Icons and the Heart

The following comment was posted in response to my recent thoughts on icons:

I’m interested in learning to experience more of what you describe in your experience with icons. I’ve started praying with them, but not sure “how to,” if there is a “how”. I have an icon of Christ the Pantocrator and one of Christ at a young age — not sure what to make of that one at all, but I like it. I look forward to learning to see or realize or experience the Kingdom of Heaven, as well, the reality and presence of which is a new thing to me. Until recently it has been just a confusing phrase that I didn’t think too much about.

The questions are good and worth spending some time with. These, again, are some of my personal observations. Comments of others are quite welcome.

I first encountered icons when I was in college. I liked them, but knew little about them. I think I thought that if I looked at one long enough it was supposed to tell me something. I was wrong.

Though I did learn one thing that was years in being fulfilled:

There is a relationship that is established in our prayers with icons.

The first icon I owned was a print (which I mounted) of Our Lady of Vladimir. I did not know then that it was a print of the Our Lady of Vladimir, whose original is at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (which is quite different in many ways from the famous Vladimirsakya Icon in Moscow). This icon was simply in my prayer corner for years. It accompanied me through college and seminary and became always a part of our family’s prayer corner. I had no idea of the relationship that had grown with this icon until 1998, the year of my reception into the Orthodox Church and also the year of my first visit to St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

To my surprise, when I entered the chapel, the original of the icon I had now known for more than 25 years seemed to leap from the wall. My response was one of overwhelming emotion that completely surprised me. I had a sense that this icon, this window to the Mother of God, had always known of my devotion to her, and had always prayed for me through so many years and such a long, long journey home to the Orthodox faith. I have no rational explanation for that knowledge. It is simply what I felt and knew.

There have been other particular icons in my life, each with its own story. Mostly they are stories of my “prayer partners” to use a common Protestant phrase. At one point in my life I would say I was sort of “icon crazy,” collecting all I could get my hands on. My prayer corner was unbelievably crowded – in many cases with icons who had no story I could tell. I just bought ’em and hung ’em.

At some point I overheard someone speaking about icons and suggesting that we should “let them come to us.” That’s a very difficult thing to explain. But it is something I began to practice. I gave away many icons and kept primarily the ones with which I could describe a relationship. I now add to what I have as they “come my way.” And they come, from one direction or another, one person or another. Often revealing the reason for their presence at a later time.

I also still give icons away, when it seems the right thing to do. I am sharing a story, a window, a perception with someone else who seems to fit.

Not unlike the relics of saints, there is a degree to which “icons go where they want to.” I don’t want to speak in a superstitious manner or create false impressions. But there is something to the old phrase.

I have a number of special things associated with my priesthood. Some of them are relics that have been given to me. Some are oils from the shrines of certain saints. Some are vestments that have been handed down to me. One is a censer with a unique history. Another is the sponge I use at the altar (a gift at my ordination from a Protodeacon who got the sponge on a visit to Mt. Athos) – and so the stories go. My blessing cross is from St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, England (procured during a personal pilgrimage) – the Crucified Christ is carved on one side, and St. Silouan is carved on the other. When I stand in the altar before any given Liturgy, and begin the service of Proskomide, I am surrounded with objects that carry stories – stories of relationships and remembrance – deeply connected and deeply rooted in my heart. For it is in the heart that the service must be celebrated most of all.

Icons are no different, or at least are very much like such objects. Many times, fewer are better, but always the slow and steady growth of relationship is best. The Fathers compared icons to Holy Scripture, saying that they did with color what Scripture does with words. Every student of Scripture knows what it is for a passage to “open itself” to you. One can hardly explain what this means to someone else. A verse or passage we have known for years suddenly becomes new – speaking and opening vistas of understanding previously undreamt. It is the same thing with icons. There is no “technique” to make Scripture yield itself to you – it is the gift of God. The same is true of icons. Only God can make them yield and open to us – inviting us into places of the heart where we have never been.

I once read a quote from a saint who said, “There are things about Christ you cannot know unless His mother tells you.” I would not state it as a dogma – but I know it by experience. The same can be said of many things in the life of the Church – for the whole of it is Christ. They reveal Him and He reveals them. And in the revelation we know the Truth.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





16 responses to “Icons and the Heart”

  1. elizabeth Avatar

    Thank you Father for this post.

    I appreciate this line: “Many times, fewer are better, but always the slow and steady growth of relationship is best.”

    Esp. the last part of it – thank you.

    A lot of my icons are icons that are also in one of my churches (I have travelled a bit when I was a student) and my priest, when he blessed my house, commented about this being a good thing… I am still pondering his comment.

  2. Fr. Raphael Avatar

    “I once read a quote from a saint who said, “There are things about Christ you cannot know unless His mother tells you.” I would not state it as a dogma – but I know it by experience.”

    Thank God.

    A priest I know in the days immediately preceding his ordination to the sacred priesthood kept looking at his hands – holding them out in front of him – and was constantly overcome with a sense of unworthiness….that these hands would hold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. One evening as he stared at his hands while saying the Jesus Prayer he confessed to Christ his unworthiness. “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, for I do not know how I can hold You” he said. The response from the Lord was quite unexpected and quite sudden: “I will give you to my Mother, and she will teach you how to hold me!” And when he opened his eyes he was staring at the Theotokos of Vladimir icon.

    Thank you, Father, for your post.

  3. Fr. Paul Hodge Avatar

    A priest I know had a copy of an icon of the Lord over the head of his bed in his youth. On the scroll in the Lord’s hand were the words “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained…” When this priest, as a young man, arrived to St. Vladimir to begin his seminary education, he, like you Father, was quite surprised to encounter the original icon of that “old friend” from his childhood home there on the wall of Three Hierarchs chapel!

    Thank you for your post.

  4. Rebecca Avatar

    Thank you for posting so much about icons. They are still very strange for me, but reading through your blogs has been really helpful.

  5. neil Avatar

    Thank again, Father. So helpful!

    Father Raphael: Thanks for sharing that story; so beautiful!

  6. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    I was raised in an atheistic home and have not been close to my mother and stepfather. Since becoming Orthodox I have had many lessons in humility and taking responsibility of my sin in the difficult years we have had. They were given a gold leaf icon of the Theotokos while living in Tiblisi, Georgia. It has been in their living room for many years because they appreciate the art. I never paid attention to it while a protestant which was the last time I was in their home. Discussing faith has not been allowed so the joy of my conversion to Orthodoxy cannot be shared. My mother, who is a liberal Episcopalian now, sent the icon to me for my birthday last year. I was immediately overcome with emotion when I opened the package and gazed on its beauty that I had ignored before. The note inside said that it had been blessed by the Metropolitan of Georgia but that they knew nothing else about it. It has been instrumental in my daily struggle with repentance, forgiveness, to wait patiently on the icons that are received, and most importantly to be patient and accepting of others no matter where they are in their journey. This was their expression of love for me even though talking about the subject is taboo.
    Glory to God for all things!

  7. Trevor Avatar

    I just realized something interesting. A couple of years ago, I think it was, I purchased a few icons for my new office. When I placed my order, I had to get to a certain amount to get a shipping break. There was a Pentecost icon on sale, and I thought it would be nice eventually to collect festal icons, so I ordered it. It’s been in my office ever since. Yesterday, my priest just told me I will be chrismated on Pentecost!

  8. Katrina Avatar

    I was given a small icon of Saints Peter and Paul about 9 years ago as a gift from a priest blessing my home. At the time I was a nominal Orthodox, sort of just going through the motions of getting my house blessed, and I put the icon away not really thinking about who was on the icon. I just considered it as a thoughtful gesture. Thankfully, through God’s grace about 4 years later and 2000 miles away in a different state I “came to myself” and became a concious Orthodox Christian. My church is Sts. Peter and Paul. That little icon is a constant reminder that in my ignorance Christ did not abandon me but pursued me and found me a loving home at Sts. Peter and Paul. Saints Peter and Paul pray for us!

  9. JohnNicholas Avatar

    Such interesting stories! I was raised a luke-warm Southern Baptist and, although fairly well read, that was pretty much the extent of my religious experience. When I went off to college I spent a couple of semesters doing what a lot of young men do, I.e., doing my best to run wild. At one point a friend sent me a museum postcard that was a reproduction of an icon of the Pantocrator, and although I did not know anything really about Orthodoxy I knew, from a historical/art perspective, what an icon was. I found this image very attractive for some strange reason and made a pencil drawing of the icon on a larger sheet of paper which I taped on the wall in my dorm room. I cleaned up my act somewhat and that crude drawing stayed on the wall and was my daily, watchful companion for 3 years . The icon drawing was eventually forgotten and packed away as life moved on. Thirty years later when my journey led me to a small orthodox mission church I recalled the drawing and found it in a box of old college papers. It was only then that I realized what an influence it had been on my young life. Moving into Orthodoxy with the use of icons was not hard at all because, by God’s grace, I had been guided and protected by one those many years ago.

  10. wordsmyth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    What do you think of the Monastery Icons produced by Light of Christ Monastery? I was about to purchase one, but I wanted to read about the monastery first. Then I didn’t feel comfortable to proceed. I’m really curious to know what you think.

  11. wordsmyth Avatar

    I meant to write “I didn’t feel comfortable to proceed after reading about it.”

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    The are decidedly not an Orthodox group. My personal thought is that their icons are “cartoonish” and not well done. I don’t buy from them. There are many excellent Orthodox vendors of much better icons on the Web. St. Isaac’s Skete has good ones. Holy Cross Monastery in W. Va. also has very nice icons.

  13. wordsmyth Avatar

    Sorry Father … I should have phrased my question differently. What are your thoughts on those icons serving as windows to heaven given that they are made by people who are not Orthodox? I’m assuming that there’s not the same type of prayer going into the making of those icons (maybe no prayer at all). Do you think of those icons as “finding people” or “coming their way”, or is that a phenomenon with less … “cartoonish” or “commercial” icons?

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    God can do anything, so I’ll not say what any icon can or cannot do. But icons are “Scripture” in color, and the faithfully they are painted, just as in the translation of Scripture, the better they are overall for the Church.

    On the other hand, there are many “religious pictures” which strictly speaking do not fit within the canonical bounds of an Orthodox icon that are quite miraculous (some have wept, been associated with miracles, etc.).

    I personally find the Monastery Icons too flat and rather opaque. I do not know whether they are painted using egg tempera. Some use acrylic, but acrylic icons almost always have an opaque quality which is not desireable in an icon.

    Ideally, the light of an icon should appear to come from within it. There are techniques for doing this, but generally only egg tempera will work in this manner.

    Monastery Icons also make “icon” like pictures of non-Orthodox personages, such that the icon is reduced to a “style” rather than actually being an icon. I would say that they sell “icon-like” pictures. But God is free and does what He pleases.

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