The Universe as Symbols and Signs

by Andrea Elizabeth

“We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2. Cor. 4:18)

7. It is clear from this that whoever reads the natural without knowing the spiritual content and significance of what he has read, reads death, sees death, appropriates death. Also, whoever considers visible nature as the only reality and not as a riddle in the mirror of the spirit, does not know more than the child who may recognize letters but is far from understanding written words. And again, whoever looks at a visible thing as at something absolutely real and eternal by itself, as the ancient Hellenic naturalists did, and their modern followers do, is certainly an analphabetic idol worshipper. He sees the letters but cannot guess their meaning. Spritual reality belongs to eternity while the symbols of that reality belong to time.” (The Universe as Symbols and Signs by Nikolai Velimirovich, p. 11)

The word, “symbol”, has a bit of a distancing feel to it. Indeed reading the first chapter of this book I keep wondering if St. Nikolai is being a little un-Incarnational. Material things can carry the spiritual, and indeed participate in it. But he has quotes from some pretty good people like St. Paul, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and St. Maximus the Confessor to back up his use of the word. It’s as if the physical universe is a utilitarian teaching aid. Trying to understand Orthodoxy from iconoclastic Protestantism, I have sought to find the significance of material objects. I guess “significance” is the right word because it has the root word “sign” in it. Creation should guide our eyes upwards to more. Saying material things are a sign doesn’t mean they are unnecessary though. To say they disappear once true meaning is found makes me a little sad. Maybe that shows my idolatry.