Pray with the Icon
To Pray with the Icon
© Jacek Wróbel SJ
“Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). With these words we are encouraged by St. Paul to search for contact with God continuously so as eyes of the heart look at the Source of Life. However, isn’t the term “eyes of the heart” too abstract for our experiences and as a result we do not know how to pray? So maybe before we conquer our internal eyes we should focus our physical eyes on the face of Christ present in the icon.
From the beginnings of Christianity the icon has been accompanying believers both as the testimony of redemption and a place of unique encounters with God. It is all possible thanks to the belief and conviction that a sacred painting in front of which we remain praying is something more than just a piece of wood, gold and paint – it is a painting in which Christ is present. Since the Son of God became a man – “for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness” (1 John 1:2) – God indeed came close to us. And more than this, looking at Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, we admire the image in which we were all created (Genesis 1:27).
God created us after his likeness. It means that it was His intention for the man not only to carry the testimony (image) of God’s love but this testimony is to be the most faithful one and the closest to the Truth. Therefore, our efforts and prayers will only be effective if ultimately they lead to the state in which “we become similar to God as much as it is possible for a human nature” (St. Basil). Let’s look at the dynamics of our interior so as we might find a means to satisfy this need.
Sin is what destroys God’s likeness in us. In this way, the man becomes an image (Greek: icon), but such an image is not similar to God, it is more of a caricature. Christ was born to reveal the Image of God so as nobody would have to say “show us the Father” because when we look at the Son we see the Father. The one who looks at the Son begins to understand our humanity and calling to become similar to the Son, to become the true icon of God. As He is the One “who is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and we should let this image brighten up inside us. When praying in front of the Face of Christ “we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord”. (2 Corinthians 3:18). Getting to know Jesus we learn about the truth – the deepest truth that brings happiness not disappointment – the truth about ourselves.
The icon can become a tool and a means of such a transformation. Standing in front of the icon we stand in front of Jesus. Even if it depicts the Mother of God, saints or some biblical events they always refer to the Prototype, the maker of Salvation and in this way they make Him present. There wouldn’t have been the God’s motherhood of Mary nor saints’ glory if they hadn’t been transformed by God itself through the Holy Spirit. While praying in front of an icon we become participants in the events it depicts and in the grace granted to those depicted on the icon. Standing before the icon of Christ we stand before Him.
The icon can become the way of prayer, a unique place of recreating God’s image in ourselves. A simple remaining in front of the Face of Jesus may make our situation similar to the one of the blind man from the Scriptures, who gradually recovered sight (Mark 8:22-25). Gazing at the brightness of God will finally make us release a spontaneous and joyful cry: “I will praise you; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are your works; and that my soul knows right well” (Psalm 193:14) as we will look at ourselves not with our own eyes but with the eyes of Jesus.
The icon prayer is simple; sometimes it may even seem too simple for us to want to try it. However, it is not easy as it requires patience and humble submission to just being. It is important, therefore, to choose an icon which for us will express beauty and in front of which we will “feel like” praying. It should not be too small so as it does not strain our eyes when we try to notice a figure painted on it, neither too big – not to distract us with the multitude of details. It is good to put it in a central place where the surroundings will not distract us attracting our eyes with the multiplicity of colours or things. We may light a candle and have its glittering and living flame illuminate the face of the figure. The atmosphere created should facilitate silent and if possible still contemplation for about 20 minutes to one hour.
Stillness aids calming and focusing the eyes on the icon. That is why it is so important to place it in such a way that the eyes freely and naturally look at the face of the depicted Figure. As any other prayer, the contemplation of the icon requires our realization of the presence of God inside ourselves. At the beginning of this way of meditation it is good to start with an icon of Christ. As in any other prayer, we should also have an intention, most of all the intention of a personal encounter. What might be useful here is a very short carefully repeated prayer of presence, such as a prayer-word Jesus or O Lord, come or some other that we wish to use. We can also use an icon of the Mother of God with the Child and then our prayer will express our desire to respond to God’s will in our life. Saying prayerfully “let your will be done” or “be it done to me” may be helpful. However, the words are not necessary. Silent and focused gazing may be enough to be filled with God’s presence and grace.
For our prayer to be effective we need to remain faithful. One-off contemplation may be the source of aesthetic impressions but nothing more than that. Only regular encounters with Christ, and with the entire Holy Trinity, may trigger inside us deep and spontaneous feelings and make our prayer the prayer of resting.
The above text presented by courtesy of the author was published in “Szum z Nieba” (Vol. 5:2003).
© Jacek Wróbel SJ
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