PRAYER: Listening to an Icon
Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.
The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.
Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.
Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!
When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.
If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.
Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.
One of the most difficult struggles in art, sports, faith, or anything else in life is knowing what you want to achieve, but finding yourself lacking the skills to accomplish it. Some people give up right away, since they can’t master it well. Art takes a lifetime to master, so even the best of us will be struggling to get better until our last breath. Perfection is highly overrated! All artists are their own worst critics! At least in faith we have God as our coworker.
In art a beginner can set aside this quandary and say, “Well, I just need more practice and I’ll get there soon enough.” The intermediate practitioner contends with a little more skill, and could push his or her technique over the edge attempting to discover the heart and soul of their expressions as they seek their own way to speak of the beautiful and the true in color and forms.
Sometimes a seasoned artist comes to a growth point. Even one who, perhaps from their past work in a certain style, has some following and financial success, when they come to the daily search for truth and beauty, will discover the old beauty no longer attracts them. So while they may have all the technical ability to continue creating their old works, they find this no longer is their truth and they can’t in good conscience continue to produce in the same vein.
The search for truth and beauty is like the search for God and our inner truth as artists and people of faith. If we’re only working for fame and gain, maybe we should have listened to those who said, “Don’t quit your day job.” Or thought of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, who found both success and poverty, but at different times. Our inner search for truth and beauty is just as fraught.
Will we take the risk and try something new? This week l brought the class a shade of my former self, no inspirational paintings of old masters, and only a variation on last week’s still life. Afterwards I was traveling up to the doctor‘s poffice for “the cure to end my misery.” After a few days on sinus medications, I can hold two thoughts together again.
To really look at life and look inside oneself is the best way to discover truth and beauty. Some folks don’t want to look inside for fear they’ll see ugly things, long buried secrets, pains, and memories best forgotten. We need to see these, recognize them, and let Jesus take them into his already redeemed life. If we can let these painful parts be transformed by his graceful healing mercy, then we can use his renewing power in our own lives to bring truth and beauty to the life of others.
Some people look out and only see ugliness, decay, and despair. I imagine if they look inside, they also see the same things. They need to remember the nature of all things is not in itself beautiful or ugly, just as they themselves aren’t ugly or beautiful. Beauty is a standard, like a Virtue, which is an ideal characteristic, and it’s beyond anything here on this world. We’ll probably understand Truth and Beauty in the eternal world, when we have the opportunity to participate with God in the fullness of time.
If beauty were only to exist in the eye of each and every beholder, and each one of us could determine our own standards of beauty according to our own experience and criteria, then all the plains would be level and no mountains would exist. Yet, we know this isn’t so, for my icebox door may be decorated with my grandchildren’s crayon drawings, but they wouldn’t be hanging in an art gallery in any creative district anywhere.
If art isn’t a challenge, if life isn’t a pursuit of excellence, and if we are content to rest at the foot of the mountains, then I really wonder why God created the heights, if not for us to aspire to them? If there’s mountains in this world, why are so many content to climb just the hills, but call them mountains? Most of the struggles we have in life are actually molehills, but we blow them out of proportion and call them mountains! The biggest successes come from the accumulation of many small failures. We’re just training until we hone our muscle memory to a fine edge. This is why we say works can’t save you in faith, but art is all about the work ethic.
Our biggest challenge this week in class was the woven basket. Some of us had never woven anything in youth groups, so experiences I took for granted as a child growing up (weaving situpons and potholders) weren’t in some people’s backgrounds. Learning to look, follow the weave, see the play of light along the wave of the reeds, and the shadows as they dip under the warp bands took a bit of doing. We’re also beginning some Day of the Dead related works. We’ll work in these in October. I was so sick, I failed to photo everyone’s work. I should be in better shape next week!
For now we remember, as the apostle Paul sighed,
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
~~ Romans 7:19
And he leaves us with these words of hope,
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
~~ Romans 8:28