It is so good to be back again, worshiping in this lovely place, after our time away of retreat and community discussions. And it is so good to see you all again. I do hope you have had a great summer – a time for rest and refreshment.
We had a wonderful retreat. To spend those days amidst the natural beauty of Emery House was a great gift. Certainly for me, and I know other Brothers, it was an occasion to deepen our contemplative vision. In the Letter to the Hebrews which was read this morning, verse 14 says, “For here we have no abiding city, but we are looking for a city that is to come.” And I think that’s really what the contemplative vision is all about. It is about seeing with the eyes of faith; seeing that this life which we have is not the only reality. When our contemplative vision grows, we see that the apparently ordinary things of life are shot through with the glory of God. Spending time on retreat is a wonderful opportunity to really see again heaven breaking through – or as William Blake put it, “to see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.”
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.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. This day marks the beginning of a journey we will make together, a journey towards Jerusalem where we will meet the Lord in his Passion and Resurrection. This is a time for prayer and for fasting, a time for denying the false self and embracing the true self God intends us to become, a time for drawing near to God in the intimacy of love.
Today we remember Antony of Egypt, a founder of monasticism. As a young man gave away a large inheritance and moved out to the desert for disciplined prayer. He lived alone for twenty years. When Antony emerged from that intense solitude, he learned of a great persecution of the church, and he “returned to the city and ministered to those under the sentence of death.”
Psalms are very much at the center of a monk’s daily prayer. Not including the offering of daily Eucharist, SSJE Brothers pray corporately five times each day. In four out of five of those occasions, singing psalms is at the core of our communal prayer.
Biblical scholars tell us that most, if not all of the psalms were originally meant to be sung, which seems to account for their rhythmic style. The name “psalms” comes from the Greek psalmoi, to sing to the accompaniment of a harp or lyre.
Here at the Monastery we sing psalms using traditional Gregorian chant. Chanting, I’ve been told, is one of very few human activities that engage both left and right brain hemispheres simultaneously. Something happens in the body through the rise and fall of the chant pattern. What happens when we chant the psalms I cannot really explain in words. But whatever happens seems to both lull the body into a more relaxed state and heighten its attention at the same time.
The other day when I was thinking about what I might preach on today, I kept getting distracted by memories from grade school when we learned about the first Thanksgiving. We would study the story about how the Indians showed the pilgrims how to plant corn and how the pilgrims when they had such a successful crop the following year, invited the Indians to a feast which became known as the first Thanksgiving. This study was usually accompanied by arts and crafts where we made Native American head dresses and pilgrims’ hats and put on a pageant about Thanksgiving for our families, complete with musical numbers and of course an occasional wave to grandma in the audience.
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.
I feel that Jesus did not intend for the disciples to feel bound by a particular form of words. This is based on Jesus’ teachings on prayer and examples of his own prayers found in all of the Gospels. Jesus’ words in response to the disciples’ request, “Lord, teach us to pray,” are intended, I believe, as examples and guidelines to use and to expand upon when we pray.