I have been speaking with an Orthodox priest over the last few days about improving my prayer life. When I first started reading about Orthodoxy, I was very much like a lot of Westerners from the Protestant tradition (okay, Mormonism isn’t exactly Protestantism, but for my purposes here let’s just say it is and move on) in that I worried that the use of icons is idolatry.
In my defense, icons look idolatrous from the outside. Visitors to an Orthodox church will notice people bowing to, kissing, and touching their heads to pictures of Christ and the saints. That sort of thing raises serious warning flags to Westerners who grew up being taught that any sort of image in church borders on idolatry. Mormon chapels don’t have pictures of anything, and Mormons don’t even wear crosses due to the fear of idolatry.
In order to improve my prayer life, I have decided to “plant a seed” and experiment upon the Orthodox model of prayer. Sometimes I think it is the complete opposite of Mormon prayer. Mormon prayer is unstructured, extemporaneous, conversational, and involves mostly “thanks for opportunities” and asking for things. Orthodox prayer is long, structured, sometimes read, sometimes involves petitioning saints for prayers, and often simply involves praising God for His holiness, mercy, and wisdom. Mormon prayer rarely involves praising God directly – you won’t ever hear “we praise you” in a Mormon prayer. I asked this Orthodox priest for help in trying Orthodox prayer and even asked about proper use of icons.
In the context of prayer, Orthodox icons are used as a means of focusing the mind on God, Christ, and sometimes a saint or the Theotokos. They serve a didactic function as well as a meditative function – and open the mind to Heaven and spiritual truths. But I have had to really work hard to get into a mindset that might allow me to light a candle in front of an icon and stare into it prayerfully. It’s so different from my lived experience up until this point.
Now there are plenty of Protestant arguments against the use of icons, and I won’t get into those. I think what might be more useful is to ask whether a Mormon has grounds for criticizing the use of icons?
Perhaps the main argument a Mormon might use is that using a physical object to open the mind to revelation borders on the dangerous. But those of you very familiar to Mormonism might point out the problem here – that’s exactly what a seer stone is!
Obviously this might cause discomfort in the Mormon, since modern Latter-day Saints do not use seer stones to obtain revelation. In fact, I would bet that many if not a majority of Latter-day Saints don’t even know that seer stones were even used in the early church – many think that the translation of the Book of Mormon was done exclusively through the Urim and Thummim. But many of the founding members of the church certainly used seer stones and other objects for revelation, and the Book of Mormon and many early revelations were revealed to Joseph Smith through seer stones or “interpreters.” Now this practice seems to have died off by the Utah era of Mormonism (not by decree, mandate, or compulsion, but rather because the church seemed to have just evolved past it), but the fact remains that many early members of the church used seer stones as part of their spiritual practice. It is true that Hiram Page was criticized in the Doctrine and Covenants for being deceived by Satan through a stone, and I am guessing that Mormon seer stone usage dropped sharply after that, but Page’s problem was not in using the stone per se (according to the D&C), but rather that he did not have the keys to receive revelation for the entire church. So there is nothing on the books, as far as I know, that specifically keeps Mormons from using seer stones even now, for personal revelation.
Now the biggest thing I want to emphasize at this point is that no Orthodox I know of would equate early Mormon seer stones with the use of holy icons. In fact, I would imagine that some would find seer stones to be wildly heretical and even possibly demonic (and might even find the comparison offensive). However, I am making the argument that, from the Mormon point of view, the Orthodox use of icons is no different from the early Mormon use of seer stones – using a physical object to open the mind to revelation. So I do not believe the Mormon has solid grounds for criticizing the use of holy icons for personal guidance, opening the mind to spiritual truth, or communication with God, because such criticism could equally be applied to early Mormon foundational claims regarding seer stones.
Therefore, I feel safe in saying that the use of holy icons would not be specifically forbidden in Mormonism, and any attempt to restrict their usage would be somewhat hypocritical without explaining whether seer stone usage is forbidden in Mormonism too. Due to historical contingencies and embarrassment, I am guessing any official statements on the matter are not forthcoming.