GREEN BAY — This month, every household in the diocese has received a holy card from Bishop David Ricken. The image of the Holy Family is a gift from the bishop so that every family may use it to dedicate themselves to the protection and guidance of the Holy Family of Nazareth in the coming year, as part of our six-year journey of “Disciples on the Way.”
In announcing his plans earlier this year, Bishop Ricken told families gathered at Camp Tekakwitha, that he hoped the image would be placed in “a special prayer corner of your home.” The hope is that the image will help focus prayers and draw people closer to Jesus in this Year of Mercy.
“When you dedicate your home to the Holy Family,” the bishop added, “the Holy Family will become more active and will help you to love one another. … when we pray to them and ask them to help us love one another as they loved one another, then it becomes much easier.”
Explaining why he hoped that families would follow his suggestion to dedicate themselves to the Holy Family, Bishop Ricken said, “Marriages and families are under virulent stress today, from many different sources. It’s many threats, and I really want to be able to help them help themselves as a family: by turning to the Holy Family for divine assistance.”
The Holy Family image sent out is an icon image, similar in style to the ancient icons of Eastern Christian churches. And, just as icons are used by Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern-rite Catholics as prayer aids, this image is given in the hope that families in the Green Bay Diocese will pray with it.
“Usually icons are placed in a prayer corner,” explained Joe Bound, diocesan director of education and a Byzantine Catholic. “The idea is that this is a sacred space where I can go to look and to contemplate, to think and to pray.”
Bound offered his own experience with a visit to Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Ill. “There isn’t a square inch in the church that isn’t part of an icon,” he said.
Bound and his wife, Linda, both experienced difficulty concentrating on the liturgy that day because of the fascinating images all around them. Afterwards, they spoke with the pastor, Fr. Thomas Loya, the iconographer who had created all the icons. The priest understood why they felt overwhelmed by all the colors and gold and jewel-tones of the icons.
“That’s exactly what you are supposed to be doing,” the priest told the Bounds. “It’s supposed to be overwhelming and give you a sense of the divine and the transcendent, rather than the wordly.”
Icons are meant to draw us toward the divine and remind us that there is a life beyond this one.
The image of the Holy Family that was mailed is a hybrid image — not quite an Eastern icon, but not Western-style art either, like a da Vinci or Raphael. The way the Holy Family is grouped and touching shows the Western style influence, as so some of the colors used (like orange). But the Greek letters at the top and in Jesus’ halo, the adult features of the child and the large eyes are all of the Eastern style and have specific meaning. So does the gold surrounding and filling everything. This is because gold (true 23-karat gold lead) is the first thing applied as an icon is created.
Icon written, not painted
When an icon is created, it is “written” not “painted,” because it is meant to be a prayer and to offer a prayer path. Kathleen Hirsch, a writer for “Crux,” a website about “all things Catholic,” toured The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., earlier this year. She wrote of her path of discovery there: “As I view this astonishing work, I begin to see the icon as a profoundly apt parallel to the journey of prayer, indeed, to the spiritual journey itself. We approach the holy through layers of consciousness and self-knowing that, if we are as faithful and disciplined as the writers of these images, become ever more vivid with time. The gold that on first impression appears excessive becomes, as it is to the Orthodox initiate, the light of Christ.”
The light of God’s love and mercy revealed in Christ is also why the Child Jesus in the present Holy Family image is dressed in tones of orange — orange is meant here to represent gold and gold is used to represent the mercies that flow from God through Christ.
Another Eastern feature in the Holy Family image sent by Bishop Ricken is the large and luminous eyes. In icons, the eyes draw you in, even seeming to follow you around the room. This is because icons are meant to show both the physical bodies and the souls of saints. Since saints in heaven look upon God, that divine presence fills their eyes in icons.
The late theologian Fr. Henri Nouwen once spoke about the eyes of the icon known as the “Vladimir Mother of God”: “Her eyes gaze upon the infinite spaces of the heart where joy and sorrow are no longer contrasting emotions, but are transcended in spiritual unity.”
In the presence of God
Being in the presence of an icon is meant to place us in the presence of God. That is why praying with icons can be a quieting experience. If you place your little icon image in a prayer place in your home, it can offer you a retreat — for just a moment if that’s all you have — from the hectic pace of life.
Sr. Bridget Stumpf, a Bay Settlement Franciscan, has prayed with and studied icons for 15 years. She collects books on them for the motherhouse library where she volunteers and has even given talks about icons. She notes that, when icons are written, the colors are applied from dark to light — placed carefully around all that gold leaf. This, she notes, is so that the light of God is revealed gradually and with great depth to the viewer. This also helps with prayer.
“You go to an icon at a dark place in your life and contemplate it,” she said, “and you’re inspired and probably come out feeling a little more enlightened.”
Joe Bound notes that, when icons are placed in Eastern Christian churches and homes, they are often lighted by oil lamps or candles, instead of electric lights. The moving, living flames enhance the colors and gold of the image, but also speak of God’s ongoing creation.
“We’re very into nature,” he said of Eastern Catholicism. “In a real icon, all the colors are natural pigments: flour, egg and, in some cases, minerals. They grind these into a really fine dust and mix that with egg (to make a pigment.)”
Icons: stories in paint and gold
Icons are not just religious images; they are stories in paint and gold. When looking at an icon, one can see all manner of images that tell stories to those who understand their meaning. For example, icons have small mouths because one is meant to be silent and listen to what God might say. Flattened mountains symbolize that all nature bows before God’s power. And the three stars on Mary’s robe symbolize her perpetual virginity — before, during and after Jesus’ birth.
Even if one doesn’t know the stories, praying with an icon can be a revealing experience. You will see something new every time. Then you might, as Sr. Bridget did, begin to search for explanations of what you see. She recommends the classic book “Praying with Icons” by Jim Forest.
But prayer is the most important part about being with an icon. And prayer is what Bishop Ricken wants to foster by asking families to dedicate themselves to the Holy Family.
What prayer is best to use with icons? That would be, most of all, any prayer you are inspired to use. Then, be silent as the icon is silent, and listen to God.
A good prayer to start with, as Joe Bound recommends, is a favorite of Bishop Ricken and a prayer from the ancient Eastern Church. It is called “the Prayer of the Heart,” and also “the Jesus Prayer”: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Bound notes that the prayer reminds you of what you see in the icon of the Holy Family: “Jesus is the center. If you don’t have a lot of time,” he added, “just stand in front of the icon, just say the prayer.”
Bishop Ricken believes the Holy Family artwork’s greatest value will be if people think about their families and “all the families they know” as they pass by this image in their homes.
“That’s what I do,” the bishop said. “I have a version of this, just a post card type. It’s on the main table I pass every day as I’m going to the kitchen. I just put my hand on it and I ask for blessings on every family in the diocese. It takes two or three seconds. I do that several times a day. That’s how I’m using it. It’s very simple and, boy, pretty soon you’re praying a lot.”
Sources: Marian Library at the University of Dayton at campus.udayton.edu/mary; “The Icon, History, Symbolism and Meaning”; the Orthodox Christian Information Center at orthodoxinfo.com; the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America at antiochian.org; “A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons” at iconreader.wordpress.com; cruxnow.com; ikonograph.com; spiritualityandpractice.com; catholicinsight.com; and writing icons.weebly.com.
The basics of Icons
Icons (from the Greek word eikon, meaning “image”) are meant to be windows into heaven.
Icons are created (“written” not “painted”) in a very formal style that allows little artistic license. To prepare to write an icon requires prayer and, usually, fasting.
Gold is an important part and is meant to reveal the presence of God the Father, who cannot be seen.
Colors have meaning in icons. Red is the color of blood and represents life on earth. Blue is the color of heaven and of God’s mercy. Jesus is often
shown with a red himation (outer garment) and blue chiton, (a long woolen tunic worn in ancient Greece) to show his inner divinity clothed with humanity.
Hand positions are important: Jesus’ hand is often raised in blessing, with two fingers raised to show his two natures: divine and human. Mary’s hand, holding the child or standing at the cross, points toward him. Mary, in Eastern icons is most often shown in this Hodegetria stance, meaning “she who shows the way.”
Greek letters identify people. Mary is “the Mother of God;” in Greek (Meter Theou), this is shown by the letters “MP ?Y.” In Jesus’ halo one always sees the Greek letters omega, omicron, nu (sometimes looking like “WON”). This literally is “He Who Is,” which is the name God gave himself when Moses asked: “I am Who Am.”
Facial features are long and narrow, with large eyes. Large eyes show that the person is seeing the presence of God. The small mouths show that one does not speak in God’s presence, but only listens — which is why images in icons have ears that are large in proportion.
Inverse perspective: While the eyes of an icon look upon heaven, they also look out into the viewer. Most Western artwork has a vanishing point that draws the viewer into the painting. With an icon, the icon seems to move toward the viewer, bringing heaven close, as if God’s presence is washing out over you. If ones pray with an icon properly, it will seem as if heaven is drawing into you.