One of the marks of a Byzantine life is praying with icons. In fact, we use icons with prayer everywhere. There are icons all around the church, including the seasonal icon on the tetrapod, and all the icons on the iconostasis. Not only do our homes have icons, but we have dedicated icon corners!
In this week’s article we will go from the basics of what is an icon, through to methods of praying with icons.
What is an Icon?
Basically, an icon is a holy image depicting Christ or a saint. It is typically on a piece of wood. And paint is the traditionally medium for making the image. However, one does not simply paint an icon.
The art of making an icon is a prayerful process. Although the linguistics are debated, some people argue that icons are “written” not “painted.” The first step to icon-making is having a copy of the print (or pattern). An approved original icon is copied exactly onto the new wooden icon panel. Icons are generally not up for artistic interpretation. This is because the purpose of an icon is not the glorify the artist, but God through the image. And God has given us these images as a way to experience him more fully as humans.
Adding the paint (and possibly gold leaf) is a time-consuming process. The icon is left to dry often. Darker shades are added first, with lighter paints being layered on top. And the results are beautiful – more than just a reproduction of the image of a saint. But a mystical glimpse into the face of God, into heaven.
As one might expect, this makes icons a costly item. In our times, we often find prints or “stickers” of icons on blocks of wood. These are a cheaper alternative to buying “proper” icons. I know our family doesn’t have an unlimited budget. So, we have handmade icons for our wedding icons and our children’s icons. But the rest of our icons are mainly prints. This allows us to enjoy a diversity of holy images without sacrificing heat, meals, and water. And we do enjoy our icons!
Icons as Windows to Heaven
In He Dwells in Our Midst: Reflections on Eastern Christianity, T. Lozynsky describes how icons work by saying, “The icon is the window that allows us a glimpse of what is in store for us, and the mirror which shows us what me are meant to be” (38). The window metaphor for icons expresses how they can enhance our prayer lives. Looking at an icon is gazing into the heavenly realm. A mystical reality is made visible to us through the icons in a way no other medium can.
The second part of Lozynsky’s metaphor is also relevant to praying with icons. He refers to the holy images as a mirror. When we look at an icon, we see a reflection of what our own lives look like, while in communion with God. In the East, married couples are referred to as icons of Christ. And even in the West, at the marriage ceremony the couple represents Christ mystically even more than the priest. That is why the couple is the last to enter the Church in procession, when at every other occasion it is the priest.
Praying with Icons
Praying with icons is a contemplative practice wherein we slow down to pray and pay attention to God. This may be done in silence, by talking to God casually, or by using hymns and other ancient prayers. Or even in combination of all three. If you are just getting started in praying with icons, I suggest starting by working on your attentiveness to the image.
Look at your icon. What is the first thing you notice about the image? Where are your eyes drawn? What colours are attracting your attention?
After you have taken in the image, you can start to think about the details. Are the eyes of Christ or the Saint looking at you, or elsewhere? If Christ is looking at you, spend some time gazing back into his eyes. I find this is an especially good practice when I’m working on listening to God.
What other symbols are in the image? Do you know what they mean? What does looking at the icon make you feel right now. What is the icon saying to you?
I’ve heard some people say that statues and images in a church are distracting. I’ve found the opposite to be true. When my mind is wandering, and my eyes fall upon an icon, I’m drawn back in. Perhaps not to the exact prayer of the moment, but certainly to God. I look upon the holy image and find myself speaking with God. In some ways, I find praying with icons to be like praying the psalms. There is always a comforting message or appropriate image for every circumstance. And there is always something more to be gained from reading the same psalm again, or looking at a treasured icon.
Other Ways to Enhance Praying with Icons
There are a couple of ways to enhance your icon prayer time. If you can, light a candle or some incense while you pray. Besides the spiritual tradition surrounding those items, there is also a practical benefit. You are engaging your sense of smell. Praying with icons is a physical as well as spiritual experience. By utilizing your sense of smell, you are in fact opening more doors to experience the divine.
Find a fact sheet about the icon you a praying about, and learn about the symbols and colours. For example, gold reminds us of the presence of God and His heavenly light. St. Peter is often depicted holding keys (Matthew 16:19), while St. Paul is shown with a book (for his epistles) and a sword (because he persecuted the Church). If there is an open book, often there will be writing visible. See if you can find out why a particular verse is used with your icon.
Finally, of course, there is the icon corner. Having a home icon corner is the ultimate way to enhance your icon prayer time. If you are interested in building your own icon corner, check out our article on icon corners here!
Our New Icon Corner
When we moved homes, I was most excited about setting up a new icon corner. Every place we looked at I thought about which way was facing East. And how the living room space could best fit an icon corner.
They say go big or go home… and we really went big this time. We went to Costco and got a large foldable table and used that as the base of our new icon corner. It is about three times the size of our old one! More of our icons fit into our icon corner now. It is so lovely to be able to look at them all the time! When we move again, we will probably have to be more conservative with our space. Then I’ll arrange a system so that we rotate icons in and out based on the season. Maybe a long hallway can hold the icons that are “out of season” so we can still see them.
We have also been focusing on collecting images of the same style. I really like sofrino icons. So that is the style we look for as we work to complete our set of church year icons. Our most recent additions to the icon corner include a larger sofrino nativity of Christ icon and a sofrino of Rublev’s trinity.
I must say, getting icons of the same style really helps minimize the look of visual clutter. Now I try and keep our non-sofrino icons in other areas of the house. Since making the icon corner more strictly one style, I find it is easier to look at and appreciate all the icons.
Toddler Icon Corner Time
One of the best parts of my day with Little Fox is our icon corner time. She really loves doing it, and sometimes asks me to do icon corner time with her again and again. (In those cases we do a condensed version with her favourite parts). Having the icon corner front and centre in our living room also helps remind me to pray when other events have disrupted our regular schedule. So, while icon corner time may not be at the same time every day, we almost never miss it.
Anyway, our Icon Corner Routine looks something like this
- Heavenly King
- Prayer Intention for the Day
- Trisagion (Holy God)
- Bible Reading
- Saint of the Day
- Hymn or Praise and Worship Song
- Glory Be
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