An icon of Christ seen in an antique shop in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
11 February 2019,
Ministry Education Workshop,
‘Praying with icons and the Jesus Prayer’
Saint Mary’s Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick,
1.30 p.m.: Part 2, Praying with the Jesus Prayer
Reading: Luke 18: 9-13.
Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ,
ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό
There is a dictum in The Philokalia, ascribed to the Desert Father Evagrios the Solitary (Evagrios Pontikos), that says: ‘If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian’ [Treatise on Prayer, 61].
To pray truly, we can learn from the traditions of others. There are rich treasures in each and every Christian tradition that we can draw on without compromising our own Christian tradition, experience and spirituality. The Orthodox insights into and traditions about prayer have influenced many Anglicans, including Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward. Many in the Western world have been helped to pray through the books of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
To pray does not mean to think about God to the distraction of thinking about other things, or to spend time with God in competition with spending time with our families and friends. To pray means to think and live our entire life in the presence of God. The Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov (1900-1969), the biographer of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, remarks: ‘Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer – prayer incarnate.’
The practice of the Jesus Prayer (Η Προσευχή του Ιησού) is one of the rich treasurers of the Orthodox tradition that can help each of us to develop our own practice of prayer.
The Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer is one of the best-known traditions within Orthodoxy. Its words say simply:
Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ,
ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me the sinner.
The Jesus Prayer is a short, simple prayer that has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of Eastern Christianity.
In order to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and to come to grips with the Scriptural challenge to pray unceasingly, the Orthodox tradition offers the Jesus Prayer – which is called the ‘Prayer of the Heart’ (Καρδιακή Προσευχή) by some Church Fathers – as a means of concentration and as a focal point for our inner life.
The exact words of the prayer have varied from the most simple possible involving the name ‘Jesus,’ or ‘Lord have mercy,’ to the more common extended form: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
For the Eastern Orthodox, the Jesus Prayer one of the most profound and mystical prayers and it is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice.
Theology and practice
‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’ … the Jesus Prayer is recommended by Saint John Klimakos
The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates back to at least the 5th century. A formula similar to the standard form of the Jesus Prayer is found in a letter attributed to Saint John Chysostom, who died in 407. In this Letter to an Abbot, he mentions two prayers being used as ceaseless prayers: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy,’ and ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.’
However, the earliest verifiable mention of the Jesus Prayer is in the writings of Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486), a work found in the first volume of The Philokalia (Η Φιλοκαλία), a collection of texts on prayer compiled between the 4th and the 15th centuries. In that collection, Saint Diadochos ties the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the purification of the soul. He also teaches that repetition of the prayer produces inner peace.
The Jesus Prayer is also described by Saint John Cassian (died 435) in his account of the repetitive use of a passage of the Psalms.
The use of the Jesus Prayer is recommended by Saint John Klimakos (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος, 525-606), a monk of Mount Sinai, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and in the work of Saint Hesychios (?8th century), Pros Theodoulon, found in the first volume of The Philokalia.
Later, the theology of the Jesus Prayer was most clearly set out by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296–1359). Its practice became an integral part of Hesychasm, and the subject of The Philokalia. Today, Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.
Introduction to the West
The use of the Jesus Prayer according to the tradition of The Philokalia is the subject of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim. The Russian pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim discovers the Jesus Prayer and with it finds the answers to many of his questions in that key compendium of Orthodox spirituality and prayer.
In The Way of a Pilgrim, the anonymous pilgrim recounts his desperate longing ‘to pray without ceasing.’ He wanders, with a Bible in hand, in search of someone who can teach him. Eventually, the pilgrim finds a wise monk who becomes his spiritual father or staretz (стáрец). This monk instructs the pilgrim in prayer, and gives him The Philokalia to read.
The pilgrim recalls the conversation: ‘Read this book,’ he said. ‘It is called The Philokalia, and it contains the full and detailed science of constant interior prayer, set forth by 25 Holy Fathers. The book is marked by lofty wisdom and is so profitable to use that it is considered the foremost and best manual of the contemplative spiritual life …’
‘Is it then more sublime that the Bible?’ I asked.
‘No, it is not that. But it contains clear explanations of what the Bible holds in secret and which cannot be easily grasped by our short-sighted understanding.’
The staretz compares the Bible to the Sun and The Philokalia to a small piece of glass that allows a person to view its rays, and he reads to the pilgrim instructions from Saint Simeon the New Theologian quoted in The Philokalia:
‘Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.’
At first, the pilgrim is bored, is sleepy and is distracted by other thoughts. The staretz encourages him to persevere, gives him a prayer rope (Greek κομποσχοίνι, komboschini; Russian чётки, chotki), and tells him to use it as a counter as he repeats the Jesus Prayer. He tells him to repeat the Jesus Prayer 3,000 times a day, ‘quietly and without hurry … without deliberately increasing or diminishing the number. God will help you, and by this means you will reach also the unceasing activity of the heart.’
After the first few days, the pilgrim no longer finds that he has been set a hard task, but soon finds that he is praying again, both ‘easily and joyfully.’ His spiritual father increases the number to 6,000 and then to 12,000, so that the pilgrim reaches the point where the prayer wakes him up early in the morning. Now his whole desire is fixed on saying the Jesus Prayer and he is filled with joy.
The Pilgrim, the anonymous author of The Way of the Pilgrim, reports that the Jesus Prayer has two very concrete effects upon his vision of the world:
1, Firstly, it transfigures his relationship with the material creation around him. The world becomes transparent, a sign, a means of communicating God’s presence. He writes: ‘When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.’
2, Secondly, the Jesus Prayer transfigures his relationship to his fellow human beings. His relationships are given form within their proper context: the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord. ‘Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, “How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!” and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.’
The Scriptural foundations
This story in The Way of the Pilgrim became familiar to many readers in the west in the 1960s through the popularity of JD Salinger’s novel, Franny and Zooey, when the distressed young woman describes the Jesus Prayer to her boyfriend over lunch in a restaurant.
But what are the Scriptural and theological foundations of the Jesus Prayer?
Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki … a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Apostle Paul urges the Christians of Thessaloniki to ‘pray without ceasing’ (I Thessalonians 5: 1). In his letter to Rome, he instructs the Christian community there to ‘be constant in prayer’ (Romans 12: 12). He not only demands unceasing prayer on the part of the Christians in his care, but he practices it himself. ‘We constantly thank God for you’ (I Thessalonians 2: 13), he writes, and he comforts Timothy with the words: ‘Always I remember you in my prayers’ (2 Timothy 1: 3).
Whenever the Apostle Paul speaks of prayer in his letters, two Greek words appear repeatedly: πάντοτε (pantote), which means always; and αδιαλεπτος (adialeptos), meaning without interruption or unceasingly.
Prayer, then, is not merely a part of life which we can conveniently lay aside if something we deem more important comes up. Prayer is all of life, must be all of life. Prayer is as essential to our life as breathing. But how can we be expected to pray all the time? How can we fit more time for prayer into our already overcrowded lives?
The Jesus Prayer, in its simplicity and clarity, is rooted in the Scriptures, and its words are based on:
● the cry of the blind man at the side of the road near Jericho, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ (Luke 18: 38);
● the cry of the ten lepers who called to him, ‘Jesus, Master, take pity on us’ (Luke 17: 13);
● the cry for mercy of the publican, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Luke 18: 14);
● and the sentiments of the cry of the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23: 42).
Let us listen to a similar theme in The Cry of the Thief Crucified by the Russian composer Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov (1877-1944), who suffered greatly under Stalin – when the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where he was the last choirmaster, was torn down, he stopped writing altogether. The tenor singing here is the Russian Evgeny Akimov (1910-1949).
Play: ‘The Cry of the Thief Crucified’ by Pavel Chesnokov (Track 13, Authentic Russian Sacred Music).
Three levels of praying the Jesus Prayer:
Saint Theophan the Recluse … distinguishes three levels in the saying of the Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which the first step taken on the spiritual journey is recognising my own sinfulness, my essential estrangement from God and the people around me.
The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which I admit my desperate need of a Saviour. For ‘if we say that we have no sin in us, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (I John 1: 8).
In order to offer some broad, general guidelines for those interested in using the Jesus Prayer to develop their inner lives, Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), a 19th century Russian spiritual writer, distinguishes three levels in the saying of the Jesus Prayer:
1, It begins as oral prayer or prayer of the lips, a simple recitation which Saint Theophan defines as prayers’ ‘verbal expression and shape.’ Although it is very important, this level of prayer is still external to us and is only the first step, for ‘the essence or soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.’
2, As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach a level at which we begin to pray without distraction. Saint Theophan remarks that at this point, ‘the mind is focused upon the words’ of the Jesus Prayer, ‘speaking them as if they were our own.’
3, He describes the third and final level as prayer of the heart. At this stage, prayer is no longer something we do but who we are. Such prayer is a gift of the Spirit, and is to return to the Father as the Prodigal Son did (Luke 15: 32). The prayer of the heart is the prayer of adoption, when ‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit that cries that cries “Abba, Father!”’ (Galatians 4: 6).
This return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit is the goal of all Christian spirituality. It is to be open to the presence of the Kingdom in our midst.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer
There is a very great emphasis on humility in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. There are many warnings about the disaster that will befall those who would use it in pride, arrogance or conceit. And in many texts, it is said that those who use the Jesus Prayer must only be members of the Orthodox Church in good standing.
When it is practised on a continuing basis, the Jesus Prayer becomes automatic.
In the Eastern tradition, the Jesus Prayer is said or prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a prayer rope (Greek κομποσχοίνι, komboschini; Russian чётки, chotki). It may be accompanied by prostrations and the sign of the cross, and sometimes it is integrated into the liturgical life of monasteries.
I try each year to spend a day in prayer at a monastery. Last year, this included visits to Mount Athos, to the Monastery of Vlatadon in Thessaloniki, and to the Monastery of Saint George in Karydi in western Crete. But for many years, this was an annual visit to the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon in Essex. It involved an early start, catching a bus from Cambridge at 6 a.m. to be there in time for the Divine Liturgy.
The community was founded in an old Anglican rectory in 1958 by Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (1896-1993), with the help of Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom). When he was founding the monastery, Father Sophrony wanted to be sure his community would not just have outward conformity, but also focus on inner asceticism. The typicon of the monastery consists of the repetition of the Jesus Prayer about four hours a day (from 6 to 8.30 a.m. and 5.30 to 8 p.m.), as well as the serving of the Divine Liturgy three or four times a week.
The monastery was founded by is found inspiration in Elder Sophrony, and he was inspired to introduce this practice of the Jesus Prayer from his experiences as a monk on Mount Athos monk, and by the lives of Saint Silouan, Saint Nicodemus and Saint Paisius Velichkovsky.
The American Orthodox blogger and writer, Frederica Mathewes-Green, gives a vivid and realistic example of how the person who uses the Jesus Prayer constantly prays throughout the day and deals with ordinary, everyday thoughts and distractions.
The person praying the Jesus Prayer never treats it as a string of syllables whose ‘surface’ or overt verbal meaning is secondary or unimportant. He/she considers a bare repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a mere string of syllables, perhaps with a ‘mystical’ inner meaning beyond the overt verbal meaning, to be worthless or even dangerous.
While s/he maintains this practice of the Jesus Prayer, which becomes automatic and continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, s/he rejects all tempting thoughts, paying extreme attention to the consciousness of his/her inner world and to the words of the Jesus Prayer, not letting his/her mind wander in any way at all.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer is in the mind in the heart, free of images. The stage of practice known as ‘the guard of the mind’ is a very advanced stage of ascetical and spiritual practice. But attempting to accomplish this prematurely can cause very serious spiritual and emotional harm.
To pray does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God in contrast to spending time with our family and friends. To pray means to think and live our entire life in the Presence of God. The practice of the Jesus Prayer is one of the rich treasurers in the Orthodox tradition offers to those who would pursue the task of developing their own practice of prayer.
As Paul Evdokimov (1901-1970) says: ‘Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer – prayer incarnate.’
In his Ages of the Spiritual Life, Paul Evdokimov writes:
‘In a special manner the invocation of the name of Jesus makes the grace of his Incarnation universal, allowing each of us our personal share and disposing our hearts to receive the Lord … When the divine Name is pronounced over a country or a person, these enter into an intimate relationship with God … The “prayer of the heart” frees and enlarges it and attracts Jesus to it … In this prayer … the whole Bible with its entire message is reduced to its essential simplicity … When Jesus is drawn into the heart, the liturgy becomes interiorised and the Kingdom is in the peaceful soul. The Name dwells in us as its temple and there the divine presence transmutes and Christifies us …’
Here, as with Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the prayer of the heart is much more than an arcane spiritual practice. Rather, its genius is that it summarises all that the scriptures say, the whole of life is to be ‘in Christ’ and the Spirit.
A note on the Hesychast tradition
The shrine of Saint Gregory Palamas in the Metropolitan Cathedral Church in Thessaloniki … he defended the practice of the hesychasts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The practice of the Jesus Prayer is integrated into the mental ασκήσεις (ascésis) undertaken by the Orthodox monk in the practice of Hesychasm. This mental ascesis is the subject of The Philokalia.
Monks often pray this prayer many hundreds of times each night as part of their private cell vigil. Under the guidance of an Elder (Greek γεροντας, gerontas; Russian starets), the monk aims to internalise the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly, thereby accomplishing the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to ‘pray without ceasing.’
And so, perhaps, a brief note on the Hesychast tradition may be helpful.
Hesychasm (Greek ἡσυχασμός hesychasmos, from ἡσυχία hesychia, ‘stillness, rest, quiet’) is an eremitic tradition of prayer in Eastern Orthodoxy, practised (Greek: ἡσυχάζω, hesychazo, ‘to keep stillness’) by the Hesychast (Greek: Ἡσυχαστής, hesychastes).
The tradition dates back to both the Cappadocian Fathers and the Egyptian anchorites in the Western Desert, although the traditions strongest roots can be traced from the 6th to 8th centuries and The Ladder of Divine Ascent written by Saint John of Sinai (523–603).
The term Hesychast is particularly associated with the integration of the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer into the practices of mental ασκήσεις (ascésis) already used by hermits in Egypt. By the 14th century on Mount Athos, Hesychasm refer to the practices associated with the Jesus Prayer. The books used by the Hesychasts include The Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer and solitary life written from the 4th to the 15th centuries; The Ladder of Divine Ascent; the collected works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022); and the works of Saint Isaac the Syrian (7th century or 8th century).
Hesychastic practice may involve specific body postures and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns. However, these bodily postures and breathing patterns are treated as secondary both by modern Athonite practitioners on Mount Athos and by the more ancient texts in The Philokalia, the emphasis being on the primary role of Grace.
Hesychasts are fully inserted into the liturgical and sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, including the daily cycle of the Divine Office and the Divine Liturgy. However, Hesychasts who are living as hermits may have a very rare attendance at the Divine Liturgy and might not recite the Divine Office except by means of the Jesus Prayer, which often happens on Mount Athos.
The Hesychast practices acquiring an inner stillness, ignoring the physical senses and rejecting tempting thoughts. In solitude and retirement, he repeats the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ He prays the Jesus Prayer ‘with the heart’ – with meaning, with intent, ‘for real.’ He never treats the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables whose ‘surface’ or overt verbal meaning is secondary or unimportant. He considers bare repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a mere string of syllables, perhaps with a ‘mystical’ inner meaning beyond the overt verbal meaning, to be worthless or even dangerous.
While he maintains his practice of the Jesus Prayer, which becomes automatic and continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Hesychast rejects all tempting thoughts, paying extreme attention to the consciousness of his inner world and to the words of the Jesus Prayer, not letting his mind wander in any way at all.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer is in the mind in the heart, free of images. The stage of practice known as ‘the guard of the mind’ is a very advanced stage of ascetical and spiritual practice, and attempting to accomplish this prematurely can cause very serious spiritual and emotional harm to the would-be Hesychast. ‘The guard of the mind’ is the condition in which the Hesychast remains as a matter of course throughout his day, every day until he dies. It is from the guard of the mind that he is raised to contemplation by the Grace of God.
The Hesychast usually experiences the contemplation of God as light, the Uncreated Light of the theology of Saint Gregory Palamas. The Hesychast, when he has by the mercy of God been granted such an experience, does not remain in that experience for a very long time, but he returns ‘to earth’ and continues to practise the guard of the mind.
The Uncreated Light that the Hesychast experiences is identified with the Holy Spirit. Experiences of the Uncreated Light are allied to the ‘acquisition of the Holy Spirit.’ The highest goal of the Hesychast is the experiential knowledge of God. In the 14th century, the possibility of this experiential knowledge of God was challenged by a Calabrian monk, Barlaam, who asserted that our knowledge of God can only be propositional. However, the practice of the Hesychasts was defended by Saint Gregory Palamas.
It must be said that there are many warnings that seeking after unusual ‘spiritual’ experiences can itself cause great harm, ruining the soul and the mind of the seeker. Such a seeking after ‘spiritual’ experiences can lead to spiritual delusion in which a person believes himself or herself to be a saint, has hallucinations in which he or she ‘sees’ angels, Christ, etc. This state of spiritual delusion is in a superficial, egotistical way pleasurable, but can lead to madness and suicide, and, according to the Hesychast fathers, makes salvation impossible.
A note on the Athonite and monastic tradition today
Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of Hesychasm, and the most important centre of monastic life in the Orthodox world today. There has been a recent revival in the fortunes of many of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, with new monks arriving from Cyprus, Romania, Russia and Australia.
But the mountain is loved among the Orthodox for nurturing great writers in spirituality and on the life of prayer. Three of the better known of these writers in the 20th century were Saint Silouan (1866-1938), his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993), and Father Joseph (died 1959).
Although some of these great writers also lived the lives of hermits, they gathered many followers, and were particularly known for their practice of the Jesus Prayer.
Additional notes of the prayer rope:
A prayer rope is a loop made up of complicated knots, usually made of wool, used by Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Rite Catholics to count the number of times they have prayed the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Historically it typically had 100 knots, although prayer ropes with 50 or 33 knots can also be found in use today – with the number 33 signifying the years of Christ’s earthly life. There is typically a knotted cross at one end, and a few beads at certain intervals between the knots. Longer prayer ropes frequently have a tassel at the end; its purpose is to dry the tears shed because the deep sorrow for one’s sins.
It is said that the Prayer Rope has its origins from the Father of Orthodox monasticism, Saint Anthony. He started by tying a leather rope for every time he prayed his Kyrie Eleisons, or Lord have Mercies, and the Devil came and would untie it to throw his count off. He then devised a way, inspired from a vision by the Theotokos (Mother of God), of tying the knots so that the knots would constantly make the shape of the cross. That is why Prayer Ropes today are still tied by seven little crosses being tied over and over. The Devil could then not untie it because the Devil is vanquished by the sign of the Cross.
Others attribute its origin to Saint Pachomius in the 4th century as an aid for illiterate monks to accomplish a consistent number of prayers and prostrations. Monks were often expected to carry a prayer rope on their left wrist almost constantly, to remind them to pray constantly in accordance with the Apostle Paul’s injunction: ‘Pray without ceasing’ (I Thessalonians 5: 17).
In some Russian Orthodox service books, certain liturgies can be replaced at need by praying the Jesus Prayer a specified number of times, anywhere from 300 to 1,500 times, depending on the service being replaced. In this way prayers can still be said even if the service books are unavailable for some reason. The use of a prayer rope is a very practical tool in such cases, simply for keeping count of the prayers said.
In the Silence:
In the silence, we have opportunities to:
1, pray, using the Jesus Prayer, or adapting it to our needs – feel free to walk in the garden or find your own quiet corner in one of the rooms on this floor in the Rectory, or on the landing upstairs;
2, there are some icons placed around the Rectory that you might like to use to help you in your prayer;
3, you may want to sit silently and meditate on some of the Scripture passages we have been discussing.
1, The Collect of the Day:
you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature
we cannot always stand upright:
Grant to us such strength and protection
as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
2, The Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father …
3, The Jesus Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
(Metropolitan) Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (Springfield IL: Templegate, 1966), pp 84-88.
Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life (Crestwood NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998).
RM French (translator), The Way of a Pilgrim (London: SPCK, 1977).
(Father) Lev Gillet (‘A Monk of the Eastern Church’), The Jesus Prayer, with a foreword by Kallistos Ware (Crestwood NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987).
Frederica Mathewes-Green, Facing East (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), pp 144-145.
Frederica Mathewes-Green, The Jesus Prayer: the ancient desert prayer that tunes the heart to God (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2009/2010).
E Kadloubovsky, GEH Palmer (eds), Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London: Faber and Faber, 1992).
GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, (Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware (eds), The Philokalia (London: Faber and Faber, 1979, 4 vols).
(Brother) Ramon SSF, Praying the Jesus Prayer (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1988).
JD Salinger, Franny and Zooey (various editions).
(Father) Sophrony, On Prayer (Crestwood NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998).
(Bishop) Simon Barrington-Ward, The Jesus Prayer (Oxford: BRF, 2007 ed).
(Bishop) Simon Barrington-Ward and (Brother) Ramon SSF, Praying the Jesus Prayer Together (Oxford: BRF, 2001).
(Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name: the Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989).
Earlier: Praying with icons and the Jesus Prayer: (1) Praying with Icons
11 February 2019
11 February 2019
11 February 2019,
Ministry Education Workshop,
‘Praying with icons and the Jesus Prayer’
Saint Mary’s Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick,
11 a.m.: Part 1, Praying with Icons
Readings: Colossians 1: 13-20;
The Collect of Trinity Sunday:
Almighty and everlasting God,
you have given us your servants grace,
by the confession of a true faith,
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity
and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity:
Keep us steadfast in this faith,
that we may evermore be defended from all adversities;
for you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.
For many people on these islands, their first impression of icons may come during a Mediterranean holiday when they stumble by accident into an Orthodox church in Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Egypt or parts of Italy, and are blinded by the beauty of the church interior, filled with frescoes and icons.
But in recent years, Western spirituality has become more inquisitive about the place of icons in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Orthodoxy has had a remarkable influence, not just on aesthetic considerations, but on theological journeys in the west too.
Our understanding of the Trinity, for example, has grown by the way in which many influential, contemporary theologians have come to a fresh way of talking about the Trinity because of insights received through Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham.
But we are often in danger of seeing icons as mere decorative additions to churches, or as paintings in a style that is curious and engaging.
For the Orthodox, on the other hand, icons are never decorative, nor are they ever seen as paintings. For them, the whole edifice of a church building is one great icon of the Kingdom of God. The frescoes, the icons and the icon screen (iconostasis) separating the congregation in main body of the church from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are there not to make a church more pretty or beautiful, but are central to worship, liturgy and praying.
Tradition says Pilate made an image of Christ and that the first icon was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist, the first Christian icons may have been produced in the 4th century, and the earliest surviving icons, found in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, date from the 6th or 7th century.
Although in some Western traditions of the Church icons are seen as foreign or exotic, the dispute over the doctrinal orthodoxy of icons and their place in the life of the Church was settled at the Ecumenical Councils in Nicaea in 787 and Constantinople in 843, so that icons are part of the heritage of the undivided church, before the Great Schism of 1054.
In recent years, Western Christians have been introduced to the spiritual riches of icons through the writings of writers such as John Baggley, Richard Temple and, more recently, Archbishop Rowan Williams.
Today, icons are an attractive part of the spiritual experience of visiting many cathedrals in the Church of Ireland, including Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, among many, as well as many cathedrals in the Church of England.
So, icons are fast becoming an integral part of Anglican spirituality today.
There is a small number of icon writers in Ireland, and increasingly icons are becoming commonplace in many churches on these islands. Yet, despite the resurgent interest in the Orthodox tradition of icons and icon writing, many people today think of an icon only as an image on their computer screens.
The Biblical foundations
I was invited the year before last [22 June 2017] to open the summer exhibition of icons by Adrienne Lord in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Later, someone commented on one of my postings on this exhibition: ‘I can’t differentiate between an icon and a graven image in my head. Maybe for others it is ok.’
So, what are icons, how do they find a place in our spirituality, is it appropriate to use them in prayer, and how can we understand them as more than pious art but not quite the ‘graven image’ that many evangelicals fear.
The word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek word (eikon, εἰκών) which simply means a depiction or pictorial representation. However, the theological foundation for the use of icons rests in Scripture: the New Testament describes Christ as the eikon, namely the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3).
If Christ makes the invisible God visible, then visual theology is as much a requirement for the Church as is verbal theology. And so, the Orthodox say that an icon is written rather than painted, and they speak of icon writers rather than icon painters. Icons as they are used in Orthodox liturgy and prayer life are no more worshipped than the pages, ink and typeface of a prayer book are worshipped in prayer.
The Orthodox believer prays through but not to an icon, and the reverence given to an icon is not worship but the reverence that given to the sacred person depicted or represented in the icon.
The word εἰκών (eikon, image) refers to a religious image or representation of a sacred figure or event. Originally, in Greek, the word eikon denoted a depiction of an object without the necessity of sanctity or veneration. Over time, however, icons became popular religious object, used to evoke veneration and to educate people.
A dominant theme in Orthodox icons is the depiction of faces, particularly of Christ and the Virgin Mary, but also of saints and angels. In the Bible, the Hebrew Old Testament uses several words for face – panim, aph, ayin and anpin – when referring to the face or the presence of God.
Of these four words, panim is the most frequently used. In the Greek New Testament, the word προσοπον (prosopon) is used in most cases, with the exception of one verse that uses οψις (opsis).
Of course, the word ‘face’ has other uses in the Bible, as when the earth’s surface is described as ‘the face of the earth,’ or for body directions or postures, such as to set your face against something as an expression of opposition, or to fall on your face as an expression of worship.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul speaks of ‘the glory of Christ, who is the image (εικονα, eikona) of God’ (and says Christ himself is the ‘icon’ (εἰκὼν, eikon) or ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1: 15):
ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως,
He is the image (icon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
In one sense, therefore, Christ is an icon, the perfect icon of God.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says something similar when he says Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint (χαρακτηρ, character) of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1: 3).
As people, we are also made in God’s images. Saint Paul writes: ‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (εικονα, eikona) from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (II Corinthians 3: 18).
In Romans 8: 29, Saint Paul tells how God has predestined us ‘to be conformed to the likeness (εικονος) of his Son.’ In I Corinthians 15: 49, he tells how on the day of resurrection we will ‘bear the likeness (εικονα, eikona) of the man from heaven.’
Where the New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) to a lesser degree tend to use the rather vague ‘into his likeness,’ the KJV had the more vivid ‘into the same image.’ The same image as what? The answer seems to be: the same image as Christ. In other words, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit within us results in our being made into ‘icons’ of Christ.
Saint Paul writes: ‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image (εικονα) of its Creator’ (Colossians 3: 9-10). So, we too are living icons, and it is for this reason that people as well as icons are censed in the Orthodox liturgy and public prayers.
The Biblical motif of the icon is important for understanding the Christian life. God is at work in our lives, conforming us into the image of his Son. We become icons of Christ just as Christ is the icon of God. Orthodox theology described this process of Christian growth as θέωσις (theosis) – becoming partakers of the divine nature (see II Peter 1: 4).
The NIV is one of the most widely used among Evangelicals. However, a reading of these Greek texts suggests the NIV has an inbuilt bias towards iconoclasm. In the texts I have cited, the NIV is inconsistent in its translation of the Greek word εικων (eikon), using the vague ‘likeness’ when referring to Christ but the more direct ‘image’ in reference to Christians.
There is an Italian saying, traduttore, traditore. If the translations we read allow the translators’ own theology to interpret the text rather than allowing the text to shape the translators’ theology, then it becomes difficult to develop a theology that has a biblical foundation and that is not biased towards reaching one particular conclusion.
God is present although we cannot see him, but the day is coming when we shall see God face to face. Thus, the icon points to the end of the present age and to the coming of the eternal kingdom of Christ. The icon of Christ is a promise that we will one day see God face-to-face.
The traditions of Icons:
Icons are embedded with symbolism that conveys far more meaning than simply the identity of the person represented, and that symbolism and style is handed on from generation to generation.
The personal, idiosyncratic and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely lacking in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian icon writing was strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe.
Greek icon writing also began to take on a strong romantic western influence for a period and the difference between some Orthodox icons and western religious art began to vanish.
On the other hand, the Orthodox tradition of iconography from Mount Sinai and Crete had a strong influence on Western art after Michael Damaskinos and his pupil El Greco moved from Crete to Italy in the 16th century.
Icons are designed to capture the spiritual aspects of Christ and the Saints, not just the material human form. Large icons can be found adorning the walls of churches and icon-style frescoes usually cover the inside walls completely.
They begin with more worldly scenes at ground level, and work their way up through the Gospel stories and the stories of salvation, so that as we are distracted by worldly thoughts during the liturgy, we are called back to the purpose of worship, until our eyes are drawn ever upwards, so that at the height of dome we see the evangelists and angels surrounding the highest and holiest of all in the dome, Christ the Pantocrator, the one through whom all things are made.
Orthodox homes have icons on the wall, usually together on an eastern facing wall, not as decorations but to help the family to pray together. Every Orthodox believer will also have an icon of his/her saint after whom they have been named beside their bed or in a private place at home. They are always understood within the context of the liturgy, the teaching and the prayers of the Church.
I have spent time viewing icons, and being enriched spiritually, in their traditional settings in Orthodox churches, monasteries and homes, especially throughout Greece, but also in Romania, Cyprus and even on Mount Sinai. I have visited icons in museums and exhibitions in Mount Athos, Mount Sinai, Patmos, Athens, Thessaloniki, Crete, Bucharest, Nicosia, Venice, and many other places, and been involved in icon exhibitions in Dublin and Derry.
One of favourite places to spend time is the exhibition of Cretan icons in the Museum of Christian Art, housed in the former Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in the Centre of Iraklion. This museum houses one of the most priceless collection of icons in Greece.
Crete has an important place in the tradition of iconography, that links the tradition of iconography on Mount Sinai and in Byzantium through the great Cretan School of Icons, based in Iraklion, and the works of Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559), Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593), Giorgios Klontzas (ca 1540-1608), and Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), known worldwide as El Greco, with Western art and painting.
As I watch tourists visiting churches in Rethymnon, Iraklion, Piskopianó, Koutouloufari and other towns and villages in Crete, I notice how easily they are captivated by the beauty of the icons and frescoes, although most are obviously unaware of their significance or their underlying theology.
An introduction to five icons:
This morning, we may get an opportunity to look at five icons with well-known, traditional themes: Christ the Pantocrator, the Visitation of Abraham, the Transfiguration, the traditional icons of the Nativity, and the Apostles Peter and Paul.
1, Christ the Pantocrator:
The dome in most Orthodox churches is filled with an image of Christ the Pantocrator (Χριστὸς Παντοκράτωρ), although this is an image that is not familiar or well-known to many in Western Christianity.
When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek as the Septuagint, the word Pantokrator was often used both for the Lord of Hosts and for God Almighty. In the New Testament, the word Pantokrator is used once by Saint Paul (II Corinthians 6: 18) and nine times in the Book of Revelation (1: 8, 4: 8, 11: 17, 15: 3, 16: 7, 16: 14, 19: 6, 19: 15 and 21: 22).
The most common translation of Pantocrator is ‘Almighty’ or ‘All-powerful.’ Other translations include ‘Ruler of All’ and ‘Sustainer of the World.’
The icon of Christ Pantokrator is one of the most common religious images in Orthodoxy. It was one of the first images of Christ developed in the Early Church and remains a central icon in the Orthodox Church. In half-length images, Christ holds the New Testament in his left hand and makes the gesture of teaching or of blessing with his right hand.
The oldest surviving example of the icon of Christ Pantocrator is seen on a panel from the sixth or seventh century, and survived the period of destruction of images during the two major Iconoclastic disputes in 726-787 and 814-842. It was probably produced in Constantinople and is now in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.
An icon where Christ has an open book is called Christ the Teacher, a variant of the Pantocrator. Christ is bearded, his brown hair centrally parted, and his head is surrounded by a halo. The icon is usually shown against a gold background.
Often, the name of Christ is written on each side of the halo, as IC and XC. Christ’s fingers are depicted in a pose that represents the letters IC, X and C, so making the Christogram ICXC (for ‘Jesus Christ’). The IC is composed of the Greek characters iota (Ι) and sigma (C rather than Σ) – the first and last letters of ‘Jesus’ in Greek (Ἰησοῦς); in XC the letters are chi (Χ) and sigma – the first and last letters of ‘Christ’ in Greek (Χριστός).
In many cases, Christ has a cruciform halo inscribed with the letters Ο Ω Ν, meaning ὁ ὢν, ‘He Who Is,’ or ‘I AM who I AM’.
2, The Visitation of Abraham:
One of the best-known presentations of the Trinity is found in Andrei Rublev’s icon, the Old Testament Trinity or the Hospitality of Abraham. This icon recalls the passage in Genesis 18, in which God visits Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Abraham’s guests – now only a single guest – is God.
Rublev’s icon itself is a masterpiece of composition: The viewer is being invited to join the meal; the doctrine of the Trinity as a community of Love into which the believer is invited to enter is depicted with clarity and simplicity; the icon communicates the idea that basis of the divine life is hospitality. The vanishing point in the sacred space is placed in front of the icon, inviting the viewer to enter into the holy mystery.
Andrei Rublev (Андре́й Рублёв) is regarded as the greatest mediaeval Russian author of Orthodox icons and frescos. Tradition says he was born in the 1360s, but we have little information about his life, and we do not know when or where he was born.
He probably lived in the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius near Moscow under Nikon of Radonezh, who became the hegumen or abbot after the death of Saint Sergius of Radonezh in 1392.
Rublev is first referred to in 1405 when he decorated icons and frescos for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin in Moscow, working alongside Theophanes the Greek and Prokhor of Gorodets.
Theophanes the Greek was an important Byzantine master who moved to Russia, and is considered to have trained Rublev. Rublev’s name is the last on the list of the masters because he was the junior among them, both by rank and by age.
Rublev and Daniil Cherni painted the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir in 1408 as well as the Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius between 1425 and 1427.
After Daniil’s death, Rublev came to the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow where he painted his last work, the frescoes of the Saviour Cathedral. He is also believed to have painted at least one of the miniatures in the Khitrovo Gospels.
Rublev died at the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow on 29 January 1427 or 1430, although some sources give the date of his death as 17 October 1428.
In his icon of ‘The Visitation of Abraham,’ Rublev depicts the three visitors who arrive at Abraham’s door. The guests become the hosts, the host becomes the guest, and Abraham is invited to a meal that is past, present and future. It is every domestic meal, it is a foretaste of the Eucharist, it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. In welcoming strangers, he is entertaining angels; but in entertaining angels, he is invited into communion with God as Trinity.
It is a moment in the past, a moment in the present and a moment in the future, when we shall all be restored to being in the image and likeness of God our Creator. God, in creating us, creates out of love, making our destiny eternal life with him. We are created to experience life within the Trinitarian communion of persons.
3, The Transfiguration:
The first set of readings provided in the Lectionary this year for the First Sunday before lent [3 March 2019] take the theme of The Transfiguration, and the Gospel reading is Saint Luke’s account of the Transfiguration: Luke 9: 28-36 (37-43).
Traditional icons of the Transfiguration seek to convey how this is a moment that brings the experience of the past and the promise of the future together in the moment of the present.
I saw this recently in two icons of the Transfiguration in two different places.
I was visiting a new church built in a village in the mountains above the tourist resorts in Crete. There I was shown an icon of the Transfiguration presented to that Church in 2007, shortly after it opened 12 years ago. A few weeks earlier, I was invited to open the summer exhibition in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, of icons by Adrienne Lord. The poster for this exhibition, and one of the principal exhibits, is an icon of the Transfiguration.
In both icons, we see on the left, Christ leading the three disciples, Peter, James and John, up the mountain; in the centre, we see these three disciples stumbling and falling as they witness and experience the Transfiguration; and then, to the right, Christ is depicted leading these three back down the side of the mountain.
In other words, we are invited to see the Transfiguration not as a static moment but as a dynamic event. It is a living event in which we are invited to move from all in the past that weighs us down, to experience the full life that Christ offers us today, and to bring this into how we live our lives as Disciples in the future, a future that begins here and now.
The Transfiguration is both an event and a process. The original Greek word for Transfiguration in the Gospels is μεταμόρφωσις (metamorphosis), which means ‘to progress from one state of being to another.’ Consider the metamorphosis of the chrysalis into the butterfly. Saint Paul uses the same word (μεταμόρφωσις) when he describes how the Christian is to be transfigured, transformed, into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3: 18).
This metamorphosis invites us into the event of becoming what we have been created to be. This is what Orthodox writers call deification. Transfiguration is a profound change, by God, in Christ, through the Spirit. And so, the Transfiguration reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all people and all creation – to be transformed and glorified by the majestic splendour of God himself.
The Transfiguration points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, when all of creation shall be transfigured and filled with light.
According to Saint Gregory Palamas, the light of the Transfiguration ‘is not something that comes to be and then vanishes.’ It not only prefigures the eternal blessedness that all Christians look forward to, but also the Kingdom of God already revealed, realised and come.
In a lecture in Cambridge some years ago , Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware], the pre-eminent Orthodox theologian in England, spoke of the Transfiguration as a disclosure not only of what God is but of what we are. The Transfiguration looks back to the beginning, but also looks forward to the end, to the final glory of Christ’s second coming, because through the incarnation Christ raises our human nature to a new level, opens new possibilities.
The Incarnation is a new beginning for the human race, and in the Transfiguration we see not only our human nature at the beginning, but as it can be in and through Christ at the end, he told us.
But with the Transfiguration comes the invitation to bear the cross with Christ. Peter, James and John are with Christ on Mount Tabor, and they are with him in Gethsemane. We must understand the Passion of Christ and the Transfiguration in the light of each other, not as two separate mysteries, but aspects of the one single mystery. Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary go together; and glory and suffering go together.
If we are to become part of the Transfiguration, we cannot leave our cross behind. If we are to bring the secular, fallen world into the glory of Christ, that has to be through self-emptying (κένωσις, kenosis), cross-bearing and suffering. There is no answer to secularism that does not take account of the Cross, as well as taking account of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection.
The Transfiguration provides a guideline for confronting the secular world, he said. And Metropolitan Kalistos reminded us of the story from Leo Tolstoy, Three Questions. The central figure is set a task of answering three questions:
What is the most important time?
The most important time is now, the past is gone, and the future does not exist yet.
Who is the most important person?
The person who is with you at this very instant.
What is the most important task?
‘This task is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!’
The light that shone from Christ on the mountaintop is not a physical and created light, but an eternal and uncreated light, a divine light, the light of the Godhead, the light of the Holy Trinity.
The experience on Mount Tabor confirms Saint Peter’s confession of faith which reveals Christ as the Son of the Living God. Yet Christ remains fully human as ever he was, as fully human as you or me, and his humanity is not abolished. But the Godhead shines through his body and from it.
In Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead. But at other points in his life, the glory is hidden beneath the veil of his flesh. What we see in Christ on Mount Tabor is human nature, our human nature, taken up into God and filled with the light of God. ‘So, this should be our attitude to the secular world,’ Metropolitan Kallistos said.
Or, as the Revd Dr Kenneth Leech (1939-2015) once said: ‘Transfiguration can and does occur ‘just around the corner,’ occurs in the midst of perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding.’
Metropolitan Kallistos spoke that day of the Transfiguration as a disclosure not only of what God is but of what we are. The Transfiguration looks back to the beginning, but also looks forward to the end, opening new possibilities.
The Transfiguration shows us what we can be in and through Christ, he told us.
In secular life, there is a temptation to accept our human nature as it is now. But the Transfiguration of Christ offers the opportunity to look at ourselves not only as we are now, but take stock of what happened in the past that made us so, and to grasp the promise of what we can be in the future.
The Transfiguration is not just an Epiphany or a Theophany moment for Christ, with Peter, James and John as onlookers. The Transfiguration reminds us of how God sees us in God’s own image and likeness, sees us for who we were, who we are and who we are going to be, no matter how others see us, no matter how others dismiss us.
The Transfiguration is a challenge to remember always that we are made in the image and likeness of God. And, no matter what others say about you, how others judge you, how others gossip or talk about you, how others treat you, God sees your potential, God sees in you God’s own image and likeness, God knows you are beautiful inside and loves you, loves you for ever, as though you are God’s only child. You are his beloved child in whom he is well pleased.
4, Traditional icons of the Nativity:
A traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Christ
In traditional icons of the Nativity, the five main characters or sets of characters in the Christmas story – Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Angels, and the Wise Men – offer a very different take on the Christmas story than the ones found on popular Christmas cards.
In the Orthodox tradition, the icon of the Nativity of Christ shows the Creator of the Universe entering history as a new-born babe, and the impact of his birth on the natural life of the world.
The background of the icon traditionally displays an inhospitable world, the world since our expulsion from Paradise. In the centre of the icon are Mary, the central and disproportionately large figure, who is see resting in a cave, and the Christ Child as a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Around the icon, we can see details from the Christmas story.
The icon is rich with theological symbolism.
An icon of the Nativity of Christ … rich with theological symbolism
The Christ Child
The little helpless figure in swaddling clothes represents the complete submission of Christ to the physical conditions governing the human race.
The earth provides him with a cave. The animals watch over him in silent wonder and we humans offer him one of us, the Virgin Mother. His manger is like a coffin and his swaddling clothes are very much like the grave clothes, for this child is born to die.
Far from the Christmas-card image of being born in a sweet, cosy stable, surrounded by cuddly animals and adoring fans, Christ is born in a dark cave. The craggy rocks above the cave form the shadow of the cross on which he dies.
One very old version of the Christmas story has it that Christ was born in a cave outside Bethlehem, which is why the icon shows him that way, in the midst of jagged rocks and pitch dark. Christ has come into the world to save it, but that means he has come into a place of darkness and danger. He is in the depths. His birth anticipates his death, just as the gift of myrrh (a spice used in burials) points us to Christ’s death and burial.
So, while the nativity is a joyful event, it carries a serious message. Jesus Christ is God with us, God come to live the life of a human being on earth. But he has also come to die, to set us free from our slavery to evil, poverty and injustice. As one writer puts it: ‘God became a human child so that we might become children of God.’
The Virgin Mary
The Virgin Mary is known in Orthodoxy as the Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God. Although Mary is the most dominant figure in the icon, she is not the most important. Sometimes she is shown kneeling, still concerned.
Mary is right at the centre of the Christmas story, which is why she is at the centre of this icon. It was her ‘yes’ spoken to the angel who told her she would give birth to Christ which set the whole story in motion. It was her belief that God could do what he promised that made it all possible. And it was she who gave birth and laid her son in a feeding trough for cattle, due to overcrowding in Bethlehem.
In this icon, we see Mary lying on a sort of long, red cushion – it almost looks like a bean bag – with the Christ Child in his makeshift cot by her side. She is pulling her cloak around her for warmth, and perhaps she is trying to catch some sleep after the exhaustion of giving birth. The icon-writer presents Mary like this to remind us that the birth of Christ – like any birth – was hard work and that it was a human event. Jesus Christ was fully human. The way Mary wraps herself in her cloak and turns to get some sleep tells us that.
But Jesus Christ was more than just a human being, as we are told in the words of the nativity narratives in the Gospels, and through the images in this icon.
The sky salutes the Christ Child with a star, the light of wisdom. This is a sign that Christ came for everyone. Some icons have three rays from the star, representing the Holy Trinity.
The shepherds and the Wise Men or Magi bring their gifts as signs that Christ has come for everyone.
Saint Luke’s Gospel has a special emphasis on the poor and disadvantaged, on people living on the margins of society. While Saint Matthew’s Gospel focuses on the wise men who travelled from the East, Saint Luke’s spotlight falls on these working men, who hear the news about the birth of Christ from heaven itself.
There shepherds are on the right-hand side of the icon, and one young shepherd is wearing a wreath as he plays his flute, showing the joy of the Good News.
Below the shepherds, their sheep drink in a river. One of the shepherds looks up and is blessed by an angel looking down on him. Saint Luke is the only evangelist to mention the shepherds in his Gospel.
Christ later says: ‘I have come to bring good news to the poor.’ The shepherds in the story remind us of God’s love for those who are forgotten and left behind in our world.
The Wise Men
The Wise Men are on horseback on the left-hand side of the icon, galloping uphill, their faces turned up looking for the star which has led them there. The wise men are also part of the Christmas story, and they bring not just their strange and exotic gifts but they also bring the world of politics and military power into the story.
King Herod, a violent and cunning ruler who was paranoid about holding on to his power, is alarmed by his unexpected visitors. Eventually, he orders the horrific massacre of all new-born baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to liquidate any rival to his throne, no matter how young he may be.
In this icon, the uphill angle of the horses tells of the long, hard journey of the wise men, and how important the event was to them. Perhaps they alone in this story have realised something of what was truly happening. And the speed of their horses tells us of the urgency and danger in their part of the story.
They show how the story of the incarnation of Christ was rooted in the real world of political corruption and intrigue, with a ruler who was prepared to kill anyone who stood in his way. It is this real world of oppression, death and danger that Christ has come to save.
The women on the bottom right of the icon are midwives. They tell us that Christ was born in the normal way and would have needed washing, as a regular human baby does.
Below the centre of the icon is a tree, representing the Jesse Tree in Old Testament prophecy, which says that a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse, the father of King David: ‘A shoot shall sprout from the stump (tree) of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him’ (Isaiah 11: 1-2). But the tree is also a reminder of the Cross on Calvary and the Crucifixion.
The ox and ass
Christ comes into the world that does not recognise him for who he is. The ox and the ass below the centre of the icon are also referred to in an Old Testament prophecy: ‘The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand’ (Isaiah 1: 3). In some icons, the ox and ass are shown near the Christ child, providing warmth from their breath.
The Righteous Joseph is shown away from the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary, to the bottom left. This is to show that he was not involved in the miracle of the Incarnation of the Son of God, but that he was the protector of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.
Saint Joseph reminds us of a very human dilemma in the Nativity stories: how could the Virgin Mary be pregnant? It was a scandalous thing (see Matthew 1: 18-24).
From Saint Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that Joseph did not believe the Virgin Mary’s explanation of how she had conceived. It was only after a dream that he accepted the Virgin Mary as his wife.
In the icon, Saint Joseph has his back to the Virgin Mary, listening to his doubts and fears. He cuts an isolated figure, right at the bottom of the picture, and he looks thoroughly fed up with everything. And yet, despite any lingering doubts he may have harboured, Saint Joseph has an important place in the whole icon. Doubt can help us get honest with God and with ourselves.
The tempting old man
The old man speaking to Saint Joseph represents the devil bringing new doubts to Saint Joseph. The devil suggests that if the infant were truly divine he would not have been born in the human way. This argument, presented in different forms, keeps on reappearing throughout the history of the Church, and is the foundation of many heresies.
In the person of Saint Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all humanity, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God. But the Virgin Mary in the centre, from her reclining position at the centre of the icon, looks at Saint Joseph as if trying to overcome his doubts and temptations.
The angels in the icon are glorifying God, tending to the action, and ministering. They are announcing the Good News to the shepherds, or singing. The angels in the middle group are kneeling or bowing in worship before Christ, lying in his cave, while the angels on the left of the icon are standing like a choir, singing.
5, The Apostles Peter and Paul:
The main doors into many Greek churches are flanked by icons of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. We all know how they argued in the first debates in the Apostolic Church. So, these icons represent not division in the church, but the unity of the Church.
Two of the icons in the museum in Iraklion show the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter holding the Church in balance between them. These are icons of Christian unity. But we could also see the Church itself as an icon of the world to heaven, and the Church as an icon of the world presented to heaven.
Next: Praying with icons and the Jesus Prayer: (2) Praying with the Jesus Prayer.
An icon of Christ seen in an antique shop in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In every park in every city, we all see men on park benches enjoying life passing by, jostling and joking with one another. There is an ageless and a timeless quality to their presence, as if they are enjoying life passing by rather than letting life pass them by.
These groups of men on park benches talk animatedly, laughing at each other and laughing with each other. If we take the time to allow ourselves to stop, and wait, and watch, their smiling and laughing can be infectious.
It is men without age but with plenty of time in groups like this who have inspired a set of bronze sculptures in a park in the centre of Porto that invites us to stop and engage in this time without age and age without time.
These charming sculptures are in the Jardim da Cordoaria, the Garden of the Ropery, on Campo dos Mártires da Pátria. This is one of the prettiest parks in Porto, close to the twinned Carmelite churches, to the Clerigos tower and church and to the Livraria Lello bookshop.
The park is triangular in shape and over the years the garden has gone through many transformations. The garden was founded by Alfredo Allen, Viscount de Vilar d’Allen, in 1865, and laid out by the German landscape artist Emile David.
A cyclone altered much of the appearance of this romantic garden in 1941. But today its trees are officially classified as being of Public Interest and the park has a number of important sculptures: Rapto de Ganimedes (1898) by Fernandes de Sá, Flora (1904), by António Teixeira Lopes, Ramalho Ortigão (1909) by Leopoldo de Almeida, António Nobre (1926) by Tomás Costa, and Thirteen Laughing at Each Other (2001) by Juan Muñoz (1953-2001).
The sculpture Thirteen Laughing at Each Other by Juan Muñoz is, in fact, a collection of four bronze and steel benches around the park, with 13 figures in all, known in Portuguese as Treze a rir uns dos outros.
On each bench, two or three almost life-size figures are sitting on the top tiers laughing with – or at – a figure laying upside down on a bottom tier.
Have they pushed him over, or has he fallen? Indeed, is he rolling over or falling down in laughter at them?
Some say these 13 men also commemorate the liberal freedom fighters who were executed in this park in 1829.
It is impossible not to smile at these ageless men. They are utterly captivating and are totally at home in the park setting.
This is the last public work by the Spanish sculptor, Juan Muñoz (1953-2001), who died shortly after it was completed. Muñoz was based in Madrid and one of the late 20th century’s great European artists. This collection was offered to Porto by the Spanish company Crédito y Caución in 2001 when Porto was the European Capital of Culture. The artist died that same year at the age of 48.
As a sculptor, Juan Muñoz worked primarily in paper maché, resin and bronze. He was also interested in the auditory arts and created compositions for radio. But when he was asked what he worked at, Muñoz would reply simply by saying he was a ‘storyteller.’
Juan Muñoz was born on 17 June 1953, the second of seven brothers, into a prosperous, educated family in Madrid. He went to a local school but became bored and was expelled. His father employed a poet and art critic to provide lessons, and so Muñoz developed an awareness of modernism as he grew up in Franco’s Spain.
He moved to England in the 1970s to study at Croydon College and the Central School of Art and Design. There he met his wife the sculptor Cristina Iglesias. Later he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 1982 and travelled to the US to study at the Pratt Institute in New York.
His first exhibition was in 1984 in the Fernando Vijande Gallery in Madrid. Since then, his works have been frequently exhibited in Europe and throughout the world.
Muñoz began breaking the rules of traditional sculpture in the 1990s by sculpting works in a ‘narrative’ manner, creating smaller-than-life-size figures in an attitude of mutual interaction. His sculptures often invite the viewer to relate to them, making the viewer feel as if they have discreetly become part of the work.
Muñoz worked primarily with paper maché, resin and bronze. His slate-grey or wax-coloured monochrome figures create a sort of discreetness due to their lack of individuality, but that absence of individuality questions the viewer, perhaps even making the viewer uncomfortable.
Muñoz was also interested in the auditory arts, creating some works for radio. One of his more recognised auditory works was a collaboration with the British composer Gavin Bryars, A Man in a Room, Gambling (1992). This consisted of Muñoz explaining card tricks over a composition by Bryars. The pieces – 10 segments, all shorter than five minutes – were played on BBC Radio 3.
In one unpublished radio programme (Third Ear, 1992), Muñoz proposed that there are two things that are impossible to represent: the present and death, and that the only way to arrive at them was by their absence.
Muñoz exhibited in Dublin at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, in 1994.
He was awarded Spain’s major Premio Nacional de Bellas Artes, in 2000. When asked what he would do with the prize fund, he replied: ‘I think I’ll buy a watch.’
But time was running out for him. He died suddenly at the age of 48 in his summer home in Santa Eulària des Riu, Ibiza, on 28 August 2001. The 13 laughing men in a park in Porto are his last and probably his best-known work.