Sunday, 10 February 2013

Praying with Icons in Richmond.

Yesterday in Wales it was  the feast  of St. Teilo (who was one of St. David’s monks at Mynyw - St David’s) - and St. Teilo's day proved to be an absolutely fascinating Saturday.  I spent a ‘quiet day’ praying with icons  at the very beautiful Church of St. John the Divine in Richmond.  (See HERE  )  In my last blog I mused about angels on the Northern Line, and I can now state that yesterday there were indeed angels on the Northern Line since I packed up the icon of the Sacred Heart to join some of Ian’s other icons in Richmond for this event.    One thing that you can only really appreciate when you live with an icon is how it captures and 'uses' light.  It becomes 'alive' in a way no other form of art I know does!  So, it was great to see it come alive in the light of a Church dedicated to St. John.

The icons were arranged as an iconstasis before  the altar, and then after some collective morning prayers, they were distributed around the church for people to spend time praying with the icons. It was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday. ( Despite the fact that I missed most of the Wales-France rugby match ! )

 Ian gave a short (inspirational and informative)  talk to help us on our way, and then we were able to sit in silence and pray.  You can read the notes to Ian's talk HERE.

 I must confess that my immediate thoughts on such a cold wet day  were  ' how on earth did David and Teilo  pray in cold water?'  David was famous for praying up to his neck in cold water (in Welsh he is called ‘Dewi Ddyfrwr’, David the Water  drinker). Alas, I think I could never have made it as one of David’s monks as I was rather cold despite the golden glow of the icons! But after a while I warmed up and began to enter into the kind of silence and stillness that icons seem to generate or radiate.  In my experience icons have  this effect of  ‘ordering the world around it’ (did Ian say this?)  in a way that I am unable to explain.  In the home the icon creates and atmosphere of silence and peace  that is at times quite tangible.  An icon  - in my experience -  can perhaps be described as a spiritual tool which helps to create the silence  and peace necessary for prayer to work or happen.   It is as if you project all your noise and disquiet at them and they reflect them back to you as silence and peace.  (Rather like a heat pump or engine turns hot into cold and vice versa. ) Prayer requires us to be still and quiet and icons have a (strange) power to create a silence and a sense of peace  of a very special kind.  Later, in another talk,  Ian gave an illustration of the kind of power which icons can have  in the context of  his ( now famous) icon of ‘The Virgin Mother of the Church, or Our Lady of the Wall ) which he painted a few years ago in Palestine. ( ABOVE, left ) **  You can read about it HERE  

I think that icon’s show us that God orders the world in silence, and not with the kind of power we see exercised in our world.  Silence allows God into our lives and an icon helps us to cultivate the silence which is necessary if God’s power and grace is to enter into our lives.  An icon helps us to see  ( as Teilhard was fond of saying) Christ in all things.

My own experience of reading and living with this icon of the Sacred Heart has, I think, been about allowing the icon to work in ways that sometimes baffle me as it tends to send me off in directions which are not those I would naturally choose to take.  An example of this has been the way the icon has prompted me of late to think and reflect about humility of the heart ( Jesus tells us to learn from His meek and humble heart) and the role of angels.   Invariably when it does lead me all over the place it takes me to a point where things just come together.  It is just very disconcerting really.   So it was during the day at St . John the Divine.  I felt very closely drawn to praying with Ian’s utterly beautiful icon of St. Michael.  And, for the first time, I sensed the humility of Michael, and the importance of  humility in the battle against all the evils of this world - the most potent of which is pride.  Michael – ‘Who is like God?'  – reminds us that we are strong when we are wholly and completely open to God’s grace.  Pride makes us weak, and humility makes us strong.  I  picked up the helpful notes left by the icon, and there it was all explained to me.  How come I never got that before now!  And, reflecting on this insight naturally made me turn to the icon of the Virgin, who is full of grace, and especially to ‘ Our Lady of the Wall’ and that dreadful snake creeping along the wall.  And then you realize what powerful things icons can be!  God does indeed speak in the silence ( 1 Kings, 19: 18).

This morning I was on the rota to read at mass.   ( My turn comes around every month or so. )  To my surprise,  I had to read  Isaiah 6: 1- 2, 3-8)  which is all about the Lord of Hosts and the six winged seraphim ( the subject of a few recent blogs) and the humility of Isaiah before the Lord.  The next reading was about the humility of St Paul, ( 1 Corinthians, 15: 1-11)  and in the Gospel we encounter the humility of Peter:  ‘ Leave me Lord; for I am a sinful man’ (Luke 5: 1-11).  I felt that, in some strange and unexpected way, my morning of praying with icons had just helped to clear up so many confusing thoughts and ideas. It shows what can happen if you shut up, stop thinking, and open your heart to the deep silence glowing from the icon.

I suppose that is why St. David and St Teilo found praying in cold water a way of becoming more open to God's Word and Will. The cold opened them to the silence of the divine.  Perhaps icons are a kind of cold water for the soul: they help us to be silent and help us to become more open and attentive to God's presence in the visible world? Yes , my quiet day in St John the Divine was so very worthwhile and as energizing as the cold black water of Mynyw!  Thank you so much to all those who made it possible. Must do it again sometime.

**Prayer to Our Lady who brings down walls:

Ian's icon of the Lady of the Wall 
Most Holy Mother of God, we pray to you as mother of the Church, mother of all Christians who suffer.  We beg you, through your ardent intercession, to bring down this wall, the walls of our hearts, and all the walls that generate hatred, violence, fear, and indifference between people and between nations.  You who crushed the ancient serpent by your feet, gather and unit us under your virginal cloak, protect us from all evil and open forever in our lives the gate of hope.  Bring to birth in us and in our world the civilisation of love that sprang forth from the Cross and Resurrection of your divine Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever.  AMEN

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