September 24, 2010...1:26 am

Theotokos of the Sign

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When Pastor Beverly joined the clergy at our church in the Philadelphia suburbs, I happened to work down the hallway from her, in a donated office for Young Life. One afternoon, soon after she had arrived at our church, I was in the office preparing myself for a serious and difficult phone call with an angry father. I walked down the hallway in hopes of finding someone who’d pray for me (I was already near tears and hadn’t even made the call yet). Beverly was in her office. I hardly knew her, but we sat together as she prayed. Her prayer was full of silence and kindness. She didn’t use many words, but simply sitting with her was enough to bring me into God’s presence. After than encounter with her I kept thinking that I wanted to learn to pray as reverently and quietly as she.

When I approached her about teaching me “contemplative prayer,” she brought up icons. Although I had a vague knowledge of the existence of icons, they meant little me, other than my assumption that they were the Christian version of idols. Up for the chance to be proven wrong, I agreed. Thankfully, we began with a book by Henri Nouwen, whom I already trusted. Surely he wouldn’t lie to me about icons, right?

What Nouwen and Pastor Beverly taught me was that I’d never before used vision as a form of worship. My eyes are constantly being stimulated in my culture, but rarely did my eyes draw me into prayer. In fact, prayer was almost completely one-dimensional for me. It lacked anything physical or sensory. What would it mean for me to begin to use my senses as a means for encountering God?

Beverly and I began to practice a meditative process in which we spent fifteen or twenty minutes looking at an icon and asking God to speak some truth to us through it, usually taking time to journal and discuss it together. It always led me into such rich conversations with God about realities in my life I would never have noticed otherwise.

Three years ago, at a point when Chris and I had decided we were ready to try to have a child, we took a vacation to Paris, where I made sure we visited the local Greek Orthodox Church. At that point a few icons were so precious to me that I longed to see them painted on the walls and ceiling of a place of worship.

Though I expected the icons surrounding the altar, I had no knowledge of the Theotokos of the Sign, the icon I discovered of the Madonna painted directly above us in the ceiling. This was not Mary holding a creepy looking adult faced baby Jesus. This was Christ displayed in Mary’s womb. Her hands were open in worship, and her child sat inside her baby bump, ruling the cosmos.

I loved it. I loved the non scientific vision of Jesus fully robed in his mother’s (awkwardly high-placed) uterus. I loved the glory with which Mary’s pregnancy is on full display. And mostly I loved Mary’s surrendered hands, palms up, willing to participate in this beautiful and tragic  journey of raising the Messiah.

I bought a little version of that icon. It has sat next to my mirror since, through my first pregnancy, through these two years of child rearing, and now into my second pregnancy.

Sometimes I think about Mary’s morning sickness, and imagine her palms raised in surrender before her chamber pot. Sometimes, I imagine her fears: how she was just a girl with no clue how to raise a child, especially the most significant man to ever walk this earth. And I imagine how important the prayers of her pregnancy must have been, in the midst of ridicule, solitude, fear and anxiety, to hold that God-child inside her womb and offer her hands, open, to her Lord. To say, “May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38).

In the moments when I don’t believe I can go through this whole thing again: the pregnancy, the aches, the exhaustion, the delivery, I remember Mary. I remember that in the physicality of my surrender, in my moments bowed to the toilet, I’m making holy vows to God on behalf of this child. I just have to remember to raise my palms.

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  • Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

    My heart goes out to all the mamas who struggle in the early days of pregnancy…let’s just say, I got lucky. And to know that Mary - so much younger than us, what a whirlwind it must have felt like to her - went through all the crazy emotions courtesy of hormones, just like we do today, is a comfort and inspiration. I can’t believe you are packing up your apartment in the midst of all of it, Micha, and I’ll whisper a prayer for you as I go about my days…

  • This is such a gorgeous image. I am working on a sort of documentary project (we don’t know what to call it) with a writer friend and a photographer about a street in Green Bay, WI (I am not making this up even though I know it sounds a little odd). I met the photographer up there a few weeks ago and he drove up and down the street and asked me to take notes on things I thought were interesting (he had already been sending me photos but wanted fresh eyes). This terrified me (and I like homework!) because I am not an incredibly visual person and the request dragged me out of my comfort zone. But once I started looking, I could not stop noticing things one might not necessarily look at and think, That’s beautiful. Pipes. A paper recycling plant (which we almost got arrested for trespassing). A yard filled with mountains of coal (which is strangely silver in certain lights). A 1947 Chevy. Mottled brick walls. It was all what most people would consider junk, but it was all gorgeous and interesting and complicated. I love this quote from Flanney O’Connor: The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.

    If I were anywhere near you, I would help you pack. I hope the nausea stops soon. xoxo

  • Firstly, I didn’t know you were with child - sending lots of warmth & love to you and your family and wishes of patience & strength & joy to you.

    Your words often bring me to comparisons with meditation - not too surprising I guess as you are thinking so much about the Benedictines. I think of meditation as a kind of sense-full. Sitting quietly, paying attention to that which is, to that which you can observe through your senses. Your words got me to thinking on how our eyes (and ears) are regularly met with scenes that might not invoke calm, or thoughtfulness, or prayer. The sidewalks on a busy avenue in my neighborhood are terribly polka-dotted with tar-black circles. I often think to myself - really? is that all gum? why are people spitting gum all over the place? Silly arguments on the subway between strangers. Sirens. The pervasive trash and bad smells. Dog poop. I like the idea of consciously choosing to look at something that is respite from all this. I also like the idea of looking at what is with less judgment - which is often hard for me when this densely populated city seems to yield so much ugliness. But now and then I find sites, like CAQ above, that inspire me with their unexpected beauty. The view out of the dharma room windows in the Zen Center I go to is an air shaft. In it is a large pipe that is no longer in use, so it just stops suddenly, no longer connected to anything. It has rusted completely through and has collapsed on itself. There is something about this object - rendered so different, so useless from not being used - and yet it is still there, persisting each day, flat, rusted and flaking at the edges. As I write this, I realize that for me, what changes what I’m seeing from ugly to beautiful, from something which inspires disgust to awe, is my own mind. It is the way in which I look. There is power - and difficulty - in trying to come to the world with eyes that are looking as if on an icon. To consciously choose again and again to come to the world with eyes ready for beauty in all moments, just as they are.

    As always, your blog offers great respite for the workday mind. I return refreshed.

  • I too, like the commenter above, am not a very visual person, but your post has inspired me to try to look a little more deeply into images that might inspire me.

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