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:

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