From the Catholic Near East Welfare Association: http://www.cnewa.org/default.aspx?ID=1463&pagetypeID=8&sitecode=HQ&pageno=1
Archive for March 27th, 2011
Last summer I taught an iconography class, as I do each year. We painted the image of the Holy Face. I had painted this icon several times; it in many ways is the most profound of icons to write, yet suitable for novices, as it is simple.
Last summer I was working six days a week, nine or ten hours a day. Aside from Sundays and holidays I did not get a day off from February to August. Not only was I exhausted, I was unaware that my coronary arteries were blocked; I had assumed my weariness was just a matter of all the overtime combined with aging.
So when the first week of August arrived I did not feel in any shape to teach. As I was driving to the first class I prayed. I told God that I just wanted to refund my students’ registration fees and go home and sleep. By the time I arrived, I had simply cried out to God to pour out the necessary patience and grace I would need to get through the week.
As we began, and the images began to take form, I gradually got more into the spirit of the thing, and I am happy to report that my students all created fine first icons and were very pleased with the results.
When I write an icon I either think it a total disaster, and then when I set it aside for a few days and view it afresh realize that it is not bad. Or the opposite occurs: I think it the finest thing I have ever done, and then later see some huge flaw I hadn’t noticed while I was working on it.
This Holy Face was the worst instance ever of the latter.
I was sure that I had created the most sublime image of the Face of Christ I had ever done, maybe even ever seen. I was very pleased with it through the whole painting process, through the varnishing, and onto the blessing it received at the end of the class at the Divine Liturgy.
Then I got home, and set it aside. When I looked at it a few days later I saw with a start that the image looked asymmetrical to the extreme. I got out the ruler and sure enough, the dimensions of the head were off. Badly.
This created a real dilemma; I always donate the icon I paint with the class to the Romanian Byzantine cathedral where I teach. This one was already varnished. While I have had to do pretty extensive repairs of flawed icons before, I never have not noticed until after varnishing that I needed to do so. I won’t bore you with the technicalities of what I had to do to repair it, but in the end I corrected it, and it looked much better.
But it left me shaken. I couldn’t help but see a spiritual lesson in the experience (iconography in so many ways is a mirror). I realized that I could labor spiritually under an illusion, that my perception of the very image of God within, that I am called by grace to recover, may in fact be flawed. I wondered if the flaw in the icon was obvious to everyone else, even when I was oblivious to it, and I wondered if my personal flaws were just as obvious.
Lent is in many ways a work undertaken to shed the wall of illusion that we have erected around us. We walk unaware of the wonders and beauties around us, loaded down with care and the burden of sin. Spring is unfolding (or gloriously arrived, depending on your latitutde), yet too often we are immersed in our inner chatter and do not see it. God speaks to us in a thousand ways, but we are too preoccupied to hear Him.
And we walk, too, unaware of the pain and horror of much of what is around us. For example, we are a nation that has been at war for nearly a decade, a nation that continues to rain death from the skies in a far away part of the world. Yet this barely crosses our minds in our day to day life. Only the small minority of us who are professional warriors concern themselves with this, and it touches us only indirectly, when the newspapers tell us that an occasional local soldier has died.
In Great Lent, with our self denial, we can in some small way wipe our glasses clean, to see more clearly the world in its God-drenched glory and its misery, man-made and natural.
Let us pray that we may also see if our perception of the image we are recovering within is flawed so we can repair it before it is too late.
In life, as in iconography, everything can be fixed.
We burn incense in our icon corner every time we pray, and generally leave more peaceful than when we came. Now scientists find there is a physiological calming effect from burning incense: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080520110415.htm.
“Let your deepest feelings rise towards the Unknown God” — Benedict XVI on the “Court of the Gentiles”