Praying with Icons – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

We continue tonight our Lenten preaching series Living Prayer. Last week Brother David began by speaking of the prayer of the imagination, also called Ignation Prayer. Next week Brother Geoffrey will consider the challenge of praying in the present moment. Tonight we turn our gaze to icons and praying with icons and images.

Until recently most Western Christians were completely unfamiliar with icons. Icons were foreign, strange, outside of our spiritual vocabulary. Probably the single most important book that first introduced many of us to the mystical language of icons was Henri Nouwen’s marvelous little book Behold the Beauty of the Lord[i]. Since then literally dozens of books have flooded the market, but I always return to Nouwen as one does to an old friend.

When praying with icons there are all sorts of things to pay attention to, but the first thing to remember is that an icon is not just a picture. Yes they are pictures, but they are so much more; yes they are works of art, but they are so much more: an icon is a window into heaven through which we see not just the physical representation of a person, but the spiritual reality of the one depicted. For the Christian, Jesus himself is the icon, par excellance for He is the image of the invisible God ….[ii] As such, when we gaze into the mystery of the person of Jesus, we see through and beyond him into the heart of the living God. When we gaze at Jesus, we come to know what God is truly like.

To put it another way, icons make present that which they represent. For that reason an icon is not simply a picture, but rather the sign, symbol, indeed sacrament or outward sign of the presence of one depicted. For that reason icons, are not decorations but signs of God’s presence, like the sacramental gifts of bread and wine in the tabernacle.

Because icons make present that which they represent, the way we use them in prayer is significant. Icons are meant to be gazed upon as you would gaze upon one whom you love: with openness, expectation, affection and anticipation. When you gaze upon the one whom you love you do so in the expectation and anticipation that your loving gaze will be returned with equal affection.

CrucificationIconWe have before us this evening an icon of the crucifixion. It is one of my favourites because it makes present the mystery of God’s love.  So let’s begin gazing at love made manifest, and allow love to gaze back at us.

First, get comfortable and let your eyes roam over the whole picture.

Simply gaze at the icon in a spirit of openness allowing the icon to gaze back at you. Gaze in expectation and anticipation knowing that God has something to say to you through this icon tonight. Gaze at this icon, allowing your affections to be kindled.

What do you see? What do you notice? What stands out to you? What questions arise as you gaze at this icon? How do you feel? Don’t try to figure things out. Simply gaze at love and allow love to gaze back at you.

Now allow your gaze to focus on the form of Christ crucified. Ponder for a moment the instances of suffering in your life. Think of those occasions when you yourself have suffered. Were you aware of the companionship of God? Of  others? Or did you feel utterly alone? Think of the occasions when you have been the witness to another’s suffering? Suffering, ours or another’s, often makes us feel totally powerless. Remember your own experience of powerlessness.

Now listen for a moment to Christ as he speaks from the cross. What does he say? Father forgive … ? I thirst? Father, into your hands … ? Woman, behold your son …? Today you will be with me in paradise? It is finished?

Hear him address these words to you. What does Jesus mean by saying this to you, tonight?

Turn your gaze now to the group of women standing on the left of the icon. Here are the faithful women spoken of in the gospels who remain, watching with breaking hearts as their son, their friend, their Lord dies. Some of us have had the privilege of standing at the shrine of the Faithful Women in the Church of the Resurrection. There within sight is both the Calvary and the Empty Tomb.

What has been your experience of death? Have you ever sat with someone as they died? Was the death easy and peaceful, or struggle? Death will come to us all, and few of us will have the choice of how or when it comes. But come it will. That is certain.

Look now at the central figure in the group. It is Mary the Mother of the Lord. See how she is tenderly embraced, upheld by the other women? Have you ever been upheld by another in a moment of loss, of grief, of despair? What has it been like for you to need the help of others in order to stand and withstand all that comes your way? The need to be upheld is a great insult to our independence and self reliance. It is easier to offer a helping hand; harder to rely on the hand of another. Think how Mary’s heart was broken. When has your heart been broken? Who held you up and bound your wounds and dried their tears? Give thanks for the presence of that person in your life.

Now turn your gaze at the two men. One of them is John, the Beloved Disciple and our patron. The other is a less well known figure. Tradition calls him Longinus, which is Greek for spear. It is he, tradition tells us, who thrust the spear into the side of Jesus out of which water and blood flowed. It is he who made the profession that terrible day: Truly this man was God’s Son.[iii]

The Gospels are full of confessions of faith. We hear and remember Peter’s confession: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.[iv] We rejoice in Thomas’ confession in the Upper Room: My Lord and my God.[v] We are consoled by Martha’s confession in the hour of her grief at tomb of her brother Lazarus: Yes Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.[vi] Tonight we hear another confession, from an unlikely source, a Roman soldier, the symbol of occupation: Truly this man was God’s son.

Everyone has an opinion about Jesus. Everyone claims to know who and what he is. Everyone sooner or later makes a confession, a profession about this man. So what is your confession? What is your profession? Who do you say that he is?

Now allow your eyes to take in again the whole picture. Gaze again at the whole icon with the eyes of your heart open and full of expectation, affection and anticipation. What do you see as you gaze at this icon? What is the single word that comes to your mind as you gaze upon this sign and symbol and seal of God’s love for you?

Is there something you want to say to Longinus? To Mary? To Jesus? Is there something that you have heard God say to you?

It is that word, that image, that phrase, that experience, which is God’s gift to you tonight. It is that word, that image, that phrase, that experience which is the icon’s gift to you tonight. It is that word, that image, that phrase, that experience which tonight is your prayer.

So ponder for a moment that word. Ponder that word and say thank you. Thank you for the gift of faith. Thank you for the gift of vulnerability. Thank you for the gift of love.


[i] Behold the  Beauty of the Lord, Henri Nouwen, Ave Maria Press, 2007

[ii] Colossians 1: 15

[iii] Mark 15: 39

[iv] Matthew 16: 16

[v] John 20: 28

[vi] John 11: 27

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  1. Diane Orecchio on October 12, 2018 at 16:58

    I had my first experience with icons recently with Brother Jonathan at your silent retreat. It was such a moving experience and brought much joy, peace and love into my life. Thank you for sharing and reminding me of my wonderful experiences at the Monestary and continuing the images through icons.
    Peace to all,

  2. John G. on October 12, 2018 at 09:59

    Jesus says, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men (persons) to me.” On the cross, Jesus is indeed lifted up for all to see. My first thought was, “What a horrible, shameful death. How painful. I never could have withstood such torture.” But the cross was his sacrifice for humankind to show us the ultimate work of self giving. It is up to us to lift up the cross in our hearts and lives to let the world know who Jesus is. I began to ask myself, “Do people see Jesus at work in my life? Am I a faithful witness?” I have often drawn back from laying down my life. Yet the Prayer Book tells up that the way of the cross is the way of light and peace. Will I lift up the cross in daily living? Will you?

  3. Gardner Yenawine on October 12, 2018 at 09:33

    Dear Brother James,
    Your homilies always deepen my spiritual journey, this being no exception. Thank-you. You didn’t refer to the skull almost buried or out of sight beneath the cross. What do you see in it? Maybe the death of sin?
    God’s Peace,

  4. Carly on November 23, 2014 at 03:37

    Thank you so much for this explanation of praying with icons. It is new to me and does feel rather foreign, and yet I also feel very curious about it. Your guidance on this introductory experience of gazing at an icon was very moving for me. I recently received an icon as a gift, and simply haven’t known what to do with it. Now I look forward to praying with it. I will also seek out the Henri Nouwen book you mentioned to learn more!
    Blessings and thanks to you.

  5. Eileen N. Yeates on February 28, 2013 at 17:49

    Thank you for the awesome talk on icons. I will never again think of an icon as a picture. I, also, enjoy Henri Nouwen and will look for “Behold the Beauty of the Lord”.
    Blessings & Peace,
    Eileen Y.

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