My voice was near a whisper as it formed the words and the morning light filled the window over my prayer bench last week. The children’s school had been delayed and they’d gotten off to a later start so no candle was needed to illumine the words.
“Neither have You destroyed me in my transgressions. But You have shown Your customary love toward mankind, and have raised me up as I lay in heedlessness, that I might sing my morning hymn and glorify Your sovereignty….”
Fast forward to today, in which I was furious. I looked into my childrens’ rooms and saw there every possible form of chaos and lack of care. This has been a recurring theme for as long as they’ve been mobile, and we’ve tried every methodology we could think of to train them into neater habits. Yes, even boxing up their toys and putting them in the attic, but their hearts weren’t changed. My voice was eerily calm as I gave them a monotone speech at breakfast that I was seriously considering getting rid of all their toys, since clearly they didn’t care about them. Tears and quivering chins and promises that they’ll never let things get to such a state again. I dryly remarked that I’d heard that a thousand times and yet they hadn’t reformed their ways. Time was up, I was done, they’d gone too far, too many times.
“Do now enlighten the eyes of my understanding, open my ears to receive Your words, and teach me Your commandments. Help me to do Your will, to sing to You, to confess to You from my heart, and to praise Your All-Holy Name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
I had finished the prayer and let the warm light pour over my kneeling form, and even with my eyes closed it was bright. I got up from the floor and for whatever reason I turned around to sit a moment on my bench, lifting my eyes to the other side of the room. There was our icon of Christ, a gift at Pascha last year from our dear friend Leon Miller, where I had placed it near our Lent candle calendar just the day before.
It was absolutely, stunningly, glowing.
The face was so full of light that I was startled. Like I’d caught someone staring at me boldly. The morning light had come in at just the right angle, and just at that moment, leaving only the face illuminated and everything to the sides in darkness. I sat there dumbfounded, and it seemed special, but in a way I don’t have words for. Many of the things of God are like that; He seems to leave us margin to see or not to see the burning bushes in our lives. To take them as holy or coincidental.
I sat and I thought. I had just begun the practice of saying the morning and evening prayers from my Orthodox study Bible the day before. If the weather had not been predicted to be bad, the children would not have had a delay, and my prayers would have been in the morning’s dark rather than the light. I had just placed the icon there the day before, and uncharacteristically, I placed it oddly, off-center; not at all as I would normally arrange things. I had turned around and sat down, I hadn’t just leapt up and started in on the day’s duties as I normally would. The light had filled that one square foot of space and no other, almost like a spotlight. But, still, it could be a happy coincidence.Icons might be one of the most misunderstood things in Christianity. In western eyes they are at the worst, idols, and at the best, unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
ICON: A transliterated Greek word meaning “IMAGE”. Icons of Christ and His saints depict the reality of the incarnation; because the Son of God became Man, He can be imaged. Orthodox Christians honor or venerate icons, but never worship them, for worship is due the Holy Trinity alone. The honor given to icons passes on to the one represented on the icon, as a means of thanksgiving for what God has done in that person’s life. (The Orthodox Study Bible, p.1782)
This icon is known as Christ Pantocrator, “Ruler of All”. In this year of church-homelessness I have been blessed by this visual, physical reminder that God has all things in His control and that he steadily cares for us. As the prayer reads: “You have shown Your customary love towards mankind...” Customary, as in habitual, constant. What grace.
So my day went on and the afternoon found me in study at my desk.It’s a cherished spot in our home. The children love the special occasions when I let them do work there, but most of the time it is a place set aside just for me. Again, for whatever reason, I turned my chair around and looked across the room. I have there hanging a print of Christ praying in Gethsemane. It was an image clipped from a Ladies Home Journal in 1922 and carefully matted with strips of cardboard by a loving hand. I’d purchased it at a thrift store, stunned by the care someone had given to preserve the cheap print.
Well, the face was glowing bright.
My first thought was that I’d never noticed how drastically the painting was done; like a Rembrandt with his startling use of shadow and light that made the bright points of the painting near leap off the canvas. I kept staring and was suddenly sure that something was different; the painting had never been so striking before. I got up and walked toward it. All of a sudden the light calmed flat as my presence interrupted a singular ray of light that had pierced the filigree on my front porch, sliced through the uppermost corner of one of the tall windows and hit solely upon the inch-wide face of Christ, leaving the rest of the painting in shadow.
I stepped back and the face filled with that singular light again. In another moment the light had shifted and was gone.
Again, God leaves margin; there is nothing miraculous in sunlight striking where it pleases as the earth rotates and orbits the sun. It is, however, highly unlikely that the face of Christ in two distinct works of art would be illuminated singularly twice in one day and that both times I would pause uncharacteristically in my work and witness it.
I was hesitant to tell my husband; afraid I’d be dismissed as the sort who saw the Virgin Mary in a tortilla or something of that sort. But it felt so special, so astonishing, that at evening’s end I did share it with him. He shared my wonder and my pleasure and the mystery of it. We didn’t try to wrangle a meaning out of it. I was left with two strong emotions: joy and surprise. It was the feeling when you know someone thought of you especially and sent you flowers or a note. That “I am noticed and loved” sort of pleasure.
I had sent the children up to their rooms to clean, my disapproval a palpable presence in the house. There was a nudge in my spirit though, and I was drawn to the morning prayer. God filled my heart with the words;
“Arising from sleep, I thank You, O Most Holy Trinity, that, for the sake of Your great kindness and long-suffering, You have not had indignation against me, for I am slothful and sinful. Neither have You destroyed me in my transgressions. But You have shown Your customary love toward mankind, and have raised me up as I lay in heedlessness…”
Daily He extends mercy and grace. Daily I fall into sin and repent of it bitterly. I resolve in my heart to hold my tongue, to exercise more patience and grace, and daily I must repent of my failings to do so. I was ashamed that I had offered my children less than I had received. I called them downstairs.
I read them the prayer and tears filled my eyes. I told them the story of the debtor who was forgiven his great debt and then had demanded unjustly the payment of a small debt from another in anger. I told them that I had no grounds on which to withhold forgiveness and mercy from them when they failed, because forgiveness and mercy were not withheld from me when I did. Seventy times seventy times seventy. I looked into their eyes that swam with emotion which matched my own. I said, “You will screw up, just as I do. But I will forgive you as I have been forgiven, and each of us will try again. God promises to forgive our every failing and to help us to do what is right.”
The prayer writes of the “customary love” that God has for us, and that is just what I seek to grow in; customary, habitual, constant love, a reflex of sorts towards compassion and mercy and kindness. The experience with the light last week has reminded me of God’s presence with us, His interest in us, and His lovingkindness towards us. The prayer has reminded me to extend that great mercy and love to those who’d be most keenly effected by the absence of it in my words and actions, my children.
God whispers in His Word and in our hearts and through art and burning bushes, and let us pause so that we do not miss a word of it.