Praying like you’re illiterate
Yesterday I hit a level of exhaustion like I have only rarely known before. This whole “third trimester” thing just is not working out for me this time around, and after a morning of huffing and puffing around the house to keep up with the kids (including the most spirited two-year-old God has ever created) I was on the brink of some kind of physical collapse. I was just about to toss an open box of granola bars on the kitchen floor, stagger to the couch and count on the kids’ survival instincts to do the rest, when the phone rang with Yaya‘s number on caller ID. Her east Texas accent sounding more glorious than a chorus of angels, she wanted to know if the kids could come play at her house for the afternoon.
She came and rounded them up, and the moment I heard the front door shut I poured myself onto our most comfortable chair and just sat there for a moment. I had a quiet house and free time. What to do? A nap was definitely on the agenda, but I was overcome with the urge to pray. My prayer life has been less than great (read: almost nonexistent) lately, so it felt right to use some of these God-given moments of peace to spend a little time really focusing on the Lord.
But when it came to actual execution, I hit a wall. Ever since reading The Better Part I’ve seen great fruit from praying through the Gospels, but that was out of the question. Nothing short of an impending meteor strike was going to get me off that chair, and I couldn’t have mustered up the mental energy to read even if my Bible had been close by. I tried simply lifting my heart to the Lord, but the effect was the spiritual equivalent of making a sound like “UUUUUNNNNNGH.” I know, I know: God knows what’s in our hearts, there’s no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” prayer, our UUUUUNNNNNGH‘s honor God just as much as eloquent soliloquies, etc. I get that. In fact, normally I would count that kind of simian effort to be a pretty good prayer day for me, but that afternoon I yearned for something more. For my own sake, I craved a deeper understanding of who God is and what he wants from our lives. To break myself out of my fixation on my own discomfort, I needed that reality check you get when you steep yourself in a mystery of the Rosary or in the words of the Gospels and refresh your understanding of divine truths. But it looked like it wasn’t going to happen that day.
And then a thought popped into mind: my icon!
Hanging on the wall directly to my right was a large framed image of the Christ the Teacher icon (this one created by my cousin the monk). My whole body relaxed as soon as I saw it, and I fixed my tired eyes on its precisely-drawn lines. This was the answer to the prayer I hadn’t even thought to say.
I didn’t understand icons until relatively recently. I thought it was just another style of art, and since it wasn’t to my taste, I had no interest in the subject. But then I was reunited with my long-lost cousin who is an iconographer, whom I mentioned above, and I realized that I had completely misunderstood this sacred form of communication. The creation of icons goes back to the very first centuries of Christianity, back when many of the faithful were illiterate. It’s a way of explaining theology through visual symbolism, and iconographers follow ancient prototypes with very detailed specifications when creating an icon (for example, and image search on Christ the Teacher shows how similar all the representations are). This is why iconographers fast when they are working on a project, and why icons are said to be “written” rather than “painted” — each one contains a small book’s worth of information about sacred truths.
As I sat there in a heap on the chair, I got lost in all the messages conveyed in the image on my wall. Christ’s blue cloak symbolizes his divine nature, and the crimson color of the garment underneath is to remind us of the human blood that he shed for us…for me. I looked at the halo that surrounds his head and noticed the Greek letters, which express “I am Who Am,” the name of God in Exodus 3:14. And yet the letters are in the shape of a cross, which hit home the shattering truth that the unfathomable “I Am” allowed himself to be subject to human torture. Jesus’ fingers are bent in a blessing, and form the letters IC XC, a monogram for the name of Jesus Christ in Greek, which prompted me to mediate for a moment on the power of his holy name. My eyes drifted up to meet the eyes of Christ, represented as large and open per the format of this icon, which reminded me that at this very moment I am being seen my God himself. For a long time I let that idea sink in, just silently absorbed that feeling that someone is watching you, and wondered what my life looked like through the eyes of God.
I could go on, but you get the idea. I don’t know how long I sat there soaking up each aspect of the icon, but when I was finished I felt as enriched as if I had read chapters of sacred theology. Something about contemplating the truths of the faith without words, by seeing alone, engaged a whole different part of my brain, and made me consider these truths on a more primal, less intellectual level than I normally do.
I don’t think I really understood icons until I found myself in such an exhausted state yesterday. I suddenly felt a special kinship with all my brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the ages who have not had the educational background or the free time or the resources to be able to sit down and study the Word of God in written form. What a gift icons must have been for all the people who lived before the printing press and thus couldn’t afford a hand-copied Bible, or who were illiterate, or who were just too fatigued to read at the end of a long day of toil. They’d hear the Scriptures read at Mass, and then could go home to their icons and savor those same truths, spelled out in simple visual form that even the most uneducated, tired person could understand.
It makes sense that there’s less of a demand for icons here in this age of literacy and wealth, when everyone can afford to own a Bible, and most people have the energy, free time and educational background to be able to study it. But, as I learned yesterday, even those of us who don’t “have to” pray with icons shouldn’t overlook them, because you can discover a whole new treasure chest of spiritual riches when you learn to pray without words.