Monday, January 21, 2008

Iconography - A Writer's Meditation

I just finished this book by writer Susan Neville. In the middle of her Midwestern life, she realizes that there is something missing, there is a hole in her heart that only God can fill, and she decides to spend some time writing about her spiritual life every day during lent as an exercise. She brackets her meditations with vignettes from an iconography class that she took where she completed an icon of the Theotokos.

Susan is not Orthodox, and I found her reflections on Orthodox liturgy and iconography incredibly moving. Here are her final words:

On a Sunday, two weeks later, I head to the Joy of All Who Sorrow. Walking back into the holy gloom, running a little late, I realize right away that I've done something terribly wrong. My icon lies up on a table waiting to be blessed, and I don't belong here. I have no idea what I'm supposed to do.

I have no head-covering. I-I-I. Couldn't I for one second have let go of the fact that my presence here was important because it was my icon waiting to blessed and thought about the fact that this church was Orthodox?

I stand at the doorway, late, remembering back to the days before Vatican II when I would go with a friend to a Catholic church and there would be handkerchiefs or scarves on a table by the door.

I look around for something to put over my hair, and there's nothing. I don't know whether I should leave or stay.

A woman in a blue denim skirt comes up to welcome me. She has a beautiful smile. I point to my head, and she removes her scarf. I'll go hatless too, she says, it's all right. It doesn't matter. Really. Come in, she says. Sit down.

And so I do.

Running late, moving from the bright October daylight to the medieval gloom, sitting down next to the smiling woman with no head-covering, I wasn't prepared for my reaction, and it took me surprise. Everything was extraordinarily beautiful, including the woman's kindness, that I started to cry.

But it was more than simply the act of kindness; it was something about the ritual, which contained a motion that stretched back through time, like a golden-hued intricate machine, a Victorian toy. I can't explain it. It was a time capsule, all movement, and I only know that I'd never seen anything like it, the way these beautiful children, miniature adults, circled with their parents and their grandparents so sweetly from icon to icon, the deep bows of veneration, the prayers and candles, the theater of it all -- the way the curtains closed on the bread and wine when they were just that, bread and wine, and the chanting of the priests and the way the curtains opened on the transformation into flesh, the look on the congregants' faces as they took the mystery into their own very real bodies.

And all the time the new icons sitting on a table at the front, waiting to be blessed, and one of them was the one I'd struggled over.

Mother Catherine came back to sit by me when it was time for the blessing. She pointed out the other iconographers in the room. "Iconographer," she called me. The priest dropped holy water on my Mary's face and chanted a prayer, and Mother Catherine took me to the front of the line as everyone in the church stood to venerate the thing that I had made. I was, I knew, a fraud.

It's a tradition, Mother Catherine said, for the iconographer to be the first one to venerate the icon. How do I do that? I asked her. I was a fraud. Like this, she said, and I remembered that "like this" was one translation of the untranslatable word for God.

She showed me how to hold my hand and how to cross myself, head to navel, right shoulder to the left. And when I got to the icon, I made the sign, and it was one of the most unnatural things I've ever done.

But I was moved, and still am, by the way the congregants then made the sign and kissed the icon, and I realized that the Mary I'd struggled over for so long had sailed away, that she had her own life now beyond me, like my children, like this book, that for me she contained all the grief I'd felt for those who had passed or would continue to pass through my life and my children's lives, for those who had died and for those who were yet to be born. That she would stay in my house above my desk, unvenerated probably as long as she stayed on my wall, a bit frightening at times, at times comforting. That through the years the light of the gold leaf behind her head will sometimes take me by surprise, that someday, maybe a hundred years from now, when I'm long gone, her light will shine as brightly as does the sunlight glazing the needles of the white pine tree outside my window on this particular sharp November day as I sit one last morning with thismeditation, writing this one last line.

When I read the above last night, I wept. Like Susan, I also yearn for God, my heart mutely crying out for Him. I was also fascinated by iconography when I was newly Orthodox and dabbled in it, finally spending a year learning about life and Orthodoxy and how to be an Orthodox woman, and occasionally, about iconography from an old Russian woman, Olga, who was a fabulously talented artist, but not really an iconographer. Like Susan, icons somehow got ahold of me and wouldn't let me go until I found a teacher and spent a week writing St. Michael the Archangel in egg tempera. Like Susan, I struggle with my art, my iconography.

Iconography is a prayer. It is an acquiescence, a submission, to someone and something. It is a yearning and a receiving. It is a beginning and a completion. It is one moment encapsulated in time, in earth and minerals and egg mixed with vinegar, and it is also all of eternity stretching forwards and backwards. Its humility, because each icon that leaves my hands falls far short of prototype, and is absolutely unworthy of either the saint depicted for the recipient of the finished work. Its a discipline and a way of life that I am incapable of following.

But I try. I keep slugging away at it. I keep asking God to help me rise to the occasion, to complete what is lacking in me. I keep looking for that little pinpoint of heaven peeking out at me in the midst of that expanse of smooth white board.

Last spring, my bishop reviewed my work and told me that it was time to get serious about iconography, to study seriously with a master iconographer and become a real iconographer, myself. He asked me to consider whether God wanted me to continue as an amateur (a lover of the work) or a dilettante (one whose efforts are only superficial), or whether God wanted me to offer my artistic gifts back to Him in the form of iconography. He told me that it was time to stop flirting with iconography and to become an iconographer. Each time I recall that brief conversation, with photos of my icons in Vladyka's hands, and his eyes boring holes through mine, and his voice so soft but so sharp... I weep again. "What are you going to do" he asked. "I can see that your iconography has promise, but what are you going to do with this gift that God has given you?" "Its time to get serious."

Yes, its time to get serious.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Click to view my Personality Profile page

I read Mimi's blog almost daily, and her last post was about her scores on the Meyers Briggs Personality Inventory. The first time I took the Meyers Briggs, I was in college, providing practice for a friend in the counseling program. I was an INTJ then, and continued to test as an INTJ until about five years ago when, inexplicably, I became an INTP (though once I tested as an ENTJ.) Crazy huh?

The differences between a J and a P are subtle but very clear.

Judging (J)
Judging does not mean "judgmental". Judging people like order, organization and think sequentially. They like to have things planned and settled. Judging people seek closure.

Judging Characteristics
Good at finishing
Quick at tasks
Likes closure
Makes plans

Perceiving (P)
Perceiving people are flexible, like to keep their options open and think randomly. They like to act spontaneously and are adaptable. Perceivers like to keep things open ended.

Perceiving Characteristics
Changes tracks midway
Keeps options open
Dislikes routine

As I get older, and as life "tenderizes" me, I can see that I most definitely am becoming more flexible, more adaptable, more relaxed. Unfortunately, I am also becoming more disorganized, though I see the beauty in organization and crave it - I'm just not the person to make it happen. I did change tracks midway through my life. I certainly do procrastinate a lot; I have struggled with punctuality all my life, though I am doing better in general nowadays. I certainly get bored with routine in many ways - work especially - which is why I prefer working with people because there are new situations to deal with every day. On the other hand, the sameness of the church year, the changing of the church seasons, the rich liturgical life of the Orthodox Church, the eternal sameness of it, is far removed from routine - it is incredibly beautiful and comforting.

I certainly do not think sequentially. I usually have a dozen different things going on in my head at any time. I find it impossible to attend fully to any one thought, which makes prayer difficult. My daughter says that I'm what happens when an ADD kid grows up. The funny thing is, when I was a kid, I would concentrate so hard on things that I was interested in, that the real world would drop away and my Mom had to physically shake me to come to dinner, for example. But now, I'm always listening to a number of internal conversations with myself. Perhaps that is the key to whether I am a J or a P.

So, I guess that I have, indeed, morphed into a P.

Friday, January 04, 2008

My 2007 Reading List

Its a new year and thus, its time to start a new reading list! I've joined a couple of reading challenges which do, indeed, promise to challenge me.

In 2007, I read the following books:

The Jesus Prayer - A Monk
Mr. Darcy's Daughters - Elizabeth Aston
The Monastic Life - Met. Cyprian of Oropos
Letters to a Beginner - Abbess Thaisia
Cloud of Witnesses - Fr. Arseny
A Tiny Step Away from Deepest Faith - Corbman
A Year of Russian Feasts - Jones
Coming Home to Myself - Wynonna
Endless Chain - Richards
The Practice of the Presence of God
Living Prayer - Met. Anthony Bloom
The Icon - Michel Quenot
Praying with Icons - Jim Forest
Making Life a Prayer - St. John Cassian
Courage to Pray - Met. Anthony Bloom
Diary of a Russian Priest
This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
Mountain of Silence

From Mother Gavrilia

"First of all, we need to humbly ask God's blessing upon our work, and if there is any doubt whether we should do something we need to pray about it or seek counsel. St. Silouan said, 'A soul that is troubled about anything should inquire of the Lord, and the Lord will give him understanding. But this is primarily in times of calamity and real bewilderment. As a general rule, we should be advised by our spiritual father, for this is a humbler way.'"

"When you wish deeply to act always according to the Will of God, He will reveal It to you. This is what He asks. He wants us to reach out our hand for His Grace, so that His Grace may guide us and His Holy Spirit may shine on us. And then, it is Paradise on Earth! Have no doubts whether it is or it isn't the Will of God. Because when you doubt about what is to be done, it will not be done properly. Don't forget that when it is not the Will of God, He makes it quite clear, for then He shuts all the doors. When you go here and there and find obstacles everywhere, change course, don't insist on your own will. Make your Prayer and change your mind. But don't forget to pray! Talk with God's Spirit as you would with someone dear to you. Yet, you know, the acceptance of God's Will also depends in some way on man himself... God calls man to follow Him. Man replies "Yes" or "No"...God besses a Marriage for the begetting of children. Man replies"Yes" or "No"... In any case, the effort to live in accordance with God's Will is absolutely necessary. For this is our purpose on this Earth." - Mother Gavrilia

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Two from St. Nikolaj Velimirovic

Blessed is he who knows his function and gift received from the Spirit, and who serves according to his designation to the end. Just as the Holy Spirit now apportions His gifts, so the Lord, in His time, will apportion rewards. O Lord, Holy Spirit, true God, help us to use Thy gifts to the end of our lives in humility, for the well-being of Christ's Church and for our eternal salvation.

St. Nikolaj (Velimirovic)

If we are not humbled by virtues, then sin will humble us.

St. Nikolaj (Velimirovic)