I’m not certain at what point modern Christians began to believe that spiritual and mental were the same thing. I know that it’s a commonplace to interpret John 4:24, that says, “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” to mean that outward actions and vocations are of no value, that only those things that take place in the mind are truly spiritual. The older English word “ghost” was often used to translate “pneuma” or “pnevma,” that is, “spirit” or “breath,” in the Greek, thus the English praised God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. That the word “ghost” now means a spook, the shade of a departed person, has made “Holy Ghost” fall out of favor. German still says “Heiliger Geist,” “Geistliche,” for spiritual. For years I fielded the terrified questions of young children who were confused by the older English usage, “Come, Holy Ghost.” It sounded scary.
Far more frightening, however, is the transformation of Christian doctrine and practice that has accompanied shifts in meaning and thought. I suspect that the anti-ritual rhetoric of the Reformation drove the false reading of John 4:24. The emptiness of many Reformation churches bears witness to the force of the verse. Stained glass disappeared in many places; plain white walls with at most the cross as an image expressed the iconoclasm of the new “spiritual” worship, meaning mental worship. The altar was de-emphasized, diminished, reduced to a table, usually under the imposing and central place of the pulpit: the word, spoken, written, or sung, became the spiritual sacrament of the community.
Of course, today the heirs of such iconoclasm have forgotten the earlier rhetoric. Walls are being decorated again with images, though mostly images drawn from mass media. Movement and rhythm are commonplace, as [is] the more hands-on materiality of Pentecostalism. Modern anti-ritualism feels better than its progenitor. I’m not noting these things in order to attack them. They’re the inherited forms of modern Christianity and are at home in the culture which they themselves helped create. As such, the thoughts and attitudes that belong to them are at home in the thoughts and attitudes of everyone, even among Catholics and Orthodox, who officially disagree with such modern sentiments.
As an Orthodox mission priest and a convert to Orthodoxy, I see these things in myself. I do the things that the Orthodox do, that is, those whose native culture was formed by an Orthodox mind and practice, but I know that I often don’t do them in the same way, not inwardly. I stand before an icon and pray, but I doubt seriously that I see what the average Russian in my congregation sees, or if I do, it’s only through great struggle and intentionality. American spiritual culture is inherently iconoclastic. We doubt that images are useful even after we have agreed that they are.
It’s not unusual for me to watch a young man or woman of Eastern background show up in church on a Sunday. They approach the icons like everyone else, but unlike the Americans they do not go about their business quite as quickly. Americans tend to cross themselves the required number of times and bow; we kiss the icon, perhaps light a candle, and then we move on. After all, there’s a line behind us, and things need to get done. The young Russian, for instance, reaches the icon and pauses. Sometimes for much longer than their American fellow congregants would like. He or she will cross themselves slowly, very deliberately, and will stand stock still before the image. It’s at that point that I begin to think, “What are they seeing?” More to the point: What am I missing?
One simple explanation is that Americans, or believers that have been shaped in our culture, see icons from the perspective of a two-storey universe, that is, that which is spiritual is in the head, not in the icon. The icon only serves as an object that makes me think, and the thinking is the thing. My young Russian example stand before an icon and pray before an icon, light an icon before an icon, as if the icon is what matters. The saint, Christ, the Theotokos is right there! How still would you stand if it were Christ himself before you? That’s how they stand.
I sometimes hear modern detractors, that is, modern iconoclasts, say that the images and ritual are distractions from spiritual things. Oddly, my experience is that almost all distractions are in my head, not in the room around me. Noisy children should be no more distracting than the blue of the sky, for both are entirely normal and natural. It’s my dark internal musings, my dark internal fears, anxieties, and never-ending obsessions that distract. I would to God that I could get out of my mind. And this lies at the very heart of traditional worship and devotional practice.
God gave man a mind, and he meant for him to use it, but using our mind and being caught up in an endless series of mental connections are not the same thing. There is nothing inherently spiritual about the mind. I’ll say that again: There is nothing inherently spiritual about the mind. And there is nothing that makes the mind at all superior to the body. And I’ll repeat that: There’s nothing that makes the mind at all superior to the body. Making the sign of the cross is just as spiritual as thinking about the Cross, and perhaps far more effective.
Modern thought, in one of its better moments, has begun to recognize that thought is best understood as kinesthetic: it has a combination of movement, of sensation, and idea. It’s the recognition that we are incarnate beings: we have bodies, we are enfleshed. Christ God did not become incarnate as an idea or a series of thoughts. We are told the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The means by which Christ descended to man is the same most appropriate means for man to ascend to Christ. In giving us the Eucharist, Christ did not say, “Take this and think about my Body. Take this and think about my Blood.” For many, the eating and drinking that are commanded have been replaced by a thinking that was never commanded. In the Church’s teaching, the Eucharist is Christ’s true Body and Blood, whether you think so or not.
By the same token, the icons make present what they represent. In the words of the Seventh Council: They are who they are, whether you think so or not. The physicality of the Church and all that is in it, including the physical presence and noise of the people gathered there, are truly sacramental. They’re not there to make us think; they are there to love, to cherish, to honor, to make God present, to be the least of these. Allowing ourselves to understand this will allow us to come to our senses and get out of our minds. Glory to God!