Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

23 April 2007

Icons, Commemorative Clothing, and Other Visual Prayer Aids

A habit shared by many victims of violent crime is to obsessively collect information on violent crime and violent criminals, especially when there is a crime in the news. It is my theory that we do this because we think that if we can just figure out what makes a person commit an act of violence, then we can figure out something important about how we came to be victims and thereby gain some sense of control over the traumatic event in our own lives. I call this obsessive data collection “researching.” In my case, as a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder, researching inevitably leads to my developing the symptoms of the disorder—clautrophobia, avoidance of touch, abiding anger—that are the legacy of a sexual assault that occurred a quarter of a century ago, when I was in graduate school. All this to say, I have been trying not to do research on the Virginia Tech murders, currently in the news.

The other day, though, I ran into a friend who, I discovered, was also very upset about the murders and had been engaging in the very research I had been avoiding. Or, trying to avoid. Later, in a brief email exchange on the subject, I learned that the friend was comforted by the fact that others were honoring the dead students by wearing the Virginia Tech school colors, and I realized that this comforts me, too—not only to see others wear the commemorative colors but to wear them myself.

I often undertake to wear certain clothes or pieces of jewelry in remembrance of an important worry in my life. I wore a speckled white, burqa-like dress during the grim days when the reporter Jill Carroll was held hostage in Iraq. The dress became my Jill Carroll dress: a way of reminding myself of her by wearing something like what I imagined, from the horrifying videos posted on Al-Jazeera's websites, she was wearing. In one of the videos, she was crying. Wearing that dress, for me, was a way of entering what I imagined to be her pain. A way of grieving and showing solidarity. A way of praying.

I have been thinking about these and other visual aids to prayer: commemorative clothes, flags at half mast, a hat worn when a friend is losing hair due to chemotherapy, my silver baby pendant that reminds me of Jesus’ incarnation and of the fact that I am God’s daughter, the pierced hands and feet I privately envision when I think of Jesus’ suffering and my own. Biblical people tore holes in their clothes to mourn, and people of later generations, in many cultures, wore special mourning clothes, often for years, after the death of someone close.

What is it about the visual that so connects us to the spiritual? And why am I so embarrassed, as I have written in an earlier post, by such habits of prayer—and that's what they are, I think—when I encounter institutionalized versions of them in, for example, the Eastern Orthodox church? Why do icons seems so valueless to me? Or, worse than valueless—actively wrong-headed? Feeling connected to Jill Carroll as I did by wearing similar clothes to those she was wearing in her terror, why does it seem absurd to me for another person to kiss the ankle bone of a martyr?

I have no answers tonight. Only these questions, this recognition of connectedness—in my current grief on behalf of the thirty-two students and faculty dead at the hands of a man whose impulses I will never understand—to practices which I have so recently, in this very blog, disdained. I offer them up to you. My penance. Knuckles against the heart. A cross, traced by a thumbnail, on the lips.


Katy said...

Thanks for sharing this...

Spring said...

Since I was raised Baptist, the sign of the cross used to really freak me out, like it was some sort of voodoo superstitious thing. Silly of me, I know.

Now, the tracing of the cross over my forehead, lips, and chest before the reading of the Gospel is one of my favorite parts of the service. I'm such a visual and tactile person, I can't believe I went so many years in faith without anything like that to help me along.

Karen said...

I just finished reading your book less than an hour ago. I loved it!

The last book I finished - immediately prior to beginning yours, in fact - was Teaching A Stone To Talk by Annie Dillard. As tough an act as that book was to follow, I was pleased to find one that did so quite gracefully. Your book is truly a great read. Thank you for writing it. This, from a restored (and still very amateur) believer.