By John Sanidopoulos
There is a quote attributed to St. John of Damascus circulating around the internet that says:
"The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God."
One website says that it comes from his "Treatise", but other than that I have no idea where it came from. I assume this means his treatise on icons, otherwise known as his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Icons. However, the above quote I have not been able to locate in either this work or any other that has been translated into English, and I doubt it comes from one of his untranslated texts. In fact, I know it doesn't, because the quote is nonsensical and overly sentimental, and I can't imagine any Church Father making such an absurd statement.
In Scripture and the Church Fathers, the vision of the face of God is the goal of the Christian life. Salvation is achieved by a journey that culminates with the vision of God's face, which is a spiritual image, just as Moses desired to see God's glory, but was only allowed to see His backside and not His face. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote: "I believe that we are taught that the person desiring to see God can behold the desired One by always following Him. The contemplation of God's face is a never-ending journey toward Him accomplished by following right behind the Word." The Word is Christ, who was the incarnate God and could be seen and spoken to face to face as man, and He is the image of the Father. Painted icons can depict this face, but the spiritual face of God, which is an intimate encounter and communion with God through divine vision, can only be seen if we are purified of our sins and passions and illumined by the Holy Spirit.
Now what does this have to do with the whole earth being an image of the face of God? Nothing. That's why the quote is nonsense, and at most an overly sentimental feel good statement that sounds more profound than it really is. Basically, it sounds profound because it makes no sense.
As I was thinking where this distortion could come from, I was reminded of how the Apostle Paul and John of Damascus talk about being able to see certain attributes of God in Creation, which is different from the "face of God" described above. Here is the more exact quote of St. John from his Apologia:
"The fourth kind of image comprises the prefigurations and prototypes set forth by Scripture of invisible and immaterial things in bodily form; this happens for a clearer apprehension of God and the angels, because we are incapable of perceiving immaterial things unless clothed in similar material form, according to Dionysius the Areopagite, who was a man skilled in divine things. Anyone would say that our incapacity for reaching the contemplation of noetic things, and our need of familiar and related materials, both make it necessary that immaterial things should be clothed in form and shape. If, then, holy Scripture adapts itself to us in seeking to elevate us above sense, does it not make images of what it clothes in our own matter, and bring within our reach that which we desire but are unable to see? The spiritual writer, Gregory, says that the mind striving to banish corporeal images reduces itself to helplessness. But from the creation of the world the invisible things of God are made clear by the visible creation. We see images in created things, which remind us faintly of divine attributes. For instance, sun and light and brightness, the running waters of a perennial fountain, our own mind and language and spirit, the sweet fragrance of a flowering rose tree, are images of the Holy and Eternal Trinity."
From this I can see how someone unfamiliar with the deeper aspects of theology can distort it to mean "the whole earth is a living icon of the face of God", but St. John clearly does not say this. Rather, he says that there are certain things in creation which remind us of God's attributes, and as an example he gives a list of things that remind us of attributes of the the Holy Trinity (for example, the sun produces light and rays of brightness, just as the Father begets the Son who sends the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father). But such contemplation has nothing to do with the spiritual journey of seeking God's face. The best I can maybe say is that the whole earth is an image of God's Providence and care and artistry. At least this would make more sense.