Recovering the Millennia-Long Track Record of Praying with Icons in Christian Homes

Bridegroom

Surviving the recent death of my mother after her five-year battle with cancer, my father (an ordained Presbyterian minister who works as a college literature professor) asked me for some simple suggestions regarding how to make use of icons in his home where he lives with my four youngest siblings. Two of these siblings are twin girls still in high school, and two are grown children who stayed home to help with my mother and to support their younger twin sisters. Even more recently, after my father made this initial request, he told all of us about his own fight with a second round of malignant melanoma (a fight that just recently started up again with the removal of cancer-filled lymph nodes and that will now involve more testing and treatments to come). Although these notes are written with my father in mind, I’m posting my thoughts here because I want to include some images and also because I may want to revisit my thoughts on prayer with icons at some time in the future.

In his desire to start making some use of icons, my father is referencing a brief passage in a book that has meant a lot to him recently:

“Icons” have a millennia-long track record with the people of God and can be a powerful way of keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind. We might arrange them tastefully present in each of our living and work spaces, so that they are always present in our visual field. We can thoughtfully use them to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts and to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being. [Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart, page 113.]

This passage from Dallas Willard has several key words and concepts to understand and unpack. Here they are in six key phrases.

First, “a millennia-long track record with the people of God:” Before starting to use icons, it is good to start learning a little about the history and the theology of icons (and to keep this up indefinitely as you are able). Here is a simple timeline that will suggest some broad categories in which to search out more articles and books about the use of images by God’s people across many millennia:

  1. God made humans in His own divine image (“icon”). Some Church fathers wrote that this is why humans were not supposed to make any images of God, because we ourselves are the image of God within God’s creation.
  2. In the wilderness, God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle that was decorated with many images of living things, reflecting God’s heavenly throne room, the Garden of Eden, and all of creation. These included images of various kinds of angels as well as many plants and animals. God was not depicted because God was a spirit and was beyond or above (enthroned upon) His creation (not just one of the many wonderful things within His created world).
  3. Each different Jewish temple built by Solomon, Ezra, and Herod followed this tabernacle pattern of ornate images—depicting living things from all parts of creation.
  4. Jewish synagogues (as they developed during the exile and throughout different parts of the world in the Jewish diaspora) were also filled with images of living things as well as many of the great Old Testament saints and prophets.
  5. From the earliest years, Christians adorned their churches and their graves with images of Jesus Christ, his mother, the martyrs, and other great Christians heroes (saints). Many early Christian churches (even house churches and churches in hiding, such as in the catacombs) looked like Jewish synagogues with ornate images. These early Christians also told stories of Greek-style portraits that were painted by Luke (the Greek doctor and author of two New Testament books) as well as of other early images that appeared miraculously, depicting Jesus Christ. As generation after generation of Christians wanted to write their own icons, many sacred patterns and expectations were developed and carefully handed down from one icon writer to the next, so that the key features of each icon would be protected and preserved in ways that would communicate clearly, again and again, across different times and places.
  6. With the rise of Islam, there was a strong pressure to clean up the embarrassing variety of images and strange relics (bones and clothing of saints, etc.) that now filled and cluttered Christian churches and monastic communities. These sacred Christian things were considered very grubby, foolish, superstitious, and idolatrous by the sophisticated, elegant, rational, and tidy Muslims who strictly forbid the use of any images of God and who decorated their mosques with only the most beautiful and sophisticated geometric designs (showing the transcendent beauty of God in ornate yet orderly ways).
  7. Some Christian emperors and clergy began to teach that the ancient Christian use of images and relics was barbaric and a corruption of the pure Christian faith. These were the iconoclasts who often cleaned up churches by force, pulling down icons to put them in storage, paint them over, or even destroy them.
  8. In the Seventh Ecumenical Council, all the leadership of the churches around the Mediterranean world gathered and agreed that the icons (which were so beloved by the people of God) were not only permitted but were required by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s incarnation, Christians should make images of His human person which, in its fullness, reveals God the Father to us. It was taught that icons of Christ and of Christ in His saints were an essential weapon against idolatry.
  9. One of the great defenders of these decisions by the Seventh Ecumenical Council was Saint John of Damascus who suffered and saw great wonders in his battle against a second great wave of iconoclasts that came a while after the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
  10. Finally, these holy images have helped people in their prayers (as powerful means of God’s grace) to come very close into the life of the Kingdom of God. So very many close and intimate experiences of God and of His saints (as well as so many astounding miracles) are associated with so many specific images. Many icons have their own special days of remembrance and veneration. To this day, some images also stream myrrh as a powerful testimony to God’s gracious and compassionate presence with us in our suffering. (Myrrh is one of the key ingredients used in the olive oil that anointed the dead body of Jesus Christ as His body was lovingly prepared for burial once all the hopes of His followers had been destroyed by his death.)
  11. To recap, here are the key ideas in this history of how God’s people have used images in worship:
      • Images depict our worship as taking place within all of God’s creation (as we are made to lead, protect, and support all things in the constant and never-ending praise of our wonderful and loving Creator).
      • Humans are made in God’s image.
      • Images of Jesus should be made because He is the fully human incarnation of God the Son (or Logos) who took the specific human flesh of the virgin Mary (who is then literally the Mother of God).
      • Icons of Jesus Christ (as well as icons of Christ within His saints) are actually a necessary protection against false worship and idolatry (that is from developing abstract and disembodied “ideas” of Jesus Christ within our own minds, hearts, and imaginations).
      • Icons help to keep us focused on the historical and embodied Jesus Christ who:
        • actually was born, lived, and died among us,
        • rose from the dead to reign with His glorified body from the throne of God in heaven,
        • and ministers to us through the material stuff of creation within all of the sacraments of His Church.

Second, “keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind:” This is true. Icons can convey complexity and whole story lines (multiple periods of time) as simply and simultaneously present with us in a transcendent current moment (a prayer that brings us close to God’s time which links together past, present, and future). However, it is also true that learning to read icons is as involved and intricate as learning to read any written text. In fact, all Orthodox Christian icons are properly said to be “written” and not “drawn” or “painted.” There are many resources for learning to read icons in general as well as in particular. It is always worthwhile to invest in some education regarding any particular icon that you are using or considering for use. A few key ideas to keep in mind are:

  1. Icons are intentionally two-dimensional and somewhat abstract (with a variety of perspectives and instances in time incorporated into one image). Much has been made regarding reverse perspective (also called inverse perspective, inverted perspective, divergent perspective, or Byzantine perspective) within Christian iconography. This is supposed to make the viewer part of the image or to make it seem as if the person in the image is actually viewing the person outside of the image. However, this technique probably has more to do with ancient drawing techniques and understandings of reality than it does with any intentional attempt by Christian iconographers to include the viewer in the image or to make the image into a two-way window. That being said, there are certainly more recent Christian iconographers who purposefully make use of this ancient reverse perspective to help the icons achieve an “other worldly” sense and to invite those making prayerful use of the icon to stand in another realm with Christ and His saints. This can be a blessing and means of grace.
  2. Another important aspect of icons is actually their frailty as human creations. Although they require practice to make and can be very beautiful in the eyes of anyone, they are not made primarily through technical skill or artistic genius. Icons are written primarily through prayer, and they often involve significant human errors or misunderstands while still carrying sanctity and truth as a line of devout connection to Christ or to those who displayed Christ with their whole life and person. In fact, the misunderstandings or errors in icons sometimes communicate meaning and truth of their own, or sometimes just reinforced the icon’s intent of helping to make otherworldly realities present to us.
  3. In addition to reverse perspective and to errors, icons often contain events from different points in time within one compact image. It is as if a modern cartoonist combined multiple frames into one frame. Almost all icons that cover a story will have this feature. In most nativity icons, for example, the infant Jesus is typically reclining beside his mother in a stable cave while also being washed by midwives near the bottom of the image. Sometimes, the same angels are giving instructions all-at-once to Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi.

nativity icon at st catherines monastery

Third, “arrange them tastefully:” It is certainly critical to consult everyone living in the home and to be tasteful. There is no “wrong place” to have an icon with you in your life as you seek to pray without ceasing. However, if you grow more integrated into church worship with icons, there are some ways to consider arranging icons, over time, that might be given to you by the practices of our wise ancestors in the faith (rather than simply being a matter of taste).

  1. An icon corner is normally near an eastern corner of a house so that you can face toward Jerusalem and toward the rising sun during your prayers (as all Christian churches have always done).
  2. Icons are often located in a corner of a room to promote praying in your heart (not before men), to eliminate worldly distractions, and to allow prayer to be more concentrated or focused.
  3. Often, in addition to the icon corner, a family will hang a small “portal icon” (usually of the Virgin and Christ Child) by the door, which is venerated by family and guests whenever going in or out of the house. If the portal icon or the icon corner is located so that it is visible when one first enters the house from the main entrance, an Orthodox Christian will traditionally venerate the icons before greeting the members of the house.
  4. In addition to a main icon corner as a primarily focal point for family prayers (when said all together), there will typically be other places (within private bedrooms or places of study) with smaller icon corners for each individual member of the home.
  5. Finally, icons are often paired or combined together in units that have a family connection. This is because the kingdom of God is truly centered on an actual human family. Every church altar space is lightly screened off from the congregation by three main icons arranged in the same way every time: Jesus Christ, his Mother, and his cousin John. In the Hebrew Bible, under several Davidic kings, the gebirah (“Great Lady”), normally the Mother of the King, held substantial power as an advocate with the king. We see this function throughout the Old Testament and also clearly at work in the wedding at Cana. It is good to have our vision of the heavenly throne room informed by these biblical images. Over time, it is healthy to have some simple reflections of such royal, familial, and traditional “church arrangements” within our homes. The Orthodox call the home the “little church.”

Fourth, “present in each of our living and work spaces and always present in our visual field:” This is a wonderful point. It is helpful (and a widespread practice) to have simple icons continually in view that are appropriate to each space where you live and work (including while at a computer or driving in a car). This is a support and reminder in our desire and our struggle to pray without ceasing—to have all that we do and think be an extension of our ceaseless prayers within the presence of God. In fact, God is always with us, and we are continually able to be present around His throne alongside the saints and angels who worship there without ceasing in the sunlight of His glorious presence.

Fifth, “to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts:” Not only do icons literal allow us to rest our gaze on the King and all the citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, but the church has consistently experienced the fact that God uses these beloved images as powerful means of grace (in a sacramental kind of way or as “little mysteries of grace” as the Orthodox would say). This grace is tangible and powerful against evil. It is not our own work, but a gift of God as we stumble and struggle toward Him by means of every means of grace that God provides.

Sixth, “to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being:” This phrase suggests that icons are a point of contact between different realms of reality that compose us and within which we exist. By “levels of our being,” I expect that Willard is referring to those that he writes about: the mind, will, body, social dimension, and soul. In The Abolition of Man, the entire point that C.S. Lewis makes is that modernity has made us into “men without chests.” At the core of our being is our heart (from the Hebrew or Semitic world) or our nous (a Greek word that is typically translated “mind” or “intellect” but that really indicates “our capacity to perceive reality directly without dependence on the physical senses” or we might say our “intuition”). This central area (or chest as C.S. Lewis calls it) rests between the rational thoughts of our brain and the desires, passions, or emotions of our stomach and other lower organs. Our ability to quietly perceive reality with a direct intuition (independent of both calculated thinking and of passionate emotions) should be our most basic capacity as humans and the capacity that we rely upon to give direction to our rational thoughts as well as to our emotions and bodily desires. However, instead, we typically live entirely within our brains or our bellies, and we have left our chests ignored, forgotten, and shut down. Icons can help us to recognize with (and in) our hearts that we are standing before God, at His throne, at all times. Icons can give us a place to rest quietly and patiently, listening for God in our chests. This is not achieved with our eyes or with our sharp mental analysis, but simply with a patient attention to God’s presence. All of God’s creation is made by Him to serve as a means of grace that can help to communicate His presence to us as humans. Icons of Christ and His saints are powerful means of extending this God-revealing quality of creation and of the incarnation into our homes and hearts.

Now to list a couple things that Dallas Willard did not say:

  1. Icons are indented to be aides in the prayer and worship of Jesus Christ (incarnate, resurrected, and enthroned in heaven). This can be done as private, family, or church prayers. If we don’t use icons this way (at least at some simple level privately), we run the risk of abstracting them and of failing to benefit from them as a means of God’s grace.
  2. Also, icons are intended for veneration. They are a tangible focal point and a means of expressing our commitment and love to Jesus Christ. As it feels appropriate and comfortable, it is a blessing to express this love in simple acts of kissing, kneeling, and prostration. This becomes much more understandable and meaningful at home when it is learned slowly (and practiced regularly) within the context of church worship services. However, it is a blessing to learn simple acts of veneration and love within private prayer and devotion even when this is not part of the practice within your church worship.

All this being said, it is best to keep everything simple and small at the outset. Once you begin to make use of icons in prayer, the practice tends to grow naturally.

Regarding what icons to consider starting with, I can give more thoughts if that is wanted. However, the key is really that you find icons that are meaningful and beautiful to you. Do some research and look at a good variety of options on your own. Ideally, the person making the icon should have a deep and prayerful respect for the long history of writing icons under the authority of the church. Here are two great places to purchase icons:

[Note on Christ the Bridegroom Icon at the top of this post: During the first service on Palm Sunday evening, the priest carries an icon of Christ the Bridegroom to the front of the church, where it remains until Holy Thursday. The three days of Holy Week it is there are dedicated to Jesus Christ as the central figure in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13). This parable is perfect for the week leading up to Easter, as its clear message is to be prepared for the coming of Christ. From the evening service: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant He shall find vigilant.” (Troparion of the Bridegroom Service) Given the eschatological undertones of the services, it might be expected for the Bridegroom icon to show Christ in Glory, or at His Second Coming. Yet the Icon shows Christ humiliated by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers (Matthew 27:27-31). In a cruel irony, the soldiers mockingly worshiped Jesus and through insults proclaimed Him rightly to be the King of the Jews. Crowned with thorns, cloaked in scarlet, bound and holding a reed, this is how Christ appears in the Bridegroom Icon. The crown is a symbol of Christian marriage in the Orthodox Church, and the ropes binding Christ’s hand are a near-universal symbol of marriage. The reed used as a mock-scepter is a symbol of humility, of a person that does all possible to bend in service to others.]

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