Daily Meditations

PRAYING WITH ICONS AND STATUES

July 19th, 2017

Icons and statuary make important contributions to any spiritual environment that nurtures prayer. Morning after morning, I used to watch a ninety-eight-year-old woman walk brightly into church and take her usual seat. She would turn her head slightly to the right and give a nod to the statue of Mary and then turn her head a good deal more to the left and wink at the statue of St. Joseph. She would then sit down in her pew and produce a number of prayer cards and place them in a row in front of her. Finally, she would reach her arm into her vast purse and pull out yards of rosary. Now ready to begin her prayers, her body assumed an obvious and deep recollection. I don’t think she said a word from any of those prayer cards or the rosary. Yet she was convinced she was forgetful during prayer and wanted to hear no talk of what seemed to the naked eye to be the obvious truth: she was immersed in the Silence in which the Word speaks Silence, the depthless depth that all prayer leads to and emerges from.

Statues and icons serve as visual mantras to help us focus. Icons especially seem to open up to us in such a way that we are drawn into them. Some people, in fact, will place an icon in front of them during the time of prayer and use it instead of a prayer word to bring themselves back whenever they become distracted. Not a few people will keep an icon of Christ or of the Theotokos (Mary with the infant Jesus on her lap) on their desk or some other appropriate place at work. This can be a great help in cultivating a prayerful inner stance throughout the day. But there is a caveat in using external objects: we keep our attention focused on an object of awareness. This has its place in certain formal prayers and communal worship. But those maturing on the path of contemplation will miss the subtler dynamics of contemplation that happen within awareness itself and not on the screen of the awareness.

At some point, even if it is on our deathbed, a great inner vastness opens up from within awareness. It is not an object of awareness, and it is not our own subjectivity. Embracing both objectivity and subjectivity, it washes onto the shores of perception, an experience people often describe in metaphors of inner spaciousness, abiding calm, luminous vastness. But these labels fail to pin it down, for there is neither the subject nor the object that English syntax demands. Praying with statues and icons has. an unquestionably valuable role, but it is a limited role; for it exercises the attention in focusing on external objects of awareness, when the thrust of contemplative practice is to cultivate what is beyond subject-object dualism. One might rightly say that the prayer word is in effect an object of awareness, albeit more interior than an external object like an icon or statue.

Indeed, it is. That is why we will at some point drop the prayer word; or the prayer word will blossom from within as non-dual awareness-there is simply no one there to pray. There is just an icon, just a statue, just a prayer word, but no separate and independent person who is praying. This is a great inner liberation, the transfer-to use a Pauline metaphor- to the Kingdom of His Beloved Son (see Col 1:12-20). But none of this shows up on a CCTV camera.

~Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence:  Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation