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Good Nous

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January 22, 2011 Tags: Worship & Arts
Good Nous

Today's entry was written by Frederica Matthewes-Greene. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Andrei Rublev, "The Holy Trinity,” ca. 1411. Tempera, gold leaf on panel, 56” x 45”. (Collection of the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.)

I was once asked to give a talk at Washington’s National Cathedral on prayer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I brought with me a large icon, one familiar to many people, showing the Holy Trinity as the three visitors who came to Abraham (Gen. 19:1-8); it was painted by St. Andrei Rublev, in 1411. I set up the icon on an easel, but after saying a few words about it, focused on the Jesus Prayer. This simple, repetitive prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”— was developed by the Desert Fathers, as a help toward learning to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

When we re-gathered for a workshop later on, I found that the participants wanted to know more about the role of the icon. What is its function in prayer? What are the prayers used when looking at an icon? It hadn’t occurred to me before what an obvious question that would be. If you know nothing else about the Eastern Orthodox Church, you know about icons; they are our most visible feature. And yet, when asked “How do Orthodox Christians pray with icons?” I had to answer with what sounds like a paradox: “They don’t.” Not in a way that focuses on the icon, that is. In fact, focusing on an icon too closely actually interferes with your ability to pray.

As I think it over, a number of questions arise about the role and limits of images, the character of direct experience as opposed to thinking about experience, the human faculty of receptive comprehension as opposed to active reasoning, and the biggest questions of all: what are we here for? What is the point of life?

To begin with the audience’s how-to question, the way an Orthodox Christian would pray in front of an icon is not much different from how they’d pray anywhere. An icon might well help them be more focused and attentive, of course, but it doesn’t call for a special kind of prayer.

Icons have a companionable role, and I could make an analogy to a photo of any departed loved one. If you were close to your grandmother, you might keep her photo where you would see it every day. When your eye lands on it you would remember her; and if you paused for a moment that memory could expand into a more holistic impression of her personality and presence. If she was a woman of prayer, you might picture her continuing even now to pray for you in God’s presence. Indeed, you might not just think about her, but feel a fleeting connection with her, in this relationship that transcends time.

But this sense of connection is a delicate thing, light and subtle. It might be prompted by looking at the photo, but it can’t be located on the surface of the paper, or distilled from the ink. And, oddly enough, the more you sensed such a connection, the more likely you would be to close your eyes, I think. You couldn’t expand that feeling by scrutinizing the photo. If anything, it would get in the way.

Icons, then, like all the forms of beauty that we cultivate in worship, have a very important role. But there is a point at which all images—particularly inner pictures—will just get in the way of prayer. Pictures keep us at the surface of things. If you can experience God directly, what do you need images for? When you began to sense that connection with your grandmom, you stopped looking at the photo; you closed your eyes.

Like that “click” you feel with your grandmother, at the heart of Orthodox Christianity is an experience of connection with God. In the Eastern view, the whole point of Christian faith—the whole point of human life—is that connection, or, to put it more precisely, communion. Communion with God is what we were made for, from the time of Adam and Eve. The ancestral fall damaged human nature and all Creation, but Christ’s Incarnation, and his death and Resurrection, opened the way for healing. The receptive mind is healed and restored so it can once again perceive God’s intimate presence.

I think we Westerners have trouble thinking through what it means to experience the presence of God because our map of human consciousness provides no faculty where that presence could register. We think we are made of head and heart, mind and emotions. But that is not the Biblical view. There, thoughts are consistently spoken of as occurring in the heart (and they usually have a connotation of plotting and scheming, or selfish daydreams: “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” Gen 8:21). There isn’t any biblical division between reason and emotion; there is no division in reality. They are part of a single human process.

Though we don’t really have the concept in the West, the Greek term nous is used where our Bibles read “mind.” However, the word doesn’t mean the cogitating intellect, but the perceptive intellect—understanding or comprehension. It is the mind that receives. After his Resurrection, Jesus “opened [the apostles’] nous to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). The nous is where we can sense or perceive the presence of God.

Of course, the nous is where we sense or perceive anything. It’s the part of your mind that is delighted when you suddenly grasp the trick ending of a movie. It is what does the resonating when you hear “the ring of truth.” The nous is what receives the inrush of memories of your grandmom, as if you’d just tuned it to the Grandma station. The nous is like a radio, then—one designed to tune in to the voice of God.

But, like everything else in Creation, it is damaged. The “darkened” nous would much rather take in a movie, and prefers to avoid God than to seek communion with Him. Yet St. Paul wrote, “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous” (Romans 12:2), and our goal is to have “the nous of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). All the spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox Church (including the use of icons) serve that purpose; they are there to help us tune in to this connection with God, and to help us get better at staying in touch with his presence full-time. (That’s what “pray constantly” means.)

So the role of icons in prayer is subtle. We Orthodox would not surround ourselves with them so diligently if they did not serve a practical, even dynamic, purpose. By providing images of God’s works in history, and of people who have been fully illuminated by the light of Christ, they give us an idea of where we’re going. They help in the cleansing and healing the nous, so that we can get better at recognizing God’s presence in every moment and in every place. But they don’t do so as works of art to be honored for their own sake, or as stimulants to the emotions, or as magical objects. Their role is companionable—they present spiritual realities that our eyes would fail to see, our minds would fail to perceive. By teaching and encouraging, they point us toward our destiny in Christ. Then we can close our eyes and pray.

A complete listing of Frederica's work, as well as links to her blog and podcasts, may be found here.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author whose work has appeared in publications such as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio, on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and a columnist for the Religion News Service and Christianity Today. She writes regular book and movie reviews, and her podcast “Frederica Here and Now” is carried on Ancient Faith Radio. She has published 9 books, including The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God.

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Saskia - #48811

January 23rd 2011

Thanks for this post, it’s really informative. I am reading a history of christianity right now and was actually just wondering that exact thing… what role icons have.

So thanks

Cal - #48828

January 23rd 2011

Thanks for the beautiful words!

I had a question for one aspect: For those who are young in Faith who attend to eastern traditions, what kind of warning is given about understanding the purpose of ikons? Without a distinction one could easily find himself/herself venerating it as an idol or believing it has the presence of God, with is far from true.

Gregory - #48864

January 23rd 2011

If the author is willing to comment on the thread, I wonder if an explanation of reverse perspective could be valuable. Why/how do our ‘companions’ somehow ‘attract’ us like an invisible energy & in what dimensions/directions? Rublev’s famous icon is of course a great example of this, as with most iconography.

Boris Rauschenbach (1915-2001) was a Russian cosmonautical scientist who later in life (yet still in the Soviet period) wrote about icons & iconography in a ‘scientific’ light. This may be of interest to some people at BioLogos.

Cf. also “The Way of the Pilgrim” by Dennis Billy, which focuses on the Jesus Prayer of the Desert Fathers.

One litpik:
“the nature of direct experience as opposed to thinking about experience”

Here is another case where I would encourage the use of ‘the character of’ instead of ‘the nature of,’ especially since the given ‘direct experience’ is related to the experiencer, who is a person with a character. By ‘naturalising’ the language, the meaning is slightly changed. Rublev’s Trinity helps to reveal this.

Frederica Mathewes-Green - #48878

January 23rd 2011

@Cal, good question, and it brings us to the problem that icons are meant to be experienced in a particular context, in which you would be receiving teaching and guidance in many ways. It is our consumer society that expects that everything is severable, and can be added to a pre-existing mindset like putting photos in an album. It’s better to grasp icons in the context they’re made for, yes.

@Gregory, good point, many icons use reversed perspective, so that the “vanishing point” is not within the picture but in front of it, about where the viewer is standing. It’s visible in this icon, in that it subtly “bulges” out in the middle, toward the viewer. This creates a sense of being drawn into the image, or of it reaching out toward you.

“The Way of a Pilgrim” is anonymous, of course, but Dennis Billy has made a good translation and guide.

Yes, “the character of” is better than “the nature of”—I’ll change that on my own website.

Jerry Ireland - #48893

January 23rd 2011

Hi Frederica. Great article. This helps me to understand an aspect of Orthodoxy I am highly perplexed by. But, would not deep reflection (meditation) on the Word of God have the same effect (especially to those who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture), only in a more honoring way of what has been didactically handed down to the Church (i.e., as opposed to *tradition*; cf. Ps. 119; Joshua 1:8; 2 Tim. 3:16; Matt. 24:35 )?
Again, thanks for the post. I found it very helpful!

Sabrina - #48895

January 23rd 2011

I’ve always loved Icons as art, but now as I’ve been embracing Orthodox Christianity, I appreciate icons as a lot more than just art. There are times at Vespers or even Liturgy when I can swear it seems the folks in the Icons can see us as we can see them. It definitely brings home the idea of church triumphant and church militant worshipping together. It’s a good feeling.

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