Praying With Icons: Devotion to the Saints

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997; endnotes and illustrations have been removed

To all God’s beloved … called to be saints …
— Saint Paul, letter to the Romans

There is but one sadness, and that is for us not to be saints.
— Leon Bloy, The Femme Pauvre

How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.
— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.
— Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

A saint is a person for whom nothing takes priority over living out God’s will. Some saints gave such a witness to God’s activity in their lives that they have become part of the calendar of the Church, and as a consequence became the subject of icons.

Each saint is unique — they range from geniuses to those known as holy fools, from rulers to flea-bitten pilgrims — and yet each reminds those who encounter them of Christ. Each is a living translation of the Gospel. Such people are marked by self-giving love, courage, freedom and obedience. They are whole, and for this reason we call them holy. The family of words to which holy belongs includes whole, wholesome, healthy and the Old English word for Savior, Hælend. The halos placed around the heads of saints in icons suggest the light of Christ that shines through them. Each saint in a singular way reveals something about who Christ is. In a particular way, each saint draws us closer to Christ.

Most of the saints of the early Church were martyrs, so named from the Greek word for witness. They gave witness by shedding their blood, not that they sought death, but that they would rather die than deny or compromise their faith in Christ. The places they were buried quickly became places where people gathered to pray and where the local church celebrated the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Reverent care for the bodies of those who died for the faith was a hallmark of the Church from its first days. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote Tertullian early in the third century.

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” wrote Saint Paul, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” His words are an invitation not simply to admire saints from a safe distance, but to live a saintly life.

Paul saw the saints as collectively forming “cloud of witnesses” — all those who have given an example of heroic perseverance in the race toward the Kingdom of God.

People without faith regard the saints as dead and gone, but the Church regards them as very much with us. They are not simply remembered as having once set a good example, but embraced as our companions in day-to-day life. One of the earliest definitions of the Church is that it is the Communion of Saints. They are near to us, nearer than we imagine.

A substantial encyclopedia could be devoted simply to icons of the saints — they number in the thousands. In this small volume there is room only for a sampling of the many saints whose images are often found in churches and homes.

In addition to saints, there are those mysterious but important bodiless creatures we call angels. Icons of the archangels have an important place in iconography. While we know relatively little about them and are only rarely aware of their presence, we are conscious of the crucial role played by the angels who devote themselves to God’s service; and we are also aware of the danger posed by those angels who, following Lucifer, reject obedience, wage war with God, and hold human beings in contempt as creatures made in God’s image.

return to Praying With Icons index page

Praying With Icons: Praying in Body and Soul

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes and illustrations have been removed

We bless you now, O my Christ, word of God, light of light without beginning, bestower of the Spirit. We bless you, threefold light of undivided glory. You have vanquished the darkness and brought forth the light, to create everything in it.
—Saint Gregory Nazianzen

Pray simply. Do not expect to find in your heart any remarkable gift of prayer. Consider yourself unworthy of it. Then you will find peace. Use the empty, dry coldness of your prayer as food for your humility.
—Saint Makari of Optino

Prayer does not change God, but changes the person who prays.
— Søren Kierkegaard

“With my body I thee worship,” husband and wife declare to each other in the wedding service provided by the Book of Common Prayer. These words are relevant not only to marital love but to the spiritual life.

Unlike angels, entirely spiritual beings, God has made each of us both body and soul. To be whole, we must worship God both in body and soul.

Nothing is more central to Christianity than its affirmation of the sacramental significance of material reality. One of the most important roles played by icons in Christian history has been to proclaim the physical reality of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. He had, and has, a face. He had, and has, a body. In icons of Mary holding her son, we always see his bare feet, a reminder that he walked on the earth. He was born, lived, died and rose from the dead, broke bread with disciples in Emmaus, invited Thomas to feel the wound in his side, ate fish with his friends in Galilee.

Most of the miracles recorded in the Gospels were physical healings.

So important is the human body that most of the questions to be asked of us at the Last Judgment have to do with our merciful response to the physical needs of others: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you gave me shelter, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” It is through protective care for creation, especially care for each other, that we most clearly manifest our love of God.

One of the odd things that has happened to prayer in much of western Christianity — in some churches with the Reformation, in others more recently — has been the drastic erosion of the physical dimension of spiritual life. Prayer has become mainly an activity of the head. Many of us have become like birds trying to fly with one wing. Icons can help us grow back the missing wing, the physical aspect of prayer.

Do you pray with your eyes closed? Because icons are physical objects, they serve as invitations to pray with open eyes. While prayer may often be, in Thomas Merton’s words, “like a face-to-face meeting with God in the dark,” cutting a major link with the physical world by closing your eyes is not a precondition of prayer.

If I am to pray with open eyes, it doesn’t have to be icons that I am looking at, but icons are a good and helpful choice. They serve as bridges to Christ, as links with the saints, as reminders of pivotal events in the history of salvation.

Finding an icon can seem daunting, if you don’t know where to look, but chances are icons are near at hand. Is there an Orthodox church near by? Just about any Orthodox parish is likely to have mounted icon prints for sale. Here too you will find help in contacting an iconographer in the event you want to buy or commission a hand-painted icon. Many Christian books shops will have icon prints on sale, often already mounted on wood. In case you find no source locally, a selection of addresses and web sites for ordering icon prints is at the back of this book.

Once you begin praying with icons, you may find icons have a way of seeking you out. Maria Hamilton, one of the people who read this book when it was in manuscript, wrote to me, “When an icon wants to be in your icon corner, it just comes to you. There is nothing you can do about it. I was given a small icon when I was chrismated. Then people just started bringing them to me. I started giving one or two away now and then, and every time I gave one away, two more came in its place. It is possible, with effort, to control the multiplication of books and recordings, but not icons. I never buy icons, because they just come to live here.”

Once you have an icon, it requires a place. Now is the moment to create an icon corner in the place you live: an area where one or several icons are placed that will serve as a regular center of prayer. In our small house no actual corner lends itself to this purpose. For us the fireplace mantel in the living room has become the usual place where my wife and I pray at the start of the day and before we go to sleep at night, though occasionally we use a smaller icon corner in our bedroom.

If you have only one icon, it should be either an icon of the Savior or Mary holding Christ in her arms. If a hand-painted icon is unavailable, get a print of a classic, well-known icon. It should be one that appeals to you, the main test being: Does it help you to pray? In time get an icon of your patron saint and an icon of a local or national saint. Little by little add other icons that seem to call out to you or find their way into your life as gifts. Gradually you will find the icons that you need to find — or they will find you.

Keep in mind that an icon is a prototype of the person represented. The icon exists only to help connect you.

Icons can be in other areas of your home. If there is an icon near the table where meals are served, it’s a good practice to begin and end your meals by standing and facing the icon while reciting a prayer. It is good to have an icon in every bedroom and the kitchen.

Depending on your place or places of work, an icon can be near you throughout the day — on your desk, over the sink, on the dashboard of the car or truck.

When traveling, carry a small icon or an icon card (possibly laminated) in your pocket or purse.

During times of prayer, if not for longer periods, a vigil lamp or candle should be lit in your icon corner. A flame is a metaphor for prayer. Its warm flame both encourages prayer and provides the ideal illumination. Icons are not intended for bright illumination.

Begin and end your prayers with an invocation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, at the same time crossing yourself. With this simple gesture, we reconnect ourselves with the community of love that exists within God. The invocation of the Holy Trinity combines a physical action with our words of prayer. In word and act, we remind ourselves we are in the presence of God. There is no need to come from a church tradition in which making the sign of the cross is usual. It was a gesture belonging to the whole Church before the great divisions; its recovery will help bring us closer once again. During times of worship the same gesture can be used whenever the Holy Trinity is invoked and also at the beginning of certain prayers, like the Our Father, or in connection with the word “amen” (Hebrew for “truly”).

The ideal posture for prayer, especially prayers of praise, worship and thanksgiving, is standing, a physical attitude that also binds us to the Resurrection. Standing also helps keep you in an alert condition, though if you’re used to sitting or kneeling, standing for long periods may take some getting used to. If you have a physical problem that makes standing difficult, use whatever works best, the goal being to be wide awake.

From time to time you might try praying with your hands extended and palms upward, a gesture both of openness to God’s grace and the gift of your hands to God.

There are times in prayer when kneeling is appropriate, especially in prayers of sorrow and repentance, or at times in prayers of intercession. There are also times to press your forehead against the floor and to lie prostrate. The prayer itself will often awaken such physical actions.

There are no rules governing postures of prayer. Experiment and be flexible.

Even though you may feel under the pressure of the day and its demands, try not to pray in a hurry. Far better to pray for a short time with quiet attention to each word and each breath than to recite many prayers in a rush.

Be aware of your breathing. Breathing in, be aware that you are breathing in life itself, breathing in the air God gave us, breathing in God’s peace. Breathing out, be aware you are breathing out praise and gratitude, breathing out your appeals for help.

If in the midst of prayer a phrase catches your attention, don’t rush on with the rest of the prayer but stop to pray these few words again and again.

Cultivate an attitude of listening.

“In prayer,” noted Saint Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Russian bishop who was spiritual father to many people and one of the great teachers of prayer, “the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.”

This is the practice of the presence of God — nurturing a moment-to-moment consciousness of God’s closeness. Note Saint Theophan’s stress on the heart: “Stand before God with the mind in the heart.” Prayer is love-centered. It is not so much belief in God that matters, but love of God, and similarly love of others, including love of enemies.

For those of us who have spent a good deal of our lives in classrooms, it can be difficult to get beyond the world of ideas and theories, but God is not an idea and praying is not an exercise to improve our concept of God. Prayer is the cultivation of the awareness of God’s actual presence. Consider these words of Thomas Merton to his fellow monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani just a few years before his death:

Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything, in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that He is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. You cannot be without God. It’s impossible. It’s simply impossible.

There are several kinds of prayer.

One way is the use of traditional prayers which gradually you come to know by heart. You probably already have one or more books with services of morning and evening prayer; in the back of this book there is a selection of prayers from the Orthodox tradition. Standing in your icon corner or wherever you happen to be praying, use these services or parts of them as time allows.

Don’t be distressed that you are using borrowed words and phrases. They gradually become your own. When you say them attentively, they become vehicles for things you might never find words for. Reciting words becomes in the end a way of silence and listening. The words have been given to us by the Church, and their repetition helps push away distractions and brings us into a state of deeper awareness of God. Because the words are usually centuries old, they nurture an awareness that we are praying with those who came before us and also with generations yet to be born.

There are small prayers that can be said again and again. The Jesus Prayer is the most important of these:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

It can also be said in even shorter variations: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me,” or just, “Jesus, mercy.” Sometimes, when thinking about events such as war or catastrophe, it isn’t enough to pray only for yourself. Then the prayer may become, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.”

The Jesus Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Heart, helps draw one more and more deeply into the mercy of Christ. It can become so much a part of life that you find yourself praying while walking, waiting in line or while stuck in a traffic jam, struggling with anger or depression, or lying awake in bed unable to sleep. The prayer can be linked to your breathing.

Some who use the Jesus Prayer are troubled by the word “sinner.” Understood through its Hebrew roots, sin simply means losing your way or wandering off the path — making choices which result in alienation from God and from our neighbor. To the extent we reflect on our choices and actions in the light of the Gospel, we become aware how often pride, fear, envy, impatience and other disconnecting attitudes rule our lives.

There are also short prayers to Mary. Roman Catholics using the rosary will know the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Another form of prayer is more spontaneous, though it also may make use of memorized prayers. It’s the prayer of pouring out your heart to God partly in your own words, partly in fragments of prayers you know by heart, as you saw Gorky’s grandmother doing in the introduction to this book. Try to let the main part of such spontaneous prayer center on praise and thanksgiving, but if you are worried or frightened, angry or in urgent need, express it freely and ask for God’s help. Your words can either be spoken aloud or said silently. Don’t worry that what you say may come with difficulty, awkwardness and with periods of silence.

Pray for others. Do it every day. Keep a list of people in need of prayer. Be sure to include not only those you love but anyone you regard as an adversary or enemy. Prayer is where love of enemies begins. If the list of names it gets to be too long for one day, spread it over several days.

Keep a prayer list not only for the living but for the dead. Here is an Orthodox prayer you may find useful:

O God of spirits and of all flesh, who has trampled down death, overthrown the devil and given life to the world, give rest to the souls of your departed servants [mention their names]. Pardon every transgression which they have committed, voluntary or involuntary, whether by word, deed or thought. Establish them where the just repose: a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of rest, where all sickness, sighing and sorrow have fled away.

Among varieties of prayer, there is the prayer of simply standing in silence, waiting before the Lord. Such prayer can come at times of joy or grief or exhaustion, when words seem dead or useless or you feel as dry and empty as a desert. Icons can easily draw you into a silence that becomes much more profound than an awareness of the usually unnoticed surrounding sounds.

It is prayer just to look attentively at an icon and let God speak to you out of the divine silence. Though some icons are better than others and reveal more, almost any icon has something to offer.

Reading the Bible, reading the Fathers of the Church, reading texts from the saints and lives of the saints — this too is a form of prayer.

Be strict with yourself in setting aside time for prayer. At the beginning it can be difficult. For many, prayer in the morning is hardest. Everyone is in a rush — to get to work, to get children up and ready and out the door to school — so that stopping for even a few minutes of prayers seems impossible. But what if you were to get up just fifteen minutes earlier? Even ten? Imagine what a difference it makes to begin a day with prayer.

Similarly, make it your rule not go to bed without having prayed. Again, in the beginning it can be a hard struggle to overcome all the habits that exclude prayer, one of which may be the fear that one or another member of the family regards your efforts to pray as laughable. This is an age in which many people are kept from going far in their spiritual lives simply because they are embarrassed to be seen as religious. I often recall Catholic Worker foundress Dorothy Day’s remark: “If I have accomplished anything in my life it was because I wasn’t afraid to talk about God.” She was not embarrassed to be seen at prayer.

If you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep, you can pray in bed, or you can get up and go to your icon corner to pray. Read the psalms. Get out your list of people you are worried about and take time to pray for them. Sometimes it is in the small hours of the night that spontaneous prayer comes most easily.

While prayer is most often a solitary activity scattered throughout the day, look for opportunities to pray with others. My wife and I stand side by side before our icons before going to bed. Occasionally we are joined by guests. In the beginning our effort required reading together parts of the service of evening prayer used in the Orthodox Church, but gradually the prayers are learned by heart and no book is needed. We end our prayers with intercession, using several lists we keep. We have come to recognize this part of the day as one of the essential activities of our married life, binding us more and more closely together.

Be aware of the impact of food on your spiritual life. Following the traditional practice of the Church from the early centuries, there are several seasons of fasting that precede the great feasts plus two days each week for fasting during the rest of the year: Wednesday and Friday. In Orthodox practice, for those in good health fasting normally involves abstaining from meat, dairy products, anything alcoholic and desserts.

For those not used to going without these things, even very limited fasting seems daunting at first. You may want to start out by simply fasting from meat and alcohol. Little by little, as you get used to it, you will notice the difference fasting makes in your prayer life. Finally you get to the point where you welcome fast days and look forward to seasons of fasting. Greek and Russian cookbooks often have helpful sections on food for Lent. (Note that, when being a guest, gratefully accepting what is offered takes priority over maintaining a fast.)

Fasting seasons are linked with increased time for prayer and expanded alms giving. A fast without increased charity is no fast at all. Look for opportunities to give money, time, and increased attention to others.

If you haven’t got one already, get a church calendar so that you can follow not only the major seasons but the religious meaning of each day and the associated biblical readings. The liturgical year is a continuing procession of icons through which we keep returning to the main events of salvation history. The purpose of the church year, wrote Father Lev Gillet, is not only to bring to the mind of believers the teachings of the Gospel and the main events of Christian history in a certain order, or to orient our prayer in a certain direction, but “to renew and in some sense actualize the event of which it is a symbol, taking the event out of the past and making it immediate.” By paying attention to the calendar, we begin to see each day not simply as having a secular identity, but as a door toward closer union with Christ.

The church calendar also provides a guide to readings from the Bible for each day of the year. This means carving out another a small island of time. Read the day’s texts not with scholarly detachment, but with a real thirst to hear God’s voice.

One prayer that you might use at the beginning of each day comes from the Monastery of Optina, an important center of spiritual life in Russia in the nineteenth century:

Lord, grant that I may meet the coming day with spiritual tranquility. Grant that in all things I may rely upon your holy will. In each hour of the day, reveal your will to me. Whatever news may reach me this day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul, knowing that all is subject to your holy will. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down by you. Grant that I may deal firmly and wisely with every member of my family and all who are in my care, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone. Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

The phrase “all is sent down by you” doesn’t mean that God wills any evil events that may happen on a given day, only that we always need to be open to God’s presence, grace and mercy, no matter what happens.

Prayer life is an essential aspect of outgrowing selfishness. There is no going to heaven alone. One of the great monks of the desert, Saint Dorotheos of Gaza, taught that “whoever comes closer his neighbor comes closer to God, while whoever is distant from his neighbor is distant from God.” Prayer is never an escape from others, but rather equips us for greater intimacy, deeper caring, a growing capacity for self-giving love.

Through prayer we become more capable of seeing those whom we encounter in day-to-day life as living icons, even if the God-given image they bear has been damaged by the events of life, unfortunate choices and destructive habits. A priest once advised a friend of mine who wanted to enlarge her icon collection: “Don’t go out and buy icons. Go downtown and look at Christ in the faces of the poor.”

It’s for this reason, during the Orthodox Liturgy, that not only are all icons in church censed by the deacon or priest, but so is each and every person standing in the church.

If we are indifferent to the image of God in people, neither will we find God’s image in icons. One thinks of the 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.”

There is also this teaching from John Chrysostom, one of the great saints of the fourth century:

Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same who said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.” Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

return to Praying With Icons index page

Praying With Icons: Qualities of the Icon

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes and illustrations have been removed

It is the task of the iconographer to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshiping as “fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ.”
— Thomas Merton

There are no words nor colors nor lines which could represent the Kingdom of God as we represent and describe our world. Both theology and iconography are faced with a problem which is absolutely insoluble — to express by means belonging to the created world that which is infinitely above the creature. On this plane there are no successes, for the subject itself is beyond comprehension and no matter how lofty in content and beautiful an icon may be, it cannot be perfect, just as no word or image can be perfect. In this sense both theology and iconography are always failures. Precisely in this failure lies the value of both alike; for this value results from the fact that both theology and iconography reach the limit of human possibilities and prove insufficient. Therefore the methods used by iconography for pointing to the Kingdom of God can only be figurative, symbolical, like the language of the parables in the Holy Scriptures.
— Leonid Ouspensky

A good icon is a work of beauty and beauty itself bears witness to God. But who can define beauty in words? How can someone new to icons distinguish the pure beauty of good iconography and that which is second-rate or simply bad?

Perhaps for those beginning to form a deeper appreciation of icons, some general comments about the essential qualities of an icon may be helpful.

An icon is an instrument for the transmission of Christian faith, no less than the written word. Through sacred imagery, the Holy Spirit speaks to us, revealing truths beyond the reach of words.

Icons are an aid to worship. Wherever an icon is set, that place more easily becomes an area of prayer. The icon is not an end in itself but assists us in going beyond what can be seen with our physical eyes into the realm of mystical experience. “The icon,” comments Paul Evdokimov, “is the last arrow of human eros shot at the heart of the mystery.”

The icon is a work of tradition. Just as the hands of many thousands of bakers stand invisibly behind each loaf of homemade bread, the icon is more than the personal meditation of an individual artist, but the fruit of many generations of believers uniting us to the witnesses of the resurrection.

The icon is silent. No mouths are open nor are there any other physical details which imply sound. But an icon’s silence is not empty. The stillness and silence of the icon, in the home no less than church, create an area that constantly invites prayer. The deep and living silence which marks a good icon is nothing less than the silence of Christ. It is the very opposite of the icy stillness of the tomb. It is the silence of Mary’s contemplative heart, the silence of the transfiguration, the silence of the resurrection, the silence of the Incarnate Word. A disciple of Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, made the comment: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” Saint Ignatius was martyred in Rome in the year 107.

The icon is concerned solely with the sacred. Through line and color, the iconographer seeks to convey the awesomeness of the invisible and divine reality and to lead the viewer to a deeper awareness of the divine presence.

The icon is a work of theology written in line, images and color. Part of the Church’s response to heresy has been articulated through iconography. For example, the bare feet of the child Jesus shown in many icons serve as a reminder that he walked the earth and left his imprint — that he was not simply a spirit who gave the appearance of being human.

The icon is not intended to force an emotional response. There is a conscious avoidance of movement or theatrical gesture. In portraying moments of biblical history, the faces of participants in the scene are rarely expressive of their feelings at the time as we might imagine them, but rather suggest virtues — purity, patience in suffering, forgiveness, compassion and love. For example, in crucifixion icons, emphasis is not placed on the physical pain Christ endured on the cross. The icon reveals what led him to the cross: the free act of giving his life for others.

Icons guard against over-familiarity with the divine. An icon of the Savior is not merely a sentimental painting of “our dear friend Jesus,” but portrays both his divinity as well as his humanity, his absolute demands on us as well as his infinite mercy.

Icons rely on a minimum of detail. There is either nothing at all in the background or, if a setting is required, it is rendered in the simplest, most austere manner.

Icons have no single light source. Iconographers have developed a way of painting which suggests a light source that is within rather than outside. The technique builds light on darkness rather than the other way round. The intention is to suggest the “uncreated light”: the light of the kingdom of God. The icon’s light is meant to illumine whoever stands in prayer before the icon.

Icons avoid artistic techniques intended to create an illusion of three-dimensional space, suggesting space without attempting to escape the plane of the panel. Even slight violations of this plane always damage the icon’s meaning, much as a spoken word violates pantomime. Because of the inverse perspective of the icon, the image has no vanishing point. Objects — books, tables, chairs — expand where, according to the rules of perspective, they should contract. Lines move toward rather than away from the person at prayer before the icon.

Icons are on the border of abstract art. Because nothing in our world can do better than hint at the beauty of the kingdom of God, natural objects are rendered in a vivid but symbolic, at times abstract, manner. There is, as was noted by Leonid Ouspensky, “a minimum of detail and a maximum of expressiveness.” “Spiritual reality cannot be represented in any other way except through symbols,” Ouspensky observed. “To indicate that baptism is the entry into new life, the baptized, even a fully grown man, is represented as a small child.”

Each icon reveals a person who is named. An icon of the Savior or any saint is not complete without the inscription of his or her name, except in cases where there are numerous figures on icon. Names connote a person no less than visual representation. The icon reveals, notes Nicholas Constas, “not a world of things but a world of persons.”

Icons reveal a person in God’s kingdom. There are no depictions of the sufferings a particular saint had to endure: Sebastian shot full of arrows, Lawrence with the grill on which he was roasted, Anthony suffering temptations, etc. A common feature of western religious paintings is thus absent.

Icons are not captive of a single moment in time. For example in the icon of Christ’s nativity, we may see in the surrounding space events that happened both before and after the birth: the journey of the wise men and midwives washing the newborn child.

In icons faces are seen frontally or in a three-quarters view, the only exceptions being those, like Judas, who have abandoned the kingdom of God. Gazing at the face, we are drawn especially into the eyes, the windows of the soul. The enlightened eyes communicate wisdom, insight, and heightened perception. Meeting the Savior and the saints face-to-face, we find ourselves in a relationship of communion, while a face depicted in profile suggests disconnection and fragmentation.

Despite similarities, each icon is unique. Iconography is not merely the slavish copying of work done by others. “Tradition never shackles the creative powers of the iconographer,” Ouspensky writes, “whose individuality expresses itself in the composition as well as in the color and line. But the personal here is much more subtle than in the other arts and so often escapes superficial observation…. Although icons are sometimes remarkably alike, we never find two absolutely identical icons, except in cases of deliberate copying in more modern times.”

The icon is unsigned. It is not a work of self-advertisement. The iconographer avoids stylistic innovations intended to take the place of a signature. This does not preclude the names of certain iconographers being known to us, but we can say that the greater the iconographer, the less he or she seeks personal recognition.

The icon is not an editorial or a manifesto. The icon painter does not use iconography to promote an ideology or personal opinion. Neither do iconographers decide who ought to be regarded as a saint. The iconographer, having been blessed by the Church to carry on this form of non-verbal theological activity, willingly and humbly works under guidance of Church canons, tradition, and councils.

The icon is an act of witness. As Thomas Merton explained to a correspondent belonging to a church which avoided religious imagery of any kind: “What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the apostles on down…. So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.”

The icon is a revelation of transfiguration. Like the Gospel texts, icons aim to transform the viewer. We were made in the image and likeness of God, but the image has been damaged and the likeness all but lost. Since Adam and Eve, only in Jesus Christ were these attributes fully intact. The icon shows the recovery of wholeness. Over centuries of development, iconographers gradually developed a way of communicating physical reality illuminated by the hidden spiritual life. The icon suggests the transfiguration that occurs to whoever, as the Orthodox say, has “acquired the Holy Spirit.” The icon is thus a witness to theosis: deification. As Saint Athanasius of Alexandria said: “God became human so that the human being could become God.”

A final caveat: Important though artistic skill may be, it is the faith of the praying person that matters most, not the quality of the icon. This is a lesson I learned from Dorothy Day, founder the Catholic Worker movement. It is not that Dorothy was lacking in appreciation for finely painted icons. She greatly admired those belonging to her Russian friend Helene Iswolsky and treasured a book of reproductions of the iconography of Saint Andrei Rublev and other masters. Yet she had an eye for qualities an icon specialist might easily overlook.

Having reached her early sixties, Dorothy was having increasing trouble climbing the five flights to her apartment on Spring Street in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy. A small apartment in a similar tenement on Ridge Street was rented for her. It was only one flight up, but was in appalling condition. A friend and I were went down to clean and paint the two rooms. We dragged box after box of debris down to the street, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the trash along the curb, and went back to our labor. Not long after Dorothy arrived, the painting in hand. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. Looking at it again, this time I saw it was a work of love. While this primitive icon was no masterpiece, the ardent faith of its maker shined through. But I wouldn’t have seen it if Dorothy hadn’t seen it first.

return to Praying With Icons index page

Praying With Icons: A Short History of Icons

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997; revised 2008; endnotes and illustrations have been removed:

He is the image [Greek: ikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
— Col 1:15

That … which we have heard and seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands … we proclaim also to you.
— 1 John 1:1-3

Christianity is the revelation not only of the Word of God but also the Image of God.
— Leonid Ouspensky

We are the only creatures that make visual records of the things that matter to us. When we meet friends or relatives after a time apart, we not only tell what has happened since our last meeting, we also share photos. At home, similar photos are on display in photo albums and on computer screens.

It’s a trait that seems to reach very nearly to Adam and Eve. The prehistoric paintings found in the Chauvet Cave in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France, made about 28,000 BC, are among the witnesses to this dimension of being human.

It is not surprising that those who saw Christ took pains to recall what he looked like.

“I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, and of Peter and Paul, which have been preserved up to our time,” Eusebius recorded in his History of the Church early in the fourth century. While visiting Caesarea Philippi in Galilee, he also noted seeing a centuries-old bronze statue of the Savior outside the house of the woman who had been cured of incessant bleeding by Christ. Eusebius’s witness is all the more compelling as he was one of those who regarded religious images as belonging more to the pagan world than to the Church.

The first icon, according to ancient accounts, was made when King Abgar of Osroene, dying of leprosy, sent a message begging Jesus to visit him in Edessa, a city in what is now Turkey, and cure him. Hurrying toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion, Christ instead sent King Abgar a healing gift. He pressed his face against a linen cloth, making the square of fabric bear the image of his face. The miraculous icon remained in Edessa until the tenth century, when it was brought to Constantinople. Then, after the city was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, it disappeared. We know it only through copies. Known as “Not Made by Human Hands” or the “Holy Face,” versions of the icon have often been reproduced down to our own day.

In the western Church, a similar story is associated with the name of Veronica, one of the women who comforted Jesus as he was bearing the cross. She offered him a cloth to wipe the blood and sweat from his face and afterward found she had received a miraculous image. In Jerusalem, a building along the Via Dolorosa associated with Veronica is today home to a community of the Little Sisters of Jesus who, appropriately, support themselves by selling icon prints mounted on olive wood.

The Evangelist and physician Luke is regarded as the first person to paint an icon. Saint Luke is credited with three icons of Mary, in one case using the wood of the table where Christ’s mother and Saint John ate their meals.

The best known is “Our Lady of Tenderness” in which the face of the child Jesus is pressing his face against his mother’s. It was given in 1155 to the recently baptized Church in Russia by Patriarch of Constantinople; because it was kept in the cathedral in Vladimir, it came to came to be known as the Vladimir Mother of God.

Another, the “Hodigitria,” meaning “She Who Shows the Way,” has a more formal arrangement, showing Mary presenting her young son to the viewer.

Finally Luke is credited with painting an icon of Mary in prayer, with outstretched arms, an image sometimes seen in Orthodox churches in the sanctuary above the altar. The placing of the icon near the altar serves as a reminder that Mary became the bridge linking heaven and earth.

Ancient icons often bear layer upon layer of paint, as later iconographers renewed by overpainting work that had become too darkened by candle smoke or too damaged with the passage of time. It is only since the beginning of the twentieth century that icon restorers found safe ways to remove overpainting and reveal the original icon. Perhaps at the foundation level of one or another ancient icon are brush strokes that were made by the hand of Saint Luke. Or perhaps not. Nearly all ancient icons were destroyed during times of persecution in the first three centuries of the Christian era or during the iconoclastic periods in the eighth and ninth centuries, while many others have been lost to fires, earthquakes and vandalism. What can be said with confidence is that icons have come down to us that faithfully bear witness to the work of iconographers of the early generations of the Church.

Even though most early icons have been lost or destroyed, it is surprising how many Christian images from the early Church have survived, most notably in the Roman catacombs and burial houses, but also in many other places, from Asia Minor to Spain. Mainly these are wall paintings — simple and sober images, made with few brush strokes and a narrow range of colors, with such subjects as Christ carrying a lamb, the three young men praising God from within a furnace, the raising of Lazarus, the ark of Noah, the eucharistic meal, and such symbols as fish, lamb and peacock. The catacombs bear witness that, from the Church’s early days, wherever Christians prayed, they sought to create a visual environment that reminded them of the Kingdom of God and helped them to pray.

Many early icons of a more developed style survive in Rome, though they are chiefly mosaics and have a monumental aspect, a type of public Christian art that only became possible in the fourth century, after the age of persecution ended.

In one of Rome’s earliest major churches, Santa Maria Maggiore, there are mosaics from the fifth century, but, as they are high up on the walls, the average visitor will need binoculars to see the detail. One mosaic shows Abraham and Sarah with their three angelic guests — an event Christian theologians came to recognize as an early revelation of the Holy Trinity. The large and vivid mosaic icons above and behind the altar, however, are easy to see and deeply moving; at the center Christ is shown crowning his mother.

Among other Roman churches that contain impressive examples of iconography from the first millennium of Christianity are Saints Cosmas and Damian, Saint John Lateran, Santa Sabina, Santa Costanza, San Clemente, Santa Prassede, Santa Agnese fuori le Mura, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and San Paolo fuori le Mura.

The most significant collection of early icons to survive into our time is at the desert monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai deep inside the Sinai desert. Here we find icon portraits of Christ and the apostle Peter, both dated by art historians as having been made in the sixth century. Both have an almost photographic realism. The style has much in common with Roman and Egyptian portraiture of classical times. These are probably similar to the images mentioned by Eusebius.

Whether or not any original icons from the apostolic age have survived, one is impressed to see how, generation after generation, devout iconographers have sought to make faithful copies of earlier icons, a process that continues to the present day. Thus images of Christ and the leading apostles are recognizable from century to century despite occasional changes in style. We know, for example, that Peter had thick curly hair while Paul was bald. One of the earliest images to survive, a bronze medallion of Saints Peter and Paul, both seen in profile, was made in the second or third century; it is now part of the collection of the Vatican Museum in Rome.

Most important, the memory of Christ’s face is preserved: a man in early middle age, with brown eyes, a piercing gaze, straight dark brown hair reaching down to his shoulders, a short beard, olive skin, and regular features of the Semitic type.

Just as in our own time there is controversy about icons, so was there dispute in the early Church. Early opponents of icons included Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Minucius Felix and Lactancius. Eusebius was not alone in fearing that the art of the pagan world carried with it the spirit of the pagan world, while others objected on the basis of Old Testament restrictions of imagery. Christianity was, after all, born in a world in which many artists were employed doing religious, political and secular work. Idolatry was a normal part of pagan religious life. Thus we find that in the early centuries, in the many areas of controversy among Christians, there was division on questions of religious art and its place in spiritual life. It is instructive to notice that some of those who were reluctant to accept that Christ was God incarnate were also resistant to icons.

At the heart of all theological disputes, from that time into our own day, is the burning question: Who is Jesus Christ?

Some argued that Jesus was simply a man of such exemplary goodness that he was adopted by God as a son. Going further with this idea, others believed God so overwhelmed Jesus the Galilean that his manhood was gradually absorbed into divinity. Then there were those who argued that Jesus merely appeared to be a person of human flesh, but he was in reality pure spirit. Because the flesh is subject to passions, illness and decay, they argued that God could never become incarnate. Those who held this belief rejected Jesus’s death on the cross — a being of pure spirit is deathless — and thus also rejected the resurrection. A being who couldn’t die had no need of being raised from death.

The orthodox Christian answer — that in the womb of Mary the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became a human being, thus Jesus was both true God and true man — was both too simple and too radical for many people. How could the all-powerful God clothe divinity in that which can suffer pain, death and corruption?

Discussion of this issue and its implications constituted the center point for the Church’s seven Ecumenical Councils held during the first eight centuries of the Christian era. Though we find the Orthodox teaching already expressed in the creed of the first Council, held in Nicea near Constantinople in 325, still it took centuries for the Church to shake off the influence of heresies which, in a variety of ways, denied the Incarnation. In fact, these ancient arguments continue with renewed vigor in our own day.

Each church assembly which affirmed the icon was reaffirming the Incarnation. For example the Quinisext Council in Trullo, in 692, while condemning “deceitful paintings that corrupt the intelligence by exciting shameful pleasures,” recognized the icon as a mirror of grace and truth. “In order to expose to the sight of all what is perfect,” the Council declared, “even with the help of painting, we decide that henceforth Christ our God must be presented in his human form…”

The argument over icons reached its boiling point in the eighth and ninth centuries at the time when Islam was rapidly spreading in areas that had formerly been Christian. In 725 the Emperor Leo III, ignoring the opposition of both Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople and Pope Gregory II in Rome, ordered the removal of icons from the churches and their destruction. Perhaps he hoped his order would help stop the spread of Islam, which firmly opposed images in places of worship. Many iconographers from the Byzantine world fled to Italy, finding protection from the Pope. It was a period in which many who upheld orthodox belief suffered loss of property, imprisonment, beatings, and even mutilation.

Some iconoclasts argued that images of Christ, representing as they did his physical appearance, diminished his divinity by revealing only his humanity. It may be that one beneficial consequence of the iconoclastic movement was that makers of icons searched for better ways to represent in paint the hidden, spiritual reality rather than merely the physical aspects of the person represented.

There had been, of course, many earlier defenders of icons, among them Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century, who taught the basic principle that icons are devotional images serving not as ends in themselves but as bridges. He introduced an important verbal clarification. Icons were not adored — God alone is adored — but rather venerated. Even the veneration offered to an icon is given not to the materials that form or support the image, but rather to its living prototype. To kiss an icon of Christ is to send a kiss to Christ himself.

It was a distinction also made in the fourth century by Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa. As he wrote in City of God:

For this is the worship which is due to the Deity; and to express this worship in a single word, as there does not occur to me any Latin term sufficiently exact, I shall avail myself … of a Greek word. Latreia, whenever it occurs in Scripture, is rendered by the word “service.” But that service which is due to men, and in reference to which the apostle [Paul] writes that servants must be subject to their own masters [Eph. 6:5], is usually designated by another word in Greek [douleia], whereas the service which is paid to God alone by worship is always, or almost always, called latreia…

In the age of iconoclasm, the theologian who best defended the use of icons in Christian life was Saint John of Damascus (676-749), a monk and poet kept safe from the power of the iconoclastic emperor through ironic circumstances — his monastery, Mar Saba, in the desert southeast of Jerusalem, was in an area under Islamic rule, thus out of reach of imperial edicts. Here he wrote his essay “On the Divine Images” in which he reasoned:

If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error … but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact, if we make the image of God incarnate who appeared on earth in the flesh, who in his ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume, the form, and the color of the flesh…

Saint John also responded to the arguments of those who regarded Old Testament prohibitions of religious imagery as also applying to the Church:

Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of him whom you saw. Since he who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of his nature, he, being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation him who desired to become visible.

Saint Theodore the Studite (758-826), another defender of icons in the time of iconoclasm, links Gospel and icon with the senses of hearing and seeing:

Imprint Christ onto your heart, where he already dwells. Whether you read about him the Gospels, or behold him in an icon, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see through your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.

The first iconoclastic period lasted until 780. Seven years later, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the bishops rose in defense of the icon. The Council affirmed that it is not the icon itself which is venerated but the prototype whose image is represented in the icon. Iconoclasm was condemned.

Nonetheless, a second iconoclastic period, less severe than the first, was initiated by Emperor Leo V in 813. Orthodox resistance included an impressive act of civil disobedience — an icon-bearing procession in Constantinople by a thousand monks. With the death of the Emperor Theophilus in 842, imperial objections to icons ended. In 843, Theodora, widow of the former Emperor, convened a Council which reaffirmed the teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and confirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. Henceforth the first Sunday of Great Lent was set aside to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a custom maintained to the present day in the Orthodox world when the faithful bring at least one of their home icons to the church. A text sung on the Sunday of Orthodoxy declares:

The indefinable Word of the Father made Himself definable, having taken flesh of thee, O Mother of God, and having refashioned the soiled image of man to its former estate, has suffused it with Divine beauty. Confessing salvation, we show it forth in deed and word.

If in Byzantium the encounter with Islam initially had a devastating effect on icons, further north the Tartar invasion and occupation of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was to have a disruptive impact on every aspect of religious life among the Russian people, themselves latecomers to Christianity, their conversion having begun in Kiev at the end of the tenth century.

Very little iconography of the first few centuries of Christian culture in Russia survives. The early center of Christianity, Kiev, was almost entirely destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1240. As a consequence, Russian culture was driven north. But from the late fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, iconography was to reach heights in Russia that many regard as unparalleled before or since.

The most renowned figure of the period is Saint Andrei Rublev, first noted in 1405 while working in a cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin as a student of the master iconographer Theophanes the Greek. In 1425 Saint Andrei painted the Old Testament Holy Trinity icon, widely regarded as the highest achievement in iconographic art.

Saint Andrei’s other masterpieces include the Savior of Zvenigorod, remarkable for the profound sense of love and mercy communicated in Christ’s face.

For generations Russia was a paradise of iconographic art characterized by simplicity of line, vivid, harmonious colors, grace of gesture, an amazing freshness and transparency. But in the mid-sixteenth century one begins to notice signs of decay. Complexity of design begins to take the place of simplicity, while colors become duller and darker. Russian art historians attribute the change, at least in part, to the influence of prints imported from the west. By the seventeenth century artistic decay was well advanced.

“Decline was the result of a deep spiritual crisis, a secularization of religious consciousness,” writes the iconographer and scholar Leonid Ouspensky, “thanks to which, despite the vigorous opposition of the Church [which ordered the destruction of icons influenced by the artistic methods of the Renaissance], there began the penetration not merely of separate elements but of the very principles of religious art.”

Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) played a major role in speeding the process of the secularization of religious art. He avidly promoted imitation of all things western in every field, including church architecture and iconography, a process carried further by his successors. By the middle of the eighteenth century only a few painted icons in the traditional way, nor was their work welcomed in many local churches. Traditional iconography was replaced by third-rate imitation of second-rate western religious painting — “caricatures of icons,” as Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov, a nineteenth century Russian prelate, remarked.

Peter the Great also abolished the office of Patriarch of Moscow. Afterward the Russian Orthodox Church was treated as a department of government. State control lasted until the abdication of the Czar Nicholas II in 1917 — and then came the Bolshevik Revolution and a period of persecution such as Christianity hadn’t experienced since Nero and Diocletian. Not only were countless icons destroyed, but millions of Orthodox believers perished as well.

It was not only in Russia that iconographers were influenced by western approaches to religious art. Similar influences were at work in other Orthodox countries. As a result, today one finds in many Orthodox churches, no matter in which country, an odd mixture of classic iconography and much that, at best, can be appreciated for its sincerity and, at worst, dismissed as suitable only for the basement.

An important event in the renewal of iconography occurred in Russia in 1904. This was the year that a commission was created to restore Rublev’s Old Testament Holy Trinity icon. As was the case with many other old icons, over time the smoke of candles had been absorbed by the varnish, gradually hiding the image beneath the varnish. As no method then existed for removing the varnish without harming the image, the cure for blackened images was the repainting of icons. Thus a similar image was painted over the older one. Some cases, ancient icons bear several layers of paint. A more permanent solution was to place an oklad over the icon: a relief image in metal — silver or gold — that covered everything but the faces and hands. In 1904, the restoration commission carefully removed the oklad that covered the Holy Trinity icon. Then began the slow and painstaking removal of the layers of overpainting that masked Rublev’s work. It took years, but what their effort finally revealed has ever since amazed those who have been privileged to stand in front of the actual icon. The uncovering of the icon was a momentous event, doing much to inspire the return to classic iconography — and the restoration of a great many other old icons.

Thanks largely to the recovery of many ancient icons, the past century has witnessed a startling re-birth of appreciation of classic iconography. Today one finds good reproductions of iconographic masterpieces, not only in churches but in homes and even in offices. But it is not only a matter of reproductions. Increasingly iconographers are being trained in traditional methods and in the spiritual life that sustains iconography. The result is that good hand-painted icons are more often found not only in churches but in private homes.

return to Praying With Icons index page

Praying With Icons

After eleven printings of its original edition plus numerous translations into other languages, Praying with Icons has no been issued in a revised, all-color edition with fifty more pages and an expanded collection of icons.

Extracts from Praying With Icons:

Enlightening and humane

Normally, a second edition is not worth reviewing since the changes are usually minor. However, in almost every way Orbis Books has improved this articulate, personal yet intelligent introduction to icons and the liturgical life that feeds into and surrounds them. For any book on icons, the quality of the color plates/images is paramount. The earlier edition was disappointing, containing only black and white images, and some hard to read, at that.

From the cover image, a detail of the Vladimirskaya icon of the Mother of God, to numerous other icons of Christ, the feasts of the church year and of the saints, the quality of the color images is simply excellent. The choice of icons reproduced is also remarkable, from masters like Andrei Rubliev and Theophanes the Greek to modern master iconographer Leonid Ouspensky and John Reves.

There are also some very helpful texts of daily prayers, sections situating festal icons in the hymnody and lessons of the feastdays, also a number of photos of icons in procession and home icon corners for prayer.

As with his recent book on pilgrimage, Jim Forest allows his own life and experience to appear, making the entire presentation at once enlightening and humane.

This new expanded edition would be very useful in introducing western Christians to the place of icons in the life and worship of the Eastern Church.

— Fr. Michael Plekon (review for St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly)

With Eyes of Devotion

The history of icons is fraught with dissension and violence. Leonid Ouspensky has commented, “Christianity is the revelation not only of the Word of God but also of the Image of God in which God’s likeness is revealed.” And therein lies the crux of the matter: whether one can depict the likeness of the uncreated one.

Jim Forest’s Praying With Icons is a primer on the background of icons and their position in the Orthodox tradition as aids to, even servants of, those who pray.

In a short introductory history, Forest succinctly tells of the struggle among believers and theologians to express the line between idolatry and the making of images that invite people to he drawn deeper into the mystery of faith. Icons are seen by many in the tradition to affirm the incarnation and to witness devoutly to the person of Jesus Christ, both human and divine. Eventually this perspective prevailed.

Short chapters cover the making of icons, rules and prayers for iconographers, the use of colon and symbols that icons have in common Forest offers remarkable insights into the place of an icon within a sanctuary and within liturgy and into the devotional life of those who pray, with both body and soul.

The book’s text is simple and unadorned in contrast to the richness of the reproductions of the icons themselves In addition photographs scattered throughout the text depict both icons and moments of the Orthodox Church at liturgy Praying With Icons is about beauty and intimacy and is beautiful in its own right, drawing the reader into a contemplative stance and a world that is steeped in devotion, the liturgical year, and the scriptures.

The major portion of Forest’s book looks at specific icons, detailing the theology behind the representation and symbols that speak to those who behold and seek to understand the Mystery more deeply. These sections look at the face of the savior and icons of the great feasts in the life of Jesus as Lord; at Mary, specifically Mary the Mother of God of Tenderness and The Mother of God of the Sign; and archangels and major saints of the Orthodox Church.

Forest’s storytelling and explanation of the icons is fascinating. The background information and theology reflect ancient traditions and are hinted at in the icons themselves. But it is also obvious that these commentaries are the fruit of prayerful reflection and long, loving looking at the images over the years. He shares the basics of a language of praying with one’s eyes, or better, learning to love with one’s eyes, being looked at and looking back at the Holy before us. Each of the icons is examined closely and lovingly and treated as an old friend, a confidante on the journey, a companion in the art of praying.

The unique last section of Forest’s book outlines prayers of the day (morning, evening, and compline), prayers of intercession and a litany of peace. These are indicative of the Orthodox tradition and are often used in an icon corner, a holy place in one’s home. (A list of addresses where icons may be purchased throughout the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands is included.) “Praying With Icons” is a resource and an introduction to an ancient and integral part of Orthodox Christianity.

Describing the Transfiguration icon, which reveals the divine energies and light of God hidden in Jesus Christ, Forest reminds us that this experience in the life of Jesus is also about our destinies — to be deified, “christified,” and to “put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53). He says: “We can hardly begin to imagine what we will look like to each other, how razor sharp the edges of existence will become, though it occasionally happens in this life that our eyes are briefly opened and we are truly awake, seeing things with an intensity which we tend to describe as blinding — God-given moments of transfiguration. Thomas Merton used to speak of such defining flashes as “kisses from God.”

Praying With Icons can go far in teaching us to recognize these life-defining flashes in the person of Jesus, the Spirit, the Trinity, Mary and the saints, as well as in our own lives. It teaches us awe before these representations which make us remember that each of us are, at root, icons of the living God or “kisses from God” upon the world.

It is no wonder that the gesture of kissing the icon privately and publicly and bowing before it is intrinsic to the art of praying with icons. This book is a blessing, made extraordinarily graceful by these icons, those who have honored and saved them in history, and by Jim Forest whose love for them is shared so unabashedly.

–Megan McKenna (from her review for Sojourners)

A clear and vivid account

Books about icons abound, both in the Orthodox world and outside it; some are good, some are bad, some are scholarly, some heavily theological, some technical. Here is one that can be warmly welcomed as an excellent, well written, straight-forward presentation of the subject. It is, from one point of view, a very personal account of their first encounter with icons and of their deepening understanding of the place of icons in their life of prayer. It is also an eirenic book, drawing not only on Orthodox writers, but also on western ones, like Fr Thomas Merton.

The book is divided into five parts. The first treats of the background to the main theme, giving brief, but clear accounts of the history of icons and the preparations and techniques, both material and spiritual, for making them. Part Two consists of two short chapters on Prayer, which are full of sound advice. The author perceptively remarks that ‘another obstacle to prayer is preoccupation with time’, and he recalls the story of the Quaker engineer who was working for the Tsar in the 1840s. Some peasants came to visit him and on entering the house naturally looked first for the icons to venerate. They were puzzled to find that there were none. After some hesitation they bowed in veneration to a fine British clock on the mantle piece. Jim Forest comments: ‘In a way the peasants were right. They had identified a machine which has immense power in the lives of “advanced” people.’

The bulk of the book consists of two parts devoted to brief commentaries on the icons of the Lord and of the great feasts and then on those of the Mother of God and the Saints. These are on the whole very well done and are full of perceptive remarks, such as this, on the icon of the Nativity: ‘This is not the Messiah the Jews of those days expected — or the God we Christians of the modern world were expecting either.’ The final part is a short collection of traditional Orthodox prayers.

— Archimandrite Ephrem Lash
review published in Sourozh, journal of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain

Praying With Icons is available from Orbis Books in the US and Alban Books in the UK, from many bookshops and also from such web sites as Amazon.

The book’s Amazon page:

Orbis Books
Maryknoll, NY 10545
fax 914: 945-0670
free phone for book orders: 1-800-258-5838
e-mail: [email protected]


Ladder of the Beatitudes – Blessed

In English the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount are called “the beatitudes.” The traditional Russian phrase is “the commandments of blessedness.” The first word of each beatitude isn’t an everyday word. We have to ask ourselves before going further what blessed and beatitude mean.

Beatitude comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the context of the gods in Elysium, it meant supremely happy, in a state of pure bliss. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word Saint Jerome opted for in his translation of the “blessed are” verses.

“I would expect that, like so many other Latin writers, Jerome was assuming that the meaning would enlarge within its textual context,” Latin scholar Harold Isbell tells me. “However don’t overlook the possibility that because Greek is a more nuanced language, it conveys degrees of meaning which the hard-headed Roman would not suspect. Then there is ‘beatific,’ as in ‘beatific vision,’ which in the Christian tradition of the west refers specifically to the vision of God, an entirely appropriate but quite unmerited fruit of God’s creative act.”

While most English Bibles use “blessed,” some modern translations prefer “happy”: “How happy are the poor of spirit…”

“‘Happy’ isn’t good enough,” Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild once told me. “The biblical translator who uses such a word should change jobs, maybe write TV comedies with nice happy endings. The problem is that, if you decide you don’t like ‘blessed,’ there isn’t a single English word which can take its place. You might use a phrase like ‘on the right track’ or ‘going in the right direction.’ Sin means being off the track, missing the target. Being ‘blessed’ means you aren’t lost — you’re on the path the Creator intends you to be on. But what you recognize as a blessing may look like an affliction to an outsider. Exchanging ‘blessed’ for ‘happy’ trivializes the biblical word. You might as well sum up the Bible with a slogan like, ‘Have a nice day .'”

“Happy” in some respects makes for an unhappy translation. Its root is hap, the Middle English word for “luck.” The word happen is a daughter word. A happenstance approach to life is to let things happen as they will, to depend on the roll of the dice. To act in a haphazard manner is to do things by chance. To be hapless is to be unlucky, but to have good luck is to be a winner. The lucky person, the happy person, has things going his way. We say certain people were born under a lucky star — they seem to get all the breaks, everything from good looks to money in the bank.

The founding fathers of the United States, in declaring independence from Britain, recognized “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. For them, the pursuit of happiness meant each person had the right to seek his own good fortune and not simply be the servant of another. In our era, in which happiness is somewhere between a human right and a social duty, many people feel guilty for failing to be continually happy.

But what about the word blessed? This was the word chosen by the translators of the Authorized Version in the seventeenth century. Blessed meant something consecrated to or belonging to God.

Several Hebrew words have been translated as “blessed,” beginning with baruk, as in the verse: “And God blessed them [the first man and woman], saying, Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Baruk is linked to kneeling — a blessing would be received while kneeling in a posture of respect and submission.

“Baruk is frequently applied to God, indeed the berakah is the characteristic Jewish prayer,” Archimandrite Ephrem Lash of the Monastery of Saint Andrew in Manchester explained to me. “The typical Jewish prayer begins, ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God…’ There is even a berakah for forgetting the correct berakah. This has been taken into Christianity, in particular into Orthodoxy, where no service can begin without a berakah — ‘Blessed is our God now and forever and unto the ages of ages’, or ‘Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…'”

Ashre is another Hebrew word which has been translated as “blessed.” It is an exclamation — “O the good fortune!” The root meaning is “to go straight, to advance.” The person of whom one can say ashre ha-ish is one for whom things are on the right track, going along a straight way, making headway. It is often used in the Book of Psalms, as seen in the first psalm: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The next verse offers a metaphor of what it is like to be blessed — such a person “is like a tree planted by streams of water.”

There is the similar Hebrew word ashar. In the Book of Proverbs it is used in a passage describing the ideal woman: “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her” (Prov 31:28).

All the Gospels were first written in Greek. In those passages where “blessed” is a verb, the Greek is eulogeo (“to bless”) — an action associated with praise, thanksgiving and consecration, and therefore used in liturgical contexts. For example:

And as they ate, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, eat, this is my body’.

(Mark 14:22)

Where “blessed” is used as an adjective, it is a translation of makarios. It is makarios which is used throughout the beatitudes. We also hear it also in such texts as,

Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear” and, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

(Mt 13:16, 16:17)

In classical Greek makar was associated with the immortal gods. Kari means fate or death, but with the negative prefix “ma” the word means being deathless, no longer subject to fate, a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones.

“The interesting thing about ashre is that it is never, so far as I know, applied to God,” Archimandrite Ephrem points out. “On the other hand the Greek makar starts life as precisely something which the gods are, though the related adjective makarios is more commonly applied to humans.”

In Christian use, makarios came increasingly to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of happenstance running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away, that their light may be centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes and that the objects which produced the light may no longer exist. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being blessed with qualities which seem humanly impossible.

[This is an extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, 1999; not to be published without the author’s permission]

The Ladder of the Beatitudes – Rung by rung

Blessed is the person whose desire for God has become like the lover’s passion for the beloved.

— Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 30th step, 5.

Even in a culture in which the Bible is a dark and unmapped continent to millions of people, if you say “Blessed are…” someone is likely to add the next few words of the first beatitude, “the poor in spirit.” The text is hard to forget even if it isn’t easily understood.

With only a little effort, all the beatitudes can be memorized. Once learned by heart, we carry within us for the rest of our lives a short summary of the teaching of Jesus Christ: the whole Gospel in a grain of salt.

Some churches see to it that the beatitudes become engraved in our hearts while we are still children. In the Orthodox Church, it is customary to sing the beatitudes every Sunday during the first procession when the Gospel book is carried out of the sanctuary into the main part of the church and back into the sanctuary again to be placed on the altar. Week after week the words are sung until they reach so deep a place that late in life, when the face in the mirror belongs to a stranger, these words will still shine like pebbles in a stream.

Anything sung is easily memorized. The neurologist Oliver Sacks tells the story of a man who has lost every vestige of memory but could, when attending Mass, sing the entire Liturgy. [in “The Lost Mariner,” The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), pp 23-42.]

There are eight beatitudes, if we recognize the last two verses as one, as both describe the suffering often imposed upon those who live the Gospel: eight facets of discipleship. Yet in another sense, there is only one beatitude, because all are aspects of life in communion with God. Each of the eight describes aspects of being in the kingdom of God.

They are like rungs on a ladder which Christ has arranged in an exact order. There is a pattern to his arrangement. Each step builds on the foundation of the previous step, each leads to the next, and each is indispensable. We can’t divide them up, retaining those we find appealing and leaving those we don’t care for to others, as if one could specialize: “I’ll take peacemaking, you can have purity of heart.”

Saint John Climacus (c. 579-649), one of the Desert Fathers, used the same metaphor for a more complex arrangement in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, a strategy of salvation which begins with the renunciation of worldly life and ascends through obedience, penitence, detachment and humility in the daily struggle to enter more and more deeply into the love of God and freedom from everything which impedes that love. So far as I am aware, his is the only book which has given rise to its own icon: the image of a ladder with many rungs stretching from the desert toward the welcoming arms of Christ in the upper-right hand corner. The ladder is crowded with those who wish to enter the kingdom of God, but they are under attack by small demons armed with arrows, spears and robes. Succumbing to various temptations, some are shown falling off the ladder.

The Christian life is climbing the ladder of the beatitudes — and when we fall off, starting once again.

[This is an extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, 1999; not to be published without the author’s permission]

Confession: Doorway of Forgiveness – A Three-Letter Word

Sin has always been an ugly word, but it has been made so in a new sense over the last half-century. It has been made not only ugly but passé. People are no longer sinful, they are only immature or underprivileged or frightened or, more particularly, sick.

— Phyllis McGinley, The Province of the Heart, “In Defense of Sin”

What is failure? Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time. Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print. But in the movies they don’t show the failures. What you see are the takes that work. So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded-off way. It looks as if real failure is unspeakable. TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories. Because that is not the way life is. Life is fits and starts, mostly fits.

— Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome

There is no need to preach constantly on “sin,” to judge and to condemn. It is when a man is challenged with the real contents of the Gospel, with its Divine depth and wisdom, beauty and all embracing meaning, that he becomes “capable of repentance,” for true repentance is precisely the discovery by the man of the abyss that separates him from God and from His real offer to man. It is when the man sees the bridal chamber adorned that he realizes that he has no garment for entering it.

— Fr. Alexander Schmemann

A best-selling book of the 1970s had the title I’m Okay, You’re Okay. One of its readers, a young priest in Boston, gave a sermon which was essentially a rave review. He wished he could give everyone a copy of the book. At the end of Mass, standing at the door, he asked one of his older parishioners if he had liked the sermon. The man responded, “I haven’t read the book — maybe it’s better than the Bible. But I kept thinking of Christ on the Cross saying to those who were watching him die, ‘If everybody’s okay, what in blazes am I doing up here?'”

The problem is I’m not okay and neither are you.

There have been thousands of essays and books in recent decades which have dealt with human failings under various labels without once using the one-syllable, three-letter word that has more bite than any of its synonyms: sin. Actions traditionally regarded as sinful have instead been seen as natural stages in the process of growing up, a result of bad parenting, a consequence of mental illness, an inevitable response to unjust social conditions, pathological behavior brought on by addiction, or even as “experiments in being.” Sin, we’ve also been told, is an invention of repressed, hypocritical clerics who want to keep the rest of us in bondage — “priests in black robes binding with briars our joys and desires,” in the chiming syllables of William Blake.

But what if I am more than a robot programmed by my past or my society or my economic status and actually can take a certain amount of credit — or blame — for my actions and inactions? Have I not done things I am deeply ashamed of, would not do again if I could go back in time, and would prefer no one to know about? What makes me so reluctant to call those actions “sins”? Is the word really out of date? Or is the problem that it has too sharp an edge?

The Hebrew verb chata’, “to sin,” like the Greek word hamartia, literally means straying off the path, getting lost, missing the mark. Sin — going off course — can be intentional or unintentional. “You shoot an arrow, but it misses the target” a rabbi friend once explained to me. “Maybe it hits someone’s backside, someone you didn’t even know was there. You didn’t mean it, but it’s a sin. Or maybe you knew he was there — he was what you were aiming at. Then it’s not a matter of poor aim but of hitting his backside intentionally. Now that’s a sin!”

The Jewish approach to sin tends to be concrete. The author of the Book of Proverbs lists seven things which God hates:

A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked deeds, feet that run swiftly to evil, a false witness that declares lies, and he that sows discord among the brethren. (6:17-19)

As in so many other lists of sins, pride is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a disdainful spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs (16:18). In the Garden of Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like a god.”

Pride is regarding oneself as god-like. In one of the stories preserved from early desert monasticism, a younger brother asks an elder, “What shall I do? I am tortured by pride.” The elder responds, “You are right to be proud. Was it not you who made heaven and earth?” With those few words, the brother was cured of pride.

The craving to be ahead of others, to be more valued than others, to be more highly rewarded than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize — these are among the symptoms of pride. Pride opens the way for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence, and all those other actions that destroy community with God and with those around us.

“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor notes, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse — they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did — they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”

So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that people explain what they did rather than admit they did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” the Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”

For the person who has committed a serious sin, there are two vivid signs — the hope that what I did may never become known; and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is the case before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life. (Rod Steiger in the film The Pawnbroker, in a desperate action to break free of numbness, slammed a nail-like spindle through his hand so he could finally feel something, even if it meant agonizing pain — a small crucifixion.)

It is a striking fact about our basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than that in any law book — the “law written on our hearts” that St. Paul refers to (Rom 2:15). It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to going to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.

Guilt is not quite the same thing.

Guilt is one of the themes of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. The central figure of the novel is Dr. Thomas More, a descendent of St. Thomas More, though the latest More is hanging on to his faith by a frayed thread. He isn’t likely to die a martyr for the faith. Dr. More is both a physician and a patient at a Louisiana mental hospital. From time to time he meets with his colleague Max, a psychologist eager to cure More of guilt.

Max tells More,

“We found out what the hangup was and we are getting ready to condition you out of it.”

“What hangup?”

“Your guilt feelings.”

“I never did see that.”

Max explains that More’s guilt feelings have to do with adulterous sex.

“Are you speaking of my fornication with Lola…?” asks More.

“Fornication,” repeats Max. “You see?”

“See what?”

“That you are saying that lovemaking is not a natural activity, like eating and drinking.”

“No, I didn’t say it wasn’t natural.”

“But sinful and guilt-laden.”

“Not guilt-laden.”

“Then sinful?”

“Only between persons not married to each other.”

“I am trying to see it as you see it.”

“I know you are.”

“If it is sinful, why are you doing it?”

“It is a great pleasure.”

“I understand. Then, since it is ‘sinful,’ guilt feelings follow even though it is a pleasure.”

“No, they don’t follow.”

“Then what worries you, if you don’t feel guilty?”

“That’s what worries me: not feeling guilty.”

“Why does that worry you?”

“Because if I felt guilty, I could get rid of it.”


“By the sacrament of penance.”

“I’m trying to see it as you see it.”

“I know you are.”

Percy’s novel reminds us that one of the oddest things about the age we live in is that we are made to feel guilty about feeling guilty. Dr. Thomas More is fighting against that. He may not yet experience guilt for his sins, but at least he knows that a sure symptom of moral death is not to feel guilty.

Dr. Thomas More — a modern man who can’t quite buy the ideology that there are no sins and there is nothing to feel guilty about — is battling to recover a sense of guilt, which in turn will provide the essential foothold for contrition, which in turn can motivate confession and repentance. Without guilt, there is no remorse; without remorse there is no possibility of becoming free of habitual sins.

Yet there are forms of guilt that are dead-end streets. If I feel guilty that I have not managed to become the ideal person I occasionally want to be, or that I imagine others want me to be, then it is guilt that has no divine reference point. It is simply me contemplating me with the eye of an irritated theater critic. Christianity is not centered on performance, laws, principles, or the achievement of flawless behavior, but on Christ himself and participation in God’s transforming love.

When Christ says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), he is speaking not about the perfection of a student always obtaining the highest test scores or a child who manages not to step on any of the sidewalk’s cracks, but of being whole, being in a state of communion, participating in God’s love.

This is a condition of being that is suggested wordlessly by St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity: those three angelic figures silently inclined toward each other around a chalice on a small altar. They symbolize the Holy Trinity: the communion that exists within God, not a closed communion restricted to them selves alone but an open communion of love in which we are not only invited but intended to participate.

A blessed guilt is the pain we feel when we realize we have cut ourselves off from that divine communion that radiates all creation. It is impossible not to stand on what Thomas Merton called “the hidden ground of love” but easy not to be aware of the hidden ground of love or even to resent it.

Like Dr. Thomas More, we may find ourselves hardly able to experience the guilt we know intellectually that we ought to feel not only for what we did, or failed to do, but for having fallen out of communion with God.

“Guilt,” comments my Romanian friend Ioana Novac, “is a sense of fearful responsibility after realizing we have taken the wrong step and behold its painful consequences. In my experience, unfortunately not many people can tolerate this insight. My hunch is that many people these days experience less and less love, less and less strengthening support from their families and communities. As life gets more harried and we become more afflicted, the burden of guilt increases while our courage to embrace repentance — to look ourselves straight in the mirror and face the destructive consequences of our blindness and wrong choices — decreases.”

It’s a common delusion that one’s sins are private or affect only a few other people. To think our sins, however hidden, don’t affect others is like imagining that a stone thrown into the water won’t generate ripples. As Bishop Kallistos Ware observed:

There are no entirely private sins. All sins are sins against my neighbor, as well as against God and against myself. Even my most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it more difficult for those around me to follow Christ.

This is a topic Garrison Keillor addressed in one of his Lake Wobegon stories.

A friend — Keillor calls him Jim Nordberg — writes a letter in which he recounts how close he came to committing adultery. Nordberg describes himself waiting in front of his home for a colleague he works with to pick him up, a woman who seems to find him much more interesting and handsome than his wife does. They plan to drive to a professional conference in Chicago, though the conference isn’t really what attracts Nordberg to this event. He knows what lies he has told others to disguise what he is doing. Yet his conscience hasn’t stopped troubling him.

Sitting under a spruce tree, gazing up and down the street at all his neighbors’ houses, he is suddenly struck by how much the quality of life in each house depends on the integrity of life next door, even if everyone takes everyone else for granted. “This street has been good for my flesh and blood,” he says to himself. He is honest enough to realize that what he is doing could bring about the collapse of his marriage and wonders if in five or ten years his new partner might not tire of him and find someone else to take his place. It occurs to him that adultery is not much different from horse trading.

Again he contemplates his neighborhood:

As I sat on the lawn looking down the street, I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they are no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families — my infidelity would somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gases come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. When we scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white table cloth. If I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection and someone’s child will be injured. A sixth grade teacher will think, “What the hell,” and eliminate South America from geography. Our minister will decide, “What the hell — I’m not going to give that sermon on the poor.” Somehow my adultery will cause the man in the grocery store to say, “To hell with the Health Department. This sausage was good yesterday — it certainly can’t be any worse today.”

By the end of the letter it’s clear that Nordberg decided not to go to that conference in Chicago after all — a decision that was a moment of grace not only for him, his wife, and his children, but for many others who would have been injured by his adultery.

“We depend on each other,” Keillor says again, “more than we can ever know.”

Far from being hidden, each sin is another crack in the world.

One of the most widely used prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is only one sentence long:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Short as it is, many people drawn to it are put off by the last two words. Those who teach the prayer are often asked, “But must I call myself a sinner?” In fact that ending isn’t essential, but our difficulty using it reveals a lot. What makes me so reluctant to speak of myself in such plain words? Don’t I do a pretty good job of hiding rather than revealing Christ in my life? Am I not a sinner? To admit that I am provides a starting point.

There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to repent. Between these two there is no middle ground.

Justification may be verbal, but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “After the first blush of sin comes indifference,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. There is an even sharper Jewish proverb: “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime.”

Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live any more as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. In the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “There can be no absolution where there is no repentance.”

As St. John Chrysostom said sixteen centuries ago in Antioch:

Repentance opens the heavens, takes us to Paradise, overcomes the devil. Have you sinned? Do not despair! If you sin every day, then offer repentance every day! When there are rotten parts in old houses, we replace the parts with new ones, and we do not stop caring for the houses. In the same way, you should reason for yourself: if today you have defiled yourself with sin, immediately clean yourself with repentance.

The Wormwood File: Introduction

The introduction plus the first two letters from The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell


We may not pay Satan reverence, for that would be indiscreet, but we can at least respect his talents. A person who has for untold centuries maintained the imposing position of spiritual head of four-fifths of the human race, and political head of the whole of it, must be granted the possession of executive abilities of the loftiest order.

— Mark Twain

Demon-to-demon correspondence is not the kind of writing we often gain access to or even imagine exists. Aren’t devils a figment of our superstitious ancestors’ fevered imaginations? A pre-scientific way of explaining madness, illness, wars, plagues, famines and other misfortunes? A way of blaming invisible beings for all those actions once regarded as sins but now seen, in the clear light of scientific day, as mistakes or misunderstandings?

It’s not a bad age to be a demon. They have a freer hand so long as we regard them as nonexistent. How can what doesn’t exist do us any harm? Would that they were the nothings we imagine.

Unfortunately not only do they exist, but they are damnably clever. They even write letters.

How did I obtain an exchange of hellish e-mail? It was thanks to a chance meeting at a venerable but unpretentious pub in Oxford, the Eagle & Child, where anything that interferes with quiet conversation is unwelcome. Though most of the pub’s clients are known only to their friends and families, many luminaries have lifted a pint at this establishment, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, yet there isn’t a clipping on the walls that suggests that such words as “hobbit” and “Aslan” were heard here before they were heard anywhere else.

This past May, while in that academic town for a conference and having ordered an ale at the Eagle & Child, I discovered the man standing next to me at the bar was an “I.T.” specialist. “Eye Tea?” I asked? “Information technology,” he replied, recognizing me as a throwback to the Gutenberg era.

Forgiving my ignorance, he went on to explain he was in the midst of a project being conducted at Magdalen College. His task was to find more effective ways to defend the university’s computers from viruses, worms and other unwelcome “e-guests.”

I said it sounded like tedious work.

“Sometimes it is,” he told me, “but there are occasional discoveries that make it more than worthwhile. Just yesterday I managed to hack my way through the firewalls of Hell.”

I chuckled. Clearly he was joking.

“I know it sounds altogether unlikely,” he responded, “but I’m not kidding. Using the Google search engine, I meant to type in the name of a fellow researcher whose web site I wanted to visit — a man named Wornwood. By a slip of the index finger I found a link to a web site for the domain ‘Wormwood’! It was a very austere page, simply the word ‘Wormwood’ in red gothic letters on a dark grey background — a page with a seriously diabolic look! But the site was password protected. I couldn’t stroll right in.”

He paused for a long sip of ale.

“You must understand that I’m the sort of person who finds locked doors a challenge. At least on the web, I’m pretty good at breaking and entering. But I might never have managed to find a way in, or even had the motivation, had I not been a C.S. Lewis fan. You must have heard of him, but have you ever read The Screwtape Letters? Very worthwhile. It’s is a collection of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to a dense apprentice named Wormwood published sixty years ago during the last world war. Anyway, after several bad guesses, I typed ‘Screwtape’ into the password field on the theory that sometimes the simplest key is the one that works — and bingo, the door opened! As I was soon to discover, I was in that part of web that is furthest below sea level.”

I asked what he had found.

“Sadly, not a lot. Within minutes whoever guards the site was on to me. I lost my connection and my computer crashed. When I was up and running again, there was no longer a Wormwood site. It had vanished. But during my short visit, I had managed to download a file of e-mail sent by Wormwood to an up-and-coming junior devil named Greasebeek. Unfortunately Greasebeek’s half of the exchange wasn’t part of the file, though it’s easy enough to guess his side of it. If you care to see the archive, I can pass it on to you. Just give me your internet address. You do have one?”

Luckily I did. The file was waiting for me when I checked my e-mail that night.

I read it immediately, then responded with the suggestion it should be published. My new-found friend — let me call him Albion — said this was out of the question: “Believe me, my job prospects would not be enhanced by having my name on the cover of a collection of e-mail from Hell. The prudent scholar who wants to keep his academic career on the right track would do well not to confess his suspicion that there are demons about.” He suggested I take charge of the file. And so I have.

Several friends I’ve shared the file with have doubted the authenticity of the exchange. One colleague regards it as ridiculous to think non-physical beings, should they exist, would have any need for e-mail. (It’s my view that e-mail, being so radically a non-physical medium, is ideal for demons.)

One friend asked if I had done a “background check” on Albion? The answer is no.

I freely admit there is no way to prove these letters are what they claim to be, only that the man who passed them on to me has good taste in pubs and ale. He doesn’t impress me as suffering a compulsion to conduct seances or sell snake oil to the gullible. One of the striking things about him is that he has no interest in selling anything.

In a recent note he points out that, even for a hardened atheist, belief in Hell doesn’t require a leap of faith: “Any sensible person should find Hell a good deal easier to believe in than Heaven. All you need to do is think of how many ways we’ve come up with to harm each other, a list which gets constantly longer as we migrate from war to war. For most of us, glimpses of Heaven are not as easily come by.” These are not the thoughts of a man who has the Mad Hatter in his family tree.

No doubt there are those readers who will be tempted to think I’m the one who descends from the Mad Hatter. I console myself by recalling that Lewis must have endured similar suspicions when he published his collection more than half a century ago.

Jim Forest


TO: Greasebeek
FROM: Wormwood
SUBJECT: teamwork

My dearest, most congenial Greasebeek,

Of course I am at your service. “Teamwork” is a popular word among humans these days. We could use more of it in Hell. I also recall that I was once as clueless as you are.

Yes, you have had a setback. That’s obvious. But don’t be so quick to hit the alarm button! A cool head is always a good thing, no matter how hot the furnace. I agree your client’s situation is threatening, but only mildly so. There is no reason to regard him as a lost cause or yourself in a room with no exits. So he has bought a CD of monks chanting. I can assure you most people who buy recordings of Gregorian chant, Orthodox liturgies, Black spirituals and the like rarely become Christians. I know you will find this hard to imagine, but they barely listen to what is being sung. The words, even if in a language they happen to understand, are merely restful, pleasant sounds. These recordings are supposed to reduce stress — this is their main selling point. They are non-prescription tranquilizers. In any event your client will find music of this quality far more easily in music shops than in actual churches. There isn’t one church in a thousand that has music that compares favorably with what people buy in music shops. I’ve known people to give up on Christianity simply because the music in actual churches doesn’t measure up to recordings!

We had a case recently of a man leaving a certain parish because he didn’t like the sound system. He has yet to find a parish that measures up to his artistic standards. I doubt he ever will.

If you wore shoes, you would wear them out looking for a parish that provides music any record company would want to record.

You say your client is listening to these recordings on a daily basis while driving to work and occasionally at home. The thing to guard against is that he doesn’t connect the music with actual Christian belief. If he thinks of it at all, help him regard the Christian music he enjoys as primitive “folk art.” This is what you need to encourage.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that you should be complacent about the sort of music he is playing. Clearly the content is dangerous and even the music itself, as pure sound, suggests what the Enemy refers to as “the kingdom of heaven.” Beauty is always a danger. It does happen from time to time that even one phrase from a song or hymn sets ideas in motion which can undermine many years of hard work on our part.

If the “folk art” line of defense fails, at vulnerable moments plant the thought that the people who sing such music are doing it purely for the sake of art — better yet, for money — and don’t believe what they’re singing any more than a politician believes his own speeches.

You mentioned he has learned by heart a few stanzas of “Amazing Grace.” If you hear him humming that appalling tune, the danger will pass if you can make him recall some particularly ugly item in the news or hideous episode in human history. What good is “Amazing Grace” if terrorists are blowing up children or people are starving to death or plagues kill thousands? Stick with the slogan that “no good God would permit evil things to happen” and you will have nothing to worry about.

The man who wrote “Amazing Grace” was nearly ours, by the way — a slave trader much of his life. A sad tale, that one. His guardian demon, who failed to see what was going on right under his nose, is still paying the price for letting him fall into the Enemy’s hands. (Never forget for a moment that just as there are rewards for achievement, there are penalties for failure. There is more to Hell than you yet know.)

Happily, your client seems so put off by “organized religion” that there is probably no need to wave headlines or history books at him.

“Organized religion” — what a useful phrase that’s been! Isn’t it amazing how many people appreciate organized health care, organized education, organized garbage collection, organized mail delivery, organized beer breweries and organized film making, and yet without batting an eye embrace the idea that everyone would be better off without organized religion? Don’t you love it! The widespread acceptance of this term, pronounced as if it were a disease, has been one of our greatest triumphs, making your work a hundred times easier than it was in former times, and all the more so in simple, low level cases like the one you have.

Did you know that my mentor and uncle, the renowned Screwtape, was one of those who did the most to make this phrase so popular? He is an example to us all, though one has always to take care not to offend or disappoint one of his magnitude! You may have heard rumors of my near catastrophe at his hands not many decades ago when I was much less experienced in the management of souls. Luckily I happened to have discovered a few details about a failure of his that he was desperately eager should never be reported. This item of intelligence reversed my fortunes and even put me up a notch.

warmly yours,



TO: Greasebeek
FROM: Wormwood
SUBJECT: the real world

My dearest Greasebeek,

In your previous letter you were nervous about a shift in your client’s musical tastes, but can you imagine what might happen if he were to disconnect himself, even partially, from his TV? What good is a guardian devil who notices dust but overlooks boulders?

You consigned to a mere PS the decision made by your client and his wife — by the way, what do you know about her? — to shift their television from the living room to the spare room in order “to get it out of the center of their lives.” Especially disturbing is his remark about needing to take steps “to build up a spiritual life.”

At least they haven’t completely gotten rid of the TV. Even so, this has the potential of moving many things in the wrong direction. Your old instructor Grimshaw assured me you were clever but I begin to have my doubts. How could you fail to see this danger approaching and neglect to take appropriate preventative measures?

You might at least have suggested placing it in the bedroom, which in many cases is a better location for a television than the living room. It is not unusual for bedroom sets to run all night, with those who doze in the electronic glare waking up fitfully to catch disturbing fragments of whatever happens to be on as the night progresses — scenes of murder and mayhem, or often violent, semi-pornographic films. In fact these days there might be nothing “semi” about it. Even in the case of those who at last turn it off, the presence of bedroom television will usually mean less reading, less talking and less quiet unwinding before falling asleep — thus a more tired, more irritable person the next day. Most important, an active television, even when it is only running as background noise, means less prayer, or none.

But perhaps your man is another type and may succeed in reducing the time he spends paralyzed in front of a televison. You mentioned several programs your client used to watch regularly, programs generally regarded as “wholesome,” “inspiring,” etc., suggesting it might actually be in our interest that he intends to see less TV. You seem to think it’s a triumph that he might miss the occasional documentary about pilgrims making their way to some pathetic shrine or nuns serving the poor or something else equally distasteful. But all these things are entirely harmless so long as they are just images on a television screen. The viewer will feel virtuous simply because he is watching charitable ladies doing good deeds in distant places he will never visit among the sort of people he carefully avoids in real life. The main fact is that, watching these holy nuns, your man is safe in a dream world, doing nothing, not lifting a finger for anyone, not even saying a prayer or parting with his loose change. It hardly matters what he fantasizes about from time to time so long as it’s only star-gazing — or saint-gazing. (Yes, of course, demon gazing pleases us far better. You must do what you can to speed the day.)

What is dangerous is your client taking charge of his eyes. I don’t think you yet grasp that if we can turn a man’s eyes in the right direction, he’s ours right down to his toenails. Own a man’s eyes and you own the man.

I had a client once who attended church services for more than a year, even sang in the choir for several months. I was beginning to think she was a lost cause. Luckily for us, she never broke the habit of watching television whenever she was alone. There was always something to remind her that “the real world” has nothing to do “with some alleged all-powerful deity,” as she used to say, once she had seen the darkness. Finally she decided that going to church was as childish as believing in Tinker Bell. The lady died a few years ago and is today safely below.

Take heart. You have lost a battle but certainly not the war. At the very least, you can count on your client’s friends to be raising their eyebrows at this repositioning of the TV. If you play your cards right, he’ll soon be worrying that he is being seen by his friends as slightly cracked if not a total nut case. Keep in mind that peer group disapproval, even when only imagined, is no small thing. The average human being would rather be regarded as a criminal than a crackpot.

Yours warmly,


PS Kindly avoid the e-mail shorthand! After a little research, I’ve learned that LOL means lots of luck, but when writing me, write in complete sentences. I am not a teenager and this is not chatroom doodling.

copyright 2004 by Jim Forest, may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s written permission

The Resurrection of the Church in Albania

by Jim Forest

In the last decade, with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Church in Albania has gone through dramatic changes. Albania was the first officially atheist state in the world. After 1967 all forms of religious expression, even prayer in one’s own home, were forbidden. Since the fall of communism, the Orthodox Church, the oldest and largest Christian community in Albania, has been transformed from a repressed church into a vibrant, rapidly growing and inspired force for renewal and reconciliation in the country.

Jim Forest’s narrative presents a fascinating historical background and an inspiring story of current church witness. The traditions and life of this fellowship, so clearly portrayed, will help educate the wider Christian community about Albania’s diverse religious life and also the role religion can play as a potential force for both healing and peace in the Balkan region.

The book is illustrated with 65 photos.

The author: Jim Forest has written many books, including The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway of Forgiveness, Praying with Icons, The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell, Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton, All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, Pilgrim to the Russian Church, and Religion in the New Russia. He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of the quarterly journal In Communion.

Here are several chapters from the book:

An extraordinary story: Between 1944 and his death in 1985, Enver Hoxha, the Communist leader of Albania, carried out possibly the most extraordinary persecution of religion to be seen in any of the Communist Bloc. His aim was no less than the total eradication of all religion in the country, be it Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim. Not only did he destroy the churches, monasteries and mosques and proscribe all religious practices but he attempted to expunge the very idea of religious faith from people’s minds.

The full story of this horrifying forty years has yet to be fully documented but Jim Forest has made an extremely valuable contribution to the literature on the subject. The book’s main theme is the extraordinary way in which the Albanian Orthodox Church has literally come back from the dead under the leadership of the charismatic Archbishop Anastasios. In describing the resurrection of the Church, however, there is also a great deal of detail about the preceding persecution and the incredible courage of the believers shines through on every page.

Jim Forest is not a pundit or historian giving an “expert” analysis of the situation. He is a better and rarer creature than that; he is a listener. Almost all of the book comprises interviews with survivors of the horrors and participants in the resurrection, the predominant voice being that of the Albanian people rather than of Mr. Forest. The subtitle of the book is Voices of Orthodox Christians and it is these voices which give it an immediacy and vigour that bring the story to life. Where Jim Forest’s skill lies is in the sympathetic but penetrating questions he asks.

If you already know something of this extraordinary story, this book will fill out your knowledge with fresh insights. If you know nothing of the struggles of the Albanian Church, you jolly well ought to and this book is an excellent place to start.

— Christopher Moorey, author of “Traveling Companions: Walking With Saints of the Church”


World Council of Churches
WCC Publications
P.O. Box 2100
1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland

published August 2002, 128pp, illustrated.
ISBN: 2-8254-1359-3
Price: Sfr26.00, US$15.95, UK£10.95, 17 euros.

The book can be ordered via the WCC web site.

Available in the USA from:
International Specialized Book Services (ISBS)
5824 NE Hassalo Street
Portland, Oregon 97213-3644
Tel: +1 800 944 6190, Fax: + 1 503 280 8832
E-mail: [email protected]
ISBS has a sliding scale discount schedule for purchases: 1-4 copies 20%, 5-24 copies 40% and 25+ 44% plus shipping which the bookstore pays. “We require prepayment from bookstores that have never ordered from us before and take various credit cards and, of course, checks. We have a toll-free customer service phone number 1-800-944-6190.”

Available in Canada from:
United Church Resource Distribution
3250 Bloor Street West, Suite 300
Etobicoke ON M8X 2Y4
Tel +1 416 253 5456
+1 800 288 7365
Fax: 1 416 253 1630
E-mail: [email protected]

Available in Great Britain and Ireland from:
ORCA Book Services Ltd
Stanley House
3 Fleets Lane
Poole, Dorset BH15 3AJ
Tel: +44 1202 665 432
Fax: +44 1202 666 219
E-mail: [email protected]

* * *