Restoration of the Human Icon: Divine Compassion and Human Trafficking

His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos Ware originally delivered this essay as a talk in June 2015 at a conference on Divine Compassion and Human Trafficking hosted by St. Catherine’s Vision. St. Catherine’s Vision launched an initiative on trafficking that year. You may listen to the full lecture at, or read more about the efforts of SCV on this topic on their website:

The phrase “Divine compassion” can be understood in two ways: vertically and horizontally. In the vertical sense, we think of the compassion of God coming down from heaven to us; in the
horizontal sense, we reflect on the way in which, empowered by God’s compassion, we are to show compassion towards one another. This article shall concentrate on the horizontal dimension, particularly through the theme of Divine compassion and the restoration of the human icon.

We begin with a passage from a 7th century writer, St. Isaac, the Syrian:

An elder was once asked, “What is a compassionate heart?” He replied, “It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation—for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for the demons, and for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them, such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart. As a result of his deep mercy, his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear about or look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation. This is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and obtain mercy. He even prays for the reptiles as a result of the great compassion which is poured out beyond measure after the likeness of God in his heart.

Notice how the compassion of which St. Isaac speaks is inclusive—all-embracing—and includes within its scope the whole of creation. First, it is a compassion for humanity in its entirety. Isaac is not selective; but he does not limit his vision only to human beings. Compassion extends to all of living creation; and, again, it is not selective. Yes, we are to love the attractive animals—the birds, the squirrels; but we are also to feel compassion for the less attractive animals—the reptiles, the scorpions, the mosquitoes. In the desert where St. Isaac was living, the reptiles were particularly offensive and venomous. “Even,” he says, “we are to feel compassion for the demons.” This is a rather surprising claim, and I would recommend, unless you are of the same spiritual stature as St. Isaac, that you not concern yourself too closely with the demonic world. It could be dangerous.

Notice also that St. Isaac says that the compassion that wells up within our thoughts is after the likeness of God. Human compassion is a direct reflection of what it is to be a person made in the image and likeness of God. Without compassion, I am not truly human; I am subhuman. Without compassion, I am not a man; but, to use a phrase employed by C.S. Lewis in his novel, Perelandra, I am an unman.

This raises the question: what is the connection between the human person in the icon of God and the quality of compassion? And to answer this, we need first to ask, “What do we mean by the image and likeness of God in this context?” Exploring this subject, at the outset, let us bear in mind we humans are a mystery to ourselves. Who am I? What am I? The answer is not at all obvious. The limits of human personhood are extremely wide-ranging: they reach out of space into infinity, out of time into eternity. As God is beyond our understanding, so also the human person in God’s image is beyond understanding. We Orthodox like to speak of apophatic theology, negative theology. But we need to counterbalance it by an apophatic anthropology.

Sometimes people ask me what is meant by these words, apophatic and the corresponding word, cataphatic. Well, apophatic is really just a rather grand word for negative; and cataphatic is a rather grand word for positive, or affirmative. I like to illustrate this from a little booklet I have at home called “Signs of the Times,” which was the result of a competition fostered some years ago by the Times newspaper of London. People were invited to send in photographs of enigmatic or paradoxical notices.
Two examples from that little book illustrate the meaning of apophatic and cataphatic. First, an apophatic notice from Australia: “This road does not lead either to Cairns or to Townville.” But it doesn’t say where it does lead. And here is a cataphatic notice: You have a railway line and there’s a box beside the railway line with a bell inside it. And the notice says, “If the bell is ringing, stop, look and listen; and do not cross the line. If the bell is not ringing, still stop, look, and listen, in case the bell is not working.” So there you have all possibilities allowed for you.

Now, you’ll notice from these examples that a negative statement may, in fact, convey a positive message. If you know the geography of the district, the statement that the road doesn’t lead to Cairns or Townsville may, in fact, give you some idea where it does lead. And that is exactly the nature of apophatic theology in our Orthodox tradition. Through our negations about God, we obtain a certain insight, a vision, of who God is beyond words, beyond language, beyond our imagination. Now, this mysterious apophatic quality of human personhood extends more particularly to our understanding of what is meant by “image and likeness.” One of the fathers, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, in the early 5th century wrote, “It cannot be denied that all humans are in the image of God, but we do not inquire too curiously how they are in the image.” And elsewhere he says tradition holds that every human is in the image of God, but it does not define precisely in what this image is to be located.

There is a story told about the great Victorian, Thomas Carlyle, who, on returning from church one Sunday morning, said to his mother, “I cannot think why they preach such long sermons! If I were a minister, I would go up into the pulpit and say no more than this: “Good people, you know what you should do; now, go and do it!” “Aye, Thomas,” said his mother, “And would you tell them how?” Exactly. Epiphanius would not have satisfied Carlyle’s mother because Epiphanius does not tell us how we are in God’s image. Can you and I do better?

I want to explore two senses of being in the image of God. It may mean, first, in the image of Christ. Secondly, it may mean in the image of the Trinity. Let’s look at those two senses. Yes, first, the image of God may mean Christ, the Son of God, the Logos, the Reason of God. As Christ is Logos, so we humans in God’s image are logikoi, endowed with reason, self-awareness, the power of organized thinking and of coherent speech. We reflect, we make decisions, we have a conscience, a sense of right and wrong; all of this is included in the Divine image.

I would like to note four particular implications of all this. First, the image of God denotes kingship. It says in the Genesis story of creation, Genesis 1:26, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” The word here for humankind is Adam, which means not man in the sense of male, but human being. Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the wild animals, and over all the earth.” To be in the image of God is to exercise dominion. But dominion here most certainly does not signify domination. It does not mean arbitrary tyranny. It does not mean ruthless exploitation. The dominion which we humans have is to be according to the image and likeness of God. In our treatment of the environment, we are to express the love, the compassion, the gentleness of God, Himself. The human being, then, living icon of the living God, is king of creation after the likeness of the Divine King of the Universe. Let us never forget this royal dignity that we humans possess.

There is a word in Martin Buber’s book, The Tales of the Hassidim, which often comes to mind. Rabbi Shalemo asked, “What is the worst thing that the evil one can achieve?” And he answered, “To make someone forget that he is the child of a king.” That is what the evil one is to bring to pass! To make us forget our dignity, our meaning, our value, as being in the image of God the King. This is illustrated in the ceremony of censing, the offering of incense, in our Orthodox worship. The celebrant censes first of all the holy table and the icons in the iconostasis. But then he censes the members of the congregation. And as he censes, he bows to us, and we bow back to him. In this ceremony of censing accompanied by the mutual inclination of respect, we are acknowledging that we are each in the image of God. The celebrant censes us and bows to us because he sees in us the image of God the Creator. So then, first we are kings and queens entrusted with dominion, with responsibility, for the world around us.
Second, the image signifies freedom. As God is free, so the human person in God’s image is free. God’s freedom is absolute and unrestricted; human freedom is relative, and limited by heredity, upbringing, and by outward circumstances. Yet, there is a genuine analogy between the two levels of freedom. In the words of St. Maximos the Confessor, “If the human being is created in the image of the loving and supra-essential Godhead, then since the Godhead is liberty, this signifies that the human being as God’s image is also liberty. Equally it is said in the Macarian homilies, “Heaven, sun, moon, and earth have no free will, but you are in the image and likeness of God. Because just as God is his own master and does whatever He wishes, so you, also, are your own master; and if you so choose, you can destroy yourself.” Reflecting on the Divine image, let us call to mind the words of Soren Kierkegaard. “The most tremendous thing granted to human beings is choice, freedom.”

If we want some examples of freedom according to the Divine image, we may look in the Old Testament at the figure of Abraham, an explorer, setting off from his home to the Promised Land going out into the unknown with no idea of what his final destination will be. Abraham is an example of courageous free choice! In the New Testament, we may think of the mother of God at the annunciation. God did not wish to become incarnate without the voluntary consent of the one who was chosen to be His mother. This was particularly emphasized by the 14th century Byzantine writer St. Nicholas Cabasilas. The angel at the annunciation waits for Mary’s freely given response. He waits for her to say, “Here am I. Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Be it unto me as you have said!” She could have said no. And if she had said no, then the history of the world would have been different. The Holy Virgin at the annunciation is not a passive instrument; she is called to play an active part. She is a creative participant in the event of the incarnation. As St. Irenaeus insists, Mary cooperates with the economy.

Freedom is a precious gift from God, but it also demands sacrifice; and it can even prove tragic. In the words of the Russian philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev, “I always knew that freedom gives birth to suffering, while the refusal to be free diminishes suffering.” Freedom is not easy, as its enemies and slanderers allege. Freedom is hard; it is a heavy burden. People often renounce freedom to ease their lot. This is illustrated in the parable that Dostoyevsky includes in his masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov, the story of the Grand Inquisitor. In that story, Christ returns to earth in 16th century Spain, and He begins to do exactly what He did in 1st century Palestine. He preaches the Good News to the people; He heals the sick; He blesses the children. The Grand Inquisitor watches with disapproval, and he sends out his guards to arrest Christ and put Him in prison. That evening, the Grand Inquisitor comes to see Christ, and he says, “Why have You returned? You came to make people free, but this freedom was too difficult for them—too painful—and we have taken away that freedom so that they may live their lives quietly without anxiety, without pressure. We have,” says the Grand Inquisitor, “corrected Your work.” But Christ doesn’t answer the lengthy accusations of the Grand Inquisitor. The story ends with the Grand Inquisitor’s breaking down because he can’t endure Christ’s silence any more, and he says to Him, “Go!” He opens the door of the prison, “Go! And don’t come back!” And all Christ does is to kiss him, and go on His way. The point of that story is clearly that freedom is difficult. And if you take freedom away from people, they may, in fact, live their lives with greater ease and less anxiety.

Freedom is, indeed, a heavy burden. But as soon as we renounce our freedom, as soon as we refuse the cross of choice and conflict, we reject the Divine image within us. We become less than human. We become unmen. Likewise, if we deny others their freedom, we dehumanize them. We cease to regard them as living persons in the image of God. It is precisely here that we discern the wickedness, the grievous and shocking sinfulness of all human trafficking, of all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse. We are treating human beings in such cases not as subjects endowed with freedom, but as commodities to be manipulated as we wish. We are treating them not as persons in the image of God, but as objects. We lose all reverence in this way for the Divine image, and so we lose all sense of relationship with the other. That is why human trafficking is so disgraceful! It is a denial of the value, the freedom, of the person—a denial of the image.

A third aspect of the image of God, the Logos, is creativity. “The human person,” says Athanasius, “is a creator after the image of God, the Creator.” We are, in the phrase of J.R.R. Tolkien, sub-creators. More specifically, the human animal is an animal that uses tools. We do not simply live in the world; but by virtue of our identity in the Divine image and likeness, we re-shape and alter the world. We endow it with new meaning. We give creation a voice; we render it articulate in praise of God. I reflected on this on one occasion when I was returning from France, and I suddenly recalled that I hadn’t bought a gift to give to my mother on my returning home. So I rushed into a village shop, and there I saw a bottle with a squirrel on the outside. And as I like squirrels, I thought I would buy this bottle. It was, in fact, a liqueur made from nuts. And I reflected, squirrels can do many things: they can plan for the future. They will assemble nuts, hide them away in special places for a winter supply. They will forget where they put their nuts, and they’ll quarrel with other squirrels about whose hoard of nuts this is. These are all very human qualities. But I reflected on one thing squirrels don’t do: they don’t make liqueurs of nuts!
That illustrates an important aspect of the Divine image. Being in the image of God, we are endowed with creative powers: we can transfigure creation to a new level. But also, because of our human powers, we can disfigure creation as well as transfigure it. We can poison the waters and pollute the air in a way that the animals don’t do. Yes, it’s true that the animals do, to a limited degree, change the world around them. Beavers build dams, bees construct honeycombs; but they don’t transform the environment to the extent and with the depth that we humans do by virtue of the Divine image. And this creativity in the Divine image is exercised on many levels: in scientific inquiry, in music, poetry, art; in, for example, the painting of icons. As St. Theodore the Studite says, “Because the human person is formed in the image and likeness of God there is something divine about the act of painting an icon.”

Metropolitan Kallistos with members of SCV

Metropolitan Kallistos with members of SCV

So far our reflections on the image of the Logos in the human person have explored kingship, freedom, and creativity. The fourth and final quality is even more important than these other three. Formed according to the image of God, endowed with self-awareness, endowed with God-awareness, consciously and by deliberate choice, we human beings are capable of offering the world back to God. The fourth quality is our ability to offer the world back to God in praise, doxology, and thanksgiving. In this thanksgiving, we become ourselves. The animals cannot do this. Curlews, cicadas, and frogs praise God in their own way, but not with conscious God-awareness.

As the living icon of the living God, the human being is priest of creation. Grateful offering is an essential characteristic of personhood. Here I’d like to quote from Dostoyevsky’s novel Notes from Underground. “Gentlemen, let us assume that man is not stupid. But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful, all the same. He is phenomenally ungrateful. I often think that the best definition of man is a creature that has two legs and no sense of gratitude.” The antihero in the Notes from Underground goes on to say “Man alone can utter curses. It is his privilege, and the thing that chiefly distinguishes him from the other animals.” Now, all of this is very true—true of fallen human beings, of human beings turned away from God. But in the case of human beings in the way that God originally intended them to be—of the human person redeemed in Christ—we are to reverse all that Dostoevsky’s character says. The best description of man, of the human being—his chief characteristic, that which makes him to be himself—is gratitude, thanksgiving. What distinguishes the human from the other animals, what constitutes his privilege as priest of creation, is the ability to bless God, to invoke God’s blessing on other persons and things. This grateful offering we express, above all, in the supreme act of human worship, the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy.

The human animal, it has been said, is an animal that laughs and weeps; that has a sense of humor and a sense of tragedy. Very true. But we need to go further. The human animal, it is said, is a logical, or political, animal. Yes, but go further, still. The human animal is a eucharistic animal—an animal that fulfills herself or himself in the act of free and grateful offering of the creation back to God. Note that in the Divine Liturgy, we offer to God not grains of wheat, but bread; not bunches of grapes, but wine. We offer back to God the fruits of the earth, but we do not offer them back in their natural state; we offer them back transformed by human hands. In our liturgical offering, we express our iconic nature as sub-creators: we express our creativity.

Thus far we have examined what it means to be a human being in the image of Christ, the Logos. Now, somewhat more briefly, let’s consider what it means to be a human being in the image of the Holy Trinity. And this will bring us back more specifically to the theme of compassion. The basic and primary meaning of our faith in the Trinitarian God is this: we Christians are not just monotheists, as are the Jewish people of the Old Testament; as are the followers of the prophet Mohammed, the Muslims; nor yet are we polytheists; but we discern in God both essential unity and true personal diversity. Our Christian God is not only personal, but inter-personal; not only a unity, but a union. God is love—not self-love, the love of one turned inward, exclusive; but the love of three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—loving one another, each turning towards the other, each dwelling in and for the other in a love that is not exclusive, but inclusive.

As the greatest living Orthodox theologian—Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamum—has said, “The being of God is relational being.” And he continues, “Without the concept of communion, it is scarcely possible to speak about God at all.” There is, within God, to use Martin Buber’s terminology, a threefold relationship of I and Thou: from all eternity, the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, says to the second, “Thou art My beloved Son.” From all eternity, the second Person replies to the first, “Abba, Father; Abba, Father.” And from all eternity, the third Person seals this loving interchange.

Being created in the Divine Trinitarian image, we humans are called to reproduce on earth this Divine interpersonal love. All that is affirmed of God as Trinity is to be affirmed, also, on another level of the human being in God’s Trinitarian image. God is love—not self-love, but mutual and shared love; so also is the human person. The being of God is relational being; so, also, is our human being. There is no true person unless there are at least two persons in communication with one another. Our human Trinitarian personhood is not egocentric, but exocentric. Our human nature is social, or it is nothing. This is the fundamental meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity for our human nature. I need others in order to be myself.

All of this makes clear the central value of compassion for any understanding of the human icon. Made in the image of God the Holy Trinity, in the image of love, it is only through compassion—through our ability to suffer with and for others in loving and generous companionship—that we become truly human. All of this is expressed visually in the icon of the Holy Trinity by St. Andrew Rublev. There, the Trinity is shown symbolically as the three angels who came to see Abraham under the oak of Mamre. And in the icon, the three angels are not sitting in a row gazing out into space; they are turned towards one another. And in their mutual interface, we, too, are somehow included. The three are engaged in dialogue. And what is the subject of their conversation? They are saying to each other, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” They are speaking of the act of self-emptying, of compassionate love, whereby Christ Jesus died in sacrifice upon the cross. Rublev’s Trinity, then, is supremely an icon of Divine compassion.

Plato once said, “The beginning of truth is to feel a sense of wonder.” Today, renew your sense of wonder before the beauty of our human personhood—our personhood that is created in the image of the Trinitarian God; our human personhood that is called to attain His Divine likeness through the exercise of compassion—compassion that is both costly and luminous; sacrificial, and yet intensely joyful.

St. Andrei Rublev’s Trinity

St. Andrei Rublev’s Trinity

In Communion Summer / 2019