives what is lacking. This is the daily struggle of our lives as Christians and the constant and abundant mercy of God.
Evil renders the world opaque. Evil is not made present in things that seek to represent it. Rather, evil is a fracturing of the world – its dissolution in self-love and the drive towards non-being. Thus “art” which seeks to objectify human beings into mere sexual content is not True. It distorts the truth of a person and portrays them in a manner that dissolves reality. When we enter into communion with such “art” we enter into a communion of death – for such “art” only has death as its content.
This, of course, is an extreme example of the distorted efforts at sinful, iconic representation. It could be multiplied across the whole of our experience – for much that surrounds us is marked by such distortion, whether intentional or not.
St. Paul states:
To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work (Titus 1:15-16).
We are all iconographers – or at least involved with icons – for we live in the world and see it. (Even the “icon-smashers” are involved with icons whether they will acknowledge it or not). We either see icons in the distortion of our impure hearts or we struggle to see the world through the heart of repentance and in the purity which is the gift of God. It is in such purity that we can see another human being and confess from the heart that “this is the image of God.” It is not incorrect to say this of someone even if it is only a theoretical acceptance of a theological given. But such theoretical acceptance is not the same thing as actually seeing God in His image. That requires the long and difficult work of repentance – the struggle towards purity of heart. By His mercies, may we all see God.