September 3, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 22
This icon of the Savior invites us to intimacy with Christ the Beloved. We may be aware of our own desire for God, but what we may not be so cognizant of is Christ’s desire for us. When things in ordinary life tempt us to make
them more important to us than God, seeing Christ’s desire for us can help to reorder our priorities. © 2012 ANN CHAPIN
Praying to God by looking at icons
C oncerning prayer, Jesus commands all his followers to something radically new: prayer in private; intimacy with God that is direct, one-on-one.
“But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:6)
Over the span of the ages, we have either happened upon or developed ways to pray in secret — we pray the Rosary, we practice Lectio Divina or read the writings of the saints. However, we are also visual creatures, and our liturgy reveals our desire to see the face of God in the Mass and in music.
To gaze on the face of Christ is a deep longing, as is the need to pray without words. Often, the trials of our daily work and difficulties in our personal lives may be such that we find ourselves unable to put what we’re feeling into words.
At those times, if we gaze silently at the face of Christ and allow Him to gaze at us, He will communicate to us exactly what we need at a level deeper than words.
There has been a long tradition of praying with icons, particularly in the Eastern Church. The icon is regarded not just as a piece of religious art, but as an actual spiritual window into the transcendent realm.
In praying with icons we can pray in secret and also grow in intimacy with Christ. Furthermore, there is an understanding in the tradition that meditating on the face of Christ gazing back at us actually changes us.
In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul writes, “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
The commentary at the Vatican site notes that gazing may also be translated “contemplating as in a mirror.” Additionally, 2 Corinthians 4:6 would suggest that the mirror is Christ himself: “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of (Jesus) Christ.”
Gazing at an image of Christ as contemplating in a mirror transforms us into the same image; we are transformed into the full stature of Christ, which some may call union with God, where no longer I live, but Christ lives in me.
This does not mean our identity is annihilated, but we become the person God intends us to be, Christ-like.
Here are some practical suggestions. First of all, find one or several faces of Christ that move you.
The specific advice of St. John of the Cross is to find an image that speaks to you and to not be influenced by the fashion of the times or another’s opinion.
You may find yourself drawn to an ancient icon, such as the famous one from St. Catherine’s Monastery, or you may prefer something more current. The worldwide web abounds with sacred images, and many can be downloaded and printed out for personal use.
Find that image of Christ on the web that most speaks to you, download it onto your mobile phone, and your phone can become a true modern day portable icon. Then, anywhere you have your phone or tablet, you have some faces of Christ with you.
You can also use your computer screen as a sort of icon board, and that has the advantage of the image being displayed close to life-sized. For some reason, the larger the image is, the easier it is to focus.
Ideally, find a time of the day, such as first thing in the morning or before bed each night where you can sit in solitude, away from all other distractions, and devote that time to prayer.
Reading scripture and daily prayer periodicals all contribute to this time. Select a face that you are drawn to contemplate. We want to practice simply being in the presence of Christ with the mind in the heart, silent, just letting Him gaze at us in compassion and love.
This is not necessarily easy at first. We don’t have to say anything — but on the other hand, this is often a time when we may need to express something that is overwhelming us, such as grief over a sick loved one, worries about security, job, etc.
It’s good to just look at Him and say exactly what we are feeling — if we have words. If we don’t have words, our heart has its own language that is communicated in our eyes, and his understanding is communicated back to us the same way.
Then, just sit and gaze at him gazing at you. You may sit in this contemplation for many minutes, but I find that we know how much time we need. Sometimes it will happen that your awareness of the picture goes away, and the sense you have is that you’re gazing at his actual face. This is what an icon is intended for.
I’ve been working on painting the face of Christ for several years. All I’ve done are available on my website, AnnChapin.com, to be downloaded for your use if you’d like, but I stress that it’s important to find faces that connect with you personally, and mine may or may not.