Praying with icons
Many of us were taught to close our eyes when we pray. Praying with icons is an ancient prayer practice that involves keeping our eyes wide open, taking into our heart what the image visually communicates. We focus not on what is seen in the icon, but rather on what is seen through it — the love of God expressed through God’s creatures.
This is prayer without words, with a focus on being in God’s presence rather than performing in God’s presence. It is a right-brain experience of touching and feeling what is holy — a divine mystery. Icons are not simply art; they are a way into contemplative prayer, and are therefore one way to let God speak to us. They are doorways into stillness, into closeness with God. If we sit with them long enough, we too can enter into the stillness, into the communion . And if we listen to them closely enough, with our hearts, we just may discern the voice of God.
To begin your prayer, you may want to light a candle nearby. A flame is a metaphor for prayer, inviting us into the presence of Holy God. Look at the icon as you pray. See it as a point of connection with Jesus and the community of saints. Try extending your hands and turning your palms upward, a gesture both of openness to God’s grace and the gift of your hands to God.
Even though you may feel pressured by the demands of the day, try not to pray in a hurry. Better to pray for a short time with quiet attention to each word and each breath than to rush through many prayers. Be aware of your breathing. You are breathing in life itself, breathing in God’s peace. You are breathing out praise and gratitude, breathing out your appeals for help.
As you pray, cultivate an inner attitude of listening. God is not an idea and praying is not an exercise to improve our idea of God. Prayer is the cultivation of the awareness of God’s actual presence. We may speak words to God or just look attentively at the icon and let God speak to us.
Robert Gallacher explains praying with icons in this way:
An icon is more than a work of art. Its purpose is to link the person praying with the unseen reality it represents. Commonly an icon is called a “Window on Heaven”. Through it the viewer sees into the world beyond while, at the same time, the Spirit of God reaches out to incorporate the viewer in the eternal, transcendental world of God’s own being. Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet, “Do not think that you have God in your heart, but rather that you are in the heart of God.” This is contemplative prayer.
The justification for these images is based on the incarnation. As the invisible God took flesh in Jesus so that believers might see him and know the Father, so an icon present an image (of Jesus, or of a saint in whom the spirit of Jesus dwells) that the believer might look on and through the image and know God.
While Protestants speak of sanctification, Orthodox theology emphasizes deification. In Jesus God became human so that humans might become divine. Icons, therefore, always depict human forms. But the form is stylized so that the focus of attention is not diverted to the physical beauty of the person depicted. In Byzantine icons, the figures are elongated and flat. It is the inner quality that is important. Colour is significant as, for example, in the clothing of Jesus. The inner garment is red, the colour of blood, indicating his humanity, while the outer garment is blue, indicating his divinity. Gold indicates the eternal light of God’s dwelling place. Evil, the absence of God, is shown as black, often in a cave.
Icons are not constrained by lineal perspective. Sometimes each figure will occupy its own space, with its own perspective, so it relates directly to the viewer. In contemplative prayer, the viewer may identify with each person in turn, and then see each in communal relationship with the others. Another device is to invert the lines of perspective so that they meet in front of the picture, where the viewer stands. As the eye follows the lines, the viewer sees through the “window” into the ever expanding universe of the infinite and transcendent God.
Icons in churches contribute to the liturgy. The people present are the living image of God. Around them is the company of heaven. Over them is the Pantocrater, Christ the ruler of all. Scenes from the Scriptures tell them the story of salvation. Festival icons lead them through the Christian year. Just being in that sacred space lifts up the heart to the Lord.
Icons in the home are more likely to be of Christ, Mary or the saints. The Spirit that lived in these persons creates the atmosphere of the home, and inspires the people who live there to be like the persons depicted.
The best way to appreciate icons is to focus on a particular one. First study it, read about it, in order to understand it with your mind. Then, in prayer, descend from the head to the heart, place yourself in relation to the image, make and re-make your commitment, and dwell in the life-giving presence of the eternal God.
To encourage this act of devotion, this web site has examples of some icons, with notes, prayers and pictures. You will need to print out the picture so you can contemplate it as you read the text.
The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ by Rowan Williams (Canterbury Press)