Icons and other beautiful images can elevate our prayer life and rescue us out of despair.
While it’s true that prayer does not require the use of sacred images or icons, they certainly do help and can have a powerful effect on the soul. The Catholic Church has firmly believed in the importance of sacred art for centuries and even encourages it in the Catechism.
Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,” in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier. (CCC 2502)
It is a custom in many parts of the world of having an “icon corner” in the home, where religious painting are hung for the purposes of personal prayer. An individual will stand, sit or kneel while meditating on these images, raising their hearts to God.
St. John Paul II highlighted the importance of beautiful works of art in his Letter to Artists, going so far as to say the “The Church needs art.”
At the end of the Council the Fathers addressed a greeting and an appeal to artists: “This world—they said—in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration!”
Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!”.
Interestingly enough, secular research in this regard has found a fascinating connection between viewing beautiful art and an increase in positive brain waves. In an article published by The Telegraph, Professor Semir Zeki, chair in neuroaesthetics at University College London, relates the finding of his study.
“We wanted to see what happens in the brain when you look at beautiful paintings. What we found is when you look at art – whether it is a landscape, a still life, an abstract or a portrait – there is strong activity in that part of the brain related to pleasure….The blood flow increased for a beautiful painting just as it increases when you look at somebody you love. It tells us art induces a feel good sensation direct to the brain.“
This appears to confirm that beautiful art has the ability to touch the depths of our soul and can not only help us focus in prayer, but also lead to feelings of peace.
If you are looking for ways to improve your prayer life, try using beautiful images and icons that raise your heart to God.