With some hammering and the use of a friend’s drill (thanks Phil!), I was able to (FINALLY) set up my very first icon corner. In my last place of residence, all the corners were occupied, and the few icons I had were placed wherever I could find the space. But in this new, bigger space, I have plenty of room for my books, and the icons. So I stained some corner shelves, mounted them on the wall, and hung my larger icons all around them. The way it’s set up, they are visible right when I walk in the front door, and then when I leave, they are the last things I see. There are a few more things I need to make it proper (a vigil lamp and some incense) but it’s great so far.
Why, you ask, do you need an icon corner? Good question.
As I grow (oh, so slowly) in my understanding of Orthodoxy, I see all the different ways that God speaks to me through the practice of this faith–fasting reminds me of how pathetic my will is and how necessary it is to rely on His; the beautiful written prayers show me that I’m not the first person to pray nor the first person to wrestle with issues of self-doubt and sin; and icons remind me of those that have gone before and connect me with the ideals of Christianity (virtue, piety, sacrifice, love.)
This seems to be what the early Church Fathers had in mind when they defended the use of Holy Icons during the Seventh Ecumenical Council in the 8th Century. From the Decree of the Second Council of Nice, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and, yes, I know it’s a lengthy read:
“We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (aspasmon kai timhtikhn proskunh-sin), not indeed that true worship of faith (latreian) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spake in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received. So we sing prophetically the triumphal hymns of the Church, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem. Rejoice and be glad with all thy heart. The Lord hath taken away from thee the oppression of thy adversaries; thou art redeemed from the hand of thine enemies. The Lord is a King in the midst of thee; thou shalt not see evil any more, and peace be unto thee forever.”
Creating a space in my home for prayer and spiritual reflection leads to a deeper intentionality in my spiritual life, it gives me a place to come apart and think about my relationship to the Most High God, and it helps me to shut out the distractions of the world around me. And in the way my living room is laid out, unintentionally, the icon corner places my back to the television set. How wonderfully appropriate!
I had rarely seen an icon in my Protestant life. But the most vivid recollection of childhood Bible stories was a picture of Jesus in the big, dog-eared Bible story book my mom would read from at the foot of her bed in the evenings. That picture brings tears to my eyes now as I think about it. Jesus, albeit a blue-eyed European one, was holding a chubby-fingered blond-haired, blue-eyed girl. His loving eyes and open face were laughing, and she had her little hands on his beard, an act of a child’s intimate trust.
All my life I was looking for that Jesus. That image had burned its way into my conscience, into my soul. When I walked into St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church the very first time, I saw Him. This time, He was on the ceiling–the icon of the Pantocrater. As I slipped into the very last seat in the back row (yep, we’ve got pews, but that’s another topic) it was as if He was watching me, with those great loving eyes, welcoming me home.
So when I muster the discipline to pray, when I stand before those icons, I don’t pray to them, but in a way I pray through them. I pray to that Jesus who loved me so much He left Heaven to come to earth to rescue the souls of men. I pray to that One who knows that I stumble and fall over the place, like a sort of spiritual toddler, and watches me with hopeful eyes, encouraging me to get up and try again. And I am surrounded by the images of those who struggled in the same ways that I do, but who nonetheless became so filled with Christ they were recognized as saints by the Church.
In that icon corner I am not alone, and I am loved.