The following comment was posted in response to my recent thoughts on icons:
I’m interested in learning to experience more of what you describe in your experience with icons. I’ve started praying with them, but not sure “how to,” if there is a “how”. I have an icon of Christ the Pantocrator and one of Christ at a young age — not sure what to make of that one at all, but I like it. I look forward to learning to see or realize or experience the Kingdom of Heaven, as well, the reality and presence of which is a new thing to me. Until recently it has been just a confusing phrase that I didn’t think too much about.
The questions are good and worth spending some time with. These, again, are some of my personal observations. Comments of others are quite welcome.
I first encountered icons when I was in college. I liked them, but knew little about them. I think I thought that if I looked at one long enough it was supposed to tell me something. I was wrong.
Though I did learn one thing that was years in being fulfilled:
There is a relationship that is established in our prayers with icons.
The first icon I owned was a print (which I mounted) of Our Lady of Vladimir. I did not know then that it was a print of the Our Lady of Vladimir, whose original is at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (which is quite different in many ways from the famous Vladimirsakya Icon in Moscow). This icon was simply in my prayer corner for years. It accompanied me through college and seminary and became always a part of our family’s prayer corner. I had no idea of the relationship that had grown with this icon until 1998, the year of my reception into the Orthodox Church and also the year of my first visit to St. Vladimir’s Seminary.
To my surprise, when I entered the chapel, the original of the icon I had now known for more than 25 years seemed to leap from the wall. My response was one of overwhelming emotion that completely surprised me. I had a sense that this icon, this window to the Mother of God, had always known of my devotion to her, and had always prayed for me through so many years and such a long, long journey home to the Orthodox faith. I have no rational explanation for that knowledge. It is simply what I felt and knew.
There have been other particular icons in my life, each with its own story. Mostly they are stories of my “prayer partners” to use a common Protestant phrase. At one point in my life I would say I was sort of “icon crazy,” collecting all I could get my hands on. My prayer corner was unbelievably crowded – in many cases with icons who had no story I could tell. I just bought ’em and hung ’em.
At some point I overheard someone speaking about icons and suggesting that we should “let them come to us.” That’s a very difficult thing to explain. But it is something I began to practice. I gave away many icons and kept primarily the ones with which I could describe a relationship. I now add to what I have as they “come my way.” And they come, from one direction or another, one person or another. Often revealing the reason for their presence at a later time.
I also still give icons away, when it seems the right thing to do. I am sharing a story, a window, a perception with someone else who seems to fit.
Not unlike the relics of saints, there is a degree to which “icons go where they want to.” I don’t want to speak in a superstitious manner or create false impressions. But there is something to the old phrase.
I have a number of special things associated with my priesthood. Some of them are relics that have been given to me. Some are oils from the shrines of certain saints. Some are vestments that have been handed down to me. One is a censer with a unique history. Another is the sponge I use at the altar (a gift at my ordination from a Protodeacon who got the sponge on a visit to Mt. Athos) – and so the stories go. My blessing cross is from St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, England (procured during a personal pilgrimage) – the Crucified Christ is carved on one side, and St. Silouan is carved on the other. When I stand in the altar before any given Liturgy, and begin the service of Proskomide, I am surrounded with objects that carry stories – stories of relationships and remembrance – deeply connected and deeply rooted in my heart. For it is in the heart that the service must be celebrated most of all.
Icons are no different, or at least are very much like such objects. Many times, fewer are better, but always the slow and steady growth of relationship is best. The Fathers compared icons to Holy Scripture, saying that they did with color what Scripture does with words. Every student of Scripture knows what it is for a passage to “open itself” to you. One can hardly explain what this means to someone else. A verse or passage we have known for years suddenly becomes new – speaking and opening vistas of understanding previously undreamt. It is the same thing with icons. There is no “technique” to make Scripture yield itself to you – it is the gift of God. The same is true of icons. Only God can make them yield and open to us – inviting us into places of the heart where we have never been.
I once read a quote from a saint who said, “There are things about Christ you cannot know unless His mother tells you.” I would not state it as a dogma – but I know it by experience. The same can be said of many things in the life of the Church – for the whole of it is Christ. They reveal Him and He reveals them. And in the revelation we know the Truth.