Spiritual Practice: Reading Icons
Review: Last time we talked about The Welcoming Prayer. It has been really good for me to practice this discipline. Since I’m not eating sugar or drinking wine, sitting with and welcoming my difficult feelings has been a daily activity. How has it gone for you?
This is an ongoing series on trying different contemplative prayer practices leading up to the release of my new book, The Retreat: A Tale Of Spiritual Awakening.
Today I want to talk about Reading Icons. I think about this as, “praying icons,” but the ancient practice says that icons are not painted, they are “written,” and therefore meant to be “read.”
People that write icons go through years of training and it is a very spiritual process for them. Icons tell a story, but they contain deep truth about God. They were a way for non-literate people to learn about God, and for us now they can be a window or doorway into the presence of God.
First, you have to understand why they look how they look. When I first saw icons, I thought they were just ugly paintings. Then someone explained to me that icons are written with inverse perspective. We are used to a perspective with the vanishing point in the distance, things get smaller to show depth in a painting. Icons are the opposite. The vanishing point is set out, behind us, drawing us into the painting, inviting us in.
Consider this famous icon: Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity. It is two things: The story of Abram entertaining angels at the Oak of Mamre, and it is the trinity, father, son and spirit, inviting us to sit with them at a table.
There are deep and intricate explanations of this icon on the internet. For brevity’s sake, I will share only a few of them here. The Father is on the left, wearing heavenly colors, a staff authority is in his hand, and the other hand is blessing his son. The Son is in the middle, wearing earthy and heavenly colors, a staff of authority is in his hand, and he is blessing the chalice. The spirit is wearing the colors of water and heaven and he also holds the staff of authority. His hand invites us to sit at the table with them. See the opening at the table where we are invited into this holy communion? Notice how their heads incline toward one another?
I invite you to sit and read this icon. Put yourself at this table and let yourself feel what it is like to sit with each member of the trinity. You might have one reaction to the Father and a completely different one to the Son, or to the Spirit. You are welcomed in. How does it feel to be there? Let me know if you try it and how you relate to the different persons of the trinity. If you enjoy the experience of reading an Icon, this book really helped to guide me through reading others.
The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green