“For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images.”
(John of Damascus, On Holy Images)
The beautiful icon above is by iconographer Heather Williams Durka who lives in Olympia. You can find her website here. Heather offers icon workshops and has affordable reproductions of her wonderful images available for purchase. She also has some great reflections on the role of icons in Orthodox tradition.
There are many wonderful books available on praying with icons. The tradition of gazing upon icons as a window to God is an ancient one. Lectio divina is one way of entering into a contemplative experience with images. To use this way of praying, select an icon or other sacred image with which to pray. If we have a sacramental vision, then any image offers us an opening onto the holy, however certain images, such as icons, offer a privileged place in our tradition for revelation. I invite you to begin by praying with Heather’s wonderful image called “Tender Mercies.” I have always had great fondness for this icon in particular because of the great intimacy and tenderness between Mary and Jesus.
Prepare in a similar way as I indicated in Part One. Find a place where you will not be disturbed. Take time to settle yourself into stillness. Get in touch with your breath and your body. Relish the silence. Draw your attention to this sacred time you have made for yourself and be aware of your desire to grow in intimacy with God.
Gazing Upon the Image
The first moment in lectio is reading God’s word. Because we are dealing with an entirely different kind of sacred “text” it requires of us a different way of entering into the experience. Begin by exploring the entire image with your eyes. Notice the various colors and shapes, the different symbols. Take some time to move more deeply into different sections of the icon. Take several moments to let your eyes wander over the entire image and rest on it in various places, taking in what you see. Allow your gaze to deepen, to see the subtleties in shadow and expression. As you move your gaze slowly around the image begin to notice if there is something in particular about this icon that is beginning to really capture your gaze. Be aware of any particular place that call to you, challenge you, invite you into deeper reflection. Let your eyes be drawn to this place on the image, take a few moments to take this in and really be present to it.
Reflecting on the Image
Now allow the place on the icon that has captured your gaze to draw you more deeply into the experience of it. Allow it to unfold in your imagination and notice if it evokes any memories, or feelings, or other images. Create a spaciousness within you to hold what is stirring within you. Become aware of what this part of the icon touches in you in all the ways you might experience that touch.
Responding to the Image
After you have rested with this unfolding in your imagination for a while and your heart has been touched, turn your focus to the ways you want to respond. What is the invitation present in the unfolding of images, memories, and feelings for you today? How is God speaking to your life in this moment through this icon? What is the “yes” within you that is longing to be expressed? Take some time to explore your responses through silence or journaling.
Resting with God
After you have gotten in touch with the invitation being extended to you this day, begin to release all the words and images that have been flooding your heart. We nurture our understanding of God through these words and images, but ultimately they can never contain the fullness of God. Perhaps close your eyes for a few moments and savor the darkness and sense of surrender. Rest in an awareness of God’s presence. Allow yourself some time to simply be.
When you have reached the end of your prayer time, you may want to go back to the icon one more time and just gaze on it for a moment again. This time take in the whole image and just notice if anything else leaps out to you that speaks to your experience. Offer a prayer of thanks for the gift of this time and for God’s presence in beauty and stillness.
The experience of praying with icons and other images is quite different than praying with words. It is not that one is better than the other, it is simply another doorway into sacred awareness. For some people, praying with icons is quite challenging, for others it is far more comfortable than with words. Honor the way of praying that brings you closer to God and opens you to a sense of the holy presence that dwells within you. This way of praying could be called visio divina or sacred seeing.
In response to your encounter with the icon you may want to explore using color and shape to express what happened in your prayer experience. What does your “yes” to God look like this day?
-Christine Valters Paintner