Icons are an integral part of orthodox worship and serve a variety of functions:
(1) They enhance the beauty of a church. (2) They instruct us in matters pertaining to the Christian faith. (3) They remind us of this faith. (4) They lift us up to the prototypes which they symbolize, to a higher level of thought and feeling. (5) They arouse us to imitate the virtues of the holy personages depicted on them. (6) They help to transform us, to sanctify us. (7) They serve as a means of worship and veneration. I shall discuss briefly each one of these functions Read more on the function of icons at the Orthodox information centre
In recent years icons have been rediscovered by growing numbers of followers of Jesus from other traditions too. For many, icons contribute to the beauty of worship and are like windows that connect us to the realities of the Kingdom of God, bringing these into our prayer on earth. I love the idea that entering into church is meant to give us a glimpse into the kingdom of God and the icons are reminders of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before. They can be a refreshing focus for both personal and group meditation.
Unfortunately, there is probably more dispute circulating about the use of icons than of any of the other tools I have mentioned. When Tom and I were in Lebanon some years ago, we were invited to lunch by an orthodox priest. What we did not realize until we arrived was that we were supposed to settle a long standing dispute between he and a friend as to whether or not the use of icons of Christ was acceptable.
The friend thought they were satanic, graven images that were expressly denounced in the Old Testament. Our orthodox friend explained that early Christians felt that the Old Testament proscriptions against making images was overturned by their belief in the incarnation. They believed that because God took on flesh in the human form of Jesus it was permissible to create depictions of the human form of the Son of God. Although icons are images, they are not simply illustrations or decorations. They are symbols of the incarnation, a presence which offers to the eyes the spiritual message that the Word addresses to the ears.
Why we worry so much about iconic images of Christ and not at all about images of Christ in other forms of art, I am not sure, but then of course, I am no expert. So I at least want to present this as one of the options that you might like to explore. For those that want to learn more, obviously, a Google search will provide lots of resources. However, one book you may like to start with is Windows to Heaven: Icons for Protestants and Catholics by Lela Gilbert and Elizabeth Zelensky.
And to round off your education, I thought some of you may appreciate this video using icons in association with the litany of the saints song by Matt Maher.
Praying with Art or Visio Divina as it is increasingly called is a form of prayer that is becoming increasingly popular and in a world that is as visually oriented as ours, an intentional way of praying with images is needed now more than ever. After reading yesterday’s post, my friend Tom Cashman commented:
In my Spiritual Formation classes over the last 2-3 years, in addition to more traditional Lection Divina I’ve also been using forms of Visio Divina. This isn’t new, beginning with Benedict in the 6th century is floweried with the Orthodox iconographers.
Tom’s words sent me on a google search for more information on a form of prayer that I honestly know little about, even though I have often used religious art as a focus for meditation.
I found this article by Tom Mooney particularly helpful and love the images from John August Swanson, an artist that I have not encountered before but whose images drew me into a wonderful rich and refreshing encounter with the gospel stories. Mooney explains:
Visio Divina (Latin for “divine seeing”) is a method for praying with images or other media. While the Orthodox tradition has long practiced praying with images through icons, the western church, and Protestantism in particular, is less comfortable with this type of prayer. But as a cursory glance through scripture will show, images have been an important part of God’s way of communicating. Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones, and Peter’s dream on the rooftop in Acts 10, are just two instances of how images and prayer are vitally connected. Read the entire article
I also discovered this excellent resource for Bible study: Seeing the Word: Picture the Beauty of God’s Word, developed by Saint John’s School of Theology Seminary and Liturgical Press. Seeing the Word offers guided reflections on particular Scripture texts, using images from the acclaimed The Saint John’s Bible,
This video is a useful tool that helps to explain the process of Visio Divina
This Bible that reminds me of the Book of Kells and other illuminated gospels which are another wonderful tool for Visio Divina.
One book I read recently that delves into Vision Divina in a very helpful way is Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer by Juliet Benner. She very instructively combines the knowledge of a trained artist with that of a spiritual director to show people how to meditate on art that depicts passages of scripture.
Another great tool for this form of prayer is the use of Christian images from different cultures. I first wrote about this some years ago in a blog post entitled Imaging Jesus and even produced a youtube video to go with it. One of my earliest so it is a little funky now, but I still thought that you might enjoy it.
This is obviously a small beginning in exploring this form of prayer. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.
I have a new rock for my collection – a desert rose – the colloquial name given to rosette formations of the minerals gypsum and barite with poikilotopic sand inclusions. The ‘petals’ are crystals flattened on the crystallographic axis, fanning open along characteristic gypsum cleavage planes. It was given to me by good friends Tom & Kim Balke. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this article Tools for Prayer – Collection Rocks and I was very much hoping that on our recent holiday in Canada, I would acquire a new rock for my collection. I expected that I would pick something up on the beach that would draw me close to God. However, this precious addition has spoken to me in amazing ways that far exceeded my expectations.
These beautiful desert roses only develop in dry arid conditions. They are often formed meters below the surface, and in places that are under great pressure. Wow. What a wonderful testimony to the way that God works in all our lives. It is out in the wilderness, under pressure, in the hidden places, deep beneath the surface that God is at work forming beautiful desert roses in our lives.
May I never despise the darkness or run from the weight that stress and pressure impose. May I wait for the fruit of hidden things, the roses that God is growing deep beneath the surface.
In his book, The Art of Curating Worship which I am currently reading Mark Pierson says:
I believe art is capable of far more than communicating a message: it is capable of conveying the voice of God and harboring an encounter with God.
Suddenly, it hit me. There is a huge realm of prayer tools that I have alluded to in other posts but not fully explored in this series. Images of all forms be it art, candles, icons, crosses, photographs and videos are but a few of the art forms that speak powerfully of and to our relationship to God. As Mark says they can both convey the voice of God and harbor an encounter with God.
We live in an image rich world. Images that flash through our minds on the internet, TV screen and neon billboards draw us into their values and shape our lives, telling us what to believe and how to live. Yet when it comes to the practice of prayer many of us askew images that can deepen our encounters and enrich our faith. Our prayer spaces are sterile corners that speak little of the wonder and glory of the God we claim to worship. We often engage in prayer as an intellectual exercise rather than a relationship building practice. But prayer is meant to open to us a mystery that cannot be reduced to thoughts and words. And to fully enter into that mystery we need images that speak to our hearts and open our minds to the wonder and glory of God.
So over this next week I plan to explore what I have found to be some of the most effective types of images to use in prayer – icons, crosses, candles and photographs are some that I have found to be powerful tools. The list will probably grow as I work through the week. Even then, I am sure this will only scratch the surface of possibilities so if you would like to help all of us explore this area and want to contribute a post that expresses your own encounters with God through images please let me know.
I have always found inspiration from the lives of those who have gone before us. Their footprints provide places for me to stand and words and prayers encourage and strengthen me as I too seek to move forward into the ways of God.
Teresa of Avila is one such person. In many ways she was a very ordinary person – struggling with some of the same life challenges we struggle with today. But out of that struggle came a rich inner prayer life that continues to inspire many today.
Here is one of my favourites. Read it through several times. Listen to the beautiful musical rendition at the end of the post. Allow their truths to take root in your heart. I prayed this prayer several times this morning as I considered the plight of the 12 million people whose lives are at risk in the Horn of Africa because of drought. As you read this prayer and listen to the music may you too consider what action God may ask of you as a result of reading and meditating on them
“Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world.”
Music by David Ogden
Each moment is pregnant with new possibilities waiting to be born, alive with new beginnings, God’s secrets not yet heard, God’s dreams not yet fulfilled. These were the thoughts that lodged in my mind as I meditated on Isaiah 48:6-8 this morning. So many good Christian people I talk to are afraid that their prayer life will become stale, their spiritual disciplines empty rituals. Some make this an excuse for their lack of discipline in prayer. And prayer does become stale and meaningless if we don’t know how to stir our imaginations and awaken our creativity to new thoughts, new patterns and new possibilities for prayer.
Tools for prayer are creative opportunities not formulae for success
One of my greatest fears as I share these tools for prayers is that some of my readers will see them as another formula that will make them more successful and more prayerful. Of course, that is possible but what I hope is that we will all see these as tools as ways to stir our imaginations and open our minds to new ways to express the prayers God has placed in our hearts, stimuli that awaken our creativity to the brand new possibilities of ways that God can speak to us, in us and through us.
Most of the tools I have spoken about in the last couple of weeks are ways that I have stimulated my own creativity in times of dry spiritual struggling. They are processes I have used to recreate my own spiritual disciplines so that I can move closer to God and the world in which I live as well as grow my understanding of who God intends me to be. I find them particularly helpful when Tom and I are on retreat – the special times that I take to reimagine my spiritual disciplines for the next few months. I have found lectio divina a particularly fertile ground for imagination and creativity especially when combined with creative acts like drawing, writing and visualization. But they are not the only tools that stir my imagination and awaken my creativity – walking in the garden, turning the compost, listening to music, taking photographs and even as I shared in a previous post – meditating on rocks are all tools that can stir me to new creativity.
Don’t Confuse Discipline with Empty Ritual
One of the surprising things I notice as I read the Bible is that there seems to be more said about when to pray then about how to pray. We are told that Daniel prayed three times a day, Jesus often drew aside to lonely places to pray and of course spent days in the desert in prayer before he inaugurated his ministry but we are told little about what went on during that time. Yes, we make lots of assumptions about what was going on. We know that Jesus was tempted by the devil, but I cannot imagine that this temptation was all that happened during his time in the wilderness.
Perhaps part of what happened while Jesus was alone in prayer was that he learned new ways to pray, new patterns that had the disciples hungering for what they observed… and of course out of that came the most enriching prayer of all time – the Lord’s prayer. But that too we have made into a formula.
What seems to be important for the people of God is that they pray regularly, bringing themselves into that place of intimacy with God where new beginnings can be imagined and new things can be birthed. So my challenge to all of us this morning is:
What stirs your creativity? How can you use the special creative tools God has placed within you to imagine new ways to pray and both draw close to the God of infinite creativity and respond to the needs of our hurting world?
Today’s post is contributed by Kim Balke. It is part of a paper that she wrote for her certification in Expressive Arts Therapy. I found the imagery so powerful that I asked Kim for permission to repost this. As Kim says the labyrinth is not just a prayerful tool it is also a tool of healing. This reflection seems a very good addition to this series on Tools for Prayer and the post of Walking the Labyrinth posted at the end of last week.
“Doula” (f.) is the Greek word for “servant” and it is a term used to describe a Midwife or a Birth Educator. I was curious to learn more about the work of Dayna Dueck a friend who is a Doula, a young mother of four children under 8 and wonderful portrait photographer.
One of the processes Dayna encourages in her birth education workshops has to do with the use of the labyrinth. Drawn from Greek mythology (Thesius) and practiced throughout the ages, across many cultures, walking a labyrinth is a strong metaphor for the birthing process. It aids a woman in the narration of her own heroic journey. I walked the labyrinth at St. Alban’s, Richmond, BC with Dayna, two other women, one toddler and one preschooler. As it turned out, these women were also birth educators, keen to learn about how Dayna draws upon the imagery in the labyrinth to support mothers in their pregnancy and child birth.
I had doubts and anxieties about going back to this time – why pick at a healing scab, re-open old wounds? Would I have to confront feelings of failure that I thought I had already worked through, feel judged – am I a “lesser mother” since birthing my boys involved a lot of technological/medical intervention? The following is an outline of the process I went through:
- Walk the stone paths of the labyrinth at St. Alban’s. (outside)
- Write down impressions, reflection on the experience (inside the church building).
- Workshop discussion led by Dayna about “The Hero’s Journey” – the metaphor of the labyrinth and the birthing journey.
- Pastel labyrinths – Dayna instructed us about how to draw our own labyrinth. We drew a “male” version (it is simpler to draw). We walked a “female” version. As we draw we mark personal symbols on the labyrinth at each phase; i.e. the threshold entrance (something to mark the “Ideal start to the ordeal”), markers for the traditions of family, personal and cultural history, applying what you learned about yourself, active labour and the Gate of Doubt/Transition, entering the Gate of Trust, reaching the centre and celebration of birth, the return journey (Dayna’s favourite part to talk with pregnant mother’s about), crossing the threshold/exit where the hero steps out of the labyrinth carrying her baby/another time of celebration, her new identity (as a woman who has given birth).
- At each phase Dayna encourages parents to discuss/reflect around their worries – to take the time/do not hurry this activity with partner, in group or in personal reflection.
- Re-walk the labyrinth outside, come back and reflect, discuss.
- Use the pastel labyrinth at home to visualize the (birthing) journey; keep it with you through labour and birth. It is a way of focusing, centering, meditating through contractions, narrating one’s own story and discovering meaning in one’s experiences.
My reflections and how I integrated this experience into my life are entitled, Greetings from a Labyrinth: an exercise in “non-focused awareness”. Enjoy.
Greetings from a Labyrinth: an exercise in “non-focused awareness”
The rose at the centre looks so close.
“I’ll be there in no time” I say, with each quick step taking me along as I move to the counterpoint/tense rhythm and energy of violins in the “Allegro”of my mind. Cool air, sunlight on my head, a child’s laughter and the tap tapping of her skipping behind me. Good-bye to you, I must move on.
“Mama, I want to run!” over ponderosa pine needles and little gray pebbles below; oak leaves and a light breeze above in trees along the fence, like fingers admonishing, with Dayna’s words, “No, no, no short cuts – for you!” Even so, confidently, here I go!
I contemplate the curvature of space with each stone and cars and drivers, airplane zooms and other journeys surrounding me, remind me of time passing…crows cawing in the sky chide and chime as I turn to look at the shadow of my hair and shawl fringe. There I stumble off my path. “Watch your feet!” the sky creature’s chorus. Good-bye to you, I must move on.
Gray and brown back on track, past the water tank and garden hose and a memory of attempts at gardening tomatoes in too shallow Maritime soil – “Fare thee well, Susan”, I sigh, “If not later…later”.
Along the outer edge, not sure how I got so far away from the rose centre, most distracted now at this “Gate of Doubt” where Son Terra apartments and other pink roses in a garden call to me through more cars, more roads, endless sky and quicksilver clouds that gather like minnows in rapids to carry me away and there is even someone going the other way-what? “Keep going…watch your feet” crows call comes to my rescue until I step through the Gate of Trust, one step, one breath at a time until I am centred, turning inside a rose, seeing all before me, a crescendo of colour and sound. I greet the melodious day with a Kimesque note of “Hello”, pause, and then journey outward.
On my return I find the sun has dried up the pathway with a powdery stone residue left behind, blurring the lines, like chalk pastels on my paper labyrinth. My journey was special.
Every journey is special! What does that mean? Even though birthing is a well trodden path, each woman’s experience is her own- a one of a kind strength, a pure whole note carried on the wind, a sound only she can make, moving on into hello.
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