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.

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