Praying with Icons: Windows into Heaven
Prayer, like love, is deeply personal because, like love, prayer is primarily about a relationship. We don’t fall in love with an idea but rather a person. In the same way, we don’t fall in prayer with an idea but rather God. As such, the modes of prayer into which people are drawn are different and varied. For some the way in which they can best experience and express their love of God is through their imagination and so they turn to Scripture and use their imagination to enter into the story through Ignatian Prayer. Others find a more contemplative approach, such as Lectio Divina, the way to feed their soul and nurture their relationship with the One whom they love. Some like to experience the grandeur of God in nature, and still others are drawn to the use of poetry or music as the way to kindle their affections and come to “feed on [God] in their hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” One of the ways in which I have come to express my love and desire for God and to know God’s love for me is through art, color, and imagines. For a number of years I would pray with a photo book of quilts on my lap. I loved to gaze at the colors, the patterns and the designs of these magnificent examples of handwork and ponder the mystery of creativity and through the creator of these quilts come to know the Creator of all. In the same way, the language of icons has lped me to know and express God’s love for me and my love for God.
Now while a quilt or a flower, an article from nature or a candle can be iconographic, helping us to focus our attention and draw us into a world beyond the item itself, an icon does something a little different because an icon makes present that which it represents.
When I was a schoolboy, growing up in Canada in the 1960’s every classroom had certain fixed features. Hanging somewhere in the room, and usually at the front over the blackboard, was a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. These pictures were not interesting pieces of artwork. They weren’t there to brighten the room or instill in us a sense of history although to a certain extent they did both. They were there to represent something, something beyond themselves.
On another wall, usually opposite the pictures of the Queen and the Duke was a large map of the world. The dominant feature of this map was the color pink for every country that belonged to what was once the British Empire, and which had by the 1960’s become the Commonwealth of Nations. So large swaths of Africa, parts of North, Central, and South America, many Pacific nations, bits of Asia, and many of the islands of the Caribbean were pink.
These two things – pictures of the monarch and her husband and the map of the world – were there to make present what they represented: a sense of identity and history, a sense of belonging to something much larger, and a notion of law or, as the Canadian Constitution puts it: “peace, order and good government,” which, the map showed us, we shared with other “pink” nations around the world.
In the same way, an icon makes present that which it represents. It is not simply a picture but rather a sign, indeed a “sacrament” of what it represents. This understanding of icons borrows from the realm of sacramental theology. Some might say, looking to the elements of the Eucharist, “That’s just bread and wine on the altar.” But as Anglicans we also know that’s not the whole story. Yes, it is bread and wine, but it’s not just bread and wine. The Catechism defines the sacraments as “an outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” In much the same way an icon is sacramental because an icon is an outward and visible sign of something inward and spiritual. It’s not just a picture or paint on a board. Rather, like those classroom pictures of The Queen, an icon makes present the figure it represents. This is not to say that Christ (or the saint) was not there before we brought the bread or the icon into the room, but now, suddenly, there is also a physical, tangible reality to that presence.
This sacramental reality is what makes an icon fundamentally different from other forms of religious art. Think, for example, of that sketch of Jesus that was so popular a few decades ago, The Laughing Christ. In the drawing, we see Jesus with his head thrown back in laughter. It’s a wonderful image from somebody’s imagination. Now, I’m not saying that Jesus never laughed; I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t look like that when he laughed; I’m simply saying that the purpose of that picture what to show what someone thought Jesus might have looked like laughing. An icon, on the other hand, is not an exercise of the imagination, but an exercise in re-presentation: making present for us the person represented. Because of this subtle but important difference, an icon does not emerge from an artist’s imagination, but from their prayer. The iconographer is also attempting to express what the tradition of the Church says about Jesus and so an icon is an expression of Truth. For these reasons icons are not imaginative works.
Like praying with Scripture, while we absorb the text or the image through the eye, the primary experience of praying with an icon is through the heart. While we gaze at an icon with our eyes, we absorb its significance with our hearts and so the experience of praying with an icon will yield varied gifts for different individuals. When I lead retreat groups, I often use Rublev’s icon of the Trinity as a focus for prayer. I’ll start by pointing out several features of the icon, and then we’ll spend about twenty minutes in silence. It always turns out that each person has focused on different elements of the icon, and thus has experienced different prayer. Some focus on the empty place at the table, feeling themselves pulled into that empty place and finding a place in the community of the Trinity. Others will focus on the little house in the background and end up meditating on the hospitality of God and being welcomed into the home of God. Other people look at the three angelic figures and ponder what angels of the Lord have come into their lives and what messages they have brought. Just as any icon is an expression of the iconographer’s prayer, articulated within the confines of the Tradition, so too will prayer with an icon be an expression of the gazer’s own prayer and their relationship with God.
As in any relationship, there is always more to experience in an icon. Icons don’t “run out” or become so familiar that we have “used them up.” After all, we don’t look to icons for a factual picture of Jesus’ face or a realistic depiction of the Jordan River; if we did, we could move on once we’d gained the information we came seeking. Rather, we come to icons to encounter the Presence which they represent. And there is always more to experience in that relationship. There is always more to learn. There is always more to share.