Symbol / Devil

One of the most distinguishing
characteristics of the Orthodox Church is the
nuanced (some might say “eastern” or “Greek”)
understanding of “symbol” as something
transcendant — going far beyond mere
externals or the recesses of one’s brain. The
concept of “symbol” for most people in the
west today is (in the words of the late Fr
Alexander Schmemann): “a simple illustration whose purpose can be
termed pedagogic or educational.” In other words, a symbol merely
points to or teaches about an idea or concept, but offers no real or
“substantial” (transcendant) connection to anything beyond itself. In
Orthodoxy, however, a symbol is a gateway or “window” to something
beyond itself; it is something that truly, experientially connects
someone, a specific person or persons, with the very thing signified.
I’m sure most of us have heard the phrase “windows to heaven”
applied to icons. And while many who live in the west today would be
uncomfortable with this implication, I believe that it is, if anything, too
soft, and definitely understated. It doesn’t really emphasize enough just
how vital the connection is between the “symbol” (or icon, Greek
eikon/eikon) and that which is symbolized. When I think of looking
through a “window,” it doesn’t bring to mind a real connection or
experience of what’s on the other side — it is simply a matter of
looking, or “looking-at:” observing without necessarily interacting or
responding. However, with icons (and other such “symbols”) the
connection-to and experience-of that which is depicted is real,
transcendent and even “transformative.”
What’s most intriguing (especially when examined in Greek) is
that the opposite of symbol [symbolos/symbolos] in Greek is the
word for “division” or “separation”— diabolos (diabolos): That’s
right — devil. Separation/dis-unity and “devil” are synonymous, both in
concept and in the personification of Satan and his fallen angels. One
can see this in a number of ways in sacred scripture, as well. For
example, the consequence (“wages) of sin is death, which is just
another way of saying “separation” or “division” from God, Who is Life.
When Christ promised the apostles that the Church would never be
prevailed against, He intimated that the enemy at the gates was “the
gates of Hades”— that is, the gates of death or the gates of
So why is all of this important? This understanding of
“symbol” touches on a number of things related to Orthodox
spirituality and theology, as a matter of fact. One might even
say it touches on everything, as it shapes the way an
Orthodox Christian should view and experience the world
around them.
Every Orthodox prayer service begins with the prayer to the Holy
Spirit: “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art
everywhere present and fillest all things.” If we worship a God Who is
(in some sense) “everywhere” and filling “all things,” we have a world-
view that is cognizant (or at least should be) of the immanence,
transcendence and presence of God — in His energies. The Logos (often
translated “Word” or “Reason” in English) is inter-penetrating and
within all of creation (the logos spermatikos, as the Stoics and St Justin
the Philosopher-Martyr posited) in some way, and therefore God’s
revelation is everywhere, if one only knows how to find it. And how this
relates to the Church, then, should be apparent in a number of ways.
First, the purpose of the Church can be simply stated as the place
where the Logos and/or energies of God are revealed in the here and
now (that is, prior to the fulfillment of the restoration of heaven and
earth, which has already begun in the resurrection of Christ). The word
for this experience is actually apocalypse [apocalypse — the “removal of
the veil” or “revelation” of eternity in this present age (if you don’t
immediately think of the temple and therefore the Garden of Eden and
the layout of an Orthodox Church here, you need to read the scriptures
more). Grace (the energies of God) is not something that the Church
“dispenses” to people as a created “thing” (as in the Latin west), but
rather is something that the Church (and Her Mysteries) reveals to us in
and through creation itself. The Eucharist is not some sort of “different” or
“super-natural” bread, wine and water, but rather TRUE bread, TRUE wine and
TRUE water. The same can be said for Baptism or holy chrism. These are not
“other” forms of creation, but creation revealed as it truly is — in eternity.
The Church is, therefore, more of a lamp-post and a beacon, or a guide to
The Way of true humanity (and a true and pure experience of this
present world as the world of eternity in Christ) rather than an
administration, a hierarchy or a place where created “Grace” is
dispensed like expensive candy. The Church shows us The Way (as the
first Christians put it) to restoration with God, rather than acting as
some sort of cold and fabricated “middle man” between mankind and
God’s goodness.
Secondly, if God is “everywhere present and fillest all things,”
then our attitude towards creation should be radically different from
those who see only appearances, substances and molecules. While
things like “sustainability” and the idea of protecting the environment
are often used as tools for corporate or government subsidies and
profit (or to simply keep the granola people off their doorstep), for
the Orthodox Christian it should go beyond slogans and vacuous
ideas. We treat creation (animals, plants, people) with care and
reverence not because we earn merit badges or get good publicity, but
because all of creation is inter-penetrated with the very energies of
God. To treat an animal kindly is not that far removed from showing
reverence for an icon or another person. No, I’m not saying people are
“animals,” but we are (along with them) certainly “of” the same Logos.
We shouldn’t find it altogether impossible to believe that the Eucharist
can bring us into contact with the very flesh and blood of God — but if
we do, it will be even stranger to realize that a rabbit or a tree could also
just as easily “communicate” the Grace of God to us (if we appropriate or
“see” them rightly). It just might not be as clear to the uninitiated or
hard of heart.
Finally, and drawing from that last point, we should see all of
creation as “windows to heaven”—not just icons or relics. There can be
no doubt that icons, the Cross, relics of Saints and other similar
“symbols” provide a greater, truer and more obvious connection with
eternity than is normally experienced by fallen humanity. However,
they could almost be posited as “crutches” that are useful primarily
because of the “already/not yet” tension we live in at these present
moments (along with our obvious struggles with both death and the
In this sense, then, the Church is the truest, “realest” image or
reminder of eternity that is just beyond our present reach (although
find ways to take one or two steps into that reality from time to time,
such as through the Liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist). Our
parishes, altars, Icon corners, holy water and relics become “hubs”
where the Divine and eternal is sort of “leaking into” the present age.
In fact, the hermits and ascetics among us (who are further along the
path to eternity than most of us) are such places in-and-of
themselves. This is, no doubt, why animals (and plants) react to them
differently (as part of the same creation) than they do to other
persons. Whether we’re talking about St Seraphim of Sarov and his
bear companion or the “green thumb” of monks, it is all one and the
same reaction to and revelation of the ultimate restoration of all
As Fr Thomas Hopko points out in his lectures on the Apocalypse,
Christ does not say that He comes “to make all new things” —— but to
“make all things new” that is, to renew creation with the restoration
and re-connection (the meaning of the phrase “religion”) of both
heaven and earth. We experience a foretaste of that in the Church
(and in Her Saints, Mysteries, etc.), but the fullness is yet to come.
Symbols are not, as a result, a mere “reminder” or indication of
something, but rather true and vital connections with the world
of the “age to come” —a world that is somehow already present
and surrounding us, inter-penetrating all of the created order,
with (as the Optina Elder Nektary liked to say) “doors and
windows opening both ways.” To fail to see the world in this
light and to refuse to believe in this manner is to be like the devil.