Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Ancients: Of Nyssa, Damascus, and Studium


I love words. But when I pray (or try to) I can't seem to find the right ones. Lately the ancients have been helpful in this regard. Here's the fourth century's Gregory of Nyssa (again I'm quoting Robert Wilken):

"In a provocative passage in one of his most philosophical works, Gregory of Nyssa, somewhat to the reader's surprise, criticizes his opponent Eunomius for ignoring Christian practices and relying solely on theological ideas. It is foolish and idle, says Gregory, to think that Christian faith consists only in teachings [i.e. words]....
It also has to do with making the sign of the cross when one speaks the 'venerable names,' Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

Add to this the seventh century's John of Damascus, who said that "the prohibition of icons challenged the fundamental Christian belief in the Incarnation, that the God who is beyond time and space was made known through a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who was born of a woman and lived in a particular place and time in history."

And the ninth century's Theodore of Studium said "If merely mental contemplation had been sufficient, it would have been enough for him to come to us in a merely mental way."

These guys were saying that sometimes we need to just shut up and surrender to God in Christ. The Word made flesh was not only God's Word to us but is our true Word back.
Of course it is a fine line between using aids to prayer and worship and pure superstition. The trouble is that I think our words and songs have become far more deadly in-roads for idolatry than images and icons. When I look at a cross I know it holds no power in itself. Can today's evangelicals say the same thing about their song-styles and theological statements? Their bridge illustrations and altar-call prayers? Our words and music have no power, and neither do icons and crosses.

But they bring me to my knees like nothing can.

The power is in who they direct us to and what they speak of. God condescended to show Himself to us in Jesus Christ and to put the testimony of His redemption on ink and paper. But this is enlivened for us today through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Because the Holly Spirit speaks through things. Words are necessary for their specificity. But non-words are necessary for their non-specificity. God is not contained. But God is not unknowable. See the need for both?

I would not recommend icons and crosses in place of the Word and rightly understood worship. I'm a huge fan of theology. But the ancients have reminded me that sometimes words only get in the way and that a picture can be worth a thousand.

I hung a cross in our house and put three candles below it. And each morning I light the candles and submit to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The flame, and when I blow it out, the smoke, reminds me that the Spirit must enliven all I do and think. The cross reminds me that my communion with God is only in Christ's life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The whole thing is my submission to the Father and my thankfulness that I am His child. I'm thinking, giving, thanking, praying. But not in words. Its hard to explain, naturally.
A child can look up in wonder and know love without having to explain it away. The child should grow up and learn to make sense of it (a never-ending process), but must always remain a child in faith. We need to keep that wonder.

The ancients might have veered off into superstition and idolatry here and there. But the images hindered them far less than the words that slipped them into heresy. Both need both. Words and objects both speak of a God that came to us, and continues to do so today.

And if all these words are adding up to nothing, just look at the picture above and see what it says.

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