Sirach 38: 27 – 32
Psalm 107: 1 – 9
Matthew 6: 19 – 24
I have never been much of an artist. I can’t draw very well, and in fact I describe myself as one who draws stick people badly. At least, that is the story I have told myself for most of my life, not only as an excuse, but also as a defense. If I had to draw something, I would use that as the explanation of why I didn’t put the time or effort into it.
But then something happened. I visited the sister of another member of the community one afternoon and saw on her walls framed cross-stitch samplers that she had done. In an instant I knew that I had to learn how to do that, so by the end of the afternoon she had equipped me with a needle point hoop, floss, needle, fabric and pattern and after a brief lesson, I went home. Little did I know, that that afternoon’s cross stitch lesson would be a life changing event for me. I am not being overly dramatic when I say that my life has never been the same since.
I have been captivated recently by the icons of Maxim Sheshukov, a Russian iconographer who works in a traditional style but whose icons often depict themes or events from Scripture rarely depicted in icons – Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, or Judas accepting the bag of silver, or the slaying of Abel by Cain, for instance. One icon that has been much fodder for my prayer depicts Christ, his figure almost whimsically tall and slender and slightly bent at the shoulders, standing before an equally tall, dark, and very narrow door. The wooden panel on which the icon is painted is tall and narrow, and is itself highly suggestive of a door. The background is a simple, quiet yellow ochre, the color of sand or wheat. Christ’s right hand – or more precisely, his outstretched, right pointer finger, seems to rest on the face of the door, pointing toward it, perhaps giving it the gentlest tap imaginable. His left hand holds a thin, narrow scroll, its words concealed from view.[i]
When I entered the monastery back in 1985, I knew nothing about icons. I had never visited an Orthodox church and had no idea that icons had been used by Christians for centuries in both public worship and private devotion. Towards the end of my novitiate, I read my first book about praying with icons: Behold, the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen, published in 1987. In it Nouwen describes several icons with which he had prayed for some time, noting their distinguishing characteristics and describing the insights he had gained from praying with them.
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.
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.
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.