Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Praying with Icons

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Praying with Icons

Article excerpt

Praying with Icons. By James H. Forest. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1998. xx + 170 pp. illus. $16.00 (paper).

On the north wall of my study is a large framed poster of one of the earliest extant icons of Christ, from Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai. Below it is a black and white photograph of a smiling, relaxed Thomas Merton. To Merton's right, taped to the file cabinet, is a newspaper photo of the lads from Monty Python mugging for the camera (it looks like it was taken after the "Dirty Fork" skit). All of these representations are icons, taking the word in its broadest sense, from the divine to the divinely ridiculous (I like to think that Merton would have loved Monty Python).

Unfortunately, many people today think of an icon only as an image on a computer screen. Given the resurgent interest in religious icons, however, such an understanding is unlikely to supplant the Church's ancient use of the term as a sacred object. Now Jim Forest, social activist, friend and biographer of Merton, and convert to Russian Orthodoxy, adds a popular introduction to icons published by a well-respected Roman Catholic press. Such a publication, like Henri Nouwen's earlier book Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1987), will undoubtedly introduce more people in the West to the beauties and spiritual depths of icons.

What is an icon? More than a picture but less than divine reality, it is "an instrument for the transmission of Christian tradition and faith," the Holy Spirit speaking to us "through sacred imagery" (p. 13), "theology written in images and color" (p. 14), "the fulfillment of prayer," "a place of prayer" (p. 19). Words sung on the Sunday of Orthodoxy declare that "the uncircumscribed Word of the Father became circumscribed, taking flesh from thee, O Mother of God, and He has restored the sullied image to its ancient glory, filling it with the divine beauty. This our salvation we confess in deed and word, and we depict it in the holy icons" (p. 9).

In Part I, "In the Image of God," Forest offers a brief survey of the history of icons and how an icon is made, "a work of prayer, fasting, and meditation" (p. 21). Part II, "Prayer," is the heart and soul of the book. Icons, for Forest, are incarnational and remind us of corporeality, ours and Christ's: "In icons of Mary holding her son, we always see his bare feet, a reminder that he walked on the earth" (p. …

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