I began to take notice when people in the congregation asked if I would ever teach an icon writing class. I had already been leading a class called “Diving into Prayer” for roughly two years that centered on exploring various prayer practices, one of these had been praying with icons, which people seemed to really appreciate. They had seen them as artwork and some even had purchased them during their travels, but they had never really known what to do with them or what their purpose was. Having been given this opportunity and seeing my icons in my office, they were intrigued and, eventually, they began to inquire about classes.
Then my icon teacher also began to suggest that perhaps I should offer a class. I was surprised because I was still very much a student myself, but she had faith in me and my abilities and promised to serve as a consultant and guide as needed. Between the requests from members of CLC, my teacher’s gentle encouragement, and my desire to open up new spiritual formation opportunities for the congregation, I took the nerve-wracking step to become an icon teacher. After all, as Henri Matisse once said, “creativity takes courage.”
We began our first class on Wednesday, June 28, 2017 and over the course of the summer we painted on Wednesday evenings. In the fall, we had a couple make up days on Saturdays. Undertaking writing or painting an icon is no simple task; it takes hours of focused and dedicated work. For nearly two thousand years, Christians have been creating images (icons) of Jesus, his followers, and our ancestors in the faith. However, these are not just images that remind us of the stories in scripture; they present a truth greater than ourselves. They offer a way of connecting with God through images at the same time familiar and yet unfamiliar.
These images of the communion of saints – the great cloud of witnesses – draw us in and remind us of our own place in the wonderfully diverse Body of Christ. Writing an icon, then, over the course of weeks or months, is in depth and intense time spent with God, the figures portrayed, and the lessons they have to teach. For at the heart of iconography and, indeed, Christianity, is belief in the Incarnation – that God took on flesh in Jesus Christ and saw fit to use matter to redeem the cosmos. It is not that people pray to icons, rather that they pray through the icons, using matter to connect to God, or allowing God to speak to them using the everyday and mundane stuff of this world.
Slowly painting an icon, praying for direction with every brushstroke, lifting up family, friends, the church and the world… the wooden board upon which one is painting in vibrant colors becomes a microcosm containing the hopes, dreams, joys, sorrows, and struggles of the iconographer. More than a depiction of artistic talents, it is first and foremost a reflection of our prayers and our lives. Each person, concern, and thought becomes a brushstroke on the board. Sometimes, when we are fully engaged in the practice of writing an icon, it is very easy to find that the time has flown by and that we have for a few short hours stopped the hectic whir of worries, concerns, and anxieties with which we might have been preoccupied earlier. In that time, we have been able to give ourselves completely over to God and the creative process. As the prayer with which we usually begin states, “Take away any anxiety, Lord, so that I might fully serve you this day in this capacity. Help me not to compare my work to others because this alone is my prayer before you today” (adapted by Celeste Lauritsen).
It has been an incredible journey painting these icons and it was a great celebration to have the congregation involved in blessing them on Transfiguration Sunday! As Christ was transfigured on the mountainside shining forth the glory of God, may we be transfigured to shine God’s light through our lives and the works of our hands. Amen!
-Pr. Annabelle Markey
Here’s what participants said:
“The techniques were difficult; especially the layering of colors from dark to light and adding detail. That taught me patience and forgiveness of myself. Making progress brought me joy and knowing that while I was working on it, I was devoting my time to God and praying to Him. Painting made me meditative and more reflective on what I was doing prayerfully rather than the chaos of everyday life. I learned that it’s good to slow down, reflect and look at things differently and be more patient with myself and others.” – Tina Precht
“It is more than I expected, it has been both easy to start for me and at the same time difficult and frustrating – but I can’t wait to see the final result – and it will be ME that did this – I have never painted a face before – and it has been a challenge.” – Tom Fitzsimmons
“I’ve enjoyed the fellowship of the group, getting to know people I had never really talked with, other than to smile or just say hi on Sunday Mornings, it was a blessing.” – Joan Heath
“I wasn’t expecting anything other than the painting aspect of the class. I didn’t realize that the painting itself could be a form of prayer. And it was especially helpful to remember “each brush stroke is a prayer” when I was nervous about some of the intricate detail work. I have asked Jesus many times to help me with his picture. 🙂 What brought me joy has been watching this icon come together through the weeks of painting. There was also a peacefulness about being in the class itself that I really enjoyed. I think it was a combination of the soft music, the quiet in the room, and the prayer. It was something that I really looked forward to every Wednesday night. What I have learned through painting is to trust the process. I may not understand it all as I’m going through the steps, but the process leads to a beautiful finished icon. This applies directly to my faith life. Trust can be hard for me sometimes because I like to know what the big picture is…all the time. In life that’s just not possible. So I ask the Father almost daily to keep teaching me how to trust Him. Thankfully, He keeps answering my prayer!” – Maryclare Jones
“What have you learned painting/writing and how has that translated into your everyday life? It has reminded me that all that I do is an offering to God and that I should strive my best, and that even if my best isn’t as good as I would like it is an offering that God accepts with love.” – Roberta Buxton
“I feel joy and growth of spirituality from the act of the painting, whether or not I’m good at it. [I learned] that I think too much on some things and expect perfection too quickly. The process of writing the icon is a colorful representation of order and discipline. I found that my meditative prayers and thoughts stayed with me for the whole week, and would float up unbidden, lightening the day and making me happy. Really. And at home, when I get too down about something, I can look over at it to remind me that everything is being made new again, no matter what form it is in. It has reminded me to pray more often, and remember God is with me always. This has not always been the case, so this process has restored something missing for 10 years. Icon painting and spending time with this group of friends markedly changes my life for the weeks we are together.” – Jeni Tutweiler