For this week please read Chapter 7 “The Hallway at the End of the Universe” and Chapter 8, “A Room with a View” of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s book Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. In Chapter 8, Fr. Freeman discusses the windows into the one-storey spiritual world that surrounds us.
The World Around Us
Simply from a physical perspective, we fail to perceive the fullness of the world around us. Our eyes only see visible light (400-700 nanometers), which is an exceedingly small part of the full electromagnetic spectrum. Birds can see the earth’s magnetic field which is wholly invisible to us. We fail to hear most sounds that other animals can. The world around us is full of information to which we are simply oblivious.
Our book is about our failing to sense the fullness of the spiritual dimension of the world surrounding us as well. One way to perceive the imperceptible is stillness. When we are quiet and focused, we can see and hear the world around us better. When we are quiet and focused, we can see and hear God better. Likewise, we can see and hear better when we use tools – telescopes, microphones, and other instruments – that allow us to perceive that which is beyond our normal capabilities. The eye of the soul needs similar instruments of perception.
Instruments of Perception
I grew up in a small southern Methodist Church where the only two real tools given to me were prayer and the Bible. Pray to God and read your Bible, and you will find God. Our church had stain glass windows, but those were for decoration. For Fr. Freeman, who grew up Baptist, the great tool that he discovered in Eastern Christianity were icons. To paraphrase a saying, an icon is worth a thousand words of Scripture. As an example, the meaning of the Icon of the Resurrection is Here. In the Eastern Church, icons are known as “windows into heaven.” However, as Fr. Freeman points out “icons are not windows to another world, per se, but a revelation of the truth of existence – an existence that is more than we may see at first encounter.” We have previously looked at the power of images before in our study of Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal and Rowan Williams’ Ponder These Things.
The Anglican tradition is mostly devoid of iconography. The question for you, is, if not icons, what do you use as an instrument of perception? As we looked at in the previous chapter, knowing the Bible or the Creeds is not the same as knowing or seeing God. (Some of the best New Testament scholars are not even Christian.) For us (or at least for me) the instrument of perception is the liturgy and holy spaces. It is the familiar rhythms of the liturgy and the liturgical hymns, the consonance of the service where the readings and the collects and the hymns work together, and the regularity of the Eucharist. It is the beauty of holiness of our Anglican worship that helps us/me to see and to hear those things that are otherwise imperceptible. Where is this for you?
Fr. Freeman ends his chapter with a discussion on the evils of iconoclasm (icon destruction). There is a certain zeal of destruction that accompanies any iconoclastic movement. Although the impetus of such reform movements may begin with good intentions, they usually end with destroying the windows into heaven. In the West, this iconoclasm was common during the Reformation. During the English Civil War, (1642-1651), the Puritan forces under Oliver Cromwell set about a policy of destroying churches – stain glass, tapestries, chancel rails, rood screens, communion tables, and even crosses – throughout England. It took the English church almost three hundred years to recover from this devastation.
As Fr. Freeman points out, all reform movements easily smash and destroy. The harder part is creating art and revealing the beauty and truth of the world in which we live. (p.76). The question for all reformers is how to retain these windows into heaven while reforming the church.
Happy are they whom you choosePsalm 65:4
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.