The Common Good
May-June 1997

With Eyes of Devotion

by Megan McKenna | May-June 1997

Icons invite seekers into the mystery of faith.

The history of icons is fraught with dissension and violence. Leonid Ouspensky has commented, ôChristianity is the revelation not only of the Word of God but also of the Image of God, in which [GodÆs] likeness is revealed.ö 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 be 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 color, 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 black-and-white 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 life-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 is a workshop and retreat leader living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author, most recently, of Rites of Justice (Orbis Books, 1997).

Praying With Icons. By Jim Forest. Orbis Books, 1997.

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