Saturday, January 28, 2012

Praying With Icons

I love contemporary art, and I love contemporary art museums––the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, MoMA in NYC (where "Starry Night," the Vincent Van Gogh painting, above, is exhibited) ––I love them all, mostly because contemporary art defies easy explanation. It seems less cognitive and more visceral to me; in other words, it evokes not just thoughts, but feelings. Contemporary art gets me out of my "head" and into my "heart," and in so doing it helps me clarify and understand my own thoughts and feelings––not just about the art, but about life itself.

I especially like it when I encounter a work of art in which I have no idea at all what the artist's trying to convey, because that's the point at which it starts to get really interesting for me. So when I go to a contemporary art museum, I generally look for a piece I'm drawn to, for whatever reason, and then spend some time figuring out why I'm drawn to it. The reason is seldom immediately apparent to me; it takes time (which is why I almost always go to contemporary art museums by myself). I have to sit with the piece for awhile to gradually become aware of the thoughts and feelings it evokes.

Invariably, I will find that the reason I'm drawn to a particular piece of art is not necessarily because of the art itself, but because of something that's going on in my life which the art is conceptualizing in some way.  In other words, the art allows me to sort of work backwards to think about something I need to be thinking about, but which I often wasn't aware even existed. The art taps into my subconscious, bringing to light issues that otherwise might have remained dormant, allowing me not only to think about these issues, but also to feel them. I enjoy reading all the background information about the artist and what he or she meant to convey with the art, but in the end I interpret it through the lens of my own experience. 

The lecture we had last Wednesday night at my spiritual direction class, on praying with icons, reminded me of my contemporary art excursions, because I've discovered that the process I go through in studying a work of art in a museum is the exact same process one goes through in praying with icons. That is, you first allow an icon to "speak" to you in some way, by grabbing your attention; and then, in the process of "listening" to the image, you find yourself responding in some way. The icon elicits within you thoughts and feelings of which you might not be aware––thoughts and feelings you can then take to God in prayer.

The word "iconography," which describes this type of art, is formed from the Greek words for "image" (icon) and "writing" (graph). Iconographers, accordingly, do not consider themselves to be artists; they consider themselves, instead, to be writers. I learned that one does not draw an icon; instead, one writes an icon. An icon is, literally, a visual depiction of the Word of God.

Take, for example, the famous icon to the left, written by fourteenth-century Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev. It is, on the surface, a depiction of Genesis 18:1-16, the story of the three men (or angels) visiting Abraham and Sarah, who offer them hospitality. The angels, in return, tell the couple they will conceive a son, whom they will name Isaac.

During class, we were shown this icon and asked to take fifteen minutes to simply gaze at the image. We were not to approach it with any sort of preconceived notion, but instead were instructed just to sit with it, noting any thoughts and feelings it evoked. 

At first (staunch Presbyterian that I am) I must admit that I was somewhat resistant to this exercise. Byzantine art, after all, is not really my thing, and I was having a hard time understanding the connection between gazing at an icon and praying. However, I resolved to remain open. 

I was glad I did. As the minutes ticked by, I found my thoughts shifting from the story of Abraham, Sarah, and the angels, to thinking about how the three angels seemed to represent to me the Trinity––Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or, in more modern parlance, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer). I found myself wondering who was whom, how you could tell them apart, and what was going on among them as they sat there. Clearly, they seemed to be having a conversation of some sort––but about what? The angles of their heads would seem to indicate that the angel in gold was offering comfort and advice to the angel in green, with the angel in blue nodding approvingly over it all. 

After giving it a little more thought, I decided that the angel in green was the Holy Spirit, that the angel in gold was Jesus, offering compassion, and that the angel in blue was God, blessing all that transpired. I then found myself imagining reasons that Jesus might be offering compassion to the Holy Spirit.

It was then, at that point, that I suddenly realized that the things for which I imagined the angel needing compassion were directly related directly to things for which I, myself, might like to receive compassion. In other words, I became aware, through the art, of some needs and feelings within me I'd not really allowed myself to tap into before. As with my experience with contemporary art, the icon had drawn out of me things I hadn't realized were there.

The connection with prayer, I discovered, was that I could take these needs and feelings to God in prayer. I could simply share what I'd learned with God, or I could ask God for help in overcoming difficulties associated with what I'd learned. I could think my prayer, using the language of thought, or I could express my prayer silently, through my feelings. I could write my prayer down, using words, or I could create an icon of my own, expressing my prayer through my own art.

All this, from spending fifteen minutes on a single icon. No wonder spiritual directors often encourage the use of icons when people seem "stuck" or unable to pray. The icons seem to provide a nice detour around whatever stumbling blocks might be getting in the way.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon, so much so that I just ordered a book of (contemporary, of course) icon art. I plan to use it to explore a little more fully the role icons can play in my prayer life. I invite you to do the same. It doesn't have to be a religious icon (although it might be); it can simply be something––anything––that draws your attention. Anything that speaks to you, be it a greeting card, an image in the hallway of an office building, or even a tree outside. 

What it is it saying to you? What can you learn, through it, about yourself?

What can you learn, through it, about God?

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