Sometimes arguments are not won by logic or reason or even by words. Sometimes the best case for certain beliefs is made by a story, an experience, or the testimony of beauty. How many people have chosen to create a marriage by following a logical argument to its conclusion, for instance? With our evangelical theological heritage though, we often tend to think our religious beliefs play out almost exclusively in the realm of logic and reason. Or at least we act like we do. (This is where you get the modern ugliness of young earth creationism and strict Biblical literalism.) Theology though—or at least the religious life—is the testimony of beauty played out through history. One of the ways this is most apparent in Orthodox Christianity is in the heritage of icons.
As Jim Forest’s book illustrates, the concept of the icon itself is in some ways an icon of the Church itself. Theologically, icons are a symbol of the Incarnation—that what before was ineffable has now become flesh. They are also a representation of sanctity: saints whose lives have been transfigured by holiness into Christ-likeness remain not simply as a concept or memory but as an abiding spiritual presence. And again: they are windows into the historical life and testimony of the Church— who these people were, how they lived, how they have been cherished. This historic testimony is alive in all its forms and hymns, in its music and liturgy, but it is perhaps most present in the vivid, luminous faces of its icons (both on wood and in flesh).
Because of all these reasons, though Forest does not lay them out systematically, his work, Praying with Icons, is not as much a manual of praxis or a straightforward study in iconography (though there are introductory chapters on these topics as well as on the creation of icons). Instead it becomes in some sense a primer on the Church itself. The bulk of the book is a series of meditations on several important icons. Though to me the selection seemed a bit haphazard and heavily Russian-influenced, these chapters introduce a wide array of Church tradition, history, and belief through the lenses of icons. The feeling of an introductory primer to Orthodoxy in general was also born out by the selection of prayers included at the conclusion of the volume.
Praying with Icons was published as part of an ecumenical series of texts aimed at all believers, so the feeling of a presentation of Orthodox spiritual practice through icons is apt and accessible. My primary complaint with the book is the low quality of images throughout. Though the book is built on the concept of their great beauty, the images reproduced (including the image chosen for the cover of the volume) are poor quality and do little to communicate visually their richness. Though Forest has seen many of these famous icons in person, some images seemed simply too low quality for high-resolution reproduction. Having seen other books where the icons were reproduced with great clarity and color, this was disappointing.
This is a book I would pass along to others curious about Orthodox practices or even to fellow parishioners looking for a simple, accessible adjunct to their own spiritual practice. The meditations Forest writes on each icons are lovely and concise and would be useful to those looking for basic “devotionals” built around these silent but somehow expectant witnesses in color and light to the life of the Church.