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Praying with Icons

The icon is silent. No mouths are open nor are there any other physical details which imply sound. But an icon’s silence is not empty. The stillness and silence of the icon, in the home no less than church, create an area that constantly invites prayer. The deep and living silence which marks a good icon is nothing less than the silence of Christ. It is the very opposite of the icy stillness of the tomb. It is the silence of Mary’s contemplative heart, the silence of the transfiguration, the silence of the resurrection, the silence of the Incarnate Word.

— Jim Forest

I clearly remember the first time I visited an Orthodox Church. It was Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, DC, just up the road from my church (St. Alban’s Episcopal Church) and in the shadow of the massive Washington National Cathedral. Even just walking in the door, I realized I had stepped into a spiritual culture that seemed utterly foreign to my own white middle class American Protestantism. The church’s narthex (vestibule) was crowded with people lighting votive tapers and praying before a variety of icons. The flickering light created an almost hypnotizing ambience, and the varied colors and archaic imagery of the icons seemed to speak of a religious world utterly unlike my own. I was fascinated even though I could not see how this devotional celebration of beauty could fit in to my own rather austere and very much in-your-head liberal Christianity.

It wasn’t the first time I had seen icons, though. For a year or so prior to that visit to Saint Sophia’s, I had been a student of Christian meditation through the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, where in 1985-6 I took a sixth month course on personal spiritual development. During that course, I was introduced to the practice of praying with icons. It didn’t change my life or revolutionize my spiritual practice — at least, not the way that discovering silent prayer (also through Shalem) did. But I did find icons beautiful and attractive in their very strangeness (given my background). Thirty-five years later, my house is full of them.

I feel a little hesitant in writing this introduction to praying with icons, since I am not an Orthodox or even Eastern Rite Christian, and therefore my understanding of icons remains an outsider’s understanding. But I write from a place of appreciation, and with an awareness that anyone who is eager to explore the Christian contemplative and mystical life may find icons to be not only objects of spiritual beauty, but meaningful aids of prayer as well.

Perhaps this article should be called “One Way of Praying with Icons.” I cannot promise you that what I say in this article would be echoed by our Orthodox sisters and brothers. But, speaking as a contemplative Catholic, I hope that my appreciation of this ancient element of Christian culture and practice  can be helpful to Christians of all denominations, and that the thoughts and prayer suggestion I offer here can be helpful for what, in the end, is the only real purpose of any prayer or spiritual discipline: to draw closer to God.

So what is an icon? Wikipedia defines icons as “pictorial representations of Biblical scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, historical events in the life of the Church, and portraits of the saints. Icons are usually two-dimensional images and may be made of paint, mosaic, embroidery, weaving, carving, engraving, or other methods. A person who practices the art of iconography is called an iconographer.” Since iconography is primarily associated with Orthodox and Eastern Rite Churches, iconography also largely (but not entirely) represents such pictorial represenations as created in a distinctive style: a visual “language” with roots in ancient Church history. An icon of Christ doesn’t look like the blue-eyed Jesus of Protestant piety. Indeed, most icons of Christ are probably much more accurate in depicting him as the Semitic, Middle Eastern man he was.

Western image of “blue-eyed Jesus” contrasted with an Orthodox icon (The Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai, 6th century CE).

This is not to say that all icons are meticulous in their representation of Jesus or Mary as people from Palestine. But in general, many icons do provide a healthy corrective to the tendency to want to “see” Christ as looking like, well, yourself.

When I was introduced to icons at Shalem, we were invited to meet the gaze of the icon. Many icons present Christ, or Mary, or one or more of the saints, as gazing directly at the viewer. So the icon offers a visual way to “establish eye contact” with Jesus (0r whoever the subject may be). Considering that an icon, unlike secular art, is created as a doorway into prayer, this is perhaps the most important and useful function of an icon: to invite the viewer into the relational essence of prayer. In prayer, I seek to meet the living God, I seek to encounter the face of Christ. An icon facilitates this profoundly spiritual and yet deeply embodied practice.

Icons can usher us into prayer in many ways. Like stained glass windows or the old Celtic High Crosses, icons are valuable in that they provide a visual representation of the story of faith. You can find icons depicting pretty much every significant moment in the life of Christ, as well as similar pivotal moments in the life of Mary and the saints. Icons, in other words, are silent storytellers: they preserve the story of faith.

A church or room or house filled with icons has a sense of being filled with a “cloud of witnesses” — a visual representation of the entire community of faith. Even though the persons depicted in icons are almost always from the distant past (in an earthly sense), the icon proclaims that this person lives here and now, in the heart of God. So icons invite us to meet their subjects in the present presence of the living God.

Contemporary icon of the Transfiguration

Of course, we do not pray to icons, but we may pray through them, as it were. The icon functions as a tool for recollecting the mind and heart and settling in to the nearness of God (whether felt or unfelt). On the most basic level, icons help us to remember who we are, and to whom we pray. But in the sense of meeting the iconic gaze that I learned from Shalem, there is the deeper/more contemplative sense of actually meeting the divine presence through the material medium of the icon. Someone once described contemplative prayer as “I look at God, and God looks at me.” When I gaze into the eyes of Christ as presented in an icon, I am taking advantage of a beautiful, material aid to prayer that invites me into that very I-thou experience.

This, of course, leads to silent prayer practices like Centering Prayer. If you seek to enter into silence while praying with an icon, the icon can, itself, function as your “sacred word.” When distracting thoughts or images arise, you set them gently aside by returning your gaze (and your attention) to the iconic gaze. You meet the eyes of Christ, and you relax in to his gaze upon you. And in this, you settle ever more deeply into silence.

Icon of Christ by iconographer Victoria Luka Brennan.

To explore the spiritual discipline of praying with icons further, here are some books you might like to read:

Interested in becoming an iconographer — or at least, creating your own icons? Here are a few books to help you begin your journey.

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