This Monastic spiritual practice of prayer, Scriptural reading, and meditation, although usually undertaken with a Bible and a prayer journal, can also be used very effectively with Icons as well. Sometimes this is called “Visio Divina”. Because Icons are meant to be Holy Scripture in visual form, they add a level of understanding and identifying with the Scripture and are particularly helpful with visual people in meditation.
Many icons easily lend themselves to this practice of meditation, for example, many of the Festal Icons of the Orthodox Church: The Nativity of Christ, The Baptism of Jesus, the Annunciation, The Resurrection, Crucifixion, Lamentation, Pentecost, The Entry into Jerusalem, and several others beautifully illustrate Holy Scripture and provide meditation opportunities for the liturgical year.
Crucifixion Icon written by Christine Hales
One of the main purposes of Lectio, or Visio, Divina is to promote a personal communion with God while also studying Scripture. It’s not primarily intended as a theological analysis of Biblical passages but rather as a means of personally entering into the scene or Biblical passage and asking God what He wants to teach or show you in this prayer and meditation. It can be a very personal interpretation that sheds light on areas of our lives that need us to grow in our understanding of them.
Transfiguration Icon Written by Christine Hales
The roots of this kind of Scriptural meditation go back to Origen in the third century who thought of Scripture as a Sacrament. The practice was handed down through many generations of Christian leaders, including St. Augustine of Hippo. Saint Benedict of Nursia encouraged his monks to practice Lectio Divina in the sixth century. During the twelfth Century the practice of Lectio Divina was simplified to include four main parts:
First, The Reading of a Scriptural passage (or, choose an Icon AND a Scriptural Passage).
Second, meditate on the passage and the icon. I suggest that using journaling thoughts and prayers to be very helpful tools in this process.
Third, pray, talk to Christ, ask questions, pour out your heart to Him, ask for His direction.
Fourth, Contemplation and Meditation. Spend time in silence with the Icon before you and allow the peace of the silence to be a space where you can just rest with God. Again, after contemplation, journaling is very helpful.
Saint Benedict Icon Written by Christine Hales
Saint Benedict created a Rule for his monastics that included three main things: Liturgical Prayer, manual labor, and Lectio Divina- the slow, careful reading of Scripture, meditating and pondering of the meaning.
In the twelfth Century, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux thought that Lectio Divina guided by the Holy Spirit the keys to nourishing Christian spirituality.
Russian Orthodox Icon of “Entry into Jerusalem”, fifteenth century
As time went on, many other monastic orders emphasized the importance of Lectio Divina to the spiritual life and this has continued with the second Vatican Council in 1965 and then again in 2005 with Pope Benedict and then Pope John Paul II, who used a questions and answer format: “One condition for Lectio Divina is that the mind and heart be illumined by the Holy Spirit, that is, by the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, and that they be approached with an attitude of ‘reverential hearing.”
In our times, Lectio Divina has spread to lay people and has been widely adopted in the Anglican Tradition as well.
The famous Henri Nouen was instrumental in bringing meditation with icons to the fore in Western Christianity, reminding us that for well over a thousand years Icons were the liturgical art of both the West and East, in the undivided Church. His book, “Behold the Beauty of the Lord” is a classic and details his deepening experience of living with four icons in particular.
Face of Christ Icon by Andre Rublev 15th century
“WhIle staying at L’Arches in France, someone had put a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity on the table of the room where Henri was staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri wrote in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.’” Quote from an online article by Jim Forest, a good friend of Nouen’s.
Icons played a major role in Nouen’s spiritual life and development, no doubt with the accompaniment of prayer and reading of Holy Scripture. There are many books on the subject, for example, “Lectio Divina-the Sacred Art-Transforming Words and Images Into Heart Centered Prayer” by Christine Valtners Paintner, PHD, “Meeting God in Scripture: A Hands on Guide to Lectio Divina”, by Jan Johnson, and many more. Connecting this ancient practice to Icon writing and praying with icons is helpful in growing our connection with God through our work.
Blessings, until next month,
Christine Simoneau Hales