How to Make an Icon Corner and Change the World

by David Clayton on March 21, 2014

unnamedA new book tells us how to create one, has icons you can pull out and frame and how to pray in the family so that it become a force for cultural renewal. 

The force to change the world begins with us. We must change ourselves, and then our families and then society will change. It is a bottom up process. If we have a beautiful pattern of prayer in which is modelled on the person of Christ, the Logos, then this is the prayer that will change the world and establish a culture of beauty. And it is a source of joy for us.

A new book written by myself and Leila Lawler is intended to direct us to this great truth. It is called The Little Oratory, the Beginner’s Guide to Prayer in the Home. It is out next month and you can pre-order on Amazon here.

This book explains in depth how family prayer, centered on the liturgy and engaging all the senses, is the foundation of the culture. It is a how-to-do book that tells you how to build an icon corner in detail, and how to pray with visual images. There are even eight color reproductions of icons that are meant for the icon corner. You can remove them as they are perforated and frame them – they are standard size so you can frame them cheaply. This is alone is worth the money for the book!

It offers practical details as to how you can incorporate all this prayer into a busy family life so that it lightens the load. This is important, prayer must not be a burden that only the neurotically pious will take on. It tells you how to engage the children, how to deal with the situation where only one parent is Catholic. It also tells you also how to incorporate. Below I give you a posting that I made almost four years ago. This was the beginning of ideas that became a book. I teamed up with Leila Lawler whose wonderful (and usually very entertaining and funny blog) Like Mother, Like Daughter is devoted to all the traditions of the home (even cleaning and cooking), that reflect a Catholic life rooted in the liturgy. We discuss how you can take this culture out beyond the home into work and community. We have a special section on how you can take that singing voice that sounds so good in the shower when no one else is listening, and become someone who can chant the Office. It is culture in the broadest sense of the word, and it is for fathers, mothers, sons and daughters!

Here is the posting that started it all…

Beauty calls us to itself and then beyond, to the source of all beauty, God. God’s creation is beautiful, and God made us to apprehend it so that we might see Him through it. The choice of images for our prayer, therefore, is important. Beautiful sacred imagery not only aids the process of prayer, but what we pray with influences profoundly our taste: praying with beautiful sacred art is the most powerful education in beauty that there is. In the end this is how we shape our culture, especially so when this is rooted in family prayer. The icon corner will help us to do that. I am using icon here in the broadest sense of the term, referring to a sacred image that depicts the likeness of the person portrayed. So one could as easily choose Byzantine, gothic or even baroque styles.

The contemplation of sacred imagery is rooted in man’s nature. This was made clear by the 7th Ecumenical Council, at Nicea. Through the veneration icons, our imagination takes us to the person depicted. The veneration of icons, therefore, is an aid to prayer first and it serves to stimulate and purify the imagination. This is discussed in the writings of Theodore the Studite (759-826AD), who was one of the main theologians who contributed to the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy.

In emphasising the importance of praying with sacred images Theodore said: “Imprint Christ…onto your heart, where he [already] dwells; whether you read a book about him, or behold him in an image, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see with your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.” [quoted by Cardinal Schonborn, p232, God’s Human Face, pub. Ignatius.]

It is good, therefore for us to develop the habit of praying with visual imagery and this can start at home. The tradition is to have a corner in which images are placed. This image or icon corner is the place to which we turn, when we pray. When this is done at home it will help bind the family in common prayer.

Accordingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends that we consider appropriate places for personal prayer: ‘For personal prayer this can be a prayer corner with the sacred scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father. In a Christian family kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common.’(CCC, 2691)

I would go further and suggest that if the father leads the prayer, acting as head of the domestic church, as Christ is head of the Church, which is His mystical body, it will help to re-establish a true sense of fatherhood and masculinity. It might also, I suggest, encourage also vocations to the priesthood.

The placement should be so that the person praying is facing east. The sun rises in the east. Our praying towards the east symbolizes our expectation of the coming of the Son, symbolized by the rising sun. This is why churches are traditionally ‘oriented’ towards the orient, the east. To reinforce this symbolism, it is appropriate to light candles at times of prayer. The tradition is to mark this direction with a cross. It is important that the cross is not empty, but that Christ is on it. in the corner there should be representation of both the suffering Christ and Christ in glory.

‘At the core of the icon corner are the images of the Christ suffering on the cross, Christ in glory and the Mother of God. An excellent example of an image of Christ in glory which is in the Western tradition and appropriate to the family is the Sacred Heart (the one from Thomas More College’s chapel is shown). From this core imagery, there can be additions that change to reflect the seasons and feast days. This way it becomes a timepiece that reflects the cycles of sacred time. The “instruments” of daily prayer should be available: the Sacred Scriptures, the Psalter, or other prayer books that one might need, a rosary for example.

This harmony of prayer, love and beauty is bound up in the family. And the link between family (the basic building block upon which our society is built) and the culture is similarly profound. Just as beautiful sacred art nourishes the prayer that binds families together in love, to each other and to God; so the families that pray well will naturally seek or even create art (and by extension all aspects of the culture) that is in accord with that prayer. The family is the basis of culture.

Confucius said: ‘If there is harmony in the heart, there will be harmony in the family. If there is harmony in the family, there will be harmony in the nation. If there is harmony in the nation, there will be harmony in the world.’  What Confucius did not know is that the basis of that harmony is prayer modelled on Christ, who is perfect beauty and perfect love. That prayer is the liturgical prayer of the Church.

A 19th century painting of a Russian icon corner

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M. May 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Wonderful post, Mr. Clayton. Your observations about the domestic Church, masculinity, fatherhood and vocations are spot-on.

I’m reading a lot of Dostoyevsky of late. The “Icon corner” as a fixture in the home is an element of Russian life mentioned constantly in his works. I very much appreciate knowing what one looks like, and even how to arrange it. I also appreciate your Benedictine source’s “two-lung” (oriental-occidental) approach to praying with icons.

God bless, Mary keep!

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Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M. May 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Wonderful post, Mr. Clayton. Your observations about the domestic Church, masculinity, fatherhood and vocations are spot-on.

I’m reading a lot of Dostoyevsky of late. The “Icon corner” as a fixture in the home is an integral element of Russian life mentioned constantly in his works. I very much appreciate knowing what one looks like, and even how to arrange it. I also appreciate your Benedictine source’s “two-lung” (oriental-occidental) approach to praying with icons.

God bless, Mary keep!

Reply

Douglas Bonneville May 3, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Wonderful article. The family is the bedrock of culture, and what more powerful way to shape culture than through an icon corner in the home.

This brings up a question, but I’m not sure it’s valid: originals vs reproductions, or high quality reproductions vs extremely cheap reproductions.

I know that original art work has such a strong impact and lasting presence. To me, it’s not much different than live music vs a recording. I’m not asking if the quality of a reproduction or print would ultimately affect one’s prayer life, but I’m thinking of the entire ecosystem of Catholic art, which for the most part, is heavy on low-quality CMYK prints of highly sentimental images that collectively is less than the sum of its parts. Overall, I would think there would be a qualitative, systemic difference on a deep spiritual level if the Catholic devotional art community, along with the direction of the Holy Father and the Bishops, began to favor originals and high quality reproduction vs cheap 3 dollar prints. We live in an age where anyone can own any image at any size, pretty much, on any substrate. But do we value real art, and in turn, do we value the artist, the art object itself, and ultimately our culture and humanity if we are content with and default to art of the least common denominator content-wise and price-wise.

The question is what do cheap prints of low quality art say and do to our interior lives and identity as Catholics? I’d rather have cheap prints than no prints. I’m addressing an issue more about the role of art the lives of Catholics and in the culture in general, a culture that values the shallow or even worse, doesn’t recognize the trite. In our home, we’ve spent what modest budget we have for art on the best we could afford and from what was available. Essentially, even if we wanted to spend more, the range was from $5 to $35 for paper and heavy substrate reproductions, but then it jumped to about $2000 for a “real” icon. Is there nothing inbetween? Giclee at least? Whatever the solution, it’s not present in our local Catholic stores, and very hard to find, if you can find it at all, online.

I realize it’s probably an entirely new topic, but it’s one that we went through when setting up our icon corner. I wanted my kids to see the difference between a cheap prayer card or newspaper clipping and what we hang on our walls for devotion.

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davidicons May 3, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Thank you Douglas. I am just reading through Cardinal Schonborn’s God’s Human Face. In this he outlines the theological developments in the iconoclastic controversy. I plan a longer article on this which will be posted in a couple of weeks in relation to what Catholics believe about icons (eg are they grace filled vessels like relics?) based on this book. (And your point has given a great idea for another posting. Thank you! ). Theodore the Studite, who is the Church father of the Triumph of Orthodoxy that laid to rest the iconoclastic periods, is worth reading here. I need to mull over it, but as I understand him at the moment: icons, do not participate in the essence of the person depicted. Rather, they set up a relationship between observer and saint by virtue of the physical likeness to the person. That does not exist when the icon is not being viewed by the observer, therefore. This means that any style is worth of veneration provide it retains the physical likeness. In principle that means gothic, baroque, and also, yes, photographic representation. If these are inferior (and I know that many are!), it is because they are poor representations, but not by virtue of their being imitations of originals. I guess it would be possible therefore, by inspiration, for a photographic representation to be better than the original!

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saoirse August 20, 2012 at 2:30 am

living in an Orthodox area there is a wide variety of Icons available from the Churches so we are spoiled.
Look around and see when the Orthodox communities are having their “feasts” and definitely you can view and purchase beautiful icons between 35 to 50 dollars OR what can be done is getting a good copy via the computer/colour printer and personalizing it with beads and synthetic gems and then making the frame or a double/triple frame,etc-get it blessed- resulting in a priceless heirloom.

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Michelle May 4, 2010 at 3:12 pm

We do have a couple of prayer corners at home, and I believe that we will take into consideration some of your more detailed suggestions on how they should be oriented, etc. Great stuff David!

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Miguel October 10, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Nice article. I have an oratory at home. It is centered on an icon of the Divine Mercy with a statue of Our Lady of Mt Carmel. I have a few other icons as well. As to buying cheap reproduction icons or $20000 icons, I think you will be surprised. I bought some original icons from Arlene Tilghman–http://www.arlenesicons.com/. I am quite happy with them. I hope this helps.

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Anne Marie May 18, 2011 at 7:32 am

David, thank you for this excellent overview and instruction. I have taken this to heart and plan to amend and improve our prayer corner at home to better facilitate the prayer led by my husband in our family. I also appreciate the reminder of the importance of the father leading the family prayer. I found your work via Like Mother, Like Daughter.

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Tom Carty March 21, 2013 at 6:30 am

This remarkable item on a unique site is exactly what was needed to give some coherence to my icon-corner. Thank you.
A point not mentioned in the responses is the function of such an expression of faith and continuous witness in a family setting (increasingly common in Europe) in which one or both grandparents are the only ones to practice, and where the grandchildren are totally ignorant of even the basics of Christianity. However, children are always interested in the stories behind pictures.

Best wishes
TOM

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David Clayton March 25, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Thank you Tom

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Tom Carty March 21, 2013 at 6:59 am

Thank you for this inspiring item. I’m going to reorganise the images in my study immediately!

Tom

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