Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Yesterday was one of those days when it's hard to pray. I was fighting a mild case of food poisoning, exhausted from pregnancy, and the house was a mess. Our Advent calendar and wreath were buried under mountains of clutter that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. And, of course, there was the horrific news out of Connecticut, so crushing that I fell into a sort of mental and spiritual paralysis any time it came to mind.
When I finally got in bed at the end of the night, I knew I should to pray. It was one of those all-too-rare moments when I understood on a visceral level that I needed to pray, that connecting with God was the only way I'd find the fuel to face the coming week. But how?
I looked at all the wonderful prayer resources next to my bed: the Bible, the Divine Office app on my tablet, that endless source of inspiration, The Better Part. Yet as much as I wanted to pick up one of those items on my bedstand, I knew that reading was out of the question. I was already so fatigued that my eyes were about to start crossing; I'd have to read each word five times in order to understand anything, and would undoubtedly just fall asleep in the process.
I tried closing my eyes and simply lifting my heart to the Lord, but the effect was the spiritual equivalent of making a sound like "UUUUNNNGH." I know, I know: God knows what’s in our hearts, there’s no such thing as a "right" or "wrong" prayer, our UUUUNNNGH'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 last night 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, and to find some consolation in the face of the horrors that occur in this world, 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.
As I was searching for some way to gain this connection with God, my eyes fell upon the answer: An icon.
On my bedstand, next to all the books, was a small print of the same Christ the Teacher icon that hangs in our living room. I took it from the table and held it in front of me. This was the answer to the prayer I hadn't even thought to say.
It wasn't until I got to know my iconographer cousin (whom I was only reunited with after my conversion to Catholicism) that I came to appreciate icons. Before then, I thought icons were just another type of art, and since it wasn't to my taste, I had no interest in the subject. But 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, an 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 in my room and stared at Christ the Teacher, I got lost in all the messages conveyed in the image. 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 each of us. 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, that he is the God who suffers with us. 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 could have ever understood the power of icons without moments like last night, when I was too weary to delve into my normal prayerful reading. I 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 prayer books, and most people have the energy, free time and education level to be able to study them. Yet, as I saw last night, I think that praying with icons could be just the source of spiritual refreshment that modern Christians need. In our age where we're constantly bombarded with information in the form of the written word, sometimes it's helpful simply to be able to gaze at an image of holy truth, and understand without words.