I went on a walk with a friend recently, we saw trees fully green and trees with delicate yellow leaves, falling in the wind, on green grass. Autumn in Northern New Jersey! While sitting on a bench, we talked about books, ideas and our dreams for life. I reminisced a bit. I told her how when I was in school, years back, outside Vancouver and new to the Orthodox Church. I saw 2 icons for sale, I told her, one of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, looking healthy, with full round faces. And that there was this other icon, with a woman in drab clothes and a thin face, who looked, by comparison, unhealthy to me. The suffering I saw in her I instinctively veered away from. I did not understand what I was seeing. I did not want such an icon.
After seeing this icon, I went away for Christmas holiday and my Aunt H. gave me ten dollars for my birthday. I was a typical poor student and ten extra dollars meant that I could buy my first icon. While I was on holiday, the icon with the thin gaunt faced woman kept coming back to my mind, again and again. I did not understand why, but this icon, the woman pictured there, was calling to me. When I went back to Church, I asked who she was, and learned her name was Saint Xenia1 (to me this sounded like Zenya but Russians actually say Kzenya, like ‘Kuhzenya’ said quickly). I learned that she lived a rich epicurean life before her husband, who struggled with alcohol, died; that she was so worried for her husband’s soul, so shaken by his death, that she started going to church, acted crazy, wore her husband’s clothes, lived outdoors and prayed in intense ways.
Today we call her a ‘holy fool’ and know many stories about her. One is that she saved a woman from great peril, as her fiance was an undisclosed murderer and this was uncovered before she married him; this young woman was saved from a disastrous marriage! St. Xenia protected the vulnerable, really understood the struggles of others and cared about the poor, the struggling. She became a prayerful vagrant wanderer…
I told my friend that I did not know what to do with her icon, once I bought it. I would sit in one of the old IKEA chairs; chairs my professor had lent me for my studio apartment, and just stare at this icon of St. Xenia. I put this icon on the mantle of the small black gas fireplace in my small studio apartment. Once, I remember, I was holding this icon and looking deeply at it when I suddenly felt like I was falling into the icon; that somehow the layers of the icon opened and there I was, falling. I did not know it then, but that was prayer.
Prayer can happen just by looking at an icon; just staring at it, as if to memorize the face of one you love. Looking back, I see how the author of Courage to Pray2 , was encouraging me that, as young as I was, I too was praying. It is best explained this way, by way of an old friend’s blog:
“There is a story told by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (of blessed memory) in his book, Living Prayer3, about an old Orthodox man who would sit in church for hours in front of the icon of Jesus without saying a word. When asked about this, the old man replied, “I look at Him, and He looks at me, and we are happy together.4”