Today is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when we give thanks to God for the restoration to our Church of the veneration of holy icons.
After a protracted and sometimes violent dispute, the use and veneration of two-dimensional symbolic images of Christ and the saints was re-affirmed at the Council of Nicaea in 787.
It seems pretty clear that icons are not merely a prompt, a starting point for our vaulting imagination. Elder Paisios warned,
SOME say that when a person prays he should have his mind on the icon or the words.
No. Not on icon nor letters. Let him have his mind in his sinfulness, but with discernment.
Many times the devil can cause trouble there too. He’ll tell you that you are sinful, to make you despair.
You should answer him abruptly: saying “What’s that to you?” When I want to say that I am a sinner I will and not when the devil wishes; because when the devil wishes he’ll bring me to despair.
The attitude of Elder Paisios seems to me to be summed up in some words of Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959): “it is enough for me to stand here at your feet”.
Elder Joseph has been walking in prayer on Mount Athos. Suddenly, the landscape becomes white as snow, and the Elder, anxious that he is trespassing, looks for a way out.
I SAW a basement door and entered there. It was a temple [the Greek word for a church] of our Most Holy Theotokos.
Some beautiful youths were sitting there dressed with splendid garments and had a red cross on their chests and on their foreheads.
One of them, who wore a brighter garment and looked like a general, arose from his throne and said to me, “Come. We are waiting for you.” Then he urged me to sit down.
“Forgive me,” I said, “I am unworthy to sit there, but it is enough for me to stand here at your feet.”
He smiled, left me, and went in front of the iconostasis to the icon of the Panagia and said,
“Lady and Mistress of all, Queen of the angels, Immaculate Virgin Theotokos! Show thy grace to this thy servant who suffers so much for thy love, so that he be not engulfed by sorrow.”
And suddenly, so much brilliance came out from her divine icon and the Panagia looked so beautiful, in full length, that from the extreme beauty – a million times brighter than the sun – I fell down at her feet unable to gaze at her and cried out in tears,
“Forgive me, my dear Mother, because out of ignorance I sadden you!” And crying thus in reality, I came to myself soaked in tears and full of joy.
Elder Joseph the Hesychast, in “Monastic Wisdom”, pp. 199-200. This amazing book is available at Skete.com.
O NEW wonder, greater than all the wonders of old!
For who has ever known of a Mother who has given birth without a man, and carries in her arms the One who holds all creation in his grasp?
That which was conceived is the Counsel of God, whom you, All-pure, carried as a babe in your embrace and with whom, as you have gained a mother’s freedom to speak, do not cease to intercede on behalf of those who honour you, that he take pity and save our souls.
Vespers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Translation from Anastasis.
See also the blog A Reader’s Guide to Icons, and Fr Thomas Hopko takes us on a video tour of the icons in St Vladimir’s Seminary.