Windows for Prayer
By Dennis J. Billy, C.SS.R.
In a small corner of her home, a middle-aged Russian woman of
simple, peasant stock lights a small votive candle before a
frameless icon of the Madonna. She bows her head in silence before
lifting her gaze to the mysterious presence. The moments are few,
There is little need for words in the presence of the Mother of
the Word; close friends understand the meaning of life's pregnant
silences. There, in the stillness of time, the woman does nothing
but rest in the loving gaze of the mother of her Lord.
The encounter has a gentle, calming effect on her soul.
This quiet, prayerful ritual has been going on for years. Day
after day, the woman has found momentary respite from the toilsome
chores of life by sharing with her close friend the simple
yearnings of her heart. Her visit usually lasts only a few short
minutes (sometimes less), but over the years it has increasingly
become one of the defining moments of her day.
Before the icon, the woman is utterly at home. Her prayer there
has slowly transformed her inner awareness of God and has
gradually spilled over into everything else she does. Finally,
when it is time to go, she lets out a sigh from deep within her
soul, makes the Sign of the Cross in her calm Oriental manner,
turns toward the kitchen area of her home, lights the fire and
goes about setting the table for her family's evening meal.
The Eastern Churches' long-revered tradition of praying before
icons offers a concrete way of finding the holy in the ordinary
affairs of life. Simple moments such as the one just described
reminds us of the close bond between sanctity and the routine
activities that fill our life. They also show us how icons can
mediate a contemplative experience in the midst of the most
mundane circumstances. God uses them as a leaven in our life to
raise our awareness of the presence of the holy in our midst. As
such, they are welcome reminders of God's deep personal care for
our life and of His desire to nourish us throughout our long,
harrowing journey to holiness.
Icons are more than just pious pictures. The Christian East
regards them as transparent mysteries, windows through which a
person can glimpse the dimension of the eternal in the present
moment. An icon "makes present" in a sacramental way the figures
it represents. It participates in the world beyond, mediates the
life of that world to the onlooker and serves as an eschatological
sign of its final manifestation.
Icons are prayer and contemplation turned into art. Supported
philosophically by the Neoplatonic notion of participation, rooted
theologically by the doctrine of the Incarnation, they lead the
beholder out of the dimensions of space and time and into the
realm of spirit.
Icons accomplish this amazing feat by mixing together two
fundamentally opposed means of human expression: symbol and image.
While the former evokes the presence of what it represents through
a kind of absence, the latter does so through visual reproduction.
A wooden cross, for example, is a poignant of Jesus'
passion and death, but differs greatly from a detailed
of His crucified, bloodied corpus.
To achieve their effect, icons juxtapose symbols and images to
create a sense of the transcendent in our midst. By deliberately
combining these opposing forms, they permit neither to reach its
natural perfection. The result is a tense balance of
countervailing forces that places the icon out of the dimensional
boundaries of time and space and brings the beholder to turn his
gaze to the contemplation of the beyond.
Every person is called to become transparent to the divine life,
to rediscover the lost image of God within, to become a living
icon of Christ. Prayer is the ordinary means that God has given us
to bring about this gradual transformation of our life. Before an
icon, it can assume many shapes. One may sit or stand in front of
the icon and simply ponder its meaning. A person may use the icon
as a focal point for centering prayer or rhythmic breathing. One
may simply gaze upon the icon-and allow oneself to be gazed upon
by it in return. Of the various kinds of prayer that are related
to icons, three in particular deserve special mention.
I. . As a window to eternity, an icon seeks
to give the beholder a glimpse into the world beyond. It does so
by creating an aesthetic experience that frees it from its
relationship to the artist and spectator and gives it a life of
its own. An icon conveys an experience of the transcendent and
reminds its beholder that his true home lies in a dimension beyond
the confines of time and space. Such a reminder creates a sense of
longing in the heart of the person praying.
This happens because the beholder's spirit senses its faraway home
in the icon's penetrating gaze, yet still knows that it remains a
long way from it. This "already but not yet" experience can be
likened to what the apostle Paul writes about the inward groaning
of all who wait for life to come (Rom 8:23). That inner groaning
extends to all creation (8:22) and is in union with the Spirit of
God, who expresses our prayer in a way that could never be put
into words (8:26).
Prayer before an icon allows the spirit within us to resonate with
the promptings of God's own Spirit and the yearning of all
creation. It provides the human spirit with a concrete point of
contact with the transcendent world beyond and enables it to
breathe the rarified air of the Lord's transforming grace.
The beholder's inner longing will intensify as he becomes more and
more enamored of God and of divine things. It will move in and out
of a person's consciousness in varying degrees and with changing
intensities. At times, it may become so intense that the person
praying may feel as though God is reaching through the icon and
actually pulling him out of the present world and into the next.
At such moments, the intervening call to Christian service (or
) keeps the beholder's feet firmly planted on the
ground. The day will surely come when each person must face, by
himself alone, that final journey into the beyond. For the time
being, however, the Lord usually has other tasks in mind for the
2. At other moments, prayer before an
icon conveys a strong sense of God's presence in one's life. This
is due partly to the prayer of longing itself, which naturally
implies a latent presence of the thing longed for, and partly to
the heightened spiritual awareness that often accompanies the
beholder's contemplative gaze.
Although he cannot see, a blind man possesses other sharpened
senses that often enable him to detect the presence of another
person in the same room. In a similar way, a person's heightened
spiritual senses sometimes enable him to have a deeper awareness
of the divine presence in his heart.
The prayer of presence entails a refined sensitivity to the divine
accompaniment. It assures the beholder that he is never alone and
that God will never abandon one of His children in time of need.
The sacramental nature of an icon enables it to mediate this
profound awareness of God's presence. It draws the person more
deeply into the divine mysteries and transforms moments of intense
longing into a momentary glimpse of Emmanuel (i.e., "God with
us"). It is here where the incarnational foundation of Christian
iconography comes to the fore.
Prayer should not be thought of as a long-distance conversation
with an unseen God, who rarely intervenes in the daily activities
of our life. Rather, it is an intimate, living relationship with
Someone who understands our human limitations, who cares for us
dearly and who promises to be with us on every step of our
This sense of God's presence in our life often affects the way we
view other people. The deeper our awareness becomes, the more
clearly we are able to discern the movement of the Spirit in the
lives of others.
At this point, other people become icons of Christ for us-that is,
they become mediating images for us of God's presence in the
world. Sensing the movement of the Spirit in others gives us a
profound reverence and respect for human life and, by virtue of
God's vestigial presence in the world, for all of creation. The
prayer of presence helps us to relish the wonder of existence that
comes to us, moment by moment, from the hand of God and to stand
with awe and a deep sense of gratitude before the ineffable ground
of our existence.
3. We are called not just to life but to
life in all its fullness. Our longing for God and even our deeper
awareness of His presence in our life tend naturally toward union.
Intimacy with God is the work of God. It can be effected only
through our cooperation with the gentle promptings that come
through the work of the Spirit.
When praying before an icon, the beholder sometimes receives a
brief, ever so fleeting, experience of what this union might be
like. Imperfect though it may be, it silences our deep inner
yearnings and gives us an intense awareness of the divine presence
that makes us feel, at least for the moment, completely and
utterly at one with it.
The transparency of the icon to the divine mysteries has so
entered into the contours of our spiritual, mental and bodily
makeup that we experience a close harmony with the Spirit
throughout our entire being. Such an experience enables us to
respond more readily to the promptings of the Spirit in our life.
It gives us a greater appreciation of its gifts and urges us to be
ever more receptive to their use in the daily circumstances of our
The prayer of union is an intense but passing foretaste of the
heavenly banquet. It gives us an experience of the celestial dance
that has gone on from all eternity and to which we are invited
even now to partake.
Here on this earth we are still learning what it means to share in
this divine extravaganza. Our first feeble attempts often end in
awkward falls and embarrassing missteps. Still, every so often,
perhaps once in a blue moon, we seem to get it right. Rather than
going off on our own private tangents, we sense momentarily
precisely what it means to be completely "in step" with the Lord.
We experience the Spirit in our life so intensely that we seem to
know instinctively how to discern and then follow its internal
movement in our life.
The following observations now come to the fore:
1. As windows to eternity, icons offer us the opportunity to peer
beneath the transitory veneer of life and to behold, if only for
the shortest part of a moment, the underlying ground of being,
toward which all things tend. Praying with them and through them
helps us to become transparent to the activity of God's Spirit in
our life. They enable us to participate more deeply in the process
of our own divinization and propel our gaze forward to that time
when all things will be renewed in Christ.
2. No one prays before an icon in exactly the same way. Since
everyone's relationship with God is "unique in all the world," it
follows that the actual manner in which he prays will contain
subtle shades of difference. For this reason, it would be a
mistake to view the kinds of prayer referred to above as a static
framework that must be reflected in exactly the same way in every
beholder. On the contrary, a person should look for the particular
combination of prayer forms that gives his relationship with God
its peculiar identifying trait. Although some people may be more
prone to one type of prayer than another, the goal here is to find
the right blend that suits the personality and individual needs of
3. Ultimately, it is God who determines that pattern of prayer in
our life and who provides us with the correct balance to meet our
God uses icons to mediate those experiences of prayer in our life.
Because of their sacramental nature, they should not be considered
as ends in themselves, nor thought of solely in terms of their
aesthetic value. Icons are only a means to an end. They move us to
participate more deeply in the sacramental life of the Church,
especially in the Eucharist, which is the icon of Christ par
excellence in the world.
"God became man so that man might become divine." This fundamental
soteriological principle states well the underlying
transformational premise of all iconographic prayer. The icon's
juxtaposition of image and symbol points to the union of the human
and divine in Christ; our suspended, contemplative gaze symbolizes
our ongoing journey into the mystery of Christ, the resulting
spiritual experience and the presence of God in our midst. God
comes to us so that we might be drawn closer to Him and eventually
become more and more "godlike."
Such was the intention of the woman, whose brief moments of prayer
before the icon began this short reflection. Although she might
not have been able to express her experience in quite the same
way, her constant and persistent prayer before the icon of the
Madonna reveals a deep desire to ponder the mystery of Christ in
her heart and to respond to the Lord's call in her life in much
the same words of her silent, pondering friend: "Let it be done
unto me according to your word" (Lk 1:38).
Mary's response to the angel highlights for us the attitudes of
transparency, openness and cooperation that all are called to
foster and make their own during their long and protracted sojourn
through life. Like the angel of Luke's Gospel, icons are heavenly
messengers who come bearing good news for every pondering heart
that takes the time to be still, to listen to the pregnant voices
of life's inner silence and to rest under the healing and
elevating warmth of God's penetrating gaze. Through them, the
Spirit shapes us and leads us with the Madonna to the side of
Christ and to the People of God He came to serve.
FATHER BILLY, a Redemptorist, holds a Th.D. in Church history from
Harvard University Divinity School and an S.T.D. in spirituality
from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the
Angelicum). He is an associate professor of the history of moral
theology and Christian spirituality at the Accademia Alfonsiana in
This article was taken from the January, 1996 issue of "The
Priest". To subscribe please write: "The Priest", Our Sunday
Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.
"The Priest" is published monthly at a subscription rate of $33.00
Copyright (c) 1997 EWTN Online Services.