One of the odd things that has happened to prayer in much of Western Christianity — in some churches with the Reformation, in others more recently — has been the drastic erosion of the physical dimension of spiritual life. Prayer has become mainly an activity of the head. Many of us have become like birds trying to fly with one wing. Icons can help us grow back the missing wing, the physical aspect of prayer.
Do you pray with your eyes closed? Because icons are physical objects, they serve as invitations to keep our eyes open when we pray. While prayer may often be, in Thomas Merton's words, "like a face-to-face meeting in the dark," cutting a major link with the physical world by closing your eyes is not a precondition of prayer. Icons help solve a very simple problem: If I am to pray with open eyes, what should I be looking at? It doesn't have to be icons, but icons are a good and helpful choice. They serve as bridges to Christ, as links with the saints, as reminders of pivotal events in the history of salvation.
Finding icons can seem daunting if you don't know where to look. In fact, though you may not be aware of it, probably you will find them nearby. Just as about any local Orthodox parish is likely to have icon prints for sale. Here too you may find help in contacting an iconographer in the event you want to buy or commission a hand-painted icon. Many religious book shops will have icon prints on sale, some of these already mounted on wood.
Once you begin praying with icons, you may find icons have a way of seeking you out. Maria Hamilton, one of the people who read this book in manuscript, wrote to me:
"When an icon wants to be in your icon corner, it just comes to you. There is nothing you can do about it. I was given a small icon when I was chrismated. Then I gave two away to people now and then, and every time I gave one away, two more came in its place. It is possible, with effort, to control the multiplication of books and recordings, but not icons. I never buy icons, because they just come to live here."
Maria also noted something a priest once said to her: "Do not go out and buy icons. Go downtown and look at Christ in the faces of the poor." For this very reason, during the Orthodox Liturgy it is not only icons that are censed by the deacon or priest but each person standing in the church. If we are indifferent to the image of God in other people, we won't find the image in icons. One thinks of the advice given to medieval pilgrims: "If you do not travel with Him whom you seek, you will not find Him when you reach your destination."
Once you have an icon, it requires a place. There should be an "icon corner" in the place you live; an area where one or several icons are placed that serves as a regular center of prayer. In our small house no actual corner can serve this purpose. For us the fireplace mantel in the living room has become the usual place where my wife and I pray at the start of the day and before we go to sleep at night, though occasionally we use the icon corner in our bedroom.
If you have only one icon, it should be either an icon of the Savior or Mary holding Christ in her arms. If a hand-painted icon is unavailable, get a print of a classic, well known icon. It should be one that appeals to you, the test being: Does it help you to pray? In time get an icon of your patron saint and of a local or national saint. Keep in mind that an icon is a prototype of the person represented. The icon exists to help connect you.
Icons can be placed in other areas of your home. If there is an icon near the table where meals are served, you may want to begin and end your meals by praying and facing the icon while reciting a prayer before and after the meal. If it is good to have an icon in every bedroom and kitchen.
Depending on your place or places of work, an icon can be near you throughout the day — on your desk, over the sink . . . When traveling, carry a small icon or an icon card (possibly protected by plastic) in your pocket or purse.
During times of prayer, if not for longer periods, a vigil lamp or candle should be lit in your icon corner. A flame is a metaphor for prayer. Its warm flame both encourages prayer and provides the ideal illumination. Icons are not intended for bright illumination.— Jim Forest in Praying with Icons by Jim Forest, Jim Forest