Introduction 

The structure of a center and a periphery is such a simple one that it often goes unnoticed by most, a « fact of life » so basic, it seems obvious.  This structure is a metaphysical one in the sense that through analogy, it can be found at all level of created things, beginning even with the uncreated, the Logos himself as the ultimate center.  All of sacred art and architecture is constructed in a way that reflects this reality and its mysteries.  From the image of the Pantokrator with the four evangelists around him to the dome at the center of a cross, there are innumerable examples of this « radiant » composition.  It is important to understand the meaning of this structure, because we are at a period in time where the notion of the center is always seen with suspicion, and is replaced by conscious symbols of periphery.  We are at a time when the whole of life, even religion is interpreted through a materialist eye, when God Himself is given a reason for « existence » through the purely social, psychological or even physical.  This is of course a complete reversal of the patristic understanding, and in the first part of the paper, I will try to examine a few aspects of the symbols used, especially by St-Gregory of Nyssa and in certain biblical passages, to convey this structure of center and periphery. I will also attempt to show that it permeates all of traditional thinking. In the second part, I will deal with the relation of Christ to the periphery.

  Part one : From center to periphery 

 The center in the geometric sense, like the axis of a wheel, is a point.  The axis of a wheel does not participate in the movement of the wheel, yet it is by and around this point that all movement is organized and takes its reality.  The center, which in the human being is called the heart, is not in any way static but is rather fullness of activity.  It is in fact the active principle by which the space it determines finds both its origin and its convergence (if one for example imagines a circle and the indefinite number if radii traveling from the periphery to the center.)  And so we can say that everything can be found in the heart and everything comes from the heart, for the « simple » nature of any thing, that is the convergence of all its particular modalities, is identical with its specific center of which the modalities are a « radiation » (hence the word radius itself).  The central point of a space is a virtual one, it has no dimension within the space itself, yet it is no less effectively “present”.  It therefore both participates in the space through an act of invisible presence, and at the same time effectively transcends the whole of this space.  This is why the heart is at the limit of the created and the uncreated and that it is in the heart that the divine dwells, in the most inner place, beyond the « veils of the heart », like it is in the most inner place, beyond all the different veils of the temple that the Glory of God can be found.

This spatial and therefore geometric symbolism of center and periphery is quite powerful, and it is also universal, being found in all cultures at all times.  This same symbolism can be transposed from space into time through the notion of the cycle.  We see an example of this with the relationship established in hesychasm between the movement of the « nous » from the heart to the senses and its return, occurring in a purely « spatial » manner as center and periphery, and the cycles of breathing and of the heartbeat which rather include a notion of time.  The beginning and the end of a cycle are a momentary return to the origin, the Sabbath, which like the center, is a rest from cyclic motion and corresponds in hesychasm to the « holding » of the breath, corresponding itself in its spatial modality to the guarding of the heart.  But the true center of time, of which the Sabbath is an image, is Eternity, which is both outside time, yet is also the fullness of time, like the center is both immutable and the fullness of action.

We mentioned the  « veils of the heart », an image used by Gregory of Nyssa, and in fact, the Temple is a good image for understanding the notion of the center and of its actualisation in different layers of manifestation.  The temple is built as a series of concentric areas, all separated by veils, and in the inner most area, the Holy of Holies, there is a throne (the Arch) and between two cherubim, on the throne, is the Glory of God, the Glory of God being the presence of God, the place where the heavens meet the earth.  Each area of the temple is restricted to a greater degree as we move from periphery to center, from the first court, where even the non-Israelites may come, to the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest may enter. This should not sound surprising to us, for it is a figure of the entering into the heart (which is the receptacle, equivalent to the « Arch »). Indeed, as we move from the periphery to the center, the multitude of points on the edge are synthesised into a single point, as moving from the senses to the heart is a retreat from the multitude of outer sensations into the inner sense, the nous or intellect, which can grasp the divine.  The physical senses are an image of the limit, like a door in a wall, both an access and a protection, also both a way of bringing the « outside » « in », or a way of dispersing the « inside » « out ». 

The tabernacle, the tent of « meeting », that is quite simply the « central place » where all things « meet » is built in a manner similar to the Temple.  On the very outside of the tent, there are animal skins of which one is dyed red .  This is the final periphery, the final limit, the opaque veil which delimits the inside from the outside.  It is the tabernacle’s « Garment of skin ».  St-Gregory of Nyssa speaks amply of the periphery as the « Garments of  skin » which were given to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden- In the Life of Moses, speaking of Moses taking off his sandals at the burning bush : « Sandaled feet cannot ascend that height where the light of truth is seen, the dead and earthly coverings of skins, which was placed around our nature at the beginning when we were found naked because of disobedience to the divine will, must be removed from the feet of the soul.»[1] 

Panayiotis Nellas, in his book « Deification in Christ », does a good job of explaining the garments of skin as the means for survival in the world of death caused by the fall.  The garments of skin in this case are definitely a good thing. They are given by God as a means of survival in the conditions of the fall.  They have a double function.  If the senses and our bodily corruption are what, according to the Fathers, bring about the dispersion the nous, they are also what prevent the nous from being dispersed completely into the « outer darkness » .  The coarseness and solidification of something which was more subtle (more like « air », and less like the « earth ») is like a wall, a distance from the center, but also that which both prevents things from falling further and prevents outer things from taking over.  These two things, falling out and being invaded from without are in fact the same reality described in two different ways.  The garments of skins are a « solid ground » on which it is possible to stand in order to reach once again toward the sky. When the demons fell, they did not have the earth to fall upon… We can imagine a series of these « garments », like the layers of an onion, each veil letting only part of the light go through.  These layers constitute different levels of solidification, ending with the biological life of man, his  « living death » that prevents his falling into, but is also his point of contact with, the very depths of darkness.  Reversibly, these layers appear also as anagogic steps that are climbed in the ladder towards perfection.

What is this periphery or rather these peripheries? What are their characteristics?  As we have seen, Gregory relates them to « the feet of the soul », to « death », to a « covering ».  In other texts, he also points out that the « garments of skin » were animal skins: « Therefore mortality, derived from the nature of beings lacking intelligence, was by God’s dispensation imposed on a nature created for immortality »[2].  He also relates the garments to circumcision, the foreigner (or the Egyptian).  All of these symbols are related to « sensuality » or the passions. This is on the Human level, but as we have already seen in the image of the tabernacle, there is something in the symbols themselves which can help us understand what exactly a periphery is -its function and purpose- and why it takes on the form which it does.

Let us look at a few of Gregory’s images. 

The feet :  The feet are the point of contact, the most direct limit between our fallen human nature and the earth and so it is most fitting that Gregory should relate Moses’ sandals to the garments of skins. In the vision of Daniel for example, the feet are seen as the last age, or rather the last part of the fourth age (Gold, Silver, bronze, and iron) and are a mixture of clay and iron.  It is good to notice once again the relation of the spatial symbolism with the temporal.  The feet are so close to the clay out of which Adam was made that they are a transition point between life and death, between Iron, which is the metal of protection and « power », to the lifeless mud.    They are like the hair on our body, which according to Gregory is a symbol for death, since it has no feeling [3],  but is also the most outward covering on man, the link between life and death.

The foreigner :  The foreigner, the stranger,  is an obvious symbol of periphery. It is very matter of fact to imagine a people in a city with a wall around, and with the foreign army ready to attack.  This is a very Biblical image, and Gregory knows it.  The foreigner in the Bible, especially the foreign woman most always brings idolatry, and sexual intercourse with a foreign woman is seen as bringing about a fall.  In biblical symbolism, intercourse is an actualisation of a possibility, a knowledge, the making of a body as described by Paul. Sexual intercourse with a foreign woman is a distancing from the « seed of Abraham » and, strange as this may sound to some, is almost the equivalent, in Hebrew tradition, to the spawning of a demon or of death. When the sons of God went into the daughters of men, the result of their union are the Giants, which are seen in all traditions as peripheral and very close to demons and death[4] (In Hebrew for ex., the word for giant and the word for « still birth » or « corruption » are the same[5]).   « For the lips of the loose woman (strange or foreign woman) drip honey and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.  Her feet go down to death[6]; her steps follow the path of Sheol.  She does not keep straight to the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it. »[7]  .    The « straight » « path of life » is the « Middle way », the narrow road of which both the Bible and St-Gregory speak.  « Neither wisdom of the serpent nor the simplicity of the dove is to be praised, if one should choose either of these with respect to itself alone.  Rather it is the disposition which closely unites these two by the mean that is virtue.[8] »  To leave the middle path is to « wander », that is to move without true purpose, and this « wandering » is the movement of corruption and sensuality.  The path of corruption is related to « many » and the narrow path is related to « few » as seen in the image of the temple and the arch used earlier.  What on a larger scale is seen as many individuals, is on the personal scale seen as the multiplicity of passions.  This narrowness, like the narrow door, or the eye of the needle, the pearl in a field or again the seed is an image of the central point which is so small, so narrow as to be truly invisible, and in that invisible center is found the divine spark.    Sin brings dispersion and exile from the central land (the land of Canaan) into the land of the foreigner, where one finds either servitude (Egypt) or idolatry (Babylon). 

With these few examples, one can see that it is just to consider the return to the center as a casting off of the garment of skins, a circumcision of the heart.  Baptism particularly takes on this role, for purification, or even in fact any form whatsoever of washing, takes on a spiritual aspect when one realises that it is a removing of what is dead and « foreign » - In speaking of the crossing of the Red Sea : « …after we have drowned the whole Egyptian person (that is every form of evil) in the saving baptism we emerge alone, dragging along nothing foreign in our subsequent life. »[9]  Gregory often speaks of  Moses’ killing of the Egyptian as this removal of foreign skin which as the foreskin, is the « mark of the foreigner »[10], the removal of which leaves only the « pure Israelite race »[11].  

As we have seen, the periphery is an image of transition and flux, the multiplicity of corruption, but it is also a symbol of « coagulation », of a « tough » « fleshy » « crust ».  These two things may seem like opposites, but they are in fact the two sides of a same reality, which is a furthering from the center.  They are constantly placed together in patristic texts, and one has only to look around to see an example of those two extremes in western civilization, of both a constant flux and change coupled with a strange frozenness and solidification.  It is like the iron in Daniel’s vision, the hardest of metals and simultaneously the most unstable, extremely vulnerable to decomposition.  Panayiotis Nellas, in his Deification in Christ, identifies the theory of the garments of skins with all the means of survival necessary in the world of the fall, hence not only our biological existence and procreation, but several psychic aspects as well. He also relates the garments to “techne” and to political and sociological structures[12]. The relationship drawn with iron is therefore not so surprising, for like iron, the garments of skin are a power, and the secrets of this power are very mysterious. It is a power that can have, as mentioned, both a positive and negative aspect. 

In several Hebrew traditions, the garments of skin which were given to Adam and Eve are traced through the history, and looking at these traditions can help us understand biblical symbolism as well as to see the concordance between Christian and Rabbinical interpretation regarding the garments of skin.  In some traditions[13], the garments of skin are said to have been stolen from Noah by Ham and passed down to Nimrod.  It is by the power of these garments that Nimrod becomes a great king and is a mighty hunter before God.  The garments are then in turn stolen by Esau, who kills Nimrod, and it is returning from this « adventure » that Esau sells his birthright to Jacob, for he is hungry from the battle.  Now Esau is himself a figure of the garments of skin, because he is very hairy and his hair is red, and according to the same traditions, Jacob even puts on the « garments of skin » in order to pass himself off as Esau (and when Jacob uses them, he receives a blessing).  The descendents of Esau are the Edomites, who are the foreigner « par excellence », the dangerous outsider which is in constant strife with the children of Jacob.  It is also noteworthy to mention that the Jews interpret Rome as being Edom, that is Esau.

The aspect of power in the garments of skin can more clearly be seen in the story of Elijah, who when he ascends into heaven, leaves behind his garment (which is a « hairy garment », see 2 kings 1:8) to Elishah who finds in it the « spirit of Elijah », even a « double share of his spirit » and in which he has the power to perform all sorts of miracles.  John the Baptist also wears a garment of skin, which leaves us to wonder if his « Elyatic » function is not related to this garment, that is, if he, being the greatest of prophets, had not received the concentration of power of the prophets before him in a manner similar to Elisha.  This is of course speculation, but not completely unfathomable.

We will look briefly at another characteristic which Gregory uses for the garments of skin : Animalism.  The garments of skins are animal skins.  This is very important.  The patristic View of man as expounded most clearly by St-Maximos, is that man is a microcosm, meaning he is the center of creation. Being the center of creation, he has the capacity of uniting within himself all of creation.  He contains in his nature a gathering of the entire cosmos. The act of naming the animals in Genesis is exactly this, that is a manifestation of man as determining creation, ordering it, anchoring its ontological reality.  This is supremely important and can help us to understand that the center is not REALLY an  « abolishment » of periphery although it can often take on this image as we have seen. Upon reaching the center, one realizes that it is rather a gathering within, just as Union with God is not the annihilation of the person, but rather the fullness of his nature, although it is achieved through the « sacrifice » of all that this person is.  

If man is at the center of creation, then when he leaves this place he gets closer and closer to animalism.  Gregory constantly uses this imagery.  When speaking of the Israelites having intercourse with the Moabites he says that  « Pleasure showed that she makes men beasts.  The irrational animal impulse to licentiousness made them forget their human nature… as they wallowed, like pigs, in the slimy mire of uncleanness… »[14]  He speaks of men becoming « animals turning the mill. »  « With our eyes blindfolded we walk round the mill of life, always treading the same circular path and returning to the same things …we never cease to go round in a circle. »[15].  It is noteworthy to see once again the perfect relation between space and time in this image, that the animals are at the periphery of a circle, and that this periphery causes a cyclical movement..

There are many traditions which speak of the relationship between the fall and animalism, the most biblical being the story of king Nebuchanezar.  Other traditions often revolve around the children of Cain, who have gradually become monsters through the ages.  There is even a rabbinical tradition which speaks of the children of Cain becoming monkeys.   The most noteworthy and the least understood tradition regarding animalism is the story of St-Christopher, the dog-headed or the giant depending on the tradition, story of which the orthodox seem to be ashamed, and which the moderns love to flaunt as a sign of the so called « dark ages »..  In this story there is in fact a great mystery, the mystery of Christianity itself.  Now the dog is in many cultures, like the pig, a symbol of impurity and periphery, quite simply because he returns to and even eats what his own body rejects. This interpretation does not find exception in the Bible.  Christ says not to throw holy things to dogs, speaks of dogs licking the ulcers of Lazarus.  It is even said that dogs will be excluded from the New Jerusalem.  Why then do we have a dog-headed Saint, or a saint who is a giant, for both of these things are the same?  Both the Giants and the cynocephali (dog-headed men) are said to live on the « outer rims » of the world, both are considered in ancient thinking as « monstrous » races. And finally, why is this saint a « Christ carrier » (Christopher means “Christ carrier”)?   Let us look at the relationship between Christ and periphery for our answer.

 Part two :  Christ and the periphery : Trampling on death by death.

In the Bible, the person who is in the central position is called the Just or the Righteous (Tsadiq), Justice, like a balance, is the just mean. « For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever.  They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. »[17]  The Just is « the foundation of the world », by whom the world is held together because his “heart” is “secure in the Lord”.  In both the Bible and in Church history, one finds it repeated that without the Just, the world is destroyed. Without living Saints interceding for the world, it would not subside. Without anchors, that is, points of contact with heaven, the world would become « tohu bohu », would dissolve into the chaotic lower waters.  This is not “just an image”, but rather the most literal of truths!

As we mentioned earlier, the central point is not really an elimination of periphery, for the notion of outside and inside are only illusions which are caused by the very fact of the fall.  In a text speaking of removing the garments of skin, Gregory says that « the full knowledge of being comes about by purifying our opinion concerning nonbeing »[18]. He then continues: « Falsehood is a kind of impression which arises in the understanding about non-being, as though what does not exist does, in fact, exist. But Truth is the true apprehension of real Being.  …Being is… …what possesses existence in its own nature, and what non being is… … is existence only in appearance, with no self subsisting nature. ». [19]  This is important.  The existence of things, when seen as anchored in being, attain all their reality, whereas when there is an attempt to give them an autonomous existence, they appear as a lack of full being, and therefore a level of error, an illusion, for ontologically and in eternity, God is all in all…  This brings us to the appearance of the Just in the world. 

Christ, the true Just, contains within himself all things. He is truly the center of all things, and in him, the other « justs » are themselves anchored[20]. When Christ appears in the world, he takes upon himself all of periphery, for to him the periphery is not a protection, not a limit, not even a « distance », but a glory!  This of course sounds strange, but it is important to realise that in the fullness of Being (which for St-Gregory is Christ), all things, even the sins which are for us a slavery, are transformed by Christ into transfigured garments of glory, bodies of light, which manifest Christ within the level of Being in which each thing can participate according to their nature (as described in Dionysus’ celestial hierarchy which was developed further by Saint-Maximos).   This of course does not take away the reality of the incarnation, on the contrary, it is rather the Incarnation which gives creation its reality and its purpose, for it is its very center, the thing towards which it converges, and without it, creation would not have its anchor.  Although the incarnation is a coming of God into the world, it is also more truly a taking of the world into God.  « He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…  all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  …For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things… And you who were once estranged and hostile (or strangers and enemies) in mind, doing evil deeds, he has reconciled in his fleshy body (or body of his flesh) so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. »[21]

We can therefore say that Christ saves the periphery by restoring it to its original purpose which is to be united with God and to be His glory.  He does this by assuming it, by penetrating it,  and so at the same time bringing it in Himself, being the one by whom and through whom all things are created and « held together ».  So it is by His « body of the flesh », the « garments of skin », that Christ is reconciled with the « stranger and enemy ».  What a scandal!  Christ has truly “Trampled down death by death”. We are so used to reading such verses, that we often forget how crazy the appearance of Christ is for the Jew who did not understand this mystery.  For it is by becoming sin itself that God has transformed it into light  It is by becoming sin entirely while remaining God entirely, by going to the periphery while remaining at the center, moving without moving, that Christ saves us. Jacob receives the blessing by putting on the garments of Esau without becoming Esau.  Joseph saves the sons of Israel by going to Egypt without being defiled by the « foreign woman ».  It is the spy Caleb (Caleb means dog) who enters into the promised land.  It is the prostitute in the wall who survives the destruction of the city.  It is by marrying the foreigner that Esther saves her people from the foreigner, and finally, it is the dog-man or giant Christopher, patron saint of « travelers »,  who « carries Christ » to the end of the world.  All these scandalous images are types of the salvation through Christ.  

In the story of Christ, there are many examples where He appears as traveling to the periphery of all aspects of life in order to save it.  For if Christ came to save the « lost sheep of Israel », He must and does « go and get them » where they are, even in the depths of Sheol.  First of all, Christ goes to Egypt.  Only the Just can go to Egypt without being defiled, for in the Old Testament, when Joseph dies, Egypt becomes slavery.  But when the Pharaoh « knew » Joseph, Egypt is what saved the Israelites.  During the crucifixion, Christ wears a crown of thorns, transforming the very results of the fall into a glory.  There are many other examples, but the most amazingly clear is the image of the Samaritan, especially the Samaritan woman.  This story is very complex and alludes to many OT symbols. The Samaritan is like a heretic, neither outside nor inside Judaism and therefore the perfect image of periphery.  The peripheral aspect of the Samaritan woman appears not only in her being a « foreign woman », but also through her life story.  Like many of the examples we have seen until now, there is a strict equivalence between the geometric and temporal aspects.  The Samaritan woman has been with six different men, five of which were husbands and the last being an « illegitimate » relationship, iron feet mixed with clay…  Christ appears as her seventh husband, her Sabbath, not a carnal marriage of this world but a spiritual one, where she would receive the source which will spring into eternity.  What Christ is offering her is in fact His « seed », for it is « Christ in us » which will spring into the Kingdom of God.  The symbolism is frankly sexual, as sexual as the symbolism of the bridegroom. The story refers to both the stories of the finding of Isaac’s and Jacob’s wives and to the text in Proverbs 5 of which we have already cited a part.  « Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well.  Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?  Let them be for yourself alone, and not for sharing with strangers.  Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, …Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman (or foreign woman) and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? (or stranger or unknown woman) ».    What is forbidden here is what Christ is doing! He is sharing his water with the foreigner, in fact, it is only He who can do such a thing without being defiled, without being « intoxicated » « by the foreign woman »[22], just as He could take on all our sins while never sinning Himself.  

Christ’s role as saving periphery is also manifested in the  « expansive » nature of His Kingdom.  Israel’s purpose was to « enter the promised land », to keep the Sabbath, but Christ IS the Sabbath. He is the center and he therefore does not have to move towards it, but rather radiates from this point unto the end of the world. This is accomplished both geographically and in time, unto the age of ages, where He will truly appear to all as He already is and always has been - as being all in all.   


[1] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 22
[2] Gregory of Nyssa quoted by Nellas in Deification in Christ, p.47 
[3] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, II, 101
[4] It is not without reason that the Israelites must first defeat giants before entering Canaan, or that David must kill a giant before becoming king.  There is an interesting point in regards to David. Killing the giant in the text is strangely related to taking off Saul’s armour.  This double image of a removal of periphery is interesting when one knows that « Saul » is in fact « Sheol ».  This is also noteworthy in the case of Paul, who was named « Saul » when he was attacking the Christians. 
[5] In the Enochian tradition for example, the relations between angels and women are what brought about the flood, and also what brought men « technical skills » by which to modify nature, modification of nature being related to corruption.
[6] The relationship is clear between the foreigner, death and feet.
[7] Prov 5:3-6
[8] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 289
[9] Ibid, II, 126
[10] Ibid, II, 38
[11] Ibid, II, 39
[12] It is worthy to mention that it is Cain and his descendent who are the first to establish cities and to develop all sorts of technical skill, namely metallurgy
[13] For example in the Zohar and in the Mishna
[14] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 302
[15] Gregory of Nyssa quoted by Nellas in Deification in Christ, 87
[17] Psalm 112: 6-7 
[18] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses II , 22
[19] Ibid, II, 23 
[20] For compared to Christ, it is possible to say with Paul, that « none is righteous ».
[21] 1 Col 1:15-22 
[22] I am of course not suggesting any form of « carnal » relationship or even the hint of such a thing, no more than is suggested in the symbolism of the bridegroom.  If this text had been written a few centuries ago, it would not be necessary to defend oneself from such an accusation, but since some have probably already suggested such vulgar things about Christ in recent years, it seems important to avoid any doubt.
 
 
Picture
Icon of the Baptism of Christ
You walk into a silent museum.  Standing at an appropriate distance, you gaze at a piece of art set against the clinically white walls.  The art is lit as to leave no glare or shine and you, as the viewer, leave no shadow on it.  Enough space is allotted all around and it can be admired without peripheral distraction.  Near the art piece is a small tag announcing  the title and the name of the artist. Beyond this, the tag also advertises the more mundane:  the size, the materials used and the year this object was made.  You feel confident this art has been properly documented.   You stand, and you look.  You do nothing else.  For this art to be on display is probably a rare event, and it will soon be stored back into a humidity and temperature controlled room, properly mummified for posterity and as a testimony to the artists genius.  It might not be seen again for many years, unless the art finds favor in a curators whims.  

What I have just described is as close to an antithesis of sacred art as one can imagine, and so I would like to compare it to the experience of a particular example of sacred art:  the icon of the Baptism of Christ.  

You walk into a dimly lit church.  On a stand in the center, sitting at a 45° angle is the icon.  It sits at 45° not so much for you to look at it, but for you to kiss it. Behind the icon are flickering candles, and as you approach, a man in shiny robes passes, swinging incense around it.  The icon is surrounded by flowers.  It is surrounded by flowers because today is a celebration, the feast of Theophany, and the icon of the Baptism of Christ is the icon for that feast.  That is the reason why it is displayed.  To see the icon is to hear the chanting, the hymns of Theophany, the feast of light. “On this day you have appeared unto the whole world, and your light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing your praise and chant with knowledge: you have now come, you hast appeared, O Light unapproachable.”   Light is related to baptism because as the Divine Man enters the waters of baptism it is light entering the chaotic waters, light entering the deep. And so it is fitting that at Christ’s baptism, he is shown to the world for the first time, as is celebrated again in a hymn: When you, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity was made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to you, calling you his beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of his word. O Christ our God, who has appeared and enlightened the world, glory to you. " 

The festal hymn which is also sung at this feast suddenly takes all of its meaning in the light of the icon on the stand: “For as many as have been baptised into Christ, have put on Christ, Halleluia.” That is, the icon of the Baptism also makes visible the root of our own spiritual journey to be united with the Divine, having put on Christ, we are called to share in his inheritance.   The icon also reminds us of our belonging, of our own baptism and our initiation into the Church, marking also our participation in the very community with which we are now standing, now bowing, now chanting, now praying.   In the image of Baptism, the feast of Theophany is also the blessing of the waters, and so after a font of water is blessed, the faithful drink it, and are doused by the priest who walks around the church flinging water all over the place.   

Now you walk out of the church,  not alone, but surrounded by your community.  The icon, that piece of sacred art,  is carried with you in a procession to the nearby shore of a river, a lake or an ocean.   This baptism, this light that entered the waters of the Jordan 2000 years ago cannot be contained.  A cross is thrown into the water, so to show that all of creation receives the Divine light, that the entire universe is contained by the Divine Logos. 

That icon, that piece of sacred art, is never seen alone and for its own sake. It is experienced in song, in movement and in the smoky fragrance of incense.   It is not an intellectual game or an aesthetic experience.  It does something.  It participates in the identity of a community of believers. It makes them participate in a moment of sacred history, accompanies them on their spiritual journey and engages their relationship with God as well as with the entire cosmos.  

That’s what sacred art does.  

 
 
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One of the uses of steatite (aka. soapstone) in the Byzantine empire, medieval West and later Orthodox world was for the making of miniatures, pendants, pectoral crosses and small icons.  As I have been exploring the properties of carved steatite myself, I have been surprised to notice how small it is possible to carve it while preserving the detail.  Just like ivory, steatite pendants were enclosed in casings made of silver or other precious metals, or else they were carved with a hole for a cord in the stone itself.  

The clarity one finds in a carved pendant is far greater than in a casting.  It is very difficult to render in a photograph,  but staring at a coin size image that is very sharply defined creates a very unique experience. 

In my own work, as well as in collaboration with New World Byzantine Studios, I have been reinterpreting these ancient designs of miniatures for the contemporary taste.  Under a strong directed light, with a magnifying glass and a precision exacto blade, I scrape away patiently to form eyes, fingers, hair.  A simple pectoral cross of the crucifixion can take me two full days.  Here are some historical examples of steatite miniatures intermixed with my own carvings.

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Byzantine Steatite carving with a Gothic silver guilt frame.  This object was told to have belonged to Charlemagne, although according to the iconography and style, it is dated to the 12th century.  
More details here.

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Engolpion before being encased in a silver frame.  I carved this for Bishop Irénée Rochon, OCA bishop of Québec City and Administrator of the archdiocese of Canada.  

It is based on the Virgin of Pochaev, a famous miracle working icon that is of particular importance to Bishop Irenee.  

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This is a pectoral cross designed by Andrew Gould of New World Byzantine Studios and carved by myself. It is a steatite carving with a sterling case.  The engraving in the silver was also done by Andrew Gould.  

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Here is an engolpion of St-George taken by Genevra Kornbluth

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This is a Medallion of St-Jacob of Alaska I carved for New World Byzantine Studios.  

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Here is an engolpion of St-Christopher  taken by Genevra Kornbluth 

 
 
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A gospel cover designed by Andrew Gould
2011 marked the launching of two new Orthodox liturgical art companies in the English speaking world.  In England we find Aidan Hart & co., founded by the veteran carver and iconographer Aidan Hart.  In the United States we see New World Byzantine Studios (NWBS) , founded by Andrew Gould who is renowned for his traditional church designs.  

Although an ocean lay in between, there is surprising similitude in these two endeavours.  These similarities mark what I believe is a common thread, a common awareness that has developed in the wake of the renewal of icons lead by such figures as Leonid Ouspenski and Photios Kontoglou.  Many of us, who having embraced this renewal, who having seen and experienced the value of traditional iconography, have also been disappointed to see so much of what Ouspenski and Kontoglou fought still rampant in liturgical art.  A church that prides herself on the beautiful traditional icons in her iconostas, can simultaneously display a mass-produced, baroque, cheaply gold plated tin gospel cover.   And so as we rediscover icons, it is only natural that this joy overflow into all of the liturgical arts, finding  as is said on Aidan Hart’s website, that not only icons, but also “the church building and its furnishings... ...are there to help lift the soul to God, to create an atmosphere conducive to worship and prayer. “


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Stone iconostasis Panel by Aidan Hart
Like all renewals, there is a visible desire to return to the essential elements, and this appears very strongly in the designs of both companies.  There is a simplification, a sobriety of form displaying sparse use of ornament.  Absent also is relying on the shiny, the sparkling, the excess, but rather nobility is found in wood, stone, wrought iron, glass. Precious metals are used with a certain “matter-of-factness” that avoids the ostentatious. 

And maybe here  there is something to say about humility.  Both designers are converts.  Neither of them harbour particular attachments to Russian or Greek national pride. Neither of them are riding on the tail of an imperial art. Both live and pray in churches that are of an underappreciated minority in their country, in churches that are certainly poorer than the great national Orthodox Churches. This I believe also bears heavily in the choices made for design.  

Of course I am convinced this humility is a strength.  Being somewhat an outsider to nationalism permits also the creation of a liturgical art that dives into the entire tradition of our Church, that cherishes the best of Russian, Greek, Georgian, Serbian but also Carolingian and Romanesque treasures.  

I have worked with Andrew Gould of NWBS and have corresponded with Aidan Hart. I can confirm that, just as in my own heart, a true passion exists  in them for a renewed liturgical art seeking the glory of God.  We only hope and pray that our churches will follow.


Aidan Hart & co.
www.aidanhart.co

New World Byzantine Studios
www.nwbstudios.com

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Chandelier designed by Andrew Gould
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Hanging lamp designed by Aidan Hart
 
 
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George Bilak is a Serbian carver who now lives in the United States.  He carves miniature icons, pectoral crosses, blessing crosses and eggs that will take your breath away.  I can say without hesitating that he has been one of the biggest influences in how I carve miniatures.  In fact, my very first miniature commission, of which I have written about in a previous post was done accompanied by many back and forth e-mail conversations between George and I.  

When looking at pictures of his minatures, one must continuously remind oneself of how small they are.  For example, when admiring the carved egg I have posted below, one must remember that it is about the size of a large chicken egg!    

What soon becomes apparent is the sheer joy in precision which appears in his utmost attention to detail as can be seen in the painstaking rendering of patterns and borders.  

Aside from miniatures, George has also created a monumental iconostasis in which are hidden all kinds of small carved icons depicting traditional and biblical scenes.  

He is also an Icon painter, and I find the sculptural element of his carvings reappear in his painted icons. This sculptural aspect can be seen  in the desire to fully render all areas of the image.  In many icons, one finds clothing highlighted very schematically and often simplified. On the other hand, in George's icons a complex and fully rendered network of folds cover the entire surface of a Saint's vestment.     

In short, it is quite worth it to take a few minutes and admire George Bilak's work which can be seen on his website.

www.carvingart.com

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Aidan Hart is an Iconographer from England.  Trained as a sculptor and moving to carved icons along his own spiritual journey, he is now involved in almost every aspect that touches liturgical art:  panel icons, frescoes, metalwork, furniture, icon screens, manuscript illumination and more.  He might be called the utmost expert on icon painting techniques having recently published what is being hailed as the most comprehensive book on Icons  and wall painting. 

Aidan is really a teacher at heart, impassioned to revive traditional liturgical arts and an understanding of the sacred. He has given me quite a deal of advice and critique for my own carvings.  
Something of Aidans work that touches me and connects with what I have been trying to do is his simplicity in forms.  He does not try to impress by mere virtuosity.  Rather, his carvings are very simple, sobre and avoid excess of ornament.  Absent therefore are the elaborate frames, patterns, the labyrinth of folds. etc.  He also creates what I would call a "western Orthodox art", and so without simply copying Russian or Greek traditions, he reaches into them, adding earlier Byzantine sensibilities with the Western Romanesque.  This seems to be something of a theme with Orthodox artists living outside the usual Orthodox fiefs.    And that is a subject for my next post.


http://www.aidanharticons.com
http://www.aidanhart.co

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While traveling in Ethiopia, I had the chance to acquire some very nice carvings.  In the city of Axum, where the fabled Ark of the Covenent is said to be kept, I encountered a slew of steatite icons and sculptures of which the picture on the left is an example.  It is an image of st-George killing the dragon done is a very typical Ethiopian style. The faces are round and without expression, the eyes are wide-open and very hieratic.  In general there is a high level of abstraction and almost a naive sense about the image.  We can see St-George killing the dragon, surrounded by soldiers.  The young lady he is saving appears climbing a tree just above the horse's head.  At the top are two cherubs.  

I also aquired a very beautiful blessing cross covered in geometric chip-carving.  It is quite stunning and detailed, carved on both sides with little doors under which icons are found.  

My time in Axum was amazing.  I had the chance to meet the old guardian of the Ark.  As we exchanged briefly through a translator, he asked if there was something he could do for me.  Realizing I had a small icon I had carved, I asked him to bless it for me, which he did.   
Upon returning from Ethiopia, I carved an image of the meeting of the Queen of Sheba with King Solomon (at the bottom of this post) , an encounter which according to Ethiopian tradition produced a son who is understood as the first of the Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty of kings.  

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Doors open on one side. At the top is the crucifixion and the resurection. At the bottom is St-George and the Nativity of Christ.
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Top door on one side of the blessing cross portraying the crucifixion and the resurrection.
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Meeting of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba carved by Jonathan Pageau.
 
 
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David and Goliath by Jonathan Pageau.
From our previous post, we hope it has become clear that according to ancient thought, symbolism is not a literary genre or simply a method of interpretation.  It is rather a process that ontologically links things to each other, finally converging into God Himself who is all in all!  Of course this process can be seen and experienced and it is in this way that it can then become a way of reading and meditating on the Bible or other traditional texts.

True symbols can to a certain extent be multiple in meaning, for, as st-Maximos points out, all things contain a multitude of logoi held in common with others things. A dog for example contains a logos in common with other dogs as both are of the same species, but a dog can also be “black” or “fierce” or “faithful” which it can have in common with other beings. Yet if symbols can have multiple references, they are no less objective and not in any way subjective.  There is nothing creative or imaginary about true symbolism, but the science of symbolism is rather an understanding of, and a participation in how things work, or more specifically how they exist, for “the spiritual world is present in the world of the senses in symbols, and the world of the senses in the spiritual world in the logoi that constitute it[1]”.  As we have tried to point out, symbolism is neither an abstract notion, nor some allegorical form or another, but it is something very real.

The Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle do not “signify” God or His power through some kind of allegory or “substitution”; but rather their “signifying” is the precise power by which God makes Himself present.  For the ark is not simply an arbitrary form, one that could have been traded with anything else, such as a pair of sandals or a pink flamingo. Rather, its form was by its very nature revealed as being God-bearing in the proper circumstance, and was therefore objectively, through its very elements and its analogical quality, the seat of His Glory.   All of creation, in very much the same way, is a symbol, each thing according to its nature, although much of it has become veiled by our trespasses and our incapacity to pierce the outer shell of phenomenon. 

History is also symbolic, especially the sacred history in the Bible.  It must be said though, that the biblical question of historicity must be reversed from the modern historical methods, and leads away from inadequate questions that have sadly ravaged Christianity.  The principle in which our understanding of the Bible is anchored should not be the historical one but the spiritual one.  This does not mean that the historical pole is negated, neglected or even that there is a unbridgeable gap between the two, for Christianity is necessarily a historical religion through the very fact of the incarnation.  This does however mean that it is the spiritual, which is transhistorical, that is the cause, the logos and therefore the standard for the historical.  The importance of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob resides not in proving that they lived in this or that century or this or that culture, or whether according to “recent findings” they existed at all.  Their importance is in what God has revealed to us in being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Our sacred history should be interpreted first and foremost by the weight of its meaning and not through some bronze statuette or some other random artifact found somewhere in the desert causing some “historian of religions” to erect a theory which will become obsolete with the next found random artifact…

We even dare say it is not foremost that Christ was nailed to the cross, but rather that this symbol was the meeting of heaven and earth by which we are all saved.  If the act of crucifixion had not caused salvation by its form, then it would have been as important to mention as when a grain of sand stuck to the soles of Christ’s sandals.  The events described in the Gospels were inspired and described in a manner through which they effectively concentrate the reality of the incarnation.  The Gospels do not mention Christ scratching himself or getting his hair cut since these events do not symbolize, that is, they do not concentrate as effectively what it is that Christ IS or what He came to accomplish.    In the Bible, it is the very fact that an event can be symbolic of a heavenly truth that gives this event any form of reality.  It is not the other way around, for events are not, contrary to popular belief, stable and objective things in themselves, but are themselves symbolic, that is held together by and around a center of meaning, a logos.  This logos is what is in fact objective about them.  Without this center, events fragment and scatter into endless details, finally turning to dust[2]. Meaning is the “life” of an event, that which organizes its existence, without which comes decomposition, “For the spirit vivifies, but the letter kills”.   This means that in the Bible, there are no details!  There is nothing in the Bible that is there for arbitrary reasons, or “just because it happened that way”.  When the Bible systematically calls Joshua the son of Nun, it is not only because his father’s name was Nun. It is not mentioned that his tunic was blue or that his beard was short or that his mother’s name was so-and-so although these other details could also have been mentioned.  In fact, the Bible does mention such things for other characters, and when it does, it means that it is relevant to the understanding of the text just as the name of Joshua’s father is relevant as well. 

                It is only within the past few centuries that the notion has arisen of a “description” in a text, a description which can be there for arbitrary reasons, simply for a desire to be “accurate”, to create a mood, or for “literary freedom”.  None of this is in the Bible or in any ancient religious literature for that matter.  There is very little in common between the Psalms and Byron’s poems, or between the Book of Judges and a novel by Zola.

There are two serious errors regarding Biblical symbolism and its relation to the created world.  The first error, made by certain types of “conservative” people, is believing that everything in the Bible is “True”.  Now when they say “true”, they do not mean that everything in the Bible is an accurate portrayal of the nature of things, a portrayal of God and His creation, a portrayal which can lead, through meditation and prayer, to experiencing God.  What they mean by “True” is that what is written in the Bible “happened”.  And on this “happening”, a “happening” seen as a kind of factual journalistic event, resides all their faith.  These people are so convinced that what is in the Bible is historical, that they will tend to deny to different degrees the symbolic meaning of the Biblical text.  They will not ask themselves why there are 2 fish and 5 loaves, why Christ uses mud to heal the blind man or why it is Moses and Elijah who appeared at the Transfiguration.  They will simply see a description of what “happened”. In symbolism, they see a kind of subjective projection of the human psyche and a possibility of interpreting the text in any which way.

The second error, made by certain types of “liberal” people is seeing symbolism or “archetypes” in the Bible, and using this to demonstrate that the text is “allegorical”, that Christ’s resurrection is “symbolic” and therefore didn’t happen.  It is a story, a myth. Their notion of “happening” is the same as the first group, only, because they see symbolism, they deny the “happening” of the events in the text.  This group also sees symbolism as a subjective projection of the human psyche, only they revel in this, interpreting the text as they please and often even relativising the importance of the Bible itself. 

Both of the errors we mentioned are caused by a severe split, even an opposition between the spiritual and the physical world, the error of believing in an independent creation functioning according to its own rules, rules that are purely mechanical and grossly material. Here there is no reconciliation, no contact. The symbolism is torn from its realist ground. Speaking in more theological terms, it is a severe split, even opposition, between Christ’s human and divine natures.   Rather than giving in to these errors,  we can and should recapture the ancient reading of Scripture, that of St-Gregory of Nyssa, of St-Basil, Of St-Ireneus, of St-Maximos the Confessor. This ancient reading views the events described in Scripture, not as empty mechanical happenings, not as fanciful human allegories, but as Divine revelations bursting with spirit and meaning, icons of heaven for those who through a life of love and prayer,  have the capacity to see.


[1] St-Maximos quoted in Louth, p.75

[2] This can now be seen with great clarity in something like sub-atomic science, which refusing to search for the logoi through a synthetic approach like ancient sciences, was led through analytical methods into the inevitable chaos of statistical « potentiality ». This is truly our return to the dust… This can also be seen in the explosion of historical discourses, multiplying « particular » points of view until all points of view lose their validity.



 
 
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Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov, a Russian couple, are in my opinion, some of the most impressive icon carvers alive.  With the very purpose of revivifying the art of icon carving, they create works of jaw-dropping beauty, almost like wooden lace, with intricate patterns carved into elegant folds of clothing.  

They are said to take up to two months to create a single icon, and their work is so expensive, it is only accessible to the very elite of society.  Their pieces trickle into the collections of the Pope of Rome, the Patriarch of Moscow, the President and Prime-Minister of Russia as well as several European royal families.  Although it is sad to see their work go to hidden rooms of private collections, they no less set the bar for the rest of us, and they set it very high indeed. 

http://www.azbuhanov.ru/
http://artinvestment.ru/en/news/exhibitions/20090317_gtg_azbuhanovi.html

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Saint-John The Theologian
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Virgin Eleusius
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St-Boris and Gleb




 
 
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“Symbolism” is a term that has become quite diluted in the past 500 years. Since the middle ages, the notion of the symbol has undergone a deep mutation which is informed by immeasurable changes within our experience of knowledge and meaning.  Symbolism has been progressively reduced from informing our very cosmological world view, to now being a form of “signifying”, like the little man on the door of the lavatory or a traffic sign with its shapes and color.  There is an exteriority, a non-participation between the symbol and the signified meaning.  So for example, when Reformers said that the Eucharistic bread “symbolized” the body of Christ, they were implying a separation between the two rather than a union of the two.  This vision of symbolism has not always been so, and one of the great thinkers of the early Church, Saint-Maximos the Confessor, will help us find that more ancient meaning.

Looking at the word « symbol », one can already gather what the original understanding was.  The Greek word symbol means a « meeting » or « gathering ». We call a “symbol of faith” that which is a bringing together of the essential elements of what we believe. The most outstanding use of the notion of « symbol » in the new testament, very much in the sense we will be looking at, appears in Luke 2:19:  « Mary kept all these things, and pondered (from « sumballo », « gathered » might be another possible translation) them in her heart ».  We will in fact see that “to gather in the heart” is one of the most adequate definitions of symbolism we could come up with.

A symbol in the true sense of the word is not a « substitution » for something, a sign merely pointing to something else through resemblance or through an arbitrary consensus.  A symbol, properly understood, is only a sign pointing to something, a principle, in the sense that it concentrates that principle in a direct way, makes it manifest.   And a symbol, being a concentration and manifestation is also a participation in the thing it symbolizes.  The Church is a symbol of Christ in the sense that Christ is the Principle (he is the head, kephale, in Greek) and the Church is his Body (In fact the word “church” or: “ekklesia” means nothing else than a meeting) and so it is both a manifestation or “condensation” of and a participation in the head.  In this understanding,  symbolism is not opposed to realism, rather it is realism itself.  Saint Maximos tells us“…for he who starting from the spiritual world sees appear the visible world or else who sees appear symbolically the contour of spiritual things freeing themselves from visible things... that one does not consider anything of what is visible as impure, because he does not find any irreconcilable contradiction with the ideas of things. [1]”.

Ultimately, a symbol is the meeting place of two worlds, the meeting of the will of God with His creation. Saint-Paul tells us that «…since the creation of the world, (Gods) invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead… ».  The symbol is that place in created things where one can see the heavens, making what is on earth like what is in heaven.  That « place » is a theophany, it is seeing a glimpse of God working through creation. 

The “bringing together” that underpins the theophany is the very reconciliation in Christ of which saint-Paul speaks in 2Cor.5,  “...all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ…” for “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself…”.  Although in translations, the emphasis is often put on people, the text speaks of ALL THINGS for “if anyone (or anything) is in Christ, he (or it) is a new creation…”   This point of contact between creation and the divine of which we have been speaking is what is often known as the « divine spark », the logos by which that very created thing exists, and by grasping it one can seize that things ultimate meaning, its « simple nature », as well as its place in creation.  So what is a logos, what are logoï?  The logos is the quality of something which is simple and unified, its spiritual reason, bringing together specific modalities through a “communion” of what is eclectic and dispersed into something which is one.  The logos of something could be seen as the “essence” of that thing in God from all eternity.  Saint-Maximos explains that we are able to “understand how everything in the universe is separated one from another in an orderly manner in accordance with the logoi in which each thing consists by the ineffable One who holds and protects everything in accordance with unity.”[2] 

The person of Jesus Christ then is in fact the ultimate symbol, for in Him lies the very fullness of the concentration of meaning in a form, showing us God while revealing the very essence of Man.  He is the type of the Father and the archetype of Man, “reconciling all things” to the Father.  This mystery can be seen in the function and even in the form of the cross, which being the union of the vertical and the horizontal leads to that very point in its center where the symbol finds its source.  “The mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos contains in itself all the meanings of the enigmas and the symbols of the Scriptures, all the signification of creatures visible and invisible. He who knows the mystery of the cross and the tomb knows the logos of things; he who is initiated to the hidden signification to the resurrection knows the purpose for which God from the beginning created everything."[3]”.

The unification just explained is what we mean by symbolism.   Not surprisingly, this process in the created world, for saint-Maximos, happens in man, whos logos contains in itself all the logoï of the visible creation and must unite them in his own logos. He is “the laboratory in which everything is concentrated and in itself naturally mediates between the extremities of each division[4]”.  This communion is always a concentration, as when the radii of a circle are nearer to one another the closer they come to the center, finally converging into a single point.  Therefore man, by concentrating himself, that is by moving towards his own center (heart) also gathers within, though a process of analogy, all of creation, finally giving himself and all that is within him to God through an act of love.  Andrew Louth in his commentary on St-Maximos the Confessor gives a concise description of this process saying that “by ‘a way of life proper and fitting to the Saints’, the human person unites paradise and the oikoumenê to make one earth.  Then, by imitating by virtue the life of the angels, the human person unites heaven and earth.  Then, by being able to perceive the logoi of the created order, the distinction between the intelligible and the sensible falls away.  And finally, by uniting created nature with uncreated nature though love, the coinherence or interpenetration of God and the creation becomes apparent.[5] If it is through its analogy to man that creation participates in God, it is by man’s analogy to the Divine Logos, that he participates in the Divine.

That, my friends, is symbolism.

I was once told by an Orthodox Deacon who I admire very much, that if the Catholic believes Christ’s body is REAL in the eucharist, and if protestants believe it is a SYMBOL, the Orthodox believe  it is REAL because it is a SYMBOL.  I think that sums it up quite nicely.


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[1] St-Maximos quoted in Balthazar, « Liturgie Cosmique », (my translation)  “…car celui qui partant du monde spirituel voit apparaître le monde visible ou encore qui voit apparaître symboliquement le contour des choses spirituelles se dégageant des choses apparentes…, celui-là ne considère rien de ce qui est visible comme impur, parce qu’il n’y découvre aucune contraditction inconciliable avec les idées des choses. p.235

[2] St-Maximos quoted in Andrew Louth,  Saint-Maximos The Confessor »p.113

[3] quoted in Balthazar, (my translation) "Le mystère de l’Incarnation du Verbe contient en soi tout le sens des enigmes et des symbols de l’Écriture, toute la signification des creatures visibles et intelligibles.  Celui qui connaît le mystère de la croix et du tombeau connaît la raison (logos) des choses; celui qui est initié à la signification cachée de la resurrection connaît le but pour lequel Dieu dès le commencement créa le tout" p.210

[4] quoted in Louth, p.73

[5] Andrew Louth, « St-Maximos The Confessor » p.4