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Book review: Nouwen’s icon study leads us to new depths

By Sister Jean Peerenboom

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons, by Henri J.M. Nouwen (Ave Maria Press, $14.95)

I opened Beyond the Beauty of the Lord to learn more about icons. I closed a prayer book.

Beyond the Beauty of the Lord, which was first published in 1987 and reissued a couple years ago, explores Henri Nouwen’s reflections on four famous Russian icons: The Holy Trinity, The Virgin of Vladimir, The Savior of Zvenigorod and The Descent of the Holy Spirit.

These four icons, Nouwen wrote, “have imprinted themselves so deeply upon my inner life that they appear every time I need comfort and consolation. There are many times when I cannot pray, when I am too tired to read the gospels, too restless to have spiritual thoughts, too depressed to find words for God, or too exhausted to do anything. But I can still look at these images so intimately connected with the experience of love.”

Nouwen explains the practice of “gazing” at icons, a prayer form long practiced in Eastern Christian churches and gaining in popularity in the West. Just sitting quietly and looking into the eyes of the portrait, imagining what is happening, what the saint might have felt and letting yourself become part of the icon experience is prayer in itself. Then it goes deeper. As Nouwen says, you start to view the icon as a holy place and as you enter that holy place, you make them your own and eventually see for yourself the beauty of the Lord.

“Icons are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the invisible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us closer to the heart of God,” he wrote.

This edition has a new foreword from Robert Lentz, O.F.M., who talks about his own encounter with Nouwen, about the Western Christians’ concern about “the right way to pray” and encourages readers to throw caution to the wind and learn a new way of praying.

Nouwen takes readers on a new path, one that may not be what the early icon writers intended, but one that definitely touched his soul and can touch ours if we are willing to let it.

Nouwen’s style is one of beauty. The words flow like a gently flowing stream, washing over readers and creating vivid images that give us a new way of looking at the art and our own spirituality. It’s a journey worth taking.

Sister Jean Peerenboom is the former religion/books editor from the Green Bay Press Gazette. Sister Jean is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. She writes a monthly book review for the Holy Cross Family Blogspot.

To read all of Sister Jean Peerenboom's book reviews, click here.

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