I'm back in Texas heat, missing the roll whisper breeze that tumbles over the sea in St. Andrews. In midspring, I would leave my flat and walk the forest to town, 'neath a canopy of purple blossoms, take the second ally to the right, the third to the left, and eventually find myself on the beach as the sun lazily rose upon the water, a sea of crystal that taught me to see the line of the liturgy, world without end.
Once, I gathered stones from the shoreline and built an altar in the sand. I named it Beth-el, House of God, and worshiped there a time.
Do I know if it still stands?
I do not.
Do I know if I should be able to show you the spot, the place, the point?
I don't think so.
But I believe the stones remember, the sand too. I believe the tide coming in remembers, the sun, the wind. I believe the atmosphere of the realm remembers, remembers how it bent and fractures, perhaps however little. The moment when heaven ruptured into earth, because our God is a God who hears, our God is a God who has made habitation in this cosmos, on our planet, and we are, no matter where we are, in His house.
I believe in icons.
I believe in signs of glory.
I believe that God permeates the cosmos.
And I believe we are want to forget that. I believe we think it's easier that way.
The first cause is God.
This is what is known as the cosmological argument, that if we trace the events of being back far enough, the only answer we are left with is the Other. There is an origin of all things, and it is God.
Whatever flaws there are with the argument, and there are, it does have something to say to us about how we understand our world.
If the world is created by God and has its origin in God, then the world is inherently good.
A good God makes a good creation. A creation that is not static and apart from Him, but dances out, processes forth, and however far it may float away from its centre, it knows instinctually its rightful place in the middle, is winding its way out and back, is always connected to Source no matter if it turns away or turns back, living in shadow and light, in the gaze of the Eternal, even by the smallest thread of Light.
Some of the stream of thought from the Reformed tradition would quickly want to step in and make claims about the fall of the cosmos rendering it now evil and depraved.
I am too aware of the psalter, the epistles, and the prophets to be so swayed; those prophets who were caught up into the flow of the Spirit, as St. Peter writes.
And if we take care, we can weave the Scriptures together to see it, I think:
“For in Christ we live, and move, and have our being,”
“And he is before all things, and by him all things consist,”
“All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
and, “He has made every thing beautiful in its time: also he has put eternity in men’s hearts, so that no man can find out the work that God does from the beginning to the end.”
The creation is good. The creation is His.
What makes an icon? What makes an idol?
They are first and foremost created things. They are creature fashioned by Creator.
An idol is something prayed into. Believed into. It is a creature that is elevated to hold a response that rightfully belongs to the Creator.
But notice the language. The creature itself is not inherently bad, it is the way the creature is regarded that changes it.
An icon is prayed through. Believed through. It is a creature that is placed in the cosmic drama as a window by which we may glimpse the holy Centre.
Notice the language. The creature itself is not God, it is the means by which we glimpse an aspect of God we perhaps otherwise would have not seen.
If we believe this, and I do, then nothing is so secular that it cannot be sacred.
When the first missionaries came to that beach where I built the altar of the House of God, they encountered a people who worshiped the sun.
Did they call the sun an idol?
They said, "See, you have worshiped the sun, but your worship has stopped short. The sun shows you light, points to the Light. May we tell you of the One who is the Eternal Light? May we show you to whom all worship must bend back?"
The sun, once idol, becomes icon.
On the turn of a word.
But isn't that conversion? Do we not say that it is by the turn of a word, spoken or unspoken, that Christ is Lord? That this profession we call enough, ransoming, enthralling?
I am circling back to the first cause.
If the first cause is God, then the command to have no other gods before Him must be this: make icons of the idols. Wherever you go, as you go, turn the idols into icons.
I am an Anglican, or in the process of becoming one, because we are a people who take the point when it comes to signs.
Some time ago I sat in the office of my thesis advisor, talking about the Eucharist.
“I believe in the Real Presence,” I said simply, “But I have no idea what that means.”
It was a silly thing to say, perhaps. How do you believe what you do not understand? (Though I think there’s something of St. Paul’s reasoning in that.) But what I meant was that I had always taken the phrasing Real Presence to sound as true as anything else I had heard or read concerning the Eucharist. What that meant I wasn’t entirely clear on, what that meant I had spent the past three years trying to understand.
“It’s like a drama, Preston. Take a staging of Oedipus for instance. The actor playing Oedipus is standing off stage and someone in the cast announces, ‘Here comes Oedipus!’ and the actor comes out on stage. Is the actor really, in the sense of literally, Oedipus? No. But do we grant, do we believe, do we for the sake of what is unfolding say that in this moment, this actor is unto us Oedipus? We do. In this sense, we say that Oedipus is present to us, is really present.”
The line from Rite I clung to me: and be unto us His body and His blood.
Something from Handle’s Messiah: unto us a Child is given.
If the Eucharist is anything, it is an icon. An icon that ordinary things can become unto us the windows that reveal a reality infinitely other and infinitely beyond. Held by a single thread of Light. Back and back again, samsara. Our lives are circles.
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
I want to make you a sort of invitation, to leave theology behind for a day.
Impossible, I know, but hear me out. What I mean is that for a day I am inviting you to linger, to not ask for the sake of putting into a category, to not try and cram earth into heaven but heaven into earth. To put aside words like election and feminism and for a day to simply recognise the icon of the creation all around you.
Theology is not God, but we idolise it so.
Take a day of recovery, of reminding yourself that theology is icon, too. Words are icons, too. This good creation is one vast, dizzying icon.
For a day, be open to the miraculous ordinary.
For a day, be willing to see the icons all around you.
For a day, maybe repurpose some of your idols.
If the first cause is God, whatever you put in front of God that you cannot see God through has become an idol.
But do not take flame or sword to it. Not just yet. Perhaps it needs refining, pruning, but first take a moment to see if all it needs is polishing. Slow. Steady. A glass darkly eventually to see through.
I worry sometimes about making sense.
But then I worry more about making too much.
A Texas storm just rolled in and soon the street outside my parents' house wil spill with warm water into the ditches on either side and carry along the decayed wood across the neighbourhood, back into the forest.
And here, icon, too. Icon of us, walking into the current of the Spirit, ebbing back and forth, until we are carried, samsara, back to the Centre.
At least, that is how I am choosing to see it.
Icon or idol. Only the Spirit and I can know.
But I know this: this is the House of God.