How to Pray with an Icon
Eyes: The first place to look in an icon is at the eyes. As you sit down with a particular icon, ask yourself the question, “Where is the icon’s gaze drawing me?” What’s the focus of the eyes in the icon? Are the eyes looking straight out at you? What do they ask you to consider? Are they looking beyond you? Might there be something outside of you or in your past that you need to consider through the eyes of the figure in the icon? What is the expression within them? What emotion does the gaze raise in you? In some icons, you’re invited simply to share a gaze with the icon just as two lovers would: Each looks at the other. Gazing and being gazed at in return can be an experience of being loved.
Hands: The other place that I suggest people begin is to look at the hands, because the hands also will lead you. Are the hands pointing to something? Often it appears in icons of the Virgin that she is pointing to or offering her Son to you. In icons of Jesus he is sometimes pointing to a text of Scripture or his hand is raised in blessing or teaching. If his hand is raised in blessing, receive the blessing. If his hand is raised to teach ask what he might want or need to teach you.
Dialogue: Remember, you’re not praying to an icon. Rather, you’re praying with and through an icon. Say, for example, that you sit down to pray with an icon of the Beloved Disciple. You’re not praying to the Beloved Disciple, you are entering into a conversation with the Beloved Disciple and asking him, “What can you tell me? What can you teach me about being a Disciple of Jesus? What can you tell me about being beloved by Jesus? What was it like to be leaning on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper? How can that be for me? How can I become a beloved disciple?” The icon becomes a chance for contact and conversation; it invites us into relationship. The icon of the Beloved Disciple isn’t simply a picture of John leaning on Jesus’ shoulder. It’s a representation of the real love that these two people had for each other. So praying with an icon of the Beloved Disciple is really praying about that kind of love, using it to help us pray for that kind of relationship with the Lord.
[…] one or two of these short essays about icons and the practice of praying […]