Praying With Your Eyes Open
For my Protestant friends, one of the stranger practices of Orthodox Christianity is the use of icons. Often it is considered at best misguided, and at worst blasphemous or idolatrous. When I was a Baptist I considered the veneration of icons a profound abuse, akin to the sin of Aaron and the Israelites in the creation of a golden calf to worship as the deliverer from their captivity in Egypt. I started researching the veneration of icons as a means to argue against their use, and in the process of learning more came to appreciate the practice and eventually to begin using them in prayer myself. While the theological argument in favor of their use was compelling to me, what really brought me to understand the use of icons was the benefit that their use brought me.
My mind has a tendency to wander, not least when I am in prayer. Even when I began to favor the use of written prayers over praying extemporaneously, I’ve found it hard to keep my attention on the words I’m saying and on the Person that I am speaking to. Icons give me something to focus on, another point on which to anchor my attention. The visual element of the image of the Lord Jesus or the Holy Virgin or the saints complements the auditory element of the read prayers to capture my consciousness and does not easily let my errant mind escape.
Sometimes in prayer when my mind isn’t actively wandering, it might still happen that I forget that I am addressing a Divine Person, not an abstract. That God is invisible makes it difficult sometimes to remember that He is not an ethereal force or a concept. In the Incarnation, God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ, and keeping His holy image before my eyes helps remind me that I am not simply reciting theological ideas nor am I engaging in wishy thinking vaguely directed at a higher power somewhere in the ether. I’m reminded that I am in audience with the God-man Jesus Christ, that in His mercy he hears prayers as the King of everything.
On the icon screen in an Orthodox temple and in the icon corner in my home, there are more people than the just the Lord Jesus depicted there in icons. In church one would see the Holy Theotokos Mary, the Four Evangelists, John the Forerunner and Baptist, Stephen the Protomartyr, the patron saint for whom that particular church is named, and probably many others. In my house you’ll see in addition to Christ and the Theotokos icons of Michael the Archangel, Hannah the mother of the Prophet Samuel, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, Seraphim of Sarov, Hermione the daughter of the Apostle Phillip, and Tabitha whom the Apostle Peter raised from the dead. When I pray before the images of these my forerunners and examples of faithfulness, I know that I do not pray to God by myself. There is a chorus of the faithful in the presence of God who pray with me and for me. My voice is just a small one among many.
Praying before icons also adds a physical dimension to what would otherwise be only a mental and verbal exercise. Not only is there the physical image to gaze upon, but it is the practice of Orthodox Christians to bow before the icons, make the sign of the cross, kiss the icons, and light candles before them. This is not to honor the icons themselves, but in reverence of who is depicted. When I kiss the icon of Christ, I am showing affection for my Lord. When I light a candle before the icon of the Theotokos, I am asking for her continual intercession. When I make the sign of the cross and bow, I acknowledge that to stand in the presence of God is no light thing, but is accomplished only by being united to Jesus Christ by the grace of his death and resurrection and that I must approach humbly.
So for these reasons, I’ve come not only to accept praying with icons, but to be edified by and love this practice. I’ve been brought nearer to my Savior in this way, and for that I cannot be grateful enough.