The Byzantine Icon and Mind Practice


Irmina Santaika Icon

“It is the image/Icon [Greek: ikon] of the invisible GOD, the Firstborn of all creation.” / COL 1:15

“That, which we have heard and seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands we proclaim also to you.” /JOHN 1:1–3


Byzantine Icons have been part of spirituality for over 2,000 years and are a central aspect of Orthodox religious practice. Icons are more than simply just another smart technique to be added to a person’s spiritual direction tool kit. They are a major vehicle to be used for viewing and understanding reality in complete and holistic spirituality.

The purpose of prayer with Byzantine Icons is that they offer access through the gate of the visible to the mystery of the invisible and engage us in an intimate, growing relationship with GOD. They lead us to the contemplation of the Divine. As Constantine Cavarnos states: “The Icon stands for something other than itself. It is designed to lead us from the physical to the spiritual realm. The Icon is an image of a real, sacred person or event, and is designed to lead us to it.”

The practical power of a Byzantine Icon is primarily its appeal to the eye. The middle age philosophers recommended to gaze at them with complete attention and to pray with them. They would mediate upon their content and allow themselves to move from one idea to another in prayer. This requires a sense of being completely present to the Icon, and intentionally gazing upon it in silence and stillness. It was an ascetic discipline that requires presence and attentiveness. The individual enters into a sense of seeing and being seen, and then responds to the interaction that comes out of this.

Sister Olga, from Russian monastery, says, that “An Icon is not touching or sentimental, nor even to magnify human feelings. It is to orientate all of our mind, feelings, oneself towards the holy.” In other words it is a tool of focus and mediation which sharpens the faculties for the reception of Divine Grace.

“…If we made an image of the invisible GOD, we would certainly be in error, but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact, if we make the image of GOD incarnate who appeared on earth in the flesh, who in his ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume, the form, and the color of the flesh. ….You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb. How can we make an image of the invisible One? How can we represent the features of that which is not like anything else? How can we represent that which has no quality, no height, no limits? What form are we going to assign to that which is without form? What then do we do with the mystery?….If you understand that the incorporeal One became flesh for you, then it would be evident that you can make his human image.… Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of him whom you saw. He who has neither body nor form nor quantity, nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of his nature, he, being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced himself to quantity and to quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible. … Never will I cease to honor matter through which my salvation was wrought! Because of this I salute all matter with reverence, because GOD has filled it with his grace and power.…. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. GOD has made nothing despicable….” / JOHN DAMASCENE (676 AD – 749), a monk and poet from the Mar Saba monastery, in the desert southeast of Jerusalem.

That is why by gazing upon the Icons, a person gains a true perspective of themselves, life and eternity.

This spiritual method was impregnated by the hesychast tradition, which became a universal doctrine in 1375, not only in monastic life but also in the Christian Church. The aim of this art was to contemplate transfigured flesh and matter, the shading of Divine light, the fullness of ascent by the divine presence to ethereal heights where everything was perfect. The spiritual ideal of a contemplative monastic life, as expressed in the theology of Gregory Palamas, supported the essence of Byzantine culture, in particular its doctrine of the transfiguration of human nature and the inseparable connection between Heaven and Earth. The etymology of the word is not certain, but they encounter it in the use of ancient Greek philosophers as the state of calmness, the cessation of external causes of trouble or the absence of inner agitation.

In the Old Testament similar meaning is found in the New Testament, as in the Gospel of Luke (14:4) it is also used in the sense of being silent, or in reference to observation of the “Sabbath rest” (Lk: 23:56). There hesychia means stillness: “a state of inner tranquility or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of heart and intellect.”

The hesychast method of contemplation is very common in Yoga-sutra of Patanjali practice. Of the holy fathers who paid special attention to this psycho-somatic technique was Nicephorus the Hesychast (the Solitary), Gregory of Sinai, Pseudo-Symeon and others. Even though the descriptions of the hesychast techniques may vary, the prayer that they all have in mind is the prayer of the heart, also known as Jesus Prayer. The full version of this prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of GOD, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In practice, however, a shorter form is often used: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Other elements that are commonly associated with Byzantine Icon prayer are: a quiet, possibly darkened place (monastic cell, for example) to keep the mind from distractions, a position in which the monk sits, and breathing, which is the most important aspect of the technique, but of course not of the prayer itself. It later was done in such a way that while sitting, the chin or beard is pressed against the chest while the eyes and attention are brought to the center of one’s belly, the navel. This is why the critics of the hesychasts called them ‘navel-psychics’ with the clear intention, as  Gregory Palamas notes, to slander and disqualify them. He and many Orthodox spiritual masters before and after, have pointed out that it is not at all “out of place to teach beginners in particular to look within themselves and to bring their intellect within themselves by means of their breathing.” Palamas goes on to explain breathing as a method helpful to those whose intellect, due to inexperience, continually “darts away” as soon as it has been focused on something. “That is why some teachers recommend them to pay attention to the exhalation and inhalation of their breath, and to restrain it a little, so that while they are watching it the intellect, too, may be held in check. This they should do until they advance with GOD’s help to a higher stage and are able to prevent their intellect from going out to external things, to keep it uncompounded, and to gather it into what St. Dionysius calls a state of ‘unified concentration.’ This control of the breathing may, indeed, be regarded as a spontaneous consequence of paying attention to the intellect; for the breath is always quietly inhaled and exhaled at moments of intense concentration, especially in the case of those who practice stillness both bodily and mentally”.

With this, Palamas not only justifies the use of breathing in Jesus Prayer, but also explains that it is only a physical method, a preparation of the body for true inner prayer – the prayer of the heart. The heart that occupies central place in Orthodox ‘spiritual anatomy’ does not refer to the faculty of being passionate or emotional in the usual sense of the word. As the Coptic monk Makarios of Egypt in his Spiritual Homilies observes, heart is a place of unity of human person as a whole – body, soul and spirit: “The heart governs and reigns over the whole bodily organism; and when grace possesses the pasturages of the heart, it rules over all the members and the thoughts. For there, in the heart, is the intellect (nous), and all the thoughts of the soul and its expectation; and in this way grace penetrates also to all members of the body…”

Linking the words of prayer, such as in Jesus Prayer, with the rhythm of one’s breathing makes the prayer itself flow naturally. Mental repetition of the prayer in the end gives way to wordless prayer, or silence – which is the inner state of stillness or hesychia, which resembles the surface of the calm water reflecting, in the experience of some hesychasts, the uncreated light of GOD.

The common ascetic strategy to “stop the turning of thought” in yoga by repetition of the sacred syllable AUM or OM, the primordial sound from which all speech and thought are said to derive, parallels (again only as a strategy!) the hesychast invocation of the holy name in Jesus Prayer to assist in combating thoughts or trivial imagining. The point, however, is that this method is used in both cases to aid concentration, by blocking the formation of new impressions or thought-forms, so that a monk’s mind/thought could be “fixed” in prayer, or that the one of yogi ceases to “turn” or oscillates. As one monk describes what the hesychasts do: “they breath in the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ and exhale the words “have mercy on me; or “we breath in all the words of Jesus prayer and we breath out saying them again.” Repetition of the syllable AUM “reveals its meaning” says Patañjali, and the practice of “focusing on the single truth” (AUM as an expression of the ultimate reality) enables yogi to prevent “distractions” caused by oscillation of thought.

Finally, prayer with Byzantine Icon method is very common of the Eight Limbs of Yoga: when the mind has become purified by yoga practices and becomes able to focus efficiently on one subject or point of experience in which the meditative subject is so absorbed in the object of meditation that the distinction between the two is completely lost. In Orthodox contemplation, St. John says, that ”GOD abides in him” (I John 4:16). That is why the goal of this practice is not to guide us to absolute nothingness through the ‘Jesus prayer’, but to turn it to the heart and bring the grace of GOD into the soul, from where it will spread to the body also. This union with GOD through Christ in the Holy Spirit is conceived and realized as a personal loving relationship, communion, between the Creator and creature. In other words, it is not a divorce from the material world, but rather an attempt at its transfiguration or as an Antonite monk of our time put it: “we must not try to get rid of the garment of the soul, as the philosophical systems claim, but we must try to save it. We do not want to reach the point where we do not desire life so that suffering ceases. We practice the Jesus Prayer because we thirst for life and we want to live with GOD eternally” and by using Byzantine Icons to keep our mind still and focused while we see them and listen to what they tell us.



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