Seeing Christ: The Transfiguration of the Eye

“The following passages taken from the writings of Symeon the New Theologian  … illustrate the insufficient nature of the natural eye. The texts … offer an extremely rare example of Symeon discussing an actual use of an icon in his spiritual life. The topic of the Discourse is thanksgiving for the gift of illumination. In the tenth section Symeon prepares his listeners for the encounter with an icon by first offering thanks to God for a vision of him:

‘When a blind man gradually recovers his sight and notices the features of a man and bit by bit ascertains what he is, it is not the features that are transformed or altered into the visible. Rather, as the vision of that man’s eyes becomes clearer, it sees the features as they are. It is as though they wholly imprint themselves on his vision and penetrate through it, impressing and engraving themselves, as on a tablet, on the mind and the memory of the soul. You Yourself became visible in the same manner when You had completely cleaned my mind by the clear light of the Holy Ghost. Thence seeing more clearly and distinctly, You seemed to come forth and shine more brightly, and allowed me to see the features of Your shapeless shape.’

Here Symeon proposes that human eyes require divine intervention in order to see more fully. It is they, rather than the object of their vision, that require alteration. Having set up this transformational model, Symeon then introduces an encounter with an icon of the Theotokos:

‘Having said these things You became silent and little by little, 0 sweet and good Lord, You were hidden from my eyes; whether I became distant from You or You departed from me, I know not. I returned once more wholly into myself and entered into my former dwelling, whence I had thought to have left. When I recalled the beauty of Your glory and of Your words, as I walked about, sat down, ate, drank, and prayed, I wept and lived in an indescribable joy, having known You, the Maker of all things. How could I have failed to rejoice?

But I again fell into sorrow and so desiring to see You again, I went off to embrace the spotless icon of the one who bore You and having bowed down before it, You became visible to me within my wretched heart before I could stand up, as if You had transformed it into light, and then I knew that I knowingly have You within me. Therefore from then onwards I loved You, not by recollection of You and that which surrounds You, nor for the memory of such things, but I in very truth believed that I had You, Substantial Love, within me. For You, 0 God, are love indeed.’ (Catecheses, 350-52; Discourses, 375-76)

It is striking that Symeon plays with a very visual sense of the absence or presence of the divine. In seeking to recover the presence of the divine, he addresses worship to an icon, but, notably, it is not the subject of the icon, the Theotokos, who becomes present to him. Rather, it is Christ who appears in his heart. This presents us with a distinction between sight, vision, and object and a seeming disregard for the icon itself. It is an account that underlines that Symeon was seeking to surpass the human in order to receive a vision that was impressed within his body rather than that passed through his eyes.”   (Derek Krueger, Byzantine Christianity: People’s History of Christianity, Kindle Location 1890-1910)

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