Holy Remembering through Icons
Since I was little, I have collected small items on vacations and trips with my family and friends. I was always picking up little stones from Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, twigs or flowers from hikes, and sticking them in the side pockets of my knapsack or the doors of my parents’ car. My tendency to collect things from special journeys is a way of remembering and honoring the holy moments in life. God is everywhere and I was doing a holy remembering each and every time I held a pebble from the beach.
Icons have been used for contemplation of God throughout history. People have looked to images of Jesus, Mary, saints and angels, when they have needed help discerning how the Holy Spirit is moving with and through them. By adopting a relaxed posture and focusing your mind on a fixed location, such as a painted or sewn depiction of something you regard as holy, you can achieve a meditative state that may help you better comprehend the Divine.
Religious icons have a contested history. Throughout human history, people have depicted their deities through painting, sewing, and sculpture, sometimes crossing the line from veneration of a deity through a contemplative object to veneration of the object itself. Some people view the contemplation of icons as violating the first and second commandment, “have no other gods before me,” and “Make no graven image,” respectively, because of the thin distinguishing line between veneration and worship. Many Christian Orthodox churches use icons as a means of contemplation and also a way to physically express their adoration for God.
In this article, the author suggests that Protestants have an especially hard time understanding the use of religious icons for contemplation because of the physicality of the worship experience; many adherents bow to or kiss the icon, which, the author proposes, is body language traditionally associated with worshiping, something that should be reserved for God alone. The author goes on to point out that this is not a fault of Western Protestantism, merely a misunderstanding caused by a different cultural context.
One reason icons can be useful in contemplative practice is, I think, precisely because they are physical items. Sometimes religious faith can become very abstract and hard to understand; sometimes I crave something indicative of my faith to hold on to. At times like these, I look to those stones and twigs and plants I’ve collected, and focus on holding this thought from Gerard Manley Hopkins in mind: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This simple phrase, and the addition of what I regard to be a physical manifestation of God’s creative power, can achieve the same results as regarding a beautiful painting of Mary and Jesus or a touching rendition of a crucifix.
So try it. Even if it’s something simple, find something on which to fix your gaze–something that has the thumbprint of God. Relax into a comfortable sitting position. Try to focus on the object: What is the big picture? What are the more small, intricate details of the item? Is it static or does it seem to be full of motion? What does this object remind you of? Where is God in your life right now?
Anita Peebles is a native of Michigan. As a Belle H. Bennett House Fellow, Anita works with Plant the Seed, a not-for-profit program that creates outdoor classrooms in community and school gardens to educate and empower under-resourced young people. She also works in the Education, Programs, and Connections Office with Marie developing Environmental Justice offerings at Scarritt Bennett. Anita has a B.A. in Religion and Environmental Ethics from Oberlin College and is discerning a call to ministry.