Praying like you’re illiterate

May 24, 2011 | 53 comments

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.


  1. Katherine

    You are gestating. That itself is a prayer. Thank you for your writing.

  2. -dweej

    I just found out yesterday that a Catholic bloggy friend of mine and her husband are iconographers in Alaska. How fortuitous that your blog should be about the same topic today! They don’t have a website, but they have created a facebook page, for anyone who would like to take a look at a modern family who still practices this ancient art:

    Thank you for the post, Jen!

  3. Jenna

    You learn something new every day! I never knew there was so much behind this type of art. Where can I read more? Do you think you or your cousin could recommend a book or site that would help me decode and understand this type of reading better? Thanks for the post!


    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Jenna – Your comment reminds me that I completely forgot to add a link to a great book about icons that I meant to include: It’s called Praying with Icons by Jim Forest. There are tons of great insights on prayer, even aside from what you learn about icons. I highly recommend it.

      • Sheryl

        Thank you! I’m a protestant, although during the week I attend mass at my local parish fairly frequently. I had no idea there was so much symbolism in icons (forgive my ignorance, but I always thought they were sort of idolatrous) but now I see how they could really assist one during “desert” times. Since I seem to be in the desert myself lately, I will definitely check this book out.

  4. Katie @ Wellness Mama

    What a beautiful thought! I’ve found my prayer life becoming more and more “praying without words” too. After a busy day filled with many beautiful little voices, my evening prayer time usually just becomes a time to be still and quiet.
    I also sympathize on the third trimester thing! This pregnancy has been easy for me so far, but third trimester is starting to catch up with me, and I’m just tired more. Prayers for you for an easy rest of pregnancy and easy delivery!

  5. Kathy

    I love this idea. But it seems like it, too, requires some knowledge. Where do you learn what red and blue mean? and what all of the other components of the icon are supposed to symbolize?

    • Patricia


      Gold = the Divine, the Divine light (halos & backgrounds)
      Blues = associated with heaven, mystery & the mystical life (Christ Pantocrator, Robes of Apostles & Theotokos)
      Reds = passion, love, beauty, life-giving energy, Blood which Christ shed for us
      White = purity & innocence, the Divine, the light which emanates from Christ in the Transfiguration, Angels in the Resurrection
      Green = vegetation, fertility, where life on earth began
      Brown = the bare earth, dust, all that is perishable, the Monastic life in poverty & humility
      Purple = royalty & ultimate power
      Black = as it is the absence of color, it represents the absence of God, it is rare that pure black is used, in the Nativity the cave is black where it represents the blackness of man in the world in which Christ is born, also shown under the Cross in the Crucifixion

      Blue represents humanity & red represents divinity or the divine

      In most icons, the Lord wears red with blue on top, the Divine One covered in humanity, as the Lord God became man. In His halo is the cross with the Greek letters ΟΩΝ meaning “the One who Is” from when the Lord said to Moses, “I Am Who Am”.

      The Theotokos wears blue representing that she is a human, with red on top representing that she is the one from whom God is conceived & became man. Three stars are also seen on the Theotokos (one on each shoulder & one on their veil over her forehead), representing her perpetual virginity before, during & after carrying Our Lord.

      In many icons, the halos have both red & white outlines symbolize the beginning & the end, the Alpha & the Omega.

      • Sheryl

        So helpful! Thank you! I also just found this website on icons:

  6. The Boring Blogger

    I love this Church of ours. I had a similar thought regarding scriptures as I was reading about Felicity and Perpetua being thrown by a “mad heifer” in Rome and thought. Those ladies would not have been sola scriptura types. They died for Christ without ever possessing a neatly indexed bible. Don’t get me wrong, thank the Lord, we have it now. But how rich was the faith of our Early Church without it.

  7. MelanieB

    The other thing about icons (and other sacred art too, think stained glass windows, statues, any devotional image) is that they are very useful for teaching the truths of faith to small children who are also illiterate. I invest in art of our house and picture books with high quality images becasue they help our children learn about God and to form a relationship with him and with the saints. This morning my husband watched our five year-old who cannot yet read flip through a child’s book of the stations of the cross. She knew all the stations and explained to him what was happening in each picture, calling it by name, pointing out details of the picture, telling the story. “St Veronica is my new favorite saint!” She can’t read but she can spend time meditating on the Gospels by looking through a book that she’s had read to her, by looking at art that has been decoded for her.

  8. MelanieB

    Oh and we’re praying for you, Jen. I know that exhaustion too well.

  9. Christina

    Love it! I used to have an icon corner in the apartment, before the baby stuff took over. If you want more reading on the topic (though reading may be the last thing you need right now!), I’d recommend St. John of Damascus’ First Treatise on Divine Images or for a more modern take: some of Jean-Luc Marion’s work including “Idol and Distance” or part 1 of “God Without Being,” which is entitled “The Idol and the Icon.” That being said, I really need to catch up on my iconography skills. Learning to ‘read’ them is truly a prayer in itself.

  10. JC

    I forget which saint it was–I think it may be Saint Thomas Aquinas, and I’m pretty sure it was a Dominican saint–who said that he had learned more from gazing at and contemplating Jesus crucified than form any book. What a great aide our images–be they icons, statues, holy cards/prayer cards, medallions, or whatever–are to prayer life and indeed to catechesis. This also stands out as a bit of an indictment both the iconoclasts, both during the early (and relatively illiterate) centuries of the Church, and now.

  11. Christine

    You are blessed to have a YAYA to help you and I am blessed you get fatigued. I loved this post.

  12. Theresa in Alberta

    Thank God for wonderful Yaya’s!!
    I have an icon of our Lady of Perpetual Help from Poland on my computer desk..luv it!

  13. Lucy

    A lovely reflection on using an icon to pray. As a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church, I have very much enjoyed learning about icons. The Orthodox Church views icons not just as teaching tools, but as “windows into Heaven” and the more time I spend with them and the more I learn, the more that truth is revealed. Especially as one collects icons of Christ and the Theotokos (Mary), the saints and the major feasts, I’ve found they bring a whole dimension of spirituality that I did not anticipate when I first converted. And Orthodox collect icons! They’re all over our churches, in every room of our homes and by every door, in our backpacks and purses, in our cars and desks. The study of icons can be very beneficial, but of course, the most productive time is spent with one. And they are incredibly useful both for teaching children about the Faith, but also for helping them have a visual – they can know what Jesus “looks” like, what Mary “looks” like and brings them from the abstract into the concrete as real people and real events (I find that as a visually oriented adult, this helps me, too!). My children bring their icons to bed when they’re scared and take them along on trips, because they have become friends.

    I’d think the reason there’s less of a demand for icons (at least here in the U.S.) is primarily due to Protestants, who are generally iconoclastic and view the veneration of icons as idolatrous. And even before the Reformation, the Western Church moved away from the Byzantine style (which is non-realistic for theological reasons) and into the more life-like art and statues. I would think that Catholics in other countries utilize devotional art more than in the United States, which was settled by Protestants and that culture has heavily influenced the Catholic practice here as well. Just my thought. 🙂

    • Paul from San Antonio

      Lucy, I would agree with you on the Protestant influence on our Catholic churches. We recently toured the Painted Churches of Texas in Schulenburg TX and its surrounding communities.

      These churches were founded by Czech and German immigrants in the late 1800s to early 1900s. These churches seat only 100-300 people, yet they contain 5 times as many statues as my 1000-seat parish church. Each statue tells a different story. One of the statues is known as Mary Help of Christians. She is holding the Christ Child and Jesus is looking off into the distance. He has a startled look in His eye and His sandal is slipping off his foot. The tour guide shared with us that the artist wanted to capture the moment the child Jesus saw His own crucifixion. I was moved to tears when I noticed how tightly Jesus was holding onto Mary’s hand at the revelation. At that moment I realized what a comfort it must have been for Jesus to have His Mom there to help Him through His crucifixion and how Mary is there to help us through our own trials.

      I wish our parishes would start investing in more sacred art.

  14. Ruth Ann

    I’ve learned a little about icons, such as Lucy mentioned, they are windows to heaven. But I have also learned they are equivalent spiritually to Scripture in the sense of communicating truth. Maybe the iconic communication is more holistic—just pondering.

    Besides looking at a sacred image, I also close my eyes and rest in Christ who is within. “Come to me all you who labor and are weary, and I will give you rest.”

  15. priest's wife

    what a beautiful post…you are a super woman to write such wonderful words— and thanks for the explanation of icons, windows to Heaven (and there is nothing like a ‘real’ icon- painted not printed— there are many people who write them…we are having a workshop in the fall headed up by a 89 year old woman who wrote our four life size portable icons for the chapel

  16. Trisha Niermeyer Potter

    Thank you for sharing this. I have felt very often as if I should make time for and say certain prayers, even when tired and worn-out from the day, but it’s good to be reminded that there are a number of ways that God can recharge our batteries and draw us closer to Him. We can appreciate the love of the Lord through all of our senses and glorify Him through a number of forms of creativity, be they iconography, a ghastly groan offered upward, or the gift of an afternoon to yourself while the kids hang out at Yaya’s.

  17. Rebecca @ The Road Home

    I had no idea about icons – thanks for teaching me and giving me a moment of prayer. Now I’m off to learn more.

  18. sara m

    Y’know your groans were biblical? Romans 8:26 says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” 🙂

  19. Kimberlie

    I really don’t know anything about icons but there is a set of icons painted on the front of the alter in our parish’s chapel. I’ve been spending a lot of time there lately. I have become rather attached to this icon. It pictures Christ seated with two sheep. One of the sheep has it’s neck extended up and is resting its chin on Jesus’ lap. Jesus hand is resting lovingly on the sheep’s head. I often think how much I want to be like that sheep in my Savior’s lap with His hand resting on me.

  20. Dorian Speed

    There’s a great book called Sacred Doorways that gives an overview of the history of iconography and the role that icons play in the Eastern churches. Like other commenters, I used to see iconography merely as another form of religious art – and while I would look for symbols and such within an individual icon, I think I was missing out on the significance of the icon itself as a window to the sacred. It’s hard to explain without it sounding like “icons are magic pictures.”

    There are lots of lovely photos of icons in the Domestic Church photo pool at Flickr – and people can always submit new photos to the collection.

    Also – hope you can get some rest soon!

  21. Colleen

    This was such a beautiful meditation. I started attending a Byzantine Catholic Church 4 years ago. I would find myself just staring at the icons and wondering why I felt so peaceful in this church.

  22. Sarah

    This is lovely, Jen! I’ve been thinking about purchasing some icons to follow the feasts of the liturgical year, mostly because I loved the detail and beauty of the art, but didn’t know all the history behind it. As another commenter mentioned earlier, my son (who is four and can not yet read) is really inspired by religious art, we have one Marian statue and he loves even just beautiful prayer cards, so I pick up a new one for $1-2 every so often to add to our stash. He just likes to look at them, and then I tell him what is going on (we have one about Guardian Angels, one about the Annunciation, one with Jesus and little children, one about the Archangel Michael, one with our Lady of Carmel) and he picks up so much more of the story than if I was just telling him.

    This also reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about. I was reading in a (secular) book recently about listening to guided meditations when relaxing (like in the bath) and though I’ve found several readable Catholic meditations, on the daily readings, etc., I’ve had a hard time finding ones that I can listen to that aren’t the rosary. Plus just finding space in the bathtub for my laptop where it doesn’t get wet, too much for me to worry about now (we do have the same due date, remember? ) I think I’ve found my answer – rather than listening to them, I’m just going to rotate an icon above the bathtub and meditate on that! I love it! 🙂

    Praying for you as we finish up the last few weeks!


  23. Brittany

    In your shoes, my first thought probably would’ve been to pray for Yaya. 🙂

  24. Claire

    I was fortunate enough to get some wonderful icons from my dear Grammy after she passed. Next time I’m feeling similarly tired, I’ll remember to focus on one of them for a while during my prayer time.

    And best wishes for the rest of your pregnancy as well! The third trimester was rough for me with my daughter especially. Thank goodness it doesn’t last forever! (not that this sentiment helps much when you just have to get through today, but still…)

  25. Elisa | blissfulE

    Fascinating! As a Protestant, I always thought icons were almost idolatrous (sorry!) but your insight into them cleared that up. Thanks!

    How are your iron levels? I’m also in the 3rd trimester and just found out my hemoglobin is way too low this pregnancy. Never had this with the other three. A possible explanation for my recent weepy incoherence.

  26. Kim D.

    Thanks for this cool post. Hang in there!

  27. Adoro

    Hi Jen,

    It’s been a long time since I’ve commented, you probably don’t even remember me!

    It warms my heart to see you writing about Icons. I, too, fell in love with them and both have written OF them and, thanks to the Grace of God, I am now writing Icons. It is very detailed work and every line means something. Every color, every bit about it is Scripture and PRAYER.

    Several of your readers have asked about where to learn about Icons. Here is one good site especially designed for such questions:

    Note that this link goes to a small religious community, and any purchases from it support them, whether original icons or reproductions.

    Please, to all here, avoid “Monastery Icons” and do your research: if you seek to purchase an Icon, do so from a reputable Catholic/Byzantine/Coptic/Orthodox source, not from the New-Age imitators that suck up your cash and give you a cartoon devoid of prayer.

  28. Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith

    I did not realize all of the symbolism in the images of icons. Sounds like a Holy Spirit moment there, thank God for Yaya and icons.

  29. Lisa V.

    I’m inspired by your words. I feel like I don’t have enough time in the day to be in the Word like I want to be but you have demonstrated another way for me.

  30. Marcia

    Great post! We in fact have numerous icons around our house….we have still three “illiterate” in our house and perhaps children are best at finding the simplicity in prayer. Have you read the encyclical “Light of the East”? You might like the encouragement of JP2 to embrace more of the Eastern Christian ways of living the faith. I wonder if you’d ever had the chance to pray at a Divine Liturgy? I highly encourage it. Breathing with “both lungs” can be so spiritually refreshing. (waving from central IL)

  31. Magnificat

    Great post!
    Nowadays many scorn ancient devotions, because “modern men know better than those medieval primitives”. Don’t jump in that trap. Traditional devotions are proven by experience of many generations.
    Chesterton put it very well – tradition is democracy of the dead.
    Personally, I learned the most from my formally illiterate but spiritually very wise grandma.

    P.S. You have a wonderful mother-in-law :-))

  32. Christine Maentz

    Beautiful post.. you are so inspirational! I wish I could pray that way but for me, if my eyes aren’t “reading” something spiritual or if my ears aren’t “hearing” something spiritual then my mind tends to wander & think of other things. Then I get upset with myself because I can’t focus on God! My consolation is that we are all at different levels of prayer/spirituality & I’m just not there yet!

  33. Patricia

    Wonderful! The icon of Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Teacher) from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai (Egypt) is my absolute favorite! Icons have such a rich & deep theology in the Eastern Catholic Churches. We have an icon corner (these are typically on the east wall of the home, as the Son of Justice will return from the east) in our home where we have icons of the patronal Saints of our family members, as well as a few others that we have a special devotion to. It it our place to gather as a family to pray. I encourage you to visit an Eastern (Byzantine) Catholic Church to experience the Divine Liturgy & to learn more about the ancient tradition & spirituality of iconography.
    God bless you & your little ones!

    • Magnificat

      Completely agree!
      Except a tiny detail – Pantocrator/Pantokrator is, literally. “Ruler of All”, or, more common “Almighty” or “All-powerful”.

      • Patricia

        Thanks for the clarification! God bless!

  34. magda

    From this morning’s gospel reading: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you”
    Your icon says this to me. It is beautiful.

  35. Teresa

    Beautiful. Thank you!

  36. Margo

    Beautiful picture and excellent insights. Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts.

  37. Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher

    Thanks to Dweej, for the mention of our Facebook page! Actually, my husband is the iconographer, but I do make the little icon shrines that we also sell.

    For those interested in learning more about iconography, the theology and history of icons, or how to write icons, Charles takes students and facilitates retreats and workshops.

    God bless!

  38. That Married Couple

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I’ve never been into icons, either, because they weren’t my style of art. Now that I have a bit more appreciation for them, I will definitely have to contemplate whether that would be an important addition to our home.

    Hope you feel better and the days go quickly!

  39. Leah

    This is lovely. I, too, tend to get stuck in my head and really appreciate pictorial or physical ways of connecting with God.

  40. FullSpectrumMom

    That was beautiful, Jen. It’s been three years since my last pregnancy but I could feel that exhaustion in my bones as I read your description of how you felt. No doubt, Yaya’s call was an answer to the purest form of prayer.

  41. nancy

    My great-grandfather, and his fathers before him, were Byzantine Catholic priests in Romania. I have explored the Eastern rites over the years, and for the past 3 years I have begun the study of icon painting myself. I have so much to learn, but it is deeply rewarding to be part of the long tradition of writing icons.

    Icons are pathways to the Divine, and have a spiritual depth that is hard to understand but powerful to experience. I love your story of deep prayer time in the presence of your icon and I know you and your family will continue to be blessed by its presence in your home.

  42. Beth Carrell

    I love that I am not the only one who throws open boxes of granola bars on the floor in exhaustion. Hilarious.

  43. Kate T

    I have become almost obsessed with icons since my MIL started writing them a few years ago. She attended a School of Iconography with a very old, holy Byzantine monk and since then has written, in the ancient traditional manner, MANY icons. We are blessed to have St. Michael in our living room.

    It was listening to her explanations of the deep spiritual meaning that goes into each step that awakened my interest and appreciation. Hand-written icons that are blessed at the altar during Mass are those “pathways to Heaven” and having one in my house is an amazing privilege. Each time she talks about them I learn a little more and I love it.

    My husband and I are really drawn to the Byzantine Catholic traditions, and perhaps mostly the deep mysticism that invites us to go deeper with Christ. (My husband’s first spiritual director was the Fr. George Maloney, and that paved the way for his persistent interest in Eastern Theology.)

    Each time I look at an icon I recall what I’ve learned about them, and am drawn in to the Communion of Saints in a way that is different than other sacred images.

  44. Rosemary

    This weary 60+ caregiver thanks you. I needed this more than I can say!

  45. Lana

    It strikes me that, if one is to consider icons as windows into sacred truth, spiritual literacy is turned on its head—those who read and speak might actually be less knowledgeable than those who worship in other ways. Maybe we, the so-called educated, are the “illiterates” after all?

  46. Jennie

    I really enjoyed your post! I have a few icons, and a holy card of Our Lady of Perpetual Help which sounds a lot like Our Lady Help of Christians. I never understood about the sandal falling off, so thank you for whoever mentioned that.

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