December 5, 2021
Day 8: Beholding
When I took the course Introduction to Prayer my first year of seminary, I was introduced to many different types of prayer. Some of these I was familiar with. Others, not at all. Including, beholding. Or, as some who practice this type of prayer say, gazing.
I learned about this type of prayer while gazing at icons. In class, we took the opportunity to go down the hall to the chapel, where there was space to spread out and take the time to enter fully into the gazing (or beholding) experience. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
Marjorie Thompson in her oh-so-helpful book Soul Feast gives some direction on contemplative prayer. She only introduces gazing or beholding, but what she says is a good starting point. “Simple objects or images can also be the focus of contemplative prayer. A single flower, leaf, or candle may become a pointer to divine presence. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, icons (images of Christ, Mary, and the saints) are a focus of contemplation.”  Thompson suggests Fr. Henri Nouwen’s book Behold the Beauty of the Lord as a helpful introduction to praying with icons.
I had an immersion experience with Nouwen’s book. (Seriously, that is what it felt like – being immersed in warm, gentle prayer.) I had never prayed with icons before, and our professor had several large icons of different types. As the class was instructed, and as we read through Nouwen’s short book, we approached our chosen icon with reverence and gentleness. (At least, that is what I totally felt.) Out of several icons, I felt an openness, almost a beckoning from Andrew Rublev’s icon of Christ, the Savior of Zvenigorod. What an experience.
As I beheld this icon, I felt the damaged portions of the figure of Christ so deeply. Repeatedly, I thought of how our Lord Jesus can feel-with, can not only sympathize, but empathize with me (with us!), as imperfect, hurting, wounded humans. He comes alongside of us, sits with us as we behold the icon. Gazing, feeling His loving, caring, reaching-out presence.
And, all this I experienced from beholding. Amazing experience. I have also prayed in this way with a single flower floating in a simple glass bowl of water, and with a burning candle in a darkened room. But, none of these experiences were quite as moving as my several times of prayer with the Savior of Zvenigorod.
I even have a small icon. When I bought it at a Christian bookstore, I saw quite a number of different icons. At least twenty, most small, and a few larger. The icon of our Lord with children drew me, ad so I bought it. This icon has a special place in my apartment. I pray that you may consider praying in this way, or perhaps read Fr. Nouwen’s book Behold the Beauty of the Lord, to get an appreciation for beholding – gazing – in prayer.
Dear Lord, thank You for the marvelous ways individuals have found to come before You. So many different ways, from so many varied cultures and points of view. Dear Lord Jesus, thank You for Your nearness, Your gentleness, and Your approach-ability. Help us to seek You and find You, in all Your wondrous beauty. It’s in the marvelous name of our Savior we pray, amen.
Thanks to the website www.contemplativemind.org for their excellent image the Tree of Contemplative Practices.
 Thompson, Marjorie, Soul Feast (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 1995), 48-49.