First Sunday of Lent (Feb 21, day 5)
I was reading about Saints in the Orthodox tradition, and came across the Kozelshchansk Icon of the Mother of God.
(If you are not used to the practice of praying with icons, you might want to know that the idea is not to pray to something inanimate — not some kind of magic trick. Rather the icon is like a window through which to see God’s presence.)
This icon — a beautiful representation of the Mother of God — is of Italian origin, dating back at least to the eighteenth century, and various owners took it with them to Russia, and then to Ukraine. By the nineteenth century it was a sacred possession of the family of Count Vladimir Kapnist, in the village of Kozelschina. In 1880 Kapnist’s daughter, Maria, dislocated some bones in her foot, and then gradually many more of her joints and bones began to twist out of shape until she was quite paralyzed. Every kind of medical expertise was applied, but poor Maria was getting worse, not better. Eventually, after praying before the icon, her health began to return and she became well again. It was this healing that led to the icon being ‘glorified’ in the late nineteenth century.
The pandemic we are currently enduring has been terribly cruel, both the deaths to COVID, and the disruption to medical treatments for other illnesses while health services are so badly overstretched. It would be glib, offensive, and theologically nonsensical to suggest that all we need to do is to pray more, or that lack of healing is due to a failure to pray. But I do, nonetheless, take inspiration from the story of the Kozelshchansk Icon, for two reasons.
The first is that praying in whatever way works for you (whether with icons or some other way) can help to sustain the soul in sickness, bring peace and solace at the end of life, strengthen those on their way to recovery, and inspire those who care for the sick.
The second is that there are many ways to pray, and how you pray is less important than finding a way to pray that works for you. And if the art of prayer seems to have deserted you under the pressures of the pandemic, you might like to find another way to pray that works for you right now. Through icons, maybe — or through music, or walking in the woods, or listening to the rhythm of your own footsteps. Or, in something like the movement of wordless prayer through icons, simply standing quietly before some sight or sound that seems to open up a window in heaven. I’m reminded of Carol Ann Duffy’s beautiful poem about the way that all the sounds and movements of the world are like a rhythm of prayer, from piano scales to the shipping forecast:
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
The Times Saturday Review, 1992