How do we pray with icons?

By Abbot Father Michael Cuozzo+, OFE
 
The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, “the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of …God” (2565).  
 
“To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention . . . that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying” (Jim Forest, Praying with Icons, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), p. 29).  (Cf. Michael Cuozzo, The Theological Aspects of Holy Icons in the Orthodox Church (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Saint Elias School of Orthodox Theology, Nebraska, 1998), p. 84)
 
The Greek word ikon, from which the English term is derived, means likeness, image, representation. 
 
All icons are dogmatic statements, each one is a homily on the Gospel message, Saint Paul wrote: “Let us give glory to God! He is able to make you stand firm in your faith, according to the Good News I preach about Jesus Christ and according to the revelation of the secret truth which was hidden for long ages in the past” (Romans 16:25-26). Thus, the key to understanding iconography is to understand the Gospel.  (Cf. Michael Cuozzo, The Theological Aspects of Holy Icons in the Orthodox Church (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Saint Elias School of Orthodox Theology, Nebraska, 1998), p. 84)
 
Icons were created for the main purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead the faithful into the inner room of prayer, to bring them close to the heart of God. The icons themselves always before them, they were painted for both the glory of God and for salvation. (Ibid. pp. 84-85.)
 
As one prays with icons it is significant to gaze at the icon with complete attention and to pray with them. Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality. The Andrew J. Krivak article “Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia” in America wrote: “The Father of Western monasticism, Saint Benedict, taught that prayer must begin with listening. In the Eastern Christian tradition, the essence of prayer is the gazing” (Andrew J. Krivak, “Gate of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia,” America, Vol. 168. No. 4, 1993, February, p. 24).  (Cf. Michael Cuozzo, The Theological Aspects of Holy Icons in the Orthodox Church (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Saint Elias School of Orthodox Theology, Nebraska, 1998), p. 85)
 
It is important to remember that praying with icons is to just gaze attentively at an icon and let God speak. The icon inspires and instructs; it makes present the holy one depicted there; it is a channel for divine grace to pass to the person praying; it leads into prayer and communion with God. (Ibid.)