Category Archives: Icons

Discovering the Desert of My Soul

Candle PrayerI don’t exactly know why, but a few years ago I felt a real spiritual unction to study Christian Mysticism. My first thought was to look at the experiences of the monks of the desert. These Desert Fathers fled to the parched lands of Egypt to escape the “one size fits all” Christianity of Constantine’s Empire. The Abbas of the desert wanted to experience God as they thought He wanted to be experienced. That experience would not come as a result of legislated belief at the point of the sword of a Roman Legion. That kind of belief was no belief at all, for such a faith had to be discovered within their own souls. They could experience God in a mysterious way in their desert monasteries, and then direct others by sharing these experiences. God is a mystery, and He is best seen in a mystical way. In the desert they would find the Spirit that had apparently left the organized church, and indeed, they did. They were the first mystics.

 Many factors prohibited this mystical movement from being the major driving force of the church. All throughout history there have been famous mystics. Notable ones are, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Ignatius of Loyola. I wanted to learn as much from them as I could, but in the middle of that experience something happened to my own way of thinking. Suddenly, the idea of certainty of belief was replaced with a deep, abiding appreciation for the mysterious nature of God. After all belief in God is mystery, not certainty, and can best be understood through the eyes of the mystic.

 I don’t claim to be a Christian mystic at the level of the people I have mentioned, but I do contend that thinking as a mystic can open new panoramas of faith. These panoramas can lead to a much broader view of the work of God, and a more intimate involvement with Him. Things like meditation, Lectio Divina, silence, and icons have taken on a new meaning in my life. They have become invitations to spiritual portals that I never knew existed.

Major realities I discovered by embracing Christian Mysticism:

  • God does live within me
  • God really speaks to me (not audibly)
  • God protects me at all times
  • God gives me strength beyond my ability
  • God owes me nothing
  • Evil wins sometime
  • Suffering is a spiritual discipline
  • Scripture is the Word of God and it still lives
  • Silence is the loudest prayer
  • Silence is a portal to God
  • There is more than one right answer

My journey into mysticism has not so much brought me closer to God, as it has helped me to understand how far I have to go. Jubilantly, I can say that I am not alone on the journey. He is with me! The mystical, monastic journey brought me to the desert of my soul, and there I found the face of God. I continue to travel through that desert with the traveling companions I have discovered. Thanks for reading this story and the other stories that I have written about these mystics who have become my friends.

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Filed under Christian Living, Contemplation, Desert Fathers, Icons, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Lectio Divina, Silence

Praying with Icons 1

Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator), a 6th-centur...

Christ the Savior, a 6th-century icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai. )

Many of us were taught to close our eyes when we pray. Praying with icons is an ancient prayer practice that involves keeping our eyes wide open, taking into our heart what the image visually communicates. We focus not on what is seen in the icon, but rather on what is seen through it — the love of God expressed through God’s creatures.

This is prayer without words, with a focus on being in God’s presence rather than performing in God’s presence. It is a right-brain experience of touching and feeling what is holy — a divine mystery. Icons are not simply art; they are a way into contemplative prayer, and are therefore one way to let God speak to us. They are doorways into stillness, into closeness with God. If we sit with them long enough, we too can enter into the stillness, into the communion . And if we listen to them closely enough, with our hearts, we just may discern the voice of God.

To begin your prayer, you may want to light a candle nearby. A flame is a metaphor for prayer, inviting us into the presence of Holy God. Look at the icon as you pray. See it as a point of connection with Jesus and the community of saints. Try extending your hands and turning your palms upward, a gesture both of openness to God’s grace and the gift of your hands to God.

Even though you may feel pressured by the demands of the day, try not to pray in a hurry. Better to pray for a short time with quiet attention to each word and each breath than to rush through many prayers. Be aware of your breathing. You are breathing in life itself, breathing in God’s peace. You are breathing out praise and gratitude, breathing out your appeals for help.

As you pray, cultivate an inner attitude of listening. God is not an idea and praying is not an exercise to improve our idea of God. Prayer is the cultivation of the awareness of God’s actual presence. We may speak words to God or just look attentively at the icon and let God speak to us.

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Filed under contemplative, Icons, Prayer