How do we venerate the image of God in one another? And what does it signify when we abuse one another?
As Orthodox, we all have the experience of venerating icons. Speaking for myself, I know that my experience varies… sometimes I fail to give it my full attention, being self-conscious in front of others waiting behind me; or rushing on to the next thing; or sometimes feeling too much shame and not wanting to be opened up in front of this window on eternity.
But essentially, when I stand before a holy icon, an icon set apart for veneration, I am faced with an opportunity to glorify God in his Creation and express my adoration of him with my whole self: body, mind and spirit.
So knowing what veneration of a holy image is, what do I make of pornography? A pornographic image is an anti-icon, as I’ve said before, and the porn user is engaged in an act that is a mockery of veneration: showing desire for the image of God but in an act that is an abuse of God’s Creation — an abuse of the image of God.
To venerate means to show reverence to; it’s about submission, about humbling oneself, about making oneself vulnerable — bowing is an action of submission and vulnerability (looking down and exposing one’s neck) — it means to make obeisance before something or someone that is highly valued and highly respected. And kissing, of course, is a sign of relationship, of greeting, and of love.
So a porn user in front of porn reflects some of this in pale or distorted ways: there is an element of submission, especially to the habitual user or addict whose ability to break free is limited; there is a parody of humility in the exposure and in the opening of one’s vulnerability in front of an inanimate object; and there is certainly a greater or lesser degree of value assigned to the porn — even if there is not respect — and an element of lust, which is a parody or an anti-icon of love.
In fact we can say that these are both forms of veneration… one holy, and the other blasphemous.
So we have different ways of standing in front of an image… we can venerate; we can be indifferent; we can abuse… we can lust, we can destroy… we can love, we can hate. Every one of these moments is a moment in eternity, and the effect my own feelings and actions have upon me can be as great as the effect of the image itself.
The fathers tell us what we already know ourselves from experience… that the veneration we give to the icon passes to the archetype… that is to the person portrayed in the icon. When I venerate an icon, say, of St Mary of Egypt, the veneration I give to the icon passes to the saint herself. And yet it is not this that distinguishes a holy icon from any other image. For example, if I kiss the photograph of one I love, it is an expression of my love for the person portrayed in the photograph, not for the photograph itself. My love is directed towards the person — it’s not that I don’t love the image; I do, but I love the image because it is an image of that person.
However, there is a popular use of the word icon which is one step removed from this pattern of veneration and love passing from image to archetype. People speak of sports personalities and screen personalities as icons. But of what are they icons? Fans will keep pictures of these so-called “icons” and may even treat them with reverence and in some cases even kiss them.
But there are some important ways in which this process differs from that of the holy icon or the photograph of a loved one. First, these images are often manipulated… they are professionally made photographs, designed to create a particular impression of the person portrayed. Furthermore, there is no real relationship between the one looking at the image and the person portrayed in it. And not only that, but the reason the fan has for what is even popularly called “idolizing” the person portrayed in the image is likely to have more to do with fantasy than with reality.
And taking a step further, we arrive at pornography proper. It is an anti-icon because it takes all of these aspects of the meaning and significance of the image and perverts them, as evil always takes what is good and twists it. Having no reality of its own, everything evil is just a perversion of something good, and one reason why evil can be alluring is precisely because it still always reflects something of the good character of its origin in a thing that God created and that was good.
So pornography is an anti-icon first because it breaks the link between the image and the archetype and replaces it with a link between image and fantasy. The porn actor or actress portrays a fantasy, and the porn user overlays that fantasy with a matching fantasy of his or her own. The image which should be made according to God’s creative pattern to be a true icon of its real archetype becomes the degraded image of a perverse and non-existent fantasy, of unreality, of nothingness.
It objectifies the person portrayed because it manipulates and deflects attention from the true person, the real person created by God in his image, and creates of that person’s flesh an object for the viewer’s use and satisfaction. It denies the true personhood, both of the person portrayed and the person viewing, and it precludes the possibility of real relationship. True veneration is impossible, as there is no longer any possibility of love or respect passing to the archetype (the person) and through that archetype, to the ultimate archetype, God himself, in whose image the person is made.
And more extreme even than this, there is some pornography which is explicitly demonic, which abuses the link between image and archetype to explicitly and deliberately lead the user to connect to the demonic world.
So all these things are images: holy icons, photos of loved ones, published pictures of celebrities, pornographic pictures or videos — but the holy icon defines for us what an image should be, and teaches us how we should approach all images: with attention to the archetype and with respect, love and gratitude for what was created by God and reflects something of his life.
Now I said a few moments ago that it was not this link between image and archetype that distinguishes the holy icons from other images. So what is special about icons? Why are they different from other images? The divide between this fallen world and the perfect world of which this one is a shadow — this divide thins to the lightest veil here… but why here?
This is an important point. Some people have written to me concerned that it is inappropriate to talk about iconography and pornography in the same discussion because to do so — to make any comparisons at all between them — is to degrade the holy icons to the level of pornography.
Of course I disagree… I think that to juxtapose these things together is to cast the light of one on to the darkness of the other, thus making not only the parallels but more particularly the difference clear. Just as in the incarnation, God came as perfect man to walk among imperfect, defiled, and degraded men… one man among other men, and yet a man shining with the light of perfection, the perfect human being, the perfect image of the Father, in perfect union with him… a man, but not just another man, God himself.
So yes, it is important to acknowledge that iconography and pornography are both the creation and use of images, and very commonly both present to us images of created men and women. But the difference between the light that shines from the one, illuminating the truth and glory of our true and perfected human nature, and the darkness that spreads out from the other, to engulf everything that is good in our human nature and pervert it… that difference is everything.
In the same way we look at the Holy Bible. It’s a collection of books, just as a set of mystery stories, or a set of encyclopaedias, or a set of pornographic novels are all sets of books. But the one is holy… that is, it is set apart, dedicated to God — more than just writing about God, it communicates and reveals God to us; it participates in what it portrays. Similarly, the holy icons are images set apart and dedicated wholly to God, communicating him and participating in what they portray.
And pornography, I believe, requires us to discuss both, because what is portrayed in pornography are people, and those people are made in the image of God… that is they are made, as we are all made, to be a holy icon, bearing and showing forth the image of God. And no matter how badly that image has been defaced and degraded, while the person still lives, the image is not yet completely destroyed… it remains there to be venerated.
So if I am faced with pornography, and have been purified to illumination, what I should see there is a defaced and degraded image of God… but I should still be able to make out amidst the grime the true image of God, and I should venerate that image of God in that person, rather than giving my attention to the grime, and giving in to my baser desires to abuse the image by objectifying the person.
There’s a story of a group of monks walking along a road when they see a provocatively-dressed woman riding past. Most of the monks avert their eyes, but after she has passed, they notice that one of their number has been looking on and is still gazing at her as she disappears into the distance. They berate him and wonder that he looked at this sight rather than averting his eyes as they had, but he asks them how it would have been possible to look away when such a wonder of the beauty of God’s creation was put before their eyes to feast on and give thanks to God for.
Most of us may not be holy enough to act as that monk did; most of us may need to avert our eyes… but we must be aware that this is because of our passions, and that if we could be purified and illumined as the one monk in the story, we could properly venerate the image of God in any other human person without its inflaming our passions.
This monk looked upon the beautiful woman and in her beauty, he saw God: the veneration he directed to the icon passed to the archetype.
Yes, without the fullness of purification and illumination, I must avert my eyes, because what I pay to the image — veneration or abuse — has a real impact on relationship, either building up communion or destroying it. Just as the veneration of an icon passes to its archetype, that link can be used in the opposite way… for example in black magic, curses are put on people using an image or an effigy to inflict hurt on the archetype in a kind of anti-veneration.
Similarly, when I look on another person for my lustful purpose, I direct my evil thoughts outside myself and connect them with another. Since every person is an icon of Christ, this means that the man, woman, or child I see in a pornographic image is an icon of Christ. To direct lust to this person is to direct it to Christ himself.
Can we image being so desensitized that in seeing an icon of Christ we experience him as an object for lust? Isn’t this what happened also to the men of Sodom? Two angels… two of the three angels of the “Old Testament Trinity” icon — we may assume that we are talking here of the icons of the Son and the Spirit — went to Sodom and the men of Sodom saw them as desirable objects for sexual conquest. The response of the angels was to strike the men blind… that is, to show physically (symbolically and iconically) the blindness that the men were exhibiting in seeing Christ and the Holy Spirit as objects of sexual lust. This kind of blindness was later described by St Paul in Romans 1 as the “darkening of the heart” that prevents us from seeing the invisible things of God iconically in his Creation.
Veneration, in contrast, connects us to the eschatological truth of the person rather than the sinful immediacy. To venerate the image of God in each person is not to venerate the fleshly shadow (the fallenness, brokenness and sin) just as in venerating the icon the purpose is not to bow down to wood and paint. No, when we venerate an icon, it is to us a window on the archetype: through the icon we can gaze into the face of the saint portrayed as he or she gazes into us.
So likewise, venerating the image of God in any human person is to look upon the fullness of the glorified, ultimate truth of that person as he or she was created to be by God, and to look into the eyes of Christ. Bowing down to an icon is bowing to the glorified saint, which is also, in fact, bowing to the one in whose image that saint is made. Likewise we naturally venerate and bow to those who gain our love and respect — saints, elders, great spiritual fathers — as they reveal to us powerfully something of the likeness of God. The more perfect the likeness of the image, the more clearly we can see… but that same image itself is present in every human person.
In venerating my neighbour or any human person as an icon of Christ, I’m not pretending that the imperfections are not there, just as I do not pretend the wood and paint are not there in the icon. I know they are there, but I also know that they are not what defines the icon, but rather the ultimate truth is in the archetype — the deeper reality beyond the image. WIth a person, that deeper reality is the eschatological truth of the person; the person as he or she was created to be by God; the person I would meet in the Kingdom and would love for all eternity.
To know that there is so much more beyond the field of my vision… that’s part of what veneration is about — and that may help us to avoid abusing the image of God in pornography and in everyday relationships.
To venerate the image of God in another person is to be able to dimly perceive the beautiful fullness of who the person was created to be rather than seeing the person through my usual unthinking assumptions which may have no ground in reality (those assumptions that cause me to see the person in the light of a fantasy rather than the light of reality)…
Veneration perceives with love (that’s not rose-coloured glasses, by the way, not pretending that the wood and paint are not there)… Veneration perceives with love, as love is the only way truly to know. (I mentioned last time St Nikolai Velimirovich’s comment that “love is the method of comprehension”.) And love is also a barometer of how much we are seeing the person as an icon rather than as a mask based on our own subconscious fantasies about the person and his or her life.
So as we look on the icon of Christ that is every person we meet and every person we see portrayed in photograph, digital image or video, let us cry as we claim on the Sunday of Orthodoxy to cry when we venerate any icon: “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord!”