Today’s post in the series Return to Our Senses in Lent is one of several reflections inspired by my new book Return to our Senses by Kimberlee Conway Ireton, author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year. you might also like to check out her other posts in the series:
In mid-February, my friend Susan gave me my first ever icon. It’s of Mary, the Theotokos, or God-bearer. The child Jesus leans against her cheek, one arm around her neck, the other resting on her chest, just above her left breast. His eyes look up at her in love; her eyes look out of the icon, at the viewer, at me.
I hung the icon on the east wall of my bedroom, above my writing desk, next to the window. Every afternoon, when I lie down on my bed with my two-year-old twins, to put them (and myself) down for a nap, I can see Mary looking at me with pity and compassion and love.
I need that kind of look these days. I’ve been worn out, worn down, just worn, like an old sheet that’s been washed way too many times. When I get this tired, the nasty voices in my head, which I can usually fight or keep at bay with prayer and Scripture recitation, get really loud and insistent, and in all their clamoring, I start to listen to them.
They say, Jesus never yelled at his disciples, and they bring to mind the way, earlier today, I raised my voice or lectured or even shamed one of my children.
They say things like, Jesus hung out with poor people and prostitutes. When was the last time you hung out with a poor person or a prostitute?
They say, There are people in this world who live on a dump. You, on the other hand, live in a two-bedroom house with running water and indoor plumbing in a nice neighborhood. Why can’t you just be grateful?
They don’t actually say that I’m a disappointment to Jesus or a bad Christian, but they imply it. They speak just enough truth to hook me, and I bite—and believe. And then they leave me floundering and gasping for air. So day after day, I fall exhausted on my bed, with one twin on either side of me and guilt and fear and shame circulating through my body like blood.
When I look up, I see Mary looking at me. Her gaze is one of infinite compassion and pity. She does not look like the kind of person who would say buck up and deal or quit complaining, you spoiled princess or you think your life is hard? Try living in a refugee camp.
No, she looks kind. So kind, in fact, that some afternoons, I find myself talking to her. I ask her if she ever got mad at Jesus, if she ever yelled at him, if she ever, in frustration, slapped him—all things I have done to my children, all things I am ashamed of. I ask her if it’s okay that I’m not feeding hungry people (unless my children count, and maybe they do, Mary?) or hanging out with prostitutes and criminals or even with people who aren’t at-home moms more or less like me.
She doesn’t answer. She just looks at me with pity and love.
When I tell Susan that I’ve started talking to the icon she gave me, she smiles. She says that I’m actually praying. She says, “An icon is a glimpse of heaven. You don’t talk to the icon. You talk through it, to the reality it points to, to Mary herself, who sits in heaven, praying to Jesus on our behalf.”
I was raised evangelical. We thought icons, if we thought about them at all, were just pictures. Susan, who was baptized in the Catholic Church, is far more comfortable with this whole praying-with-icons thing than I am. She continues, “In the Orthodox tradition, icons are a window through which we glimpse heaven, but through which Heaven can see us, too. Mary’s eyes of love in that icon are, in some mystical sense, really Mary’s eyes of love. She is really looking at you. The icon’s a glimpse of Truth, of the Really Real.”
I confess, despite (or perhaps because of) my evangelical upbringing, I love this idea. I love the thought that Mary, the mother of God; Mary, who raised the Son of God; Mary, whose mothering had eternal, cosmic consequences far beyond any that my own mothering might have; Mary who must therefore completely understand the heartache of being a mother, and also the joy and the frustration and the near-constant sense of failure—this is the woman whose loving eyes look into mine as I lie here on my bed
This afternoon, as I look at Mary, I think of my friend Jan. Jan is my mom’s age. She sort of adopted me when I moved to Seattle for college. On Sunday, Jan held me while I cried out much of the fear and frustration I’ve been carrying inside me these past weeks. She held me and rocked me like a child. She spoke words of reassurance and love. As she rocked me and held me and let me cry all over her sweater, Jan embodied the loving gaze of Mary, the loving gaze of Jesus. She became an icon of the love of God.
Now, looking at Mary, I see Jan, too. I see that if Jan, one of my fellow sinners, can look at me with love, without contempt, how much more must Jesus look at me with love? The contemptuous and venomous words that I’ve been listening to these past weeks aren’t the voice of God. God sounds like Jesus, with his arms of love outstretched on the cross. God sounds like Mary, with her eyes of love fixed on me as I lie here between my boys. God sounds like Jan, whispering prayers of grace and gratitude over me as I weep.
God looks at me with their eyes, eyes full of compassion and kindness and love. God speaks to me through their voices.
Jesus said, “The Father himself loves you.” (John 16:27) The Father himself loves me. The Father himself loves you. Amen. Amen.