I wanted to offer something a little bit different this week. Occasionally, instead of my regular worship format, I offer a contemplative practice or simple queries to bring to waiting worship. This week, in light of finishing up a ten day residency, the second residency of a two year program in Spiritual Direction taught by staff of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, I thought I would offer up a contemplative practice that I learned in the program. Over the past ten days, a cohort of 32 of us have been learning how to deepen our work as Spiritual Directors by way of case studies, peer group support, lectures and a wide range of contemplative practices.
New to me was one of these practices: the practice of praying with icons. While Quakers don’t use icons in their worship, I’ve been fascinated by Greek, Russian and Byzantine icons for quite some time. I have seen them in churches and museums around the world and sensed a depth in them, a mystery. It is like there is a secret language that Orthodox and other icon-using traditions have that I just don’t know. There is something clandestine, like a certain secret word whispered in just the right way will open the veil between heaven and earth. Could icons be windows to God?
Laugh if you will, but these are some of the thoughts that I had over the past ten or so years as I came across icons on my own. Much to my surprise, when the practice of praying with icons was introduced at last year’s Spiritual Direction residency, the icons were described as just that, a window to God. Even more incredible to me was the ease at which I could enter into the practice and the closeness I felt to God.
So below this post I’ve put together a gallery of images and descriptions and invite you to try this practice too. But really anything can become an icon for you. It’s a way of bringing you into awareness of God’s presence and resting in that presence. It’s the practice of being open to being known by God. Below I’ve also listed a set of suggestions for praying with icons that was given to me in the program.
Suggestions for Praying with Icons
(adapted from Living in the Presence by Tilden Edwards)
1. Sit as close to the icon as you feel comfortable sitting.
2. Close your eyes and offer a prayer that expresses your desire to touch God’s presence through the icon and to relinquish whatever may distance you from that intent.
3. Open your eyes and keep your eyes very soft, gaze on the image, letting yourself be known by God through the sacred image.
4. Continue to gaze at the icon in this open, willing-for-God way for some period. You might try at least 10 minutes the first few times, and then lengthen the time to 20 or 30 minutes as you become more comfortable.
5. When you sense the time for this prayer is over, close your eyes and let an image of the icon remain in your mind. Then let the image fade into a formless presence for God.
6. Close your time of prayer with gratitude for whatever has been shown you through this way of prayer.
7. When you do not have physical access to an icon for prayer, see if you can recall the image of the icon in your imagination and sit before it, so to speak, in your mind’s eye.
I want to bring your attention to the third suggestion, which talks about keeping your eyes soft as you gaze upon your image. One of the Shalem staff described it as making your eyes soft like you were looking onto the face of a baby. There is tenderness in that gaze, there is joy, and there is peace.
Now that I have a child of my own, I have discovered that my son’s face is the icon through which I am seen by God. As I gaze into his face and soften my eyes, I can reach through that veil and that of God in me reaches out and touches that of God in my son.
One such example of this was when I was in Assisi with the pilgrimage last month. I took my sleeping son along in the front carrier as the group went to the Basilica of St. Clare. After a morning of learning about the life and ministry of Clare as well as the art and religious objects in the Basilica, we entered the building in silence to experience the mystery and holiness of the space. My son was asleep when I entered the Basilica and as I was walking around inside in that powerful upper room, he awoke. Soothed by the silence and mystical humming of the church, my son tilted his head up and gazed into my eyes. We stood there together, reaching God through each other’s gaze. He then reached out his tiny hand and rested it on my cheek. The two of us sank into the loving embrace of God’s presence and lost ourselves in that moment of tenderness, joy and peace.
As an alternative to the regular format that I put together each week for Online Programmed Meeting for Worship, I invite you into the practice of praying with icons. Choose one of the photos below or find your own picture, face, or object that you can rest your gaze. Find a comfortable place to sit with your icon and use the suggestions to walk yourself through a time of prayer. Be gentle with yourself and see what arises as you gaze through the image into the face of God. May you find tenderness, joy and peace. May you feel seen. May you feel loved. Amen.
Icons and descriptions are from Trinity Stores, www.trinitystores.com