Icons Will Save the World


Standing before the icon of Christ in the front of St. John Orthodox Church, I prepare to offer my confession at the Sacrament of Forgiveness. The Holy image of the One Who Forgives comes forth to meet me, as the father comes forth to welcome home the prodigal son in the familiar gospel passage (Luke 15:11–32). The love of Jesus pours forth from his prototype (the icon), sees the offering of my broken heart, and raises it to the heavenly realm.

And excellent article in First Things by Susan Cushman of Memphis, TN.


  1. Susan Cushman’s article is a fine introduction for those who understand nothing about iconography, and I would recommend it to the non-Orthodox, inquirers or catechumens, but especially to those who find icons to be odd or strange looking to Western eyes. Admittedly, icons are becoming more common in America, especially among Catholics and Episcopalians, and those images can be seen gracing the covers of books which have nothing to do with eastern Christianity. It seems to me that western Christians increasingly sense something holy there, but are still puzzled by them. That is why an article like Cushman’s can begin to explain them to the untutored eye.

    However, I have met others who find them hard to look at and who just can’t understand them, other than viewing them as some sort of primitive art form, having no relevance in modern life. I have a beautiful icon of the Theotokos painted by Ksenia Pokrovsky, and I treasure it beyond words. When I showed it to a friend, an “educated” woman with a PhD in history, she gazed at it for a minute and commented that her (Mary’s) mouth looked “funny,” or ‘odd.” It broke my heart to hear such a comment about my most treasured icon.

    But it seems to me that the most important aspect of understanding icons in the West is to comprehend that they are not just decoration, something “pretty” to place in a Church. For the Orthodox, icons are an integral part of worship and when we enter a nave, we know that it is a holy place where the icons representing Jesus Christ, his mother and the saints speak to us in special ways, connecting us to that “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us. Prayer before icons at home or in Church connects the worshiper with that other world, not in some sort of poorly understood or magical way, but truly as windows to Heaven. Their somber presence lead us to a deeper understanding of the Christian life. Experience and and gradual comprehension of these holy images open to those who choose to “see” a rich worship experience.

  2. Nancy,
    I am sure your friend reacted thus because as with all holy things, you have to look at them with eyes of faith (or lack thereof).

    My first “icon moment” as an inquirer was during the Divine Liturgy at an Antiochian parish I was visiting. I looked around at the icons on the wall and suddenly realized I was standing in the presence of “thousands upon ten thousands” of holy angels and saints before the Throne. I didn’t know whether to run or to never leave.

  3. IT’s peculiar how different people react to icons. I came to know icons as a young person. And I alsways felt them as something especially holy. My love of icons played no minor role on my way into the Orthodox Church. With the help of icons God lead me home. To kiss them and to bow before them, nevertheless, was a bit strange, but now I do it with joy, devotion and reverence.
    For me they are windows to and widows of heaven. Through them I “see” God, the saints and the angels and throug them God, the saints and the angels look at me.

  4. Thanks, Father!

    I created a blog post to link to the First Things story, too.

    It didn’t take me long to get used to icons, and only a little bit of struggling before I was able to venerate them, but I would not now want to attend a church that doesn’t have them. Becoming Orthodox was like rejoining a family that had always been there, but whose members I never or only vaguely knew. Their presence during the Liturgy and and Vespers, etc., via icons reminds me that we are worshiping together.

  5. Excellent article, thank you for the link!
    God is good all the time!
    During our first year or so of marriage we purchased the icon of Christ known usually as Christ the Teacher. (Or it was given as a gift, I don’t remember.) But we were Anglican and the beauty of the icon was just that, its physical appearance.

    Now that we are Orthodox, it is a window to heaven!

    We have been Orthodox for almost two years and it is such a comfort and blessing to look at photos taken during the 20+ years of our marriage and see that icon in the background.

  6. Christ the Teacher was also my first icon. I think it’s an evangelical thing. 🙂 After I bought it, the gaze of Christ was so penetrating that I wished I had started with some kindly saint. No matter, in coming to Orthodoxy you must wrestle with your sins, not only your doctrines.

  7. “in coming to Orthodoxy you must wrestle with your sins, not only your doctrines.”
    Amen to that Gina!
    The first icon that I bought was Christ forgiving the sinful woman. The story in St. John 8…
    As I look back, this icon tells me a lot about where I was in my life and what I was asking from God. I treasure it.
    Now I love the icons that just come into my life, mostly the little paper ones that people give to me. These saints come into my life just when I need them it seems.

  8. Susan Cushman is Khouria Susan, married to Fr. Basil Cushman, associate pastor at St. John’s, my parish. Khouria Susan regularly teaches iconography workshops here in Memphis, if any of you are interested in taking some you might contact her at email hidden; JavaScript is required. She also has a blog many of you might find interesting:
    St. John’s is the biggest Orthodox parish I have ever been a part of (and medium size numbers are hard for an ochlophobist, let me tell you). I have had a few conversations with Khouria Susan, and I have found her to be a kind woman. My wife knows her better than I do, from the women’s book club at our parish, and speaks very highly of her, and when my wife speaks thus of a person one should listen.

  9. I agree, I had one for year, CHRIST not Made by hands. I remember the day that the ICON because more than a doctrine. I became aware that CHRIST was present and all of a sudden I could not do anything sinful with that Icon in my room. Laughing, praise it was in my bedroom and GOD was moving me from an life of living loosely. I have admit that it was both the Icon and the WORD, together with my worn orthodox bible and the Icon of CHRIST and the THEOTOKOS, life changed and for the better. Praise GOD for it.

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