Many people are aided in prayer by icons. I am too, though because I am more intuitive than sensate, the icons that move me more deeply are often not pious images painted on wood panels.

No. For me, generally it’s a face in a certain situation or a particular human incident or story that has power to take me beyond my normal heartaches and headaches to a deeper awareness of the compassion of God and others.

Let me share with you one such icon that helps open my heart and spirit to the presence of God and others. It’s a story that Robert Coles tells in his Harvard Diary (New Oxford Review, November 1991) I re-read it regularly and it always moves me towards prayer.

In 1970, Coles had gone to rural West Virginia. While there, he was introduced to a 14-year-old boy who had been partially paralysed while working in a strip mine.

The boy, living in an economically poor family, largely illiterate, without a television set to look at, with almost nothing to do and seemingly no practical goals to live for, lay on his bed, stared out at the world, and, when Coles asked him what went through his mind all day, this is what he said:

“I’ll be here, lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, or looking out of the window-yonder, to the hill. I get to thinking. I wonder why I was ever born—if there was a reason. To end up like I am now?

“I wonder if it makes any difference if anyone is ever born! I mean, a hundred years from now, we’ll all be gone, and if anyone has any idea who we are, it’ll be because he stumbled on a grave, or he saw a picture in someone’s scrapbook, like I do sometimes when Grandpappy comes visiting, and he shows me his Grandpappy.

“When I look out there, I see the trees and I figure they must know something we (human beings) won’t be told. They just stand there, and they wear their sap, then they yield it, and nothing seems to bother them, while we’re running all over the place.

“You cut into them and mark them up (he was referring to his own habit of using his knife to put his initials on certain trees) and they don’t say ‘ouch’; maybe they feel sorry for you, that you do that!

“It’s the start of the day that I notice most of all. I never did (take such notice) before. Now I’m up, because there’s only so much sleep you can get, and I’ll be lying there in the darkness, and my mind is having these thoughts, like why was I put here in the first place, and when will I be going, and does it make any difference, that I’m here, and is there a God, and has He got time to pay any attention to me, what with all the other folks, so many of them, all over the world.

“All of a sudden—it sure happens every time!—there’s a shift: It’s not so dark as it was, you begin to realize. It’s ‘the first light,’ my Mom calls it. You know what she told me: It’s the Lord coming on his visit, his morning call to us, checking on us! I think she’s being the joker she is, but she’s serious too.

“Our dog doesn’t miss that time. No sooner does the light come (into the room) than he’ll (the dog) stand up and come and pay me a visit. He sniffs me, and licks my hand—he’s telling me good morning partner, there’s another one (day) coming around the corner, for both of us to have for ourselves! That’s what I imagine him thinking!

“Sometimes I even will think of him as having more on his mind, like: Partner, it’s alright, you can get used to being like you are, the way I have—we’re all part of the place here, and if you’re giving orders, it shows how much you need people to take hold upon you, and if you’re taking orders, it shows how much you’re needing help for direction, and so there’s no one who isn’t in some kind of need, and that’s the biggest need a person has, to understand that.”

An icon, theological dictionaries tell us, is a flat picture, usually painted in egg tempera on wood, but also wrought in mosaic, ivory and other materials, to represent the Trinity, Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary or some saint. In circles of piety, the belief is that icons are powerful channels of grace.

The thoughts of this “backwoods” Appalachian boy are such an icon. When Scripture tells us that on the way to Calvary, Jesus turned and looked at Peter and, on the basis of that look, Peter’s heart softened, one wonders what Peter saw in and on that face of Jesus to cause such a reaction.        ·

My own suspicion is that he saw there the same kind of humility, compassion, understanding, and openness for consummation in the God’s kingdom that this young boy’s words, in their own simplicity, so beautifully and clearly, express.