The Other as Icon

Lecture by Jim Forest for the June 2002 conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania

You’re walking down a street and see a man in stained clothing sitting on the pavement, a paper coffee cup in front of him. As you pass by, he asks if you could contribute something toward his next meal. Though unshaven and in need of a shower, he’s young and muscular, apparently healthy and capable of working. You’ve just walked past a dozen help wanted signs. What thoughts pass through your mind? How do you respond?

As the sun is setting you notice several teen-agers down the street, speaking abusively in voices that can be heard 50 yards away. They seem to be looking for trouble. What do you think and feel as you look at them? Do you continue on the same path or find an alternate route? How do you respond?

You turn on the news and hear a report concerning the murder of a young woman. There’s a photo of her taken from her high school year book — a beautiful face and bright smile, a face full of life and promise. She is like one of your own children. Based on information from witnesses, a drawing of a man seen running from the crime scene is shown along with a telephone number you should call if you have seen anyone resembling the suspect. You are warned not to approach him as he is regarded as armed and dangerous. The drawing lingers in your mind — an ominous, large-jawed face with narrow, staring eyes. What are your thoughts about the man being sought? How do you respond?

That evening you happen to see a TV news report about a man on death row who is less than twelve hours away from his execution. Years ago, it is explained, he murdered an elderly couple after breaking into their home. There is live reportage of a prayer vigil outside the prison — people carrying candles and signs with such messages as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” Nearby are another group, among them some of the relatives of the murder victims who approve of the execution and speak of it as bringing about a long-sought “closure.” “The man’s got what’s coming to him,” says one of them. There’s an interview taped earlier in the day with the man himself — frightened, bewildered, sorry for what he did, though he has only a hazy memory of the event itself. He blames the murders on his former drug addiction. A nun is interviewed who has visited the condemned man him from time to time. We hear her appeal to the governor not to allow the execution, which she describes as “ritual murder.” Finally there’s an interview with the governor. He says he cannot put himself above the jury that found the man guilty or the board that reviewed the case and affirmed its conclusion. His heart goes out not to the killer but to all the poeople forever wounded by these terrible murders. He says the execution will occur on schedule.

Listening to all these voices, what are your thoughts? With whose views do you identify? For whom, if anyone, are you praying? How do you respond?

Now think of September 11 — what happened that day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and what we have since learned regarding the people who carried out those actions, the people who planned them, and those who died as a result — policemen, firemen, office workers, pilots, stewardesses, airplane passengers, Pentagon staff, government workers — thousands of lives snuffed out, children orphaned, men and women suddenly without their spouses: mass murder done by people who see themselves as agents of God’s wrath.

What do we think of those who carried out these actions? Those who planned them? What do you think should be done about such people? Does this pose a challenge of any kind to you personally? Does it have anything to do with your spiritual life? With your parish? How do you respond?

I mention all these situations and raise these questions to try to make more real — and more troubling — the word “other,” though in fact the word is much larger than what is suggested by my short litany of grim situations and dangerous people. Far from being a stranger, the “other” is often a spouse, a parent, one’s own child (whether born or unborn), one’s neighbors, co-workers, colleagues. It can be the angry driver in car just behind yours, the salesman who sold you shoddy goods, or the man in the Oval Office.

The “other” is anyone, whether for occasional seconds or uninterrupted decades, whom I feel as being remote from myself — a human being, yes, but not someone with whom I seek communion.

Let’s think for a moment about two of my favorite people, Adam and Eve, the first human beings, the common ancestors of each and every person we will ever meet. As the story is related in Genesis, they began as a single being. It is only when Adam — the original anthropos — feels lonely and envies the two-ness of all other creatures that God puts him in a state of deep sleep and then pulls the body of Eve out of Adam’s body. At this moment Adam becomes male, Eve female — two words that have no meaning except in the context of the other. The scene of the dividing of anthropos into male and female is shown in countless iconographic images that decorate ancient churches, a visual exploration of the mystery of being human: one becomes two, and each longs for the other; each is incomplete without the other. Two strive to become one. And from acts of healing their otherness, children are born: new others.

But first the Fall intervenes — that rupturing of the womb-like effortless communion that existed in the first days of human existence. Adam and Eve’s communion with the other is damaged. They became aware of being naked and find themselves ashamed of their condition. After failing in their attempt to hide from God, they then seek to shift the blame for eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. “It is the because of the wife whom you gave me,” says Adam, both blaming Eve and blaming God for making the mistake of creating her. Eve, for her part, blames not herself but the fast-talking serpent. It’s the start of human estrangement and all consequent patterns of blaming: not my fault, but yours! The other is to blame.

“The essence of sin is fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” comments Metropolitan John Zizioulas. “Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”

We can imagine that Adam and Eve did not at first fully realize the consequences of their act of rejection — rejection of God’s command, then rejection of each other in their blaming the other rather than taking responsibility and repenting for their own sin.

Next comes the calamity of murder among their own children. Cain and Abel are divided by enmity. Brother becomes “other.” Love turns to envy, envy to hatred, hatred to violence, until Abel lies dead on the ground, a casualty of the first war.

And yet we are not condemned to enmity. Adam and Eve did not abandon each other after the Fall but lived in partnership and probably also in shared in repentance. They become the fountainhead of the human race.

Despite the sin they committed and all its consequences down through the centuries, the Church does not regard them as damned. It is Adam and Eve we see in the most impressive of Paschal icons, Christ harrowing hell. In my favorite version, from the Chora church in Constantinople, we see Christ simultaneously lifting both Adam and Eve from their tombs in the kingdom of death. They are equally objects of his mercy, and together recover their original oneness in Christ who made them and whose image they bear.

Here, in the opening chapter of Genesis, where we meet Adam and Eve, we come upon the first use in the Bible of the word “image” — ikon, in Greek.

Genesis was a text of special importance to Christian theologians of the early centuries and thus the subject of numerous Patristic commentaries. In Genesis the Fathers discovered the opening chords of central themes of the New Testament. In the creation narrative we see the work of the Logos, he who is himself the Alpha: the Word who is the beginning. We begin to meet the Creator in his creation, the Word in what comes into being by being spoken. Adam both resembles and prefigures Christ, the second Adam; Mary is prefigured in Eve, a new Eve in whom the ever-existing Divine Logos becomes incarnate; we see the Holy and Lifegiving Cross prefigured in the Tree of Life. The very sentence that declares humankind is made God’s image is also the first revelation of the Holy Trinity: “Let us make man according to our image and likeness…” (Genesis 1:26, translation from the Septuagint) Later in Genesis, there are the mysterious angelic figures, both one and three, who visit Abraham and Sarah under the oak of Mamre.

Think about the passage: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man [anthropos] according to our image and likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

There is much to ponder in these two verses, several major themes, but today our concentration will be on the topic of image and likeness, going on from there to the problem and challenge of otherness.

This pair of verses, writes Andrew Louth, professor of Patristic and Byzantine studies and editor of a collection of patristic commentaries on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, “are perhaps the verses of the Old Testament most commented upon by the Fathers. The doctrine of man’s creation in the image of God is the foundation of patristic anthropology. The mention of his likeness to God points to the destiny of his sanctification and glorification.” [Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-12, Andrew Louth, ed; InterVaristy Press, 2001]

We know from the opening words of John’s Gospel that Christ is the Logos, the Word, and we know from Paul that Christ is also icon: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Col. 1:15) These key words — logos and ikon — illuminate each other.

Late in the second century, Clement of Alexandria commented: “For ‘the image of God’ is his Word … and an image of the Word is the true man, that is, the mind in Man, who on this account is said to be created ‘in the image’ of God and ‘in his likeness,’ because through his understanding heart he is made like the divine Word or Reason [Logos], and so rational [logikos].” (ACCS, Genesis, p 29) Another of the Fathers, Marcus Victorinus, remarks that in fact only Christ is the image of God, but mankind is made according to his image: we are the image of the image.

The patristic authors make a distinction between image and likeness. Even after the Fall, the image remains in each of us, albeit concealed to various degrees like a buried coin, but the likeness is lost and can only be recovered by ascetic effort and the grace of God. This is why, in Slavonic, the Church speaks of monastic saints as prebodobni, the root meaning of which is “a person who has recovered the divine likeness.”

Diadochus of Photice wrote: “All men are made in God’s image, but to be in his likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom into subjection to God. For only when we do not belong to ourselves do we become like him who, through great love, has reconciled us to himself.” (“On Spiritual Perfection; ACCS, p 30)

He says not love but “great love.” What is meant by that? I think of a Dutch friend of mine who as a young man fell in love with a woman living in Denmark. Penniless student that he was in those postwar years, he had no money to travel to Denmark by train to visit her so instead, during study breaks, would go by bicycle, peddling all the way across the Netherlands, along the coast of northern Germany, then finally up most of the length of Denmark. It took days of biking, sometimes in rain. Was it hard, I asked him. No, he said. “Even when there was a strong wind against me, there was a stronger wind inside me.” It was the wind of great love.

Gregory of Nyssa also comments on the words image and likeness. “We possess the one by creation.” he writes. “The other we acquire by free will.” God has given us the power to achieve the likeness, he stresses. “If the Creator had given you everything, how would the kingdom of heaven have been opened for you? But it is proper that one part is given you, while the other has been left incomplete. This is so that you might complete it yourself and might be worthy of the reward which comes from God.” (“On the Origin of Man”; ACCS, p 33)

In the same essay, Gregory remarks that being made in the image of God, the universal King, means that we participate “from the beginning [in God's] royal nature,” but in place of the purple robes worn by earthly kings, the human being is intended to be clothed with virtue. His scepter in his endowment with blessed immortality. He wears not a crown of gems but of justice. Becoming the kings and queens God intended is our task in life. As Gregory says, “One who is made in the image of God has the task of becoming who he is.” (ACCS, p 35)

Speaking about Adam and Eve and their descendants at a conference last month in Oxford, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom said that “as man — in the sense of anthropos — matures, he becomes more and more what he is called to be.”

At least this possibility exists. We see it clearly in those people we recognize as saints — not limiting it to people on the Church calendar, though certainly such heroes of faith play a strengthening role in our lives, but also those hardly-known people who are canonized only in our own memories and who help day after day ignite sparks of courage in us. When I was interviewing Russians who had become believers at a time when life in the Church offered troubles rather than rewards, time and again I was told stories about a grandparent, most often a grandmother. She was the one who arranged baptisms, told Bible stories to the children she cared for, taught prayers, and crossed herself at any significant moment. These were the stubborn old ladies who never surrendered to Lenin, Stalin or Brezhnev. I began to think there ought to be an icon called “Saint Grandmother.”

But saints of any kind are rare. If we happen to know even one personally, we are blessed. What happens far more often is that we meet people in whom the image of God has become increasingly hidden while the likeness of God is incomprehensibly remote. The image of God that was so easy to glimpse in the child has been all but obliterated in the adult. One can say even of the person in whom the image and likeness of God is most concealed that he remains an icon, but, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom puts it, an icon that is very badly damaged.

It often happens that we become aware of how damaged the human icon is when we regard the other. While we may have a hard time finding anything in our own lives that requires confession and repentance, we can easily draft confessions for others, and not just the cheat, the wife beater, the thief, the rapist or the murderer, but rank-and-file friends, even those whom we love or used to love. We see the faults of the other with amazing clarity. Somehow our own faults, regarded from the inside, turn out not to be so problematic.

Our struggle — nothing less than the struggle to remain whole and in communion — is to seek to discover in the other the image of God and thus to respond to that person in a way that bears witness to this deeper reality — or, if we are unable to find any trace of the divine image, to respond to the other with faith that the image is there. We believe this even when it seems obvious that the person is better connected to hell than to heaven.

“Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God,” said St. John of Kronstadt, “with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

This is not at all a naive or romantic way of thinking. It’s profoundly realistic. We are not looking at ourselves or anyone with rose-colored glasses. It is like Dostoevsky’s view of Ivan Karamazov, who bears part of the blame for his father’s murder and sees himself as damned. “It was not you who killed father,” Alyosha insists. “You’ve accused yourself and confessed to yourself that you and you alone are the murderer. But it was not you who killed him, you are mistaken, the murderer was not you, do you hear, it was not you! God has sent me to tell you that.”

Alyosha does not mean that Ivan is innocent. Rather Alyosha wants Ivan to understand that what he has done was the result of a demonic spirit at work within him rather an action of his essential self, a self that bears the indestructible divine image. Should Ivan confuse the evil he has done with his deepest self, he will have condemned himself to hell and may never find his way out of the despair that results. Alyosha’s message is a desperate effort to save Ivan’s sanity and soul and to protect him from suicidal temptations. His message to Ivan is that no matter what sins you have committed, no matter how badly you have disfigured yourself, it is impossible to step beyond God’s mercy, if only we seek it — and if only we help the other seek it when we see him on the edge of the abyss.

It is when we perceive the other is a threat or when that person has in fact done something terrible — that it becomes most difficult to be aware of the other as icon.

These are the kinds of situations sketched out at the beginning, each of them all too familiar, none the stuff of fantasy, and how hard pressed we are by them: all those situations where the other is either an irritation or a menace or an adversary or a full-blown an enemy who threatens our lives or the lives of people whom we do our best to protect.

What do we do about the other when he is a potential or actual hazard? There are no simple solutions for what the Christian can do in the face of danger, no tidy ideologies we can turn to, but there are basic attitudes we can strive for, most of all a conversion of heart. This is a conversion in which we try to respond to the threatening or dangerous other with the consciousness that in reality we are related, that we both descend from Adam and Eve, that we both bear the divine image, and that not only has he done of good job of hiding that image, but so have I.

Conversion is what we seek — my own conversion, first of all, which in turn might help the process of conversion go further in others. It’s a lifelong process. We never are fully converted. Personally, I expect to be hard at work on my conversion as I take my last breath.

At the heart of conversion is prayer. Similarly, at the heart of my relationship with the other is prayer. Christ does not simply say that we must love our enemies but that we must pray for them. In fact it is only prayer that makes love of enemies possible. If I refuse to pray for someone, it is absurd to speak of loving him. But the moment I start praying for another human being, praying against the grain of my own enmity, the relationship between us changes.

A simple example. We live in a society in which, for many people, the unborn child has become an enemy, an enemy in the sense of being regarded as a threat. The unplanned other derails my ideas about the future and thus becomes the enemy of all that I was planning. That enmity is now socially endorsed. It’s now perfectly acceptable to kill the child so long he or she hasn’t yet been born. But if I as a mother, even though in a state of dread about what the birth of this child might mean in my life, the plans I might have to delay or abandon, start to pray for this unborn stranger, this other who is within my own body, our relationship instantly changes. The more I pray for this intimate other, the less likely it is that I can even think about arranging its death. It is finally prayer that saves the child’s life. Prayer is a bonding with the other. Prayer brings about conversion. Prayer often prevents killing.

Consider a group of people standing near an abortion clinic whose presence is first of all a prayer and whose actions and verbal expressions communicate their prayer and compare this with a group of people standing near an abortion clinic who radiating anger, hatred, self-righteousness and contempt. There is an entirely different energy in prayer, something analogous to sunlight.

Prayer alone is often not enough, but I cannot think of a situation of fear, division or conflict in which prayer is of no value or a waste of time. Prayer can change the climate of what we do in an intangible but decisive, life-changing way.

Think back to September 11 and consider all the prayer that occurred on doomed flight 93. Thanks to passenger resistance, a plane that might have destroyed the White House or some other public building instead made a crater near Shanksville in rural Pennsylvania. Lives were lost but many lives were also saved. It was all done in a burst of courage sustained by prayer. Hardly a person who had any contact with that flight — as we know from the various conversations by mobile phone — has not mentioned the intense prayer going both on board the plane and among people on the ground following its progress and aware it had been hijacked.

In all the situations I described at the beginning of this talk, there is not one in which prayer would not help us respond in unanticipated ways, with greater wisdom and with less fear.

Think about the beggar I described. When you meet him, as surely you will, pray that such an able-bodied young man might want to work and succeed in finding a job, overcoming whatever problems there are in his life which have made him into a beggar. You might even find yourself talking to him. Who knows what might come from a few caring words that have their roots in prayer?

In the United States, we are also going to be faced again and again with the issue of people condemned to death after having been found guilt of murder. Sometimes their convictions will be a tragic error but in others cases they are guilty as charged. The one action we can engage in which will help everyone involved is to pray for them. Pray for those on death row. Pray for those harmed by them. Pray for those whose lives have been scarred by their violence. Pray for those who guard them. Pray for those who defend them in court and also for those who prosecute them. Pray for those seeking to prevent their execution. Pray for those who want the execution to go forward. Pray for those possessed by a spirit of vengeance. Pray for the governor who has to decide what to do when he alone can block an execution. Involve your parish in your prayers. Out of such prayers it’s likely that ideas for certain actions may emerge — actions more likely to achieve some good if they are rooted in prayer. A different kind of communication and activity happens if it has a foundation of prayer.

The very fact of seeing the other as icon draws us to prayer. The fact of linking ourselves to another person through prayer makes it more and more possible to perceive the divine image in him and, at the same time, for the divine image to become less hidden in his life.

Never forget that our salvation is linked to the other. There is no path to heaven except through others. This is the mystery of marriage. This is also what Christ tells us so clearly when he speaks of the Last Judgment: what we do the least person, we do to him; what we fail to do to the least person, we fail to do to him. In the icon of the angelic figures who represent the Holy Trinity, each figure contemplates the other. It is an icon of perfect listening, an icon of seamless communion. The Holy Trinity is communion that both safeguards and transcends otherness. To regain likeness to God is to regain communion with the other.

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