An icon is a window. Written in prayer, it reaches for us and draws us in, to the place where God communicates with us. Who is Christ? Who are we in relationship to him? What do the saints have to tell us? How are we like them? We nonverbally ponder these questions as we gaze prayerfully at an icon. Each time we gaze the answer changes; something different is revealed. And below this level of engagement is a place of light or of dark silence, a non-verbal, thought-free connection with God
The iconographer writes an icon while praying a simple mantra. The standard one is “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But if that language doesn’t speak to the heart, to that within which reaches for the Kingdom of Heaven in each moment, other prayers must be used. Any chant can become a prayer. For instance, “Bless the Lord, my soul. And bless God’s holy name” is a wonderful one. And I often use this prayer: “Holy Mother God, be present here with me.” Silently I form the words in my mind, “Holy Mother of God,” as I draw in each breath. On the exhale, I pray, “be present here with me.”
Whatever the prayer is, it is repeated again and again. This, hopefully, quiets the mind so the iconographer can rest in God while working. The iconographer dwells in this simple repetitive prayer from the first time s/he touches the board until the final glaze is put on the icon.
The same kind of prayer brings us to a place of wordless engagement as we pray with icons. Find the mantra that works for you and pray it over and over. Once you have begun to use it, don’t change it.
First of all, simply rest in the prayer. Let your thoughts fall away. When they come back again, as is inevitable, intruding with strength and urgency, simply let go of them once more. You do not need to worry that you will forget what they are telling you; they will rise up once more at the end of your prayer time.
Sink into that dark place below your everyday awareness, that place from which you can look back at yourself as though from outside. Rest in God.
Then let your eyes wander across the icon. Let your heart be captured by each part of it. What is stirred in you by what you are seeing? What is your visceral response? What are the gestures in the icon and what are they communicating? Where are the lines pointing? What seems incongruous, and what seems to fit very well with your understanding of the spiritual realm? How might the things that don’t fit lead you to new understanding? What do the colors say to you? How do you understand the symbols? What is God trying to say to you using the imagery of the icon?
Then sink again into rest in God. Stay there until it is time to come back into the day to day world. Finally, if possible, write down what awareness and insight came to you as you gazed at the icon. Each session will bring different understandings.