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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Iconography and the Spiritual Life

Outside the wind is blustering, a cold rain is falling and promises to turn into a sloppy mess long before we see the light of day again. But inside, I am blessed to be warm and relatively comfortable as I brush layer after layer of paint on an icon I recently began.

My intent this Lent was to spend more time reading and working on my icons, both things I truly love. Yet this evening at Adoration and through Mass, I could barely focus. I was hungry (although I had not fasted today), I had a lot on my mind, many worries, doubts and in a sense, on the edge of panic. At one point I was near tears, yet thankful I could bring all of that to prayer.

I wondered, though, if I'd be able to focus after dinner, or if my intent to work on my icon would not come to fruition.

Finally, though, I sat down and put my hand to the brush and touched paint to the icon, knowing I must keep this promise, even if only for a short time; it is a promise I made to myself, and more importantly, to God. You see, time spent writing icons is time passed in prayer.

Iconography can be very intimate, like spending time with a dear friend. 

As one should do when reading about the Saints, or trying to understand their writings, so should one do when working on their image in an icon:  converse with them. Pray to them, ask the Holy Spirit for insights into their holiness, into God's grace, and understanding His will. Perhaps there's a reason that *this* particular icon is the one chosen: what is the significance of that? What is one supposed to learn from that Saint or depiction of the Mother of God or scene from scripture?

Even in silence where the prayer doesn't flow in words, there is a divine intimacy, the sense of co-creating with God and the understanding that it is a great and humbling gift to be allowed to enter into such a task.

For lent, though, it seems that this discipline is quite proper, for to write an icon parallels the spiritual life. It is supposed to be done perfectly, and yet, because we are fallen creatures we make mistakes, time and time again. I might go over a line and have to swipe away the extra paint, or perhaps I lean into a fresh spot, destroying it. The mistakes can't be erased, exactly; they remain, there, even if covered by layers upon layers of paint, those flaws become a part of the icon.

The only thing one can do is to try to learn from those mistakes, try to correct them as well as possible, and move on, resolving to not make the same mistake again.

We all know how that goes, though, don't we?

Every so often I pick up the icon I wrote last summer, and I see almost nothing but mistakes. So it is as I continue to work on new icons: mistake after mistake. Others may see something different, but I see smudges and ridges and an inability to stay in the lines.

Ah...such is my spiritual life.

The fact is, iconography, especially perfecting the sacred art, is no easier and no more difficult than growing in holiness; one reflects the other. 

I can already see that some of the mistakes I have made have been out of impatience; trying to race ahead to my own little "goal" for this sitting, even though the paint had not yet dried. That tends to be how I make mistakes in real life, too, and where I falter instead of advancing in holiness.

Lent is perfect for recognizing that kind of habitual fault, for now is the time to step back and decide that it doesn't have to be that way. I can grow in the virtue of patience. Just as I work to increase my skill in painting, so I can, at the same time, grow in practicing the virtues. Perhaps, in the end, there will be fewer mistakes.

When one begins an icon, there is a blank slate. Iconographers through the centuries have understood that connection between personal virtue and the end result. When they are complete one icon, having been through a spiritual process all along, they can put that one aside and, realizing they are not yet perfected, pick up another and begin again.


Anonymous said...

Your recent posts have been just great and on icons: powerful!

Thank-you for your kind words about mine.

Fr. Joseph

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog. I just discovered it. LOVED the article about painting Icons. My 30 yr old son is a very talented painter and I would love to see him paint Icons. Will sent him the link and ask him to read your post...

God Bless You abundantly!

Connie from San Diego

paramedicgirl said...

Loved this post and the paralleds you drew between painting and the spirotual life. Is that your picture at teh bottom of the post or another?

Adoro said...

Oh, goodness no, that isn't mine! I've written only 1 complete icon. I'm currently working on 2, neither of which are anywhere near being complete, nor are they nearly so complicated as that one!

The one pictured is a very advanced icon - I'm but a student, and a fledgling one at that!

I just picked it because it is Jesus entrance into Jerusalem.