Icons bring us into prayer, or conversation with God, with our eyes wide open. An ancient practice, praying with icons involves taking into our heart what the image visually communicates. Rather than focusing on what is seen, we focus on what is seen through it – the love of God expressed through God’s creatures. As Sister Joan Chittister writes, “a glimpse of the face of God in the center of the human.”
Icons invite us to focus on an image of the holy that points the way to God, taking us beyond words. It is another way to ponder our faith and who God is. The icon conveys a story of faith, a work inspired by God. It is a tool of prayer, helping us to focus on the holy and suggest virtues for the spiritual journey.
This is prayer without words, a right-brain experience of touching and feeling what is holy and a mystery. Icons are not simply art; they are a way into contemplative prayer, and are therefore one way to let God speak to us. They are doorways into stillness, into closeness with God. If we sit with them long enough, we too can enter into the stillness, into the communion. And if we listen to them closely enough, with our hearts, we just may discern the voice of God. It is important to note that all veneration (honor) and reverence (deep respect) are referred to the one whose image is portrayed, and not to the image or icon itself.
There is no “right” way to pray and no “correct” way to interpret an icon.
There is no “right” way to pray and no “correct” way to interpret an icon. Below are suggestions to follow if this would be your first time praying with an icon. Choose an icon you are drawn to, the test being: Does it help you to pray? The icon exists to help connect you. Choose a comfortable location to begin. You may want to light a candle nearby, as a flame is a metaphor for prayer, inviting us into the presence of Holy God.
- Initially, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
- Invite the Holy Spirit to be with you during your prayer time.
- Open your eyes – and your heart. Gaze softly at the icon, perhaps starting with the eyes of one of the persons depicted. Look at the icon as a point of connection with Jesus and the community of saints.
- From there, allow your eyes and your heart to wander anywhere they are led within the icon, perhaps noticing colors, shapes and lines. Consider what captures your attention and wonder in your heart why that might be.
- Extend your hands and turn your palms upward, a gesture both of openness to God’s grace and the gift of your hands to God.
- Be aware of your breathing, as you are breathing in life itself, breathing in God’s peace.
- Breath out praise and gratitude, breathe out your appeals for help.
- God is not an idea. Cultivate an inner attitude of listening, the awareness of God’s actual presence.
- Let God speak to you.
- End your prayer time by thanking God for your time together.
A Way to Pray is part of the monthly Everything Holy packet whose purpose is to invite God into our life in a variety of experiential ways.