Often when we are attempting to enter into a deeper state of prayer, we try to limit our physical senses. This is a very practical approach. We recognize that it is easier to focus on the spiritual by trying to ignore the physical that can deceive or even distract from our prayer.
The easiest sense to shut off is our sight – our eyes come with built in shutters. Many of us were even brought up to always close our eyes when we pray, and I must admit, that it is still the most common way that I choose to enter into prayer.
Normally we think of eyes as windows to look through to see people’s souls, but it goes both ways. Just as people are able to see us for who we are by looking into our eyes, our souls use our eyes as windows to take in the reality of the world around us.
Are Icons Idols?
The Church has the beautiful tradition and gift of sacred art and icons to enrich our spirituality and prayer through what we see when we keep our eyes open.
There are some Christians that are bothered by use of icons and compare them to idols. The strange thing about this complaint is that I don’t think anyone in our times actually mistakes or confuses images and statues for little gods. That would be idolatry (Exodus 20:4-5).
In our American culture, we use images of our great heroes in prominent places like at the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, and even the new Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. In our patriotism, we look upon these images with veneration and understanding of the value they represent for us as Americans. We never confuse them as anything more than symbols.
The Church has had this same custom since the beginning. In fact, our Jewish history shows us that the greatest treasure of God’s people before Christ was the Ark of the Covenant. It was a man-made image including two very prominent angels, all according to the specific instructions from God (Exodus 25:18-19).
It is possible, but highly unlikely, that our post-modern society would use images as idolatry. These days our culture more commonly makes idols out of roles and actions like fame, riches, or sex.
The Role of Icons and Sacred Art
Visuals can often say more than the words ever could. The beauty of sacred architecture stands as a living testament of sermons preached through stone. It is a beauty that communicates beyond language and culture barriers.
In a different role, sometimes we don’t have the words to say what we want to communicate in prayer. This is where sacred art provides the opportunity to pray through our thoughts without words. All we need to do is meditate and soak in the beauty and message of the art. It is a way to focus our attention and draw us out of ourselves as we gaze at window into heaven.
God Wants Us to Use Icons
God even gave us an icon painted by His own blood in the Shroud of Turin. To this day, it is one of the most important images in the history of humanity. Even though it has never been officially proclaimed as authentic, science has shown us that is almost undeniably the burial cloth of Jesus.
Closer to our time, St Faustina also brought us the Divine Mercy Image because Jesus desired for us to have an image to remind us of His infinite mercy. We celebrate this Solemnity the Second Sunday of Easter. It may not be a perfect, exact image of our Lord, but the message is clear, Jesus desires us, and it is the image of a lover waiting for the love of His bride, the Church.
The God that created us knows our hearts, and He knows that we are all very visual people. We can use the gift He gave us to do deeper into our personal prayer or even in the mass.