Many of us were taught to close our eyes when we pray. Praying with icons is an ancient prayer practice that involves keeping our eyes wide open, taking into our heart what the image visually communicates. We focus not on what is seen in the icon, but rather on what is seen through it. This is prayer without words, with a focus on being in God’s presence rather than performing in God’s presence. It is a prayer experience of touching and feeling what is holy. Icons are not simply art; they are a way into contemplative prayer and are therefore one way to let God speak to us.
When an iconographer creates an icon, they are said to “write the icon”, not paint it. This is because it is a prayerful exercise in humility before God. They are highly symbolic using shapes, colors and forms to symbolize different spiritual realities. Iconographer, Linette Martin writes:
“The pictures are not there just to be looked at as though the worshipers were in an art museum; they are designed to be doors between this world and another world, between people and the Incarnate God, his Mother, or his friends, the saints. The primary purpose of an icon is to enable a face-to-face encounter with a holy person or make present a sacred event. Icons are also “theology in color”.
God is revealed not only by words to the ears but by images to the eyes as well. Christ is not just the word (logos) of God but also the ‘image’ (eikon) of the unseen God. From there the word ‘icon is derived from the Greek. An icon is a window into the divine while living everyday life and uniting it to the realm of God.
A wise priest once said: “Do not go out and buy icons. Go downtown and look at Christ in the faces of the poor.” If we are indifferent to the image of God in other people, we won’t find the image in icons. Remember the sage advice given to medieval pilgrims: “If you do not travel with Him whom you seek, you will not find Him when you reach your destination.” In wells of unchanging stillness in an unstable world, icons teach us to contemplate life’s most important matters.
“You gaze on the icon, but it gazes on you too. When you are looking at someone you love, and they are looking at you, there is a lot that is communicated that cannot be put in words. We need to gaze on truly conversational, truly loving images…images that will return our love.”
Fr. William Hart McNichols, icon writer