The Life of Piety

Symbolism and Simplicity

  • In the Book of Exodus we read, "And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightenings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it, they removed and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die. And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that His fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not."
  • Herein, we behold the wisdom of God. He has established the economy of our salvation in terms of human understanding. From the very foundation of the world, His only will was to share His goodness and bring His creation to an eternal sharing and co-dwelling in His glory. Yet He knew our weakness and our inability to understand the Mysteries. This inability was again a sign of His goodness. Were man to have been created with all knowledge, He would have loved God by default. But the Lord wanted man to love Him by choice and so we were created with free will. But for this free will to be active, he must have impetus to search and make the choice to serve God.
  • It is for this reason that God chose to reveal Himself in sensual signs and wonders. Owing to our frail capabilities, He gave man every opportunity to behold the glory of God through nature, mysterious events and the works of the hands of man. Blessed Theophan the Recluse says that there is a correlation and symbolism between created nature and the spiritual nature. In his work "The Heavenly Protection of the Saints", he writes, "As the arrival of Spring brings the spirit of life to all the grasses, enlivening everything that has the ability to live, and clothes the earth with grasses, flowers and every sort of blossoming vegetation : so it was with the descent of the All-enlivening Spirit. of God. All who believed were filled with the Holy Spirit through the Divine Mysteries and began to live by the Spirit, ripening spiritually and bringing forth spiritual fruit." This great revelation, the revelation of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was the fulfillment of the preparation God built upon the foundation of His Divine Economy. That which had been shadowed was now revealed. Again that revelation was accompanied by great signs and wonders, calling man to God by visible and tangible symbols. There is no place in the Holy Scriptures, if we search both the Old and New Covenants, or all of sacred history and Tradition, that we will not find this manifestation of God's glory through outward signs. For as the Scripture says, "no man may see God and live". How rich and magnificent is that history of the People of God and how bountiful the expressions of God's condescension when He reveals Himself in the theophanies, seeking the salvation of mankind. Is it any wonder then, why we Orthodox Christians, possessing this great wealth, guard it with every ounce of our being, mourning inconsolably even the smallest loss?
  • When Moses had come down from the mountain, his face brilliant with the vision of God so that one could not even look upon him, he revealed the command of God to build a Tabernacle so that the Lord of All might dwell with men. Could it be that God required a tent in which to dwell? No, it again was the sign of God's good disposition toward the weakness of His creation. He commanded all sorts of vessels to be fashioned, all varieties of beautiful linen hangings, beaten gold and silver and fine oils and incenses compiled. He directed the sewing of magnificent vestment for the priests, instruments of music and liturgical acts of deep meaning and awesome spectacle. Every true believer was bound with ritual acts to incorporate into their daily lives and harsh penalties for transgressors. Each directive was meticulously detailed and weight given every command. We can hardly imagine the magnificence of the prayers and services as they were carried out in the wilderness and the beauty of God's presence. Certainly, nothing on earth had ever compared to that scene. It was evident to all that indeed, God had come to dwell among men when that mighty cloud filled the sanctuary and the noise of the voices of those countless throngs gave praise to God. The reality of the Lord and His closeness was undeniable through all the trappings of worship and the real evidences of God's presence. No heart doubted at that moment.
  • As we well know, the first iconographic images were also present in that Tabernacle in the form of the dread Cherubim overshadowing the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant. That which had not been seen by men was revealed by image and symbol. And it was so ordained by God so man might utilize his senses and come to the firm knowledge of the presence of God. We do not question the wisdom of God or why He chose to reveal Himself in these symbols, we only know that it was pleasing to Him and was commanded. In His ineffable wisdom, it must have been the surest means to seek our salvation. Regardless of our musings and wonderings, it has been established as a part of our human understanding of the Divine. Since we are unable to see the glory of God in it's reality, due to our sins, we have beheld Him as St. Paul says, "darkly, as in a mirror". In that life to come, the symbols will be lifted and the veil uncovered and we shall see with our eyes the reality of the Mystery. Until that day, we are united to God through sacred acts and symbolic gestures leading our spirits into closer and closer union.
  • There are those unfortunate who would dismiss the commands of God as external practices unnecessary for our salvation. They might quote the New Testament as though all that had gone before was somehow negated and that man approaches the Godhead with openness as either a peer, or at worst, a friend. The sanctity and majesty of the Mystery of God has vanished and man is left impoverished and naked. In their audacity, they, through humanistic falsehood, consider themselves deserving of Divine Revelation and find no need for trembling or reverence. This delusion is obvious to the Orthodox Christian and we need not dwell on that deception. However, we must be cautious that we likewise not fall into the same mentality. We must never lose sight that we are the slaves of God, awaiting His will. And if it has pleased Him to dwell with us mysteriously in symbols and fashions beyond our limited understanding, it must be well with our souls.
  • In contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the presence of those who have converted to the Faith from Western Confessions, we see an erosion taking place. The Faith once delivered to the saints has begun to take on a very Protestant outlook wherein God is a friend and an ally in times of need. Certainly this element has a certain place in some of the writings of the saints who attained unto a great spiritual height. However, it is a dangerous pitfall for those of us who are bound by passions and delusion about our own spiritual inadequacies. Many churches disdain the use of many icons, the Royal Doors or Curtains, lampadas and all what they consider unnecessary trappings or expressions of ethnicity. Minimalism has become the key to making Orthodoxy accessible to the masses. They seem to fear that a church illumined by the quiet flicker of candles and oil lamps and the walls covered with holy images and enveloped in a sense of mystery would be too foreign for Western tastes.
  • That is indeed unfortunate. For in all these externals, there is embodied the revelation of God to the heart. He reveals Himself in the simplicity of our child-like souls. How often we have seen small children enter our churches and notice the immediate sense of reverence and the acknowledgment of the Divine Presence in their little hearts. In their simplicity, they know that this other-worldly environment is something completely different from their everyday experiences. It is the presence of the Grace of God, highlighted by these symbols and external signs that touch the heart of every man.
  • One of the most visible and apparent signs or symbols of the Orthodox Faith is the icon. Much has been written from a theological or intellectual perspective about icons. Dozens of books are available presently on the subject from every major Orthodox publisher as well as secular firms. Most of these deal with artistic development or historic precedence. Let us rather, think on the more elemental matters of faith. From the time of the Apostles, the exemplary prototype of Christian piety was the Most Holy Mother of God. St. Dionysius the Areopogite, the first bishop of Athens, who was present at the burial of the Holy Virgin, wrote to his teacher, St. Paul,
  • "I bear witness before God, that, beside Himself, there is nothing in the Universe that bears His power or grace like Himself. No man among all men, can possibly perceive with his mind what I saw. I confess before God: when I was with John, who was working among the Apostles, as the sun is among the heavens, I was vouchsafed to stand before the Most Pure Virgin, and experienced an inexpressible feeling. Before me shone some sort of a divine brilliance. She looked into my soul. I experienced a fragrance of indescribable aroma and was filled with such trembling that my body was paralyzed, such that my spirit could not bear the wonder and the fundamentals of eternal blessedness and heavenly glory. Her grace exhausted my heart, exhausted my soul."
  • This was a living icon encountered by the saint. This, in the flesh was an expression of the presence of the grace of the Holy Spirit available to every man. And what else is an icon, but an encounter with an example and representation of holiness which presses us on to greater and greater glory? St. Ignatius the God-bearer of Antioch, who, according to Orthodox tradition, was the infant the Lord held in His arms when He said, "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child, shall not enter it.", wrote the following to St. John the Evangelist and Theologian:
  • "Many women here think only of visiting you in order to see the Mother of Jesus. Worthy people hold the belief that in Her, due to Her great holiness, human nature seems to be united to the angelic. And all these accounts have aroused in us an immeasurable desire to behold that heavenly wonder."
  • This encounter with holiness is not, however, simply barren adoration, but an acknowledgment of the great graces poured forth upon all men. It is in thanksgiving for the mercy of God that we show veneration to the Mother of God and to all the saints. The miraculous interventions of the saints is yet another symbol or tool that God has utilized in order to draw us ever closer.
  • St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ's-Sake, who witnessed the appearance of the Mother of God, holding Her protecting omophor in the Church at Blacherne, was once granted a vision of heaven. His angel guided him to the various places of rest and refreshment. He was shown all the mansions and dwellings of the righteous. He saw the saints in their heavenly abode, but he failed to see Her, Whom he desired the most. He asked his guide, the angel where he could see the Most Holy Mother of God. The angel answered, "She is not here, She has gone to the much-suffering world to help those in need and comfort the sorrowful."
  • With the Mother of God was fulfilled the prophecy read on Her feasts, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven." And is it any wonder, that after Her blessed repose, Christian faithful began to long for Her grace-filled presence. Is it any wonder that they did not seek to be close to Her in Her absence and ask the Divine Apostles for comfort. Is it any wonder that the Holy Evangelist Luke would not portray Her and offer the first icons as a comfort to the sorrowing and orphaned flock? And were not these miraculous images spread abroad to bring solace and a symbol of the real, spiritual presence of the Most Pure Virgin to those who had not been able to see Her in life. As the Lord said, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."
  • Here we begin the symbolism of the New Covenant. Here, we see that God has revealed Himself to man through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and established for all eternity the God-ordained traditions that enliven and enrich the Christian community. Now man has the ability to look upon the symbol of the Cross, the empty, yet Life-Bearing Tomb, to gaze into the eyes of the All-Merciful Savior, His Most Pure Mother and all His saints in whom He is glorified.
  • It is not of small consequence that during iconoclasm, the spiritual level of the faithful eroded. This heresy robbed the faithful of a sensual and ever-present awareness of God and His love. They were left without support and barren. Their human psychology had been mutilated and impoverished. The Church withered under these adverse circumstances. And yet, the Lord did not leave them, but raised up defenders of the Faith. And with the re-establishment of the holy icons, once again the Holy Church of Christ saw a flourishing of Faith and a Triumph of Orthodoxy. Once again, the Faith that establishes the Universe is proclaimed and once again, we enter into that Tabernacle, behold that cloud of grace, that cloud of saints and witnesses by whom we are surrounded as St. Paul describes.
  • That the practice of adorning the Temple of God with icons as well as our homes, vehicles, offices, business and so forth is pleasing to God, there can be no doubt. From the very earliest times, the presence of icons has been associated with grace filled events, miraculous intercession and great wonders.
  • In the face of the icon we encounter the divine. We behold, in as much as is possible in human terms, the transcendent glory that shone through the saints in their ascent toward unity with Christ. We, by beholding the sacred images reign in our thoughts from the allurements of this fallen world to that which is of the world to come. St. John of Damascus writes: "Often, doubtless, when we have not the Lord's passion in mind and see an image of Christ's crucifixion, His saving passion is brought back to remembrance, and we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged." When surrounded by the holy images how is it possible not to be reminded of the presence of the saints? Their mere appearance makes it more difficult to fall into an obvious sin. In f act, in Russia there was a practice even among the thieves or those doing illicit business to "carry out the saints" before practicing evil acts or betrayals.
  • Let us not think however, that icons are merely pedagogic instruments that covey a certain spiritual story. They are also holy by the grace God has bestowed. The mere presence of an icon is a fountain of grace. How many countless miracles have been worked by icons even in our own times? We are blessed in the Russian Church Abroad by the Protectress and Guide, the Mother of God of the Kursk Root Icon, on of the holiest treasures of Orthodoxy. And who cannot be brought to profound compunction by the Newly-Revealed Myrrh Streaming Icon of the Iveron Mother of God. How many cures have we all witnessed, how many awesome manifestations of grace have we seen with our own eyes.
  • In the life of St. Alypy, the Iconographer of the Kiev Caves, we recall a certain man who had terrible suffering from leprosy. After much pain and sorrow, he came to St. Alypy. The saint led him into his icon workshop and anointed the sores with the paints used to paint icons. He then led him to the Temple of God and he partook of the Divine Mysteries. He was washed with the water that is used by the priests to wash after the reception of the Holy Gifts and he was immediately cleansed and made whole. Here the Lord even used those elements that would comprise the holy icons.
  • Many times, as we serve the Vigil, perhaps with all too few worshippers, we look at the countless icons that adorn our churches and we are reminded of this presence and how real the words of St. Paul become. In the quiet light of the lampadas we see the reflection of the saints as they watch over us, protect us and our voices join with theirs as we proclaim the glory of God. In these moments of prayerful solitude, we are firm in the realization that the wholeness of the Christian Faith is summed up in this experience. We are one with the saints and with our Creator in a mysterious manner. This symbolic representation calls us to this oneness in a way that no human experience can.
  • This is the economy of our salvation; this is the presence of the Holy Spirit giving us to drink of that pure water of theology. This surrounding, or enveloping then, is a restatement of the appearance of the Mother of God to St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ's-Sake. Our sensual capabilities become aware of the actual presence of the saints and our entry into the Holy of Holies--the wisdom of God. This profound moment penetrates to the very depth of the soul. It awakens in us the desire and the zeal to struggle, to fight the good fight. And in this, we see the real purpose of God's revelation. In this we see the Hand of God working wonders for the sake of our salvation; this symbolism, leading us to the kingdom of heaven.
  • Again, from the life of St. Alypy, we know of the Prince, Vladimir Monomakh. He, after witnessing a great miracle of icons being saved from fire, commissioned St. Alypy to paint an icon for the feast of the Dormition. St. Alypy fell gravely ill. When Vladimir came to see the progress of the icon, he found that it had not been started. He was grieved that the icon would not be finished for the feast. St. Alypy assured him that the Lord would not leave him in grief. On the eve of the feast, the icon had not been painted due to the severe illness of St. Alypy. Vladimir was deep in sorrow and wept over his sins and unworthiness. Then, in the middle of the night, St. Alypy saw a brilliant young man painting the icon. He realized an Angel of the Lord has finished what he had been commissioned to paint. When Vladimir Monomakh arrived in church, there in its place stood the icon, brilliant and full of divine beauty. He gave thanks to God and bowed before the saint, asking forgiveness and offering gratitude for the icon. Then St. Alypy revealed that the icon had not been painted by the hands of man, and said, "But it was painted by the Angel who will receive my spirit into everlasting life." He gave up his spirit at that moment into the hands of the All-Merciful God.
  • And now we might well ask, how do we develop the desire and knowledge necessary to live a life amid these holy symbols. The root of all this comes from the presence of Holy Tradition in our lives. Let us here dispel a myth. We have many times heard someone speak of small "t" tradition and capital "T" tradition. Let us learn now that there is no such concept in Orthodox understanding. Our tradition is singular. It is Holy. There are no important traditions and unimportant traditions. Perhaps we might say there are certain practices or cultural expressions of piety that are not a part of Tradition, but to divide our Holy Tradition into qualitative categories is usually a method employed to denigrate and term "unnecessary" something with which we disagree or find difficult to fulfill. The term we use for this unsubstantiated expression of opinion is "ad hominem". In fact, at no place in historic treatises on the subject does one find such a concept of small "t" and capital "T" tradition.. It is a product of modernism within the last twenty years. It is during this period of time that some have taught this minimalistic approach to our Faith as was mentioned earlier.
  • The primary method for learning this richness of tradition and the beginning of living a life of piety is by being raised and steeped in a culture formed by the Orthodox spirit. We see in older communities the grandmothers teaching the young children and the children imitating the actions of their parents and friends. For many centuries this infusion of piety has been at work in Orthodox cultures. Every breath and every movement has the flavor of some ancient act of reverence. There is not a day that the society is not touched in a major way by the Church. In every family there are celebrations of name's days, in every village a parish feast, in every city numerous festal celebrations and public services. Even the merchants operate their stores according to the Church calendar and observe the fasts by the products they sold. The governments bless public buildings and hold prayer services for officials, asking the blessing of God on their social duties. The great impact of all these and countless other expressions of piety cannot be underestimated. If we should be so mad as to discount this piety as "ethnicity", then we rob ourselves of immeasurable wealth. What wise man, finding a treasure would not acquire it and make it his own? So here, the wise Orthodox Christian will garner all the best from Orthodox culture, taking unto himself the life of piety expressed therein. And having practiced this life of piety, through sacred acts and the fulfillment of tradition, will draw closer and closer to the acknowledgment of the presence of God in his life.
  • What a wonderful existence it is to arise with prayer on one's lips, venerating the Holy Icons, partaking of Holy Water and Prosphora, trimming the oil lamps in one's home, beginning every single action with the sign of the precious Cross of Christ, turning at every temptation to an icon and asking the Lord's strength, filling every waking moment with the remembrance of the Lord, His Most Pure Mother and His saints. It has been said of Orthodox clergy that when adorned in the appearance of a clergyman, it is difficult to sin. When a priest wears his riassa and walks down the street, he is constantly reminded by his dress that he is an image of the Church and any impropriety is a blemish on the Bride of Christ. This makes it much more difficult to be found in a position unworthy of God's minister. Likewise, when an Orthodox Christian signs himself with the Cross, in the presence of the Holy Icons, and surrounded by symbols of the Faith, we are reminded constantly of our high calling and the disgrace of committing a sin.
  • It is tempting to offer many references to the Fathers, the saints and other factual information concerning the life of piety. But the most useful for us is simply to discuss how to live a life of piety. And so here, we will begin to speak of things we can do in our everyday lives to make this spirit of piety a part of our nature.
  • The first and most important quality for a life of piety is complete obedience to God, His Church and our spiritual father. Too often, even we Orthodox Christians succumb to a worldly spirit of self expression and do not allow ourselves to be obedient, for after all, our spiritual father is a sinner like us and doesn't posses to right to order us around. Our obedience is not dependent upon the worthiness of the pastor, but it is an offering of our self-will to God. In humility we bow before holy obedience to our spiritual father, listening to his words as the voice of the Church. Is he always right? Perhaps not, but again, our obedience is not dependent upon his being correct in every situation. The desert fathers have said that obedience is superior to prayer. So let us begin by obediently living in harmony in our parish community.
  • Secondly, let us always be subject one to another, both as Christians and as family members. When wronged, we accept the blame and ask forgiveness even if the victim. This fulfills the law of Christ and brings humility. Against obedience and humility there are no weapons. The next time you find yourself in a confrontation, bow your head and ask forgiveness and accept the blame. You will be amazed how quickly the enemy of our salvation is pout to shame and how thoroughly peace establishes itself. With humility, there can be no continuation of hostility.
  • Armed with obedience and humility we move to our actions. We must, without fail, attend every single service offered in the House of God. Every parish serves the Vigil and Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feasts. Never, under any circumstance neglect these services. When there is a sorrow, ask for a Moleben. When there is a death or death anniversary, ask for a Pannikhida. By our constant attendance of services and presence in the House of God, we associate ourselves with the Angels that are always present. We acquire, through the beautiful hymnody a deep understanding of God's economy and revelation. This is impossible simply by reading or study. It must be acquired by action and participation. How sad it is to see a Christian who professes to have knowledge of their Faith, and yet rarely attend the services.
  • In seminary, a part of education is being assigned to the kliros and performing the services. This wisdom expresses the knowledge that it is primarily through the services that we begin to comprehend theological truth. It is by association with godliness that one becomes godly. For this reason, one must live in community with other like-minded Christians. This lifestyle is communal, a life of sharing in the goodness of God. Therefore, he who disdains the community life of prayer, robs himself of association with godliness.
  • Fr Alexis is the pastor of
  • Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church
  • , Alpharetta, Georgia. He may be reached at:

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