More than Meets the Eyes: Icons, Ascesis and The Deception of Empiricism

If you have ever been in an Orthodox Church or perhaps to the home of an Orthodox Christian, there is something that may initially disorient you. You will see icons, lots of icons. Icons can be disorienting for a number of reasons. On an aesthetic level they often have an inverse perspective, different from what we are used to in modern art. They also tend to depict things (like buildings for example) not at all to scale. More than this is that icons are simply not pictures like we might expect them to be. Someone may inform you that this is an icon of Saint so-and-so but no matter which way you look you cannot ‘imagine’ the individual depicted on the icon as a real human being. Scenes depict events in a way we don’t imagine they may have looked ‘in real life’ (Christ is depicted as born in a cave in Orthodox iconography for example). But this might actually be the point.

Take the above icon of Christ; it is not what we expect when we look at an icon of the crucifixion. Modern western art has tended to depict Christ bloodied, with His head slumped, lifeless. Yet art historians have known that early Christians tended to depict the crucifixion as the above example does. Christ is alive, eyes wide open, supporting His own weight. This is not a matter of catching different “Snapshots” of the crucifixion or of an early denial of the actual death of our Saviour. This truly is a matter of a difference between what is seen and what is actually real.

Christ: Life in Death
If you or I were at the foot of the Cross in 33 AD we would certainly have been witness to the actual death of The Lord Jesus Christ. We would have walked away from The Cross (if we were brave enough to be at the foot of The Cross) not rejoicing at finding salvation but distraught at all the failed hopes and dreams we had just lost. We would have thought it was high time to get back to the drawing board and figure out some other way to arrange things. And yet, this is not the reality of the Cross. This tale is only what we would have seen. What our eyes would not have perceived, we are taught by the icon.

Christ our God is alive. He, being Life, entered into death that He might destroy it from within by filling it with His Life, His Presence. St. Ephrem the Syrian teaches,

As death says, “The death of Jesus to me is a torment; I prefer for myself His life rather than His death. This is the Dead whose death (lo!) is hateful to me; in the death of all men else I rejoice, but His Death, even His, I detest; that He may come back to life I hope. While He was living He brought to life and restored three that were dead; but now by His death, at the gate of Hell they have trampled on me, the dead who have come to life, whom I was going to shut in. I will haste and will close the gates of Hell, before this Dead, Whose death has spoiled me. Whoso hears will wonder at my humiliation, that by a dead man who is without I am overcome. All the dead seek to go forth, but this one presses to enter in. A medicine of life has entered into Hell, and has restored life to its dead. Who then has brought in and hidden from me, that living fire wherein have reposed, the cold and dark recesses of Hell?”

St. Ephrem the Syrian, Homily 36, 13-15.

St. Severus uses the poignant analogy of the sun shining in a dark room to describe Christ’s entry into human brokenness and death,

“For in that he took upon Him the seed of Abraham He is consequently said to have become those things which our nature was subject. Nor yet was he subject to these things for a moment of time, but rather after they had been vainly applied to him He destroyed them. Just as the sun, when it shines a gloomy and dark house, as soon as it puts forth its ray, dispels the darkness, since it itself is not affected by darkness, in the way also the Only God the Word, the Sun of righteousness, as soon as He approached our nature, also dispelled the curse.”

St. Severus of Antioch, Letter to Eupraxius the Chamberlain.

The Sun of righteousness (Cf. Malachi 4.2) has entered into our state, into our death and destroyed it by His Life. This is why the early Christians could not help but to depict Christ as alive on the Cross. Being Life in death, He destroys death. This is the reality of The Cross and yet this is exactly what one would not have seen at The Cross were we there 2000 years ago. However, with the eyes of faith we can begin to perceive what the reality actually is. Therefore, icons teach us to view the world not as we see it but rather to see it as it actually is. What our eyes tell us, what our senses pick up, these things are not necessarily, perhaps not even usually, what the reality is. We see a dead man on a crucifix but the reality is The God-man abounding, overflowing, with life.

Asceticism and Seeing Reality As it Is

You might wonder what the icon has to do with asceticism other than an association with ascetics having icon corners they spend lots of time in. Importantly, when we discuss asceticism, this is not the same thing as monasticism. The monastics may be a particularly poignant example of ascesis but while we are not all called to be monastics, all Christians are called to be ascetics. Asceticism comes from the Greek ascesis which simply means ‘exercises’ or ‘training’. Christian ascesis takes it root directly from Scripture where St. Paul describes running the race,

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”

1 Corinthians 9. 24-27

Fagerberg makes the point in his fantastic work On Liturgical Asceticism (where he delves deep into the ascetic practices of the Christian East):

“All Christians are called to be ascetics, though not all are called to be monks. But that a secular Christian is not called to be a monk does not mean that secular Christian lacks a call to holiness through asceticism.”

Fagerberg, D. W. (2013). On liturgical asceticism. CUA Press. p133

To be an ascetic then does not simply mean to escape the world but rather it means being properly oriented (or ‘trained’) so we can offer ourselves and the world back to God. The iconic vision of reality is at the heart of this re-orienting. St. Gregory of Nyssa makes clear that, to desire the Good is inherent to humanity but to know the Good is our challenge,

“It is our aim not that we should be persuaded to desire the things that are good; (for to incline towards the good is one of the inherent characteristics of human nature) — but that we should not be mistaken (hamartoimen) in our judgement as to what is good. It is here that our life is most subject to error, that we cannot clearly distinguish what is good by nature and what is imagined to be such because of deception.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, 5th Homily on The Beatitudes

The fathers of The Church teach us that to pursue The Good, to pursue Virtue, is natural to humanity because we are made in the Divine Image and Likeness. However, our life is subject to manifold errors in our judgement as to what The Good really is. Here is where sin makes an entry, where evil is dressed up as good or pursued under the guise of being The Good we were made for. Love is Good insofar as it is of God, for God is love (cf. 1 John 4). We are mistaken with regard to our apprehension of what love is if we think it to mean flitting from one lust-filled relationship to the next seeking to satisfy our desire for pleasure. Food is good insofar as the Eucharist reveals that the elements of this life can be sanctified and made a means of my union with God. We are mistaken with regard to our apprehension of this if we believe food only serves to gratify my cravings and gormandizing, in turn reflecting our belief that the world is for our consumption and not to be offered back to God (as we pray, “We offer unto Your what is yours for everything, concerning everything”). Learning and knowledge are good insofar as the Logos is The Wisdom of The Father. However, we are mistaken with regard to this when we exalt ourselves over our brethren for our excess of learning or turn ‘book knowledge’ as an end in and of itself. Many more examples could be discussed but this is enough to illustrate. But how do we begin to regain a true apprehension of reality as it is? The answer is to gain an iconic vision attained only through ascesis, through which we come to the vision of and union with God. St. Gregory of Nyssa illustrates this in a long passage that deserves being reproduced in full;

“Accordingly, in the seeking of the beautiful, the person who is superficial in his thought, when he sees something in which fantasy is mixed with some beauty, will think that the thing itself is beautiful because of its own nature, his attention being attracted to it because of pleasure, and he will be concerned with nothing beyond this. But the man who has purified the eye of his soul is able to look at such things and forget the matter in which the beauty is encased, and he uses what he sees as a kind of basis for his contemplation of intelligible beauty. By a participation in this beauty, the other beautiful things come into being and are identified.
Since the majority of men possess such dense minds, it seems to me difficult for them to distinguish logically and separate the matter from the beauty perceived in it, and to come to know the nature of beauty in itself. And if anyone should want to determine the cause of the misconceptions and fallacious assumptions, I think he would find it in the fact that the faculties of the soul are not sufficiently trained in distinguishing between the beautiful and the not beautiful. For this reason, we falter in our zeal for the truly good. Some sink down into a love of the flesh, others turn to lifeless material things, others confine their idea of beauty to honour, glory, and power, but there are also some who are diverted by the arts and certain kinds of knowledge. The lowest of these make their palate and their stomach the criteria of the good. If they had deserted their material considerations and the obsessions with appearances, and sought after the simple and the immaterial and formless nature of beauty, they would not have been led astray in their choice of the desirable, nor would they have been swept away by deception to such an extent that, although they have seen the ephemeral quality of the pleasure in these things, they have not been led to a disdain for them.
The path leading us to the discovery of beauty would thus come into being for us and we would not squander our power of desire on any of the other things which distract us and which are considered beautiful and, for this reason, worthy of our zeal and praise. We would disregard these as being low and ephemeral, nor would we lazily and idly be limited to them, but, having been cleansed from our obsession with lowly things, our desire would go up to where perception does not reach, so that we would not admire the beauty of the sky or the rays of light or any other beautiful appearance, but, through the beauty seen in all these, we would be led to a desire for that beauty of which the heavens tell the glory and the firmament of all creation proclaims the knowledge. In this way, the soul, rising and leaving behind all notice of unimportant things, arrives at a knowledge of the grandeur beyond the heavens.”

St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity, 11.

In allowing our stomachs or our love of the flesh to be the measuring stick of The Good, we have fallen into utter deception. The healing for this ailment is to tear away the false notions we have by properly orienting our faculties to be able to see the world as it truly is, not as deception would have it. The fathers of The Church would discern this path of re-orientation as the pursuit of apatheia or dispassion. Coming from the Greek word for disease or suffering, pathos, the passions are that which afflict us and lead to our disordered mode of life. It is important to differentiate this from apathy. Apathy as indifference is not apatheia. Apatheia is the ability to perceive the world around us without passionate attachments. This means not looking at the world lustfully or greedily or in anger etc. Our goal is to put off the passions, to become dispassionate, by which we would quiet the noise that leads to our deception with regard to virtue. The lustful person cannot look at their fellow being as made in the image and likeness of Christ but rather sees their neighbour as an opportunity to satisfy his desires. The gluttonous person cannot see the world as the gift of God but rather sees everything as made for His consumption starting with the food gifted to him. An angry person sees the quiet interruption of their colleague as an affront and dishes out a strong reprimand. Far from making us apathetic, apatheia opens the horizon of our lives to truly learn to love God and neighbour;

“The Fathers of the Desert considered apatheia the supreme ideal. This word has been the cause of serious misunderstanding. It has often been translated by “ apathy” , “impassibility” , “ absence of passion” with the Stoic meaning of “insensibility”. But the apatheia of the Fathers means something quite different from a kind of anesthesia of the feelings. Their apatheia is the fruit of love or charity. It is, in reality, the state of a soul in which love towards God and men is so ruling and burning as to leave no room for human (self-centered) passions. Thus Diadochus of Photike was able to speak—at first sight paradoxically—of “ the fire of apatheia’.” Orthodox Spirituality by Fr. Lev Gillet, 15

Fr. Lev Gillet, Orthodox Spirituality, 15

In being able to see the world and my neighbour without an eye to my own satisfaction I am now open to truly encounter them in an embrace of love. I am now open to receiving the world as at the hand of God which speaks of His creative act and of His never-ending love. Evagrius tells us that in putting off all these mental representations, we can attain to the vision of God;

“The mind cannot see the place of God within itself, unless it has transcended all the mental representations associated with objects. Nor will it transcend them, if it has not put off the passions that bind it to sensible objects through mental representations. And it will lay aside the passions through the virtues, and simple thoughts through spiritual contemplation; and this in turn it will lay aside when there appears to it the light.
Demonic thoughts blind the eye of the soul, which perceives the contemplation of beings.”

Evagrius, Reflections 23-24

Olivier Clement explains;

“Contemplation begins only after the completion of ascetical exercises (praxis), the aim of which is the achievement of interior freedom (apatheia), that is to say, the possibility of loving. Contemplation consists of two stages: direct communion with God is the aim, of course, but first we must come to “knowledge of creatures” or “contemplation of nature” (physike theoria), that is, the contemplation “of the secrets of the glory of God hidden in his creatures.”

Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, 213

So to see not only with the eyes but to perceive beings and the world around us as they really are opens us up to the infinite horizon of Divine Love. This is iconic vision; to proceed from what our eyes and the sense-perceptions see and to perceive their true nature. To look upon my enemy and to see the one for whom Christ has died is the iconic vision that asceticism calls us all to. Fagerberg summarizes;

“Because the person is a complex of intellective, concupiscible [desiring faculty], and irascible [angering] faculties, the knowledge begins with a conversion that straightens out our bent faculties. Because the fall has darkened the nous, we now look at our neighbor with lust, we look at the goods of the earth avariciously or gluttonously, we look at God as a threat to our freedom. The nous, or “eye of the heart,” cannot see without opaqueness and distortion. Without dispassion, contemplative knowledge can know neither the physical world nor God accurately. The stages of contemplation are connected because the liberated mind journeys from contemplation of God in nature to contemplating God in himself. Maximus explains: “when the mind is completely freed from the passions it journeys straight ahead to the contemplation of created things and makes its way to the knowledge of the Holy Trinity.” In the dispassionate soul, the world bears lucid testimony to its Creator and beckons the seer to come up higher and contemplate its maker. Failure to do so, and remaining fixated on the creature, wounds the creature. When man and woman do not fulfill their cosmic priesthood, nature is wounded, because by our failure matter cannot fulfill its end any more.”

On Liturgical Asceticism, Fagerberg, 125.

To make this more intelligible, perhaps we can consider a passage from Evagrius where he walks through the process of ‘right seeing’ when it comes to the thoughts that come to us. Here he looks at greed and the thought of money (here he speaks of gold as would be fitting for his time period):

“When one of the enemies approaches to wound you and you want to ‘turn his own sword back against his heart’ (cf. Ps. 36: 15), according to the scripture text, then do as we tell you. Distinguish within yourself the thought he has launched against you, as to what it is, how many elements it consists of, and among these what sort of thing it is that most afflicts the mind. This is an example of what I am talking about. Suppose the thought of avarice is sent by him; distinguish within this thought the mind that received it, the mental representation of gold, the gold itself, and the passion of avarice; then ask which of these elements is a sin. Is it the mind? But how? It is the image of God. But can it be the mental representation of gold? And who in his right mind would ever say this? Does the gold itself constitute sin? Then for what purpose was it created? It follows therefore that the fourth element is the cause of the sin, namely, that which is not an object with substantial subsistence, nor the mental representation of an object, nor even the incorporeal mind, but a pleasure hostile to humanity, born of free will, and compelling the mind to make improper use of the creatures of God: it is the law of God that has been entrusted with circumcising this pleasure. As you engage in this careful examination, the thought will be destroyed and dissipate in its own consideration, and the demon will flee from you when your intellect has been raised to the heights by this knowledge.”

Evagrius, On Thoughts, 19.

Therefore, for Evagrius, it is not gold that is evil or is the mind of the greedy one itself evil but rather the improper use of God’s creation. Gold is not ‘sinful’ but rather the mental representations also falsely associated with the gold. When, seeing gold, one begins to imagine; power, influence, attention-grabbing etc, one has fallen prey to the trap of the demons. When I begin to re-purpose something made by God for my own ends, or worse into an idol, then I am no longer attaining a pure or true vision of it. This is where the eyes of the body are deceived by all the mental representations accompanying the object made by God and deemed good by God as we read in Genesis. Much moreso this is the case with our neighbour if we turn him into an object of our satisfaction.

Seeing God

Thus, if we put off the mental representations associated with things we come to discern God in our neighbour and in His creation. We unlock the meaning of the world around us and the reality that, far from being a dead rock being hurled around the sun, it is the arena in which we can see God. Evagrius again teaches,

“As for those who are far from God… God has made it possible for them to come near to the knowledge of Him and His love for them through the medium of creatures. These he has produced, as the letters of the alphabet, so to speak, by His power and His wisdom, that is to say, by His Son and by His Spirit… The whole of this ministry is performed by creatures for the benefit of those who are far from God.”

Evagrius, Letter to Melania

Origen explains that God’s two books are both the Scripture as well as nature;

“The Divine art that is manifested in the structure of the world is not only to be seen in the sun, the moon and the stars; it operates also on earth on a reduced scale. The hand of God has not neglected the bodies of the smallest animals-and still less their souls- because each of them is seen to possess some feature that is personal to it, for instance, the way that it protects itself. Nor has the hand of the Lord neglected the plants of the earth, each of which has some detail bearing the mark of the divine art, whether it be the roots, the leaves, the fruits or the variety of species. In the same way, in books written under the influence of divine inspiration, Providence imparts to the human race a wisdom that is more than human, sowing in each letter some saving truth in so far as that letter can convey it, marking out thus the path of wisdom. For once it had been granted that the Scriptures have God himself for their author, we must necessarily believe that the person who is asking questions of nature and the person who is asking questions of the Scriptures are bound to arrive at the same conclusions.”

Origen, Commentary on Psalm 1, 3.

Thus the icon teaches us to look far beyond what the eyes can see. To look at things in an iconic sense is to perceive the reality that can be veiled by the images and representations we see. Even if you could have seen it happen one day, the Lord Jesus Christ is not dead but alive and this is the reality. The christian, called to be an ascetic, can perceive in his enemy the one for whom the Lord has come. Stripped of the passions the Christian can see in his annoying sibling the innocence of children even if lacking tact. Freed from slavery to self we can see that true love is found in self-sacrifice and not in self-gratification. If we learn this vision we can see God through all the different means He has provided; creation, my neighbour, myself, all that He has made:

“We may gain some inkling of what God is if we attempt by means of every sensation to reach the reality of each creature, not giving up until we are alive to what transcends it.”

St. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, V, XI

This is the true wisdom we seek;

“Wisdom consists in seeing every object in accordance with its true nature, with perfect interior freedom.”

Maximus the confessor, Centuries on Charity, II, 64.

Thus icons are not simply decoration or reminders of things gone past. Icons teach us to see, to truly see. Deceived time and again by the packaging, we fall headlong into sin. If we can learn to see reality as more than the physical event or person in front of me, stripped of the passions, we can finally begin to discern God and to live to Him. Fagerberg summarizes,

“To show this, the icon attempts to portray not only the matter, but also the reality-which are not identical, despite what positivism has claimed. The icon shows what the cosmos is, and not just what it is made of, because what the contemplative sees is the essence of things, and not only their visible aspect.”

On Liturgical Asceticism, pg 178.

May God grant us the vision of more than what we see as we begin to perceive Him in all things by tearing away the fantasies and passions that take us away from Him. If we look to The Cross and see the Living God, we can finally begin to perceive Him in everything else around us. If all we see is a dead man then this world too will yield deadness and decay to us.

P.S. For those interested in looking at the layers of meaning in icons (and symbolism in general) I commend to you the work of Jonthan Pageau. Here is linked his discussion of the icon of the Nativity

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