This week’s sacred practice is ancient and venerable, but less of a specific practice than it is a way of looking at the world through the eyes of faith. This week, I returned to my prayer corner and prayed with icons.
Like many artifacts of the Christian tradition — the Nicene Creed being a great example — the theological significance of icons is best understood by understanding the history of the controversy surrounding them.
While evidence from early Christian catacombs suggests that followers of Jesus have from the very beginning surrounded themselves with figurative and symbolic images about their faith, it has never been a universal practice and has often been controversial. After all, there are strong warnings about images of God throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, warnings which have rightly carried a lot of weight among Christians throughout history. So we can say that for much of the first few hundred years of Christian history, images of Christ and the saints were common but not universal and not without controversy. The issue came to a head shortly after the rise and subsequent rapid spread of Islam, with its radical prohibition of images. The cultural tide had turned against icons, and soon the political tide in the Byzantine Empire followed.
The iconoclastic (‘image-breaking’) controversy which followed is one of the most distressing and bloody periods of Christian history, spilling more blood on both sides than the anti-Christian persecutions of the first four centuries of the common era. To the iconoclasts, those who kept and venerated icons (‘iconodules’ or ‘iconophiles’) were idolaters of the worst kind. But what motivated the iconophiles? Why did they care so much about their images? And, perhaps most importantly considering how strongly the political and cultural forces of the day were against them, why did they win the day?
The theology that emerged out of the iconoclastic controversy in defense of images is, in my opinion, some of the most powerful and thoughtful reflection the Church has ever done on the implications of Christian faith. It focused first of all the doctrine of the Incarnation. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since all of the previous major Christian controversies had similarly revolved in one way or another around this doctrine. Some of the iconoclasts argued that images of Jesus divided him, since only his human nature could be depicted. The first council that defended the icons, held in 787 and later ratified about a hundred years later, argued that this way of thinking was a serious mistake that did exactly what it accused the iconodules of: dividing Christ. Led by St John of Damascus (who was, ironically, free to write without imperial persecution because he was living under Muslim rule), they maintained that Jesus’ human body, far from hiding God, revealed God. In this they were echoing Paul’s words, that the man Jesus was “the image [icon] of the invisible God” (Col 1.15, cf., 1 Cor 11.7, 2 Cor 4.4), and even Jesus’ own words from the Gospel according to John, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14.9). Moreover, since the Incarnation proves that matter is good and capable of manifesting the divine, it is more than proper to fashion images of God-made-flesh out of the bounty of material creation: wood, pigment, wax, and so on. In this way, icons of Christ are a confession of faith: “If anyone wants to know what a Christian believes, show him the icon, because the icon shows that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father” (Fr. Thomas Hopko, paraphrase of St John of Damascus).
The icon of this truth (pun intended) was the story of the Transfiguration, which was not by this logic a miracle of Christ’s skin, but a miracle of the disciples’ sight. In the Transfiguration, the disciples saw Jesus in all his divine glory and majesty, as he really was. But this same divine light that shined through Christ on the mountain, that was his by nature, also shines through all the saints through grace. Jesus is the Image of God (Col 1.15), according to which — according to Whom — every human person is created. And so, every human person is capable by the grace of God of shining with that same divine light. This is the Gospel. And so, just as images of Jesus are capable of revealing his divine nature, so too do images of the saints reveal their participation in the divine life through grace.
Thus, icons aren’t just pictures, but are witnesses to the presence of the Kingdom of God, here with us. And like the Transfiguration, icons are all about seeing what is really there. They focus more on the spiritual truth of Gospel events and holy people than they do physical verisimilitude. They speak in a language of their own, and if we open up the eyes of our hearts and learn to read them, we can see so much more than we could if they were photographs or portraits. Colours are symbolic — blue for the heavens, red for the earth, gold for the glorious Light of God. The saints are depicted with overly large eyes and ears — organs of perception, and small mouths, for they are people who saw and listened before they spoke. Events with a spiritual truth are shown within a circular or almond shaped mandorla. And so on. Icons are about seeing what is hidden from sight.
Now, traditionally, icons are not merely seen, but venerated. We bow before them and kiss them. Is this not idolatry? The tradition, of course, says no, it isn’t. When we venerate an icon, it isn’t about the wood, but about the person it represents. Just as the stereotypical WWII soldier kissing a photo of his girlfriend back home wasn’t really kissing a piece of paper, so too when we venerate an icon of Christ it isn’t about the icon but about Christ, and the Kingdom of God we long for, love, and work for.
What is it?
Praying with icons is exactly that, to pray before icons and to venerate them.
[Note on art and icons: The practice and theology I’m discussing in this post refers primarily to icons emerging from the Byzantine tradition. The history of religious or devotional art in the West is quite different, particularly as the theology and canons of iconography emerged out of the crisis of Iconoclasm, which did not impact the West to anywhere near the same extent as it did the East. Western religious art is beautiful and moving, and particularly after the Renaissance, often of greater artistic quality and merit than Eastern iconography. However, the two traditions have different goals: whereas Western devotional art is meant to stir the emotions and put one in the moment (see, for example, Michelangeo’s Pietà), the iconographic canons have the opposite aim: to settle the emotions, to look on events from the bigger picture, and to offer solutions rather than focus on problems. One is not better than the other, and I think they are ideally complementary, but in my experience, the two are different enough that I would consider reflecting on them to be different sacred practices. All this to say, if you choose to use Western religious art (or Russian icons of the nineteenth century, which were heavily influenced by Western Romanticism), your experiences will likely be quite different from what I describe below.]
My prayer corner is filled with icons, so this is obviously not a new practice for me. But, this week was a good reminder, a minor jolt to the system that the icons are there and meant to be addressed rather than just fade into the background of my home.
As I reflected on the icons in my prayer corner, what stood out to me was how each of them has a story. My icon of Christ is one I painted at an iconography workshop I took many years ago, and I remember how the master iconographer who led the workshop noted almost in passing that everyone’s icons of Christ always look a bit like themselves and how she thinks this is beautiful because it testifies to the Gospel truth that we are all created in the image of God and have the capacity by grace to become all that Christ is. The rest of the icons in my prayer corner were all gifts that ‘found’ me, and so not only do they tell their own stories, but also interconnect with my story. My icon of Mary is of the ‘Sign of the Theotokos’ style, powerfully symbolizing Mary’s intercession for all creation. It is a print of an original from a church in Calgary where I first encountered Orthodox worship. My icon of the Hospitality of Abraham (the icon which formed the basis for Rublev’s famed icon of the Holy Trinity) was sent in error — my sister had ordered me a book; this beautiful icon, which I had wanted for quite some time, arrived instead. My icon of St. Olga of Alaska arrived literally at my door along with other guests for an Epiphany party two years ago, an unexpected, but most certainly welcome addition to the guestlist. In it she’s knitting a white cloth, likely a baptismal garment with its symbolism of new life and bringing to mind a beautiful line from her troparion (a short liturgical hymn), “New Tabitha of the far north, reclothe us with true holiness; Midwife and deliverer of the suffering, labour with us for the salvation of our souls.” Lastly, there is my icon of the prophet Jonah, recently gifted to me by my sister, but with its own special story going back several years to when I was in a period of crisis; while it isn’t my story to tell, suffice it to say that the image of Jonah became a source of comfort to her during that incredibly painful time of my life and now that it lives in my prayer corner, it has taken on the added significance of not only what I went through, but also of my sister’s love.
I tell these stories because they seem so true to what icons are about. They tell their own stories and their own divine truths, and yet these stories and truths always come alive and interact with our own stories in interesting and transformative ways.
As I went through the week with the theology of icons in my mind, it really did transform my vision. In a special way, each person I saw became not just another person, but a creature fashioned in the image of God, with the potential to bear the divine light. I saw goodness, truth, and beauty in their stories: a manager dealing with a sensitive issue at work; a mother discussing coaching her daughter’s soccer team; even a cyclist labouring up the steep hill outside my apartment on a hot afternoon. And so this practice opened space in my perception this week in a beautiful way to see the God-bearing potential of every person, moment, and encounter.
I think this is a helpful reminder of how useful it is to have specifics that we ‘set apart’ to prove the universal: We have sacred spaces to remind us of the sacredness of all space; we have sacred meals to remind us that all food is holy, especially when we partake of it with others; we have priests to remind us that all are called to be priests, offering up our lives to God and one another. When all space is sacred space, somehow it always ends up meaning that no place is sacred; when everyone is a priest, no one is a priest. We somehow seem to need to the specific to point us to the universal truth.
In the same way, these sacred images which manifest Truth reminded me this week that everyone and everything has the potential to manifest Truth and be a bearer of God in the world. And for this, I was very grateful for this practice this week.