Icon Gazing as a Spiritual Practice: Part One

On the website page “An Icon for Our Times” I wrote that icons, both ancient and new in style, aim to be windows on the Divine either through traditional religious imagery or through the radiance and vibrancy of their color as Van Gogh expressed it. But how do we go about looking through that window?

A first step is to find an image that captures your attention, touches or moves you in some way. Perhaps you feel a sense of harmony and beauty that is attractive to you. Or the image evokes a sense of wonder and fascination. Perhaps you feel a bit disturbed, as if the image is touching a vulnerable place that you are not so sure you want to explore. Whatever the “hook” is, it is saying, “Pay attention! There is something here for you to explore.” You may have a pretty good sense of what that is, or you may feel completely in the dark.

Whatever grabs your attention in the picture is a link to something in your heart. In that sense, it can feel like the picture is choosing you as much or more than you are choosing it. Since imagery is the language of feeling, it reaches beyond thought to deeper layers of your being not easily put into words.

Let’s say Sacred Bond has caught your attention and stirred a felt response. How might you explore that spontaneous response more deeply? One way is to simply spend regular time with the image in a relaxed, attentive way. It’s helpful if you can do this for 10 or 15 minutes a day, though that time may increase as you begin to “bond” with the image more deeply. It also helps if you are relatively undisturbed during the time you set aside. You’re not trying to accomplish anything in particular except to be open and receptive as you might be with a friend who stops by for a visit. Usually such friendly encounters don’t have an agenda. Each person just shares what’s on their mind and heart as the other listens. At some point the roles switch. The conversation continues to follow its own spontaneous course

So it is with gazing at a sacred image. Be open to what the image is “saying” to you in its nonverbal language of color, form and symbol. What feeling does the picture as a whole convey to you? What do its various parts convey? In Sacred Bond, for example, you might focus on the mother’s face as a window on her soul. What does she seem to be feeling? At some point you may notice that her quality of feeling touches and evokes feelings, images and memories of your own. You may want to simply receive and note these quietly in yourself. Or you may feel moved to express them to the Mother silently or aloud. After a time you can return to simply gaze at her interlaced hands to receive what they might communicate or stir in you. And then listen for your own response. Let the dialogue unfold in its own way and in its own time.

To be continued…