One of the questions that surrounds the knowledge of God, as spoken of by the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Eastern Church, is that of where the heart resides. By this, I do not mean where the heart is located (in the chest or wherever), but where the heart itself lives. Though the heart is by no means disconnected from our rationality, it is also resident in many other places of our lives.
The heart resides in a place that can be addressed in many ways – even ways that we do not normally think of as avenues of communication.
I can recall some years ago being invited to an Episcopal Church to speak to a womens’ group on praying with icons. I was not Orthodox at the time, but I had written my Master’s Thesis on the subject of the theology of icons, all of which made me a likely candidate for a morning’s program.
What struck me at the time (I had brought a number of exemplary icons for my talk) was the interest of the group in wanting me to teach them how to “read” the icons. I do not know another word for it – although I do not think this was their own term. But it was clear that they were trying to read the icons as though it was simply a pictographic form of writing. “What does the icon say?”
The expectation was that praying with icons was simply another form of directing your attention, and that if you knew the key you might have greater understanding as you prayed.
Now it is certainly true that icons have a language of sorts and that they can even be “read.” “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” the Fathers of the Seventh Council proclaimed. But you cannot do with color what Scripture does with words in the same manner. Color is one thing and words are another. Both reveal and make present and communicate the Truth of the faith. But that communication is not simply the same thing (or else why would you have both instead of one?).
The group became very disappointed with me as I began to explain that “praying with icons” is pretty much literally that – you pray and you are with icons. It sounds terribly prosaic until you have prayed with icons enough to know what it means. I would compare the phrase to “swimming with water.” I’m not certain you can swim without water – but I’m sure the experience would be quite different. It is, of course, possible to pray without icons – but the experience is quite different as well.
So where is it that the heart resides when it prays with icons? Obviously, with training, it learns to dwell amidst the icons and thus amidst that (or Whom) the icons make present.
I know a woman who came to faith (from agnosticism or atheism, take your pick) in the midst of a Church service, by simply addressing an icon of Christ. She posed a simple question, and the answer came not in words, but in a knowledge and a relationship that had been silent, missing, or unlocatable before. I know for a fact that I could not have done the same thing with words, had I even known what words to speak (and how could I know such a thing?).
There is a story from frontier America of the early Quaker missionary, John Woolman. He was addressing a group of Native Americans with a translator. Quakers (then and now) can be a different sort. Woolman became tired of the process of preaching and translating, and finally asked the translator to be quiet as he continued to share the gospel with his non-English speaking audience. At the end of his talk, one of the natives approached him and said, “I like to hear the place where the words come from.” A peculiar reaction – and yet if you have ever heard inspired speech, you may know precisely what was meant.
Where does the heart reside? We may not always be able to say, but the multi-voiced Tradition of the Church knows precisely where it resides, and when left alone without the insistence of rational control, frequently finds its target and does what we do not of ourselves know how to do. Thanks be to God.