The Rev. Dr. Han van den Blink
St. Paul’s Church, Troy

I waited patiently upon the Lord;
he stooped down and heard my cry.
Psalm 40:1

During the years 1994 and 1995 I participated in a program in spiritual direction at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. During one of the yearly two day silent retreats that were part of the program, we were introduced to praying with ikons. The leader of the particular retreat that proved to be so transformative for me was Tilden Edwards, an Episcopal priest who was Shalem’s Executive Director.

He told us about the rich tradition of ikons in Eastern Orthodoxy and their role in liturgy and personal prayer. He mentioned that the proper expression is “writing” and not “painting” an ikon. Moreover, iconographers, he said, consider their calling a religious vocation done ad majorem Dei Gloriam, for the greater Glory of God. For that reason they never sign their names on ikons.

Tilden emphasized that you do not pray to an ikon but with an ikon. An ikon is meant to portray transfigured humanity and for that reason is never a naturalistic depiction. He made clear that the most important part of an ikon is its eyes. Then he said something that I will never forget. He said, “Pray with the ikon as if God were looking at you through the eyes of the ikon.”

Tilden had brought two ikons for our group to pray with. One was the Vladimir Madonna from 12th century Byzantium, Mary holding the child Jesus. This is a well-known ikon which I had seen before. The other was called the Sinai Pantokrator Christ. Pantokrator means Ruler of All and refers to the crucified and exalted Christ who rules over all, not with force or violence but with love.

This ikon, hailing from the 6th century, is one of the few to have survived the iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries when thousands of ikons were destroyed, and can still be seen in the sanctuary of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula in what is now Egypt. Hence the name of Sinai Pantokrator. The two ikons were set up on tables with chairs arranged in front of them so that several people could pray with one ikon at a time.

to be continued