You may remember, dear reader, that last August I tootled off to Cumbrae to immerse myself in the wonders of icons. Well this year I repeated the exercise, I say repeated however that is not strictly accurate. Last year – you can read about it here – I didn’t really know what to expect, yes I had a hope to come out the other end knowing a bit more about icons and with an icon I had produced, which I did much to my surprise, but other than that I was going with no expectations. This year I had a greater idea, however I have come away having learnt far more and eager to learn yet more, probably because I managed to avoid a bout of iconangst this year. I also learned something of the intricacies of fresco painting, although we got no practical experience in that. A big part of the learning and experience is painting your own icon, something I referred to last year as birthing. The labour pains were far less this time around, and two of my personal goals were achieved. Firstly that of having painted every brush stroke on the face myself and secondly on doing any lettering rather than, what I did last time, painting a rolled up the scroll to avoid lettering. The week was once again a deeply spiritual experience and very much a retreat, all be it not a silent one.
While it is traditional for the first icon a person paints to be that of The Transfiguration, my first was Queen Esther.
I had chosen her because of my love of her story and the because she was an Old Testament woman. The month or so following my return I purchased the materials to paint another icon, yet I could never quite work up the courage to actually paint another one, especially without the wonderful Tatiana close at hand to help. So off I set once more to the Cathedral of the Isles and College of the Holy Spirit on Millport. Now maybe you are thinking my second icon would be The Transfiguration as it hadn’t been my first, but no, while I had a small dalliance with a painting a Trinity icon, I ended up back in the Old Testament with another wonderful story of a woman, Ruth.
Like Esther there are very few icons of Ruth, partly because of the nature of how icons are used. If for a moment we forget about the icon bought as a souvenir, the purpose behind them is as a conduit to pray with the assistance of the saint portrayed, in some cases Jesus himself, or to ask the saint to intercede on the behalf of the person praying. Personally I see icons in a slightly different light, as an encouragement in our life of faith, a reminder that others have gone before us and survived similar or worse trials, that they have kept faith despite everything. Plus, for meditation, icons picturing Jesus help still and center my thoughts on God. Both Esther and Ruth, in their own ways, were women who were seen as outsiders yet God powerfully used them. Neither of them witnessed, in this life at least, the impact their lives had on the faith of future generations. Both of them have lessons about being fruitful where you are planted, wherever that might be.
We do not know just how the actions we make today will ripple through time and impact on others, we can hope, we can pray, but we can not know. This is why, for me at least, it is so important that I follow God’s lead, even when I wonder just what tumult I have been led into this time and am tempted to go for an easy life rather than a God guided one. Not that God doesn’t also guide to those still waters at times, but it is far easier to visit and abide with them than it is the tempest. Ruth left all she knew, her homeland, her family, her faith, and went to a new land, where she was strange to others and they were strange to her. She arrive with an elderly mother-in-law and nothing much else, yet, she was to become the Great Grandmother of David, and therefore Ruth the Moabite is included in Jesus’ lineage. Even before the bishop mentioned it at a service on Saturday I have always thought that the life of clergy echos that of Ruth. We are uprooted, not always at our own time of choosing, and planted elsewhere, somewhere new, somewhere there is already established customs and traditions which might be very different from our own. Yet, that is where God wants us to be, and God will use us there, remoulding us into our new life and circumstance.
In one short week I once more travelled through the joys and sorrows, the challenges and blessings, the certainty and doubt of faith. The stormy seas were calmed, the quiet places of calm were visited, the angels sang Alleluia and the pain of despair briefly passed by, not to mention new friendships being made and old ones renewed.