For many of us, icons—religious portraits of people and scenes from Scripture painted on specially prepared wood using prescribed materials and techniques—seem primitive and dark, sad and austere. Yet their tradition is rich, steeped in centuries of a complex and profound spirituality, and to dismiss it is to close the door on one of the most ancient and enduring ways of experiencing God: through the use of icons in prayer.
The word “icon” means image, and images are powerful. It’s not accidental that the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” came into being. But to use an icon in your prayer life isn’t simply to use a picture as a focus; that would be called art appreciation! To use icons in your prayer life is to open yourself to varied and various access points to God—using not only your mind but all of your senses, recognizing that the icon can be as valid a medium of revelation as the printed word… and often a more powerful one.
There’s another dimension to praying with icons. It is, in a sense, to call forth and be a part of the centuries of tradition to which they belong, to become part of that shining stream of intuitive spirituality that speaks directly to the heart, to be the connection between the community of the past and the community of the future.
To pray with an icon is to place yourself inside a legacy of spirituality, to answer the question, “Where do I come from?” To pray with an icon is to summon up a whole tradition of prayer and fasting, of meditation and liturgy and life that transcends anything that any one person can experience alone. It’s to claim the legacy of martyrs, scholars, monastics, bishops, and saints: it is to claim the lives of our people.
A Guide to Praying with Icons
So. You have made the decision to use icons in your own prayer life. You first need to find an icon that holds some meaning for you, some beauty for you, some point of contact.
How do you choose an icon? Where do you begin? Actually, the point is less who the icon is depicting as it is how the icon affects you. You are an integral part of the experience: using a certain icon because it’s famous, or because someone else likes it, is to deny your contribution to the event, your unique presence in it. You are not, after all, going to be praying to the icon itself; you will be praying through it—to God. In that sense, it’s just a tool. So don’t feel that the icon has to depict a certain person or scene from Scripture in order to “work.” It isn’t the icon that will do the work, but you.
Let’s say you’ve selected an icon. Now what do you do?
That is the real, the primary, and most true and most difficult answer to that question: you do nothing.
To pray with an icon is to understand that prayer has less to do with our intellect than it has to do with our heart, less to do with talking than it has to do with listening, less to do with doing than it has to do with being.
We’re really good at doing. We often come to prayer with an agenda: I’m going to pray for this, I’m going to pray about that. And then we proceed to talk to God. Conversation finished (at least on our part), we get up, dust off our knees, and go about our business.
For an eastern Christian, prayer isn’t something we do, but rather something that we receive. Prayer involves waiting, listening instead of speaking.
Pray with the Theotokos Icon
We’re going to look at praying with the Theotokos, the Orthodox way of conceptualizing Our Lady, which means “God-bearer”
Start by making yourself comfortable. Kneeling may be your first inclination, though it’s really not the best position, as you want to take your time. It would be better, especially at first, to be seated in a comfortable position with the icon situated just below eye level, so that you don’t have to strain in order to look at it.
Light candles or incense nearby if you would like; but, mostly, focus your attention on the icon. Explore it with your eyes and with your feelings. Pause and consider the feelings that it brings up in you.
Silence is an integral feature of Orthodox spirituality. You will see this, yourself, very quickly: there is no icon that encourages a torrent of words, a rushed prayer or two. Icons slow us down by their very serenity; they require, first and before all else, our silence.
So you sit with the icon. Do this for as long as you can tolerate, really looking at it, really seeing it. If you find that you need words, the simplicity of the Jesus Prayer is appropriate: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” If you use this prayer, repeat it several times, slowly, rhythmically, and then come back again to sitting in silence.
Look at the colors, first. How does the deep red strike you? Is it peaceful? Does it touch your senses? What about the gold surrounding the figures? What feelings does the gold bring into your awareness?
Look at how the Theotokos holds the Child. See how gentle her touch is, yet how firm her grasp. Can you feel those arms around you, holding you, encircling you with love? Look at her eyes: what can you read there? What is she saying to you? What is she asking of you? What questions come into your heart as you look at her eyes?
See the Christ Child. He is not simply a baby, but a king. Can you feel the tenderness between this mother and this child? What feelings does that tenderness bring forth- in you? See the eyes of the child. What is he saying to you today?
Move around the icon; see everything that there is to see. Close your eyes and breathe for a few moments. What images are imprinted on your eyes? What do you see now?
Open your eyes again and look at the icon. Where are you drawn now? Why? What is it in this icon that is touching you? Is there joy in this image? Do you see sorrow, pain? What feelings are reaching deep into your heart as you gaze at the figures pictured here?
Notice, again, the Christ Child in this icon. He is larger than life, not the sleeping baby of western manger scenes. You will see that he wears gold, the color of royalty: this is Christ crowned king, already: he is already alive, dying, risen: it is there in his eyes, and the love that enabled that life. Yet he looks at us with great vulnerability.
The cheek of the Christ Child is pressed up against his mother’s cheek; you can see a great tenderness, a great closeness there. What does that say to you, now? How does it feel? Can you, too, find in this icon an access-point to some of that same tenderness?
When you are in need of comfort, summon this image to your mind. It is there for you. Just as the Theotokos comforts the Christ Child, so too do her eyes invite you into receive that same comfort, that same tenderness, that same love. When my own mother died, I realized just how much it had meant to me to have her always just a telephone call away: when I was hurt, or afraid, I would call just to hear her voice. Somehow, that made everything seem more controllable.
We have that same offer here: she will not solve our problems for us, but she will help us put them in perspective. If you are hurt, or afraid, or tired, the icon of the Theotokos is there for you. Her ear is attentive. Her eyes understand.
And her hand touches Christ.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir