Audio length: 10:43 minutes
Transcript published: October 19, 2011
If we want to know what our humanity is like and can truly become we need to look at that perfect Undistorted Image which is Christ. Looking at him we shall not descend into destructive narcissism but rather ascend, utterly transformed and beautified by the Holy Spirit, to the Father.
What we see in the mirror can either kill or cure as. Let me explain. Do you know the story of the Greek god Narcissus? He was so beautiful and arrogant that the god of judgement, Nemesis led him to a pool where he fell in love with his own reflection in the still waters. There he died locked into the image by his own passions. In some versions of the story he committed suicide.
The deadly aspect of the narcissistic image is to be found in human art and literature in many different cultures across centuries if not millennia. Most notably in recent times we have Oscar Wilde’s only published novel: - “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Here, the antihero sells his soul to the devil to remain forever young while his painted image ages and corrupts before his very eyes, as in fact he then does morally through a life of pleasure seeking and debauchery. This infatuation with oneself can lead to all sorts of dangerous psychological disorders. There is for example the well-known polar opposite of narcissism that leads to such eating disorders as anorexia and bulimia. Here, the sufferer, rather than falling in love with his or her own image, despises it because it does not conform to a supposed ideal. The unrealistic body images this society presses upon our consciousness undoubtedly contribute to this self-hatred. It is as if a whole culture has lost itself in a fairground of distorting mirrors, some images flattering, some grotesque. With these temptations in mind little wonder that a monk is not allowed to have a mirror in his cell! How then can we see ourselves as we truly are and not just at the fleshly level?
Today we celebrate the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council who in 787 A.D. ordered that the holy icons representing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, his Blessed Mother and the saints should continue to be venerated in all the churches as they had been from the beginning. This Council had been convened to settle once and for all the dispute with the iconoclasts who had sought to destroy or remove the holy images from Christian places of worship.
The Council fathers made it clear that this was not an order in violation of the second commandment but rather a recognition that the Incarnation of Christ in the flesh had sanctified humanity and indeed the whole Cosmos. The physical image now could and should represent the glory of God in his Son and in all the saints. Here in the icon we have the true and undistorted image of our humanity, first and foremost in Christ who, as St Paul teaches, is the icon or “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
This is true, however, not only for our Lord but also for each one of us whose likeness to this Christ-Image is being restored by the Holy Spirit IF we work with God to that end. If we want to know what our humanity is like and can truly become we need to look at that perfect Undistorted Image which is Christ. Looking at him we shall not descend into destructive narcissism but rather ascend, utterly transformed and beautified by the Holy Spirit to the Father. The way to achieving this is repentance, the narrow way of the cross that leads to the fullness of His Risen Life, the Way of Love. As St. Paul says in his first letter to the Church at Corinth, Chapter 13, verse 12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Contemplation of Christ in our humanity, however, is not the whole story. Narcissism is evil because it directs attention to oneself. True worship of the Undistorted Image directs our attention to others. As surely as we venerate the images of God in our churches so must we also venerate the images of God in our brothers and sisters; indeed in ALL humans who, as Genesis insists, are made “in the image and likeness of God.” (Genesis 1:26). Here in others we serve Christ. Here we find ourselves and everyone beautified through sacrificial self-giving love. The Russian novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev wrote of this in his prose poem: “Christ.” I never cease to recite this because for me it expresses the essence of Orthodoxy’s veneration of the image of God in our shared humanity.
CHRIST by Ivan Turgenev (December 1878)
I saw myself, in dream, a youth, almost a boy, in a low-pitched wooden church. The slim wax candles gleamed, spots of red, before the old pictures of the saints.
A ring of coloured light encircled each tiny flame. Dark and dim it was in the church… But there stood before me many people. All fair-haired, peasant heads. From time to time they began swaying, falling, rising again, like the ripe ears of wheat, when the wind of summer passes in slow undulation over them.
All at once some man came up from behind and stood beside me.
I did not turn towards him; but at once I felt that this man was Christ.
Emotion, curiosity, awe overmastered me suddenly. I made an effort… and looked at my neighbour.
A face like every one’s, a face like all men’s faces. The eyes looked a little upwards, quietly and intently. The lips closed, but not compressed; the upper lip, as it were, resting on the lower; a small beard parted in two. The hands folded and still. And the clothes on him like every one’s.
‘What sort of Christ is this?’ I thought. ‘Such an ordinary, ordinary man! It cannot be!’
I turned away. But I had hardly turned my eyes away from this ordinary man when I felt again that it really was none other than Christ standing beside me.
Again I made an effort over myself… And again the same face, like all men’s faces, the same everyday though unknown features.
And suddenly my heart sank, and I came to myself. Only then I realised that just such a face—a face like all men’s faces—is the face of Christ.