There is an odd document floating about on the Internet titled The Icon FAQ, an article that attempts to influence potential or new converts, written by a fellow who is himself a Protestant convert to conservative Eastern Orthodoxy . What interests me here is that in response to the question “Do [Eastern] Orthodox Christians pray to icons?” the rather obfuscating answer given by the Icon FAQ is, “[Eastern Orthodox] Christians pray in the presence of icons….”
As I often repeat, the best way to learn the truth about something is to examine not what someone says is the fact, but what really is the fact — in this case, what the actual practice of people was, what they — the “believers” — have actually done and said about the matter and still do and say. It is unlikely you will ever hear the average non-convert Eastern Orthodox believer — past or present — talk about praying “in the presence of icons” — after all, one prays in the presence of shirts and shoes and building walls and a floor and ceiling in an Orthodox Church, but icons are in an entirely different category.
The fact is that when traditional Eastern Orthodox talk about prayer and icons, what they usually say is that they pray before (meaning in front of, facing) an icon, or that they pray to an icon. That is the real state of the matter that the Icon FAQ ignores, because of course it has designs on the reader — it is religious propaganda. But the issue raised by the question does takes us to a rather fascinating subject — the traditional attitude toward icons of Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy.
If an alien anthropologist were to visit Russia, he or she (or it?) would quickly form the opinion that the chief deity in Russian Orthodoxy (and the same applies to other E. Orthodox countries to a large extent) is a Mother Goddess who has given birth to a small male god. That is because of the immense popularity of icons of Mary and the great number of different types, which greatly exceeds those devoted to Jesus, who no doubt would be seen as a secondary deity.
When we look at this great number of “wonder-working” Marian icons in particular, we find ourselves back in the mindset of the Greco-Roman world of worship that preceded the advent of Christianity; back in a pre-scientific world in which divine images speak, move about of their own volition, punish, reward, and even bleed.
In her book Le culte des icônes en Grèce (The Cult of Icons in Greece), Katerina Seraïdari writes of the Panayia (Panagia) Limnia, the “All Holy One of Limni,” an icon of Mary that supposedly came to the village of Limni in 1560. It’s “appearance,” as they say in Russia, was not unusual in comparison to all other stories. It came floating on the water, and it was placed in the Hermitage of St. Anne. But the icon disappeared three times from that site, showing that it preferred another location. Seraïdari writes, “Ces déplacements miraculeux révélèrent à la communauté la volonté de l’icône ainsi que son propre destin….” “These miraculous displacements revealed to the community the will of the icon as well as its proper destination….” I have added the emphasis. The icon was eventually moved to the site it preferred.
Now one may think, “Well, this is someone writing in the 21st century and attributing something to the icon — a will — that would not actually be the case in Eastern Orthodoxy.” But really just the opposite is true. This manner of speaking of the icon as though it had its own will and desires and movements is actually the way such icons have been traditionally regarded in Eastern Orthodoxy. If an icon of Mary does not like where it is, it will go someplace else, and it will get there by floating on the water — as in the case of the Panagia Limnia — or it will fly through the air, as in the case of the Tikhvin (Tikhvinskaya) icon of Mary in Russia, etc. etc.
In short, the traditional attitude toward icons — the attitude actually held by Eastern Orthodox believers, not theoreticians or converts — was that icons behaved like living creatures — and so they were treated as such. That is why a believer would pray before such an icon, as though talking to a person, and that is why it is often said that believers would pray to an icon, because that is precisely what they did. One can see from this that the feeble notion that Eastern Orthodox believers merely pray “in the presence of” icons is, from an historical point of view, both very misleading and quite inaccurate. To discover the real situation one must go to what was actually said and written about such icons and how they were regarded by the ordinary believers of past centuries.
The view of icons in Egyptian Coptic Christianity was very much the view held throughout the Eastern Orthodox realms:
“Generally speaking, the Copts make no distinction between the qualities and characteristics of the icon and those of the person represented by the icon. Whatever the person could perform in his or her lifetime or post mortem, the icon representing the person could do as well. For that matter, the icon is the artistic ‘incarnation’ of the person, and as such it is subject to as much veneration as the person represented. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Copts, like the Greeks and the Russians, ascribe human qualities such as weeping, sweating, and bleeding to their icons.” (Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, Otto F. A. Meinardus, American University in Cairo Press, 1999)
There is a great deal more that could be said on this subject, because there is a voluminous amount of legend and folklore dealing with “miraculous” Marian icons. In fact just to discuss them one by one would be very revealing, but I shall have to save further comments for another posting.