The World As Icon

One Christmas Eve I had the flu.  While my family went to Lessons and Carols, I wrote a poem about the pain Mary endured to give birth to Jesus, which I believed to be connected to my own suffering.  Flannery O’Connor calls evil “not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”[1]  With the mystery of evil comes the mystery of grace in everyday life.  Every image in the world points to its Maker, to divine love.  O’Connor describes a grandfather and grandson looking at a statue: “They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.”[2]  God speaks and works through the images of this world, and physical things take on divine significance.  O’Connor offers another image: “The peacock stood still as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all.”[3]  God created the world in order to speak through it, and we are the recipients of that gift.

The inter-penetration of earth and heaven finds its fullness in the person of Christ; the Incarnation itself unites God and man.  As Saint Athanasius says, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”[4]  God desires to share His divine life with us.  Saint Paul calls us “partakers of the divine nature.”[5]  God originally created man in His image, and redemption restores that shattered image.  Since Christ embodies what it means to be human, each man’s personhood find its fullest expression in Christ.  Everyone “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—Christ.”[6]  He is the image of the invisible God, and we share in that likeness.  We become our most real selves when we align our wills to His.  Mary exemplifies this calling most perfectly, who “this one work has to do— / Let all God’s glory through.”[7] Mary captures the vocation of humanity: cooperation with grace.

In the Resurrection and Ascension, Christ brings earth to heaven with Him and offers it to the Father.  The Chora Chapel in Istanbul houses an icon of the Anastasis of Christ.  In Greek “anastasis” means both “destruction” and “resurrection.”  Christ both tramples Satan underfoot and raises humanity to heaven.  Having broken down the gates of hell, He rescues Adam and Eve.  He comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, not to destroy nature but to perfect it.  The harrowing of hell shows Christ’s intentions in coming to earth: to join our nature to His own.  He descends from heaven to earth so that He may join earth to heaven.

The Anastasis

Images have the ability to instruct us in piety and devotion.  Thomas Aquinas “learned more at the foot of the crucifix than from books.”[8]  Thomas’ spirituality inspires love of God through whetting the appetite for the Beatific Vision.  He offers this prayer: “Give me, O Lord my God, that life without death and that joy without sorrow where there is the greatest freedom, unconfined security, secure tranquility, delightful happiness, happy eternity, eternal blessedness, the vision of truth, and praise, O God.”[9]  Through cultivating right desire he seeks to dispose the soul toward beatitude, the joy of contemplation.

Such a desire for heaven leads to love of neighbor on earth.  C. S. Lewis asserts, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”[10]  Our bodies exist for loving God and loving the image of God in our fellow man.  Charles Ryder grounds the proper outlook on life in sacrificial love when he claims that “to know and love another one other human being is the root of all wisdom.”[11]  Love of man participates in love of God because man bears His image.

In this world responsibility always accompanies love.  In Brideshead Revisited Sebastian finds the greatest happiness when he stops seeking pleasure and begins denying himself.  He reflects, “it’s rather a pleasant change when all your life you’ve had people looking after you, to have someone to look after yourself.”[12]  It is in giving that we receive, and whoever loses his life will save it.  The fox explains to The Little Prince, “if you tame me, we’ll need each other…You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.”[13]  To love another means to bear his burdens, share his joys, and participate in his life.

Only humility allows this kind of love while pride bars the way.  Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov exhorts each monk to a profound sense of responsibility: “when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved.”[14]  When men see the image of God in each other, they will see Christ in ten thousand places.   And whatever they do unto the least of these His brethren, they do unto Him.

 

[1] Flannery O’Connor, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, eds. Robert Fitzgerald and Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), 209.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (Orlando: Harcourt, 1955), 130-31.

[3] Ibid, 213.

[4] CCC 460.

[5] 2 Peter 1:4.

[6] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”

[7] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe.”

[8] Sertillanges, 54.

[9] The Aquinas Prayer Book, ““For the Attainment of Heaven.”

[10] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 1949), 46.

[11] Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (New York: Back Bay Books, 1972), 45.

[12] Ibid, 215.

[13] The Little Prince, 59, 64.

[14] The Brothers Karamazov, 164.

Image taken from http://www.bombaxo.com/blog/anastasis-in-chora/.

Mary Proffit Kimmel

Mary Proffit Kimmel

Mary Proffit Kimmel teaches literature, Greek, and Latin and attends St. Basil the Great Byzantine Catholic Church.

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2 thoughts on “The World As Icon”

  1. This is beautiful, love the references to G. M. Hopkins. I would be interested in reading your poem about Mary’s sufferings.

    I have often contemplated the world as ikon, and the difference between an ikon and an idol. Our protestant fundamentalist brothers and sisters like to accuse catholics of idolatry in our religious art, and more particularly in our use of sacramentals (which need not be artistic at all). But if an ikon is a signpost to point beyond itself, isn’t an idol simply an ikon that no longer points? And if it is, is it the fault of the object viewed, or the viewer of the object?

    To put it another way, art, beauty, nature, the world, objects, are ikons by their nature, but become idols only by our action. The iconicity (to make up a word) is in them, the idolatry is in us.

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