Sunday, February 21, 2010

Writing an Icon for the Second Time: The Good Shepherd

Once again I was privileged to take a retreat workshop with iconographer Teresa Harrison,
This time the subject was the Good Shepherd. You may see the photos here: Please click on the set with the same name as this blog entry.

That I took this class is amazing. For the past few months, there was an urging to email Teresa to find out when the next class was. My daily alloted computer time would come and go and I would every day forget to email her. Then the urging became ever more urgent and I finally remembered to email her on Wed, Feb 10, 2010 to learn the next day that the next retreat was starting on Mon, Feb 15!

The next issue was one of money and how much could I pay and would my parish priest and rector, Fr. Michael Russell, feel like he wanted to pay the rest. He told his wife, Kathleen, in my presence that I have a gift he believes is worth investing in. Frankly I am astounded by the degree of support and encouragement he offers. Growing up in my family, or later with the dysfunctional people I sought as friends, I am entirely unaccustomed to praise and encouragement. It takes some getting used to. Much of my prayers lately have been "Lord, what is going on here with this icon thing? Are You seriously proposing that I become an iconographer?" Evidently He intends this.

I managed to get a $50 discount on the class by offering to bring all of my own supplies which meant that I used a clay board instead of one of Teresa's prepared wooden boards. I think this was a mistake as I learned I preferred to us the wood. That's one lesson learned.

The second lesson was my realization how significantly less anxious I was about this second class. God had used me once to write an icon and I approached this class confident that our faithful Lord would again use me as His instrument.

The third lesson was to realize how obnoxiously I had behaved in the first class as a result of my inability to contain and control my anxiety. Although I have made quite the fuss about switching psychologists due to changes in Medi-Cal and as distressed I have been about having a man as my therapist, I must give Dr. Hodges his due. He is teaching me a lot and already I could see differences in my approach to these total strangers. Not all of them were. There were 3 other students who had been in my first class. And even though I believed I acted like a brat in that first class, Teresa welcomed me graciously and commented that she knew I love this work as much as she. We all have to learn humility somehow and God will make every effort to teach us.

An experience I prized from the first retreat was the sense of sinking into the work, losing sense of self to feel as if I was elsewhere while Someone Else moved my hands. I don't know if the English language really has the words, but I know several times as I worked on the Good Shepherd I was somewhere else and some unknown something would recall me to attention and I would see what my hands had done without my conscious awareness of it.

This sense of being elsewhere was sharpened by an event that occurred around 10AM on Wed morning. I don't want to go all drama queen on you, but I believe I died that morning and God brought me back to life through the intense fervor of the prayers of my classmates and teacher.

Here's what happened. Every morning after an 8:30AM Eucharist (and what a deep delight it is to receive every day) we met for a time to discuss how the time was going and to share any significant insights. At the end of this time, we would prayer the iconographer's prayer, stop in the kitchen for the beverage of choice (tea for me, please) and return to the classroom to work. I realized that I had left my folder with my template in the kitchen and quietly left the classroom to get it. While in the kitchen, I took a small piece of blueberry muffin, chewed and swallowed and swallowed and swallowed until I realized it was stuck and I could not breath. Dashing into the classroom as fast as my handicapped body would move, I terrified Teresa by putting my hands against my throat to pantomime choking and below my breasts to pantomime that I needed the Heimlich maneuver. Rick attempted to do it but could not and as I sank to the floor with death approaching, I said to Jesus "Ok, Lord. Take me if it's time but please send someone to care for my mother." Mom is 85, not in good health and I am her sole care giver.

What happened next is indescribable. All care, concern and fear left me. I was cradled in warmth and love all around me and even within me. It was wonderful. I guess that was the state of bliss and although I was not particular aware any longer of self, it was that which I have wanted more than anything in my life and it took being dead to get it. All my life I have not been too worried about being dead because I knew that would be wonderful but the means of getting dead are more than a little intimidating. The reality of being dead was more wonderful than I ever imagined.

Very gradually I became aware of an annoyance distracting me in an unwelcome manner from the warmth and light. It was a paramedic asking me my name. I don't remember this next bit, but my classmates relished telling me this over and over and over and over. I am told I told the paramedic my name is Gloriamarie and he said "Ok, Gloria" and I said "No, it's Gloriamarie." While I was senseless of saying such, I could feel relief whoosh through the room like a mighty wind. It was my classmates' realization that I was going to be all right. It seemed to me to take forever before I was fully aware of where I was. But throughout it, I felt warmth and love cradling me and eventually I realized that Rick was holding me and ever so gently rubbing my back in a circular manner. I knew that at some point it had been Jesus and not Rick, or maybe Jesus used Rick's body for a bit.

It took the rest of the day for me to fully recover. I continued with the class, working on the icon. I have no idea what part I was working on or what notes I took during demonstrations. I really felt half way between there and here and except for worries that my mother would be left all alone, I would have happily gone back to where I had been.

At noon that day we went to the church for the Ash Wednesday service. My legs weren't working really well and I sat in the last pew and Fr Edward (Teresa's husband and priest/rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Coronado, CA) had to come to me to give me ashes. Nothing can be more poignant than receiving ashes with the reminder that we are from dust and to dust we shall return on the day one has died and been brought back to life through prayer. The dust seems a lot closer than ever before.

When I awoke the next morning, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that God meant me to live, to care for my mother and to write icons. So many disparate parts of my life are coming together to form a whole... the fact that art was my first major in college, that I have messed about with paints, colored pencils, crayons since forever, been drawn to and delighted in icons and religious art whenever they crossed my path, my vocation to the religious life... all these form a whole, a purpose, an identity, a calling. I had been so scared of my life losing all purpose when mom passes away but that fear is relieved and the solution offered.

During the coffee hour this morning, Fr Mike sat down for a long look at the icon. He talked about his plans to photograph the icons, reproduce them onto masonite and sell them as one of the ways our church raises money to care for the 1900 AIDS orphans in Nairobi, the Mother's Union who are taught ways to become self-sufficient, the children in Tijuana, Mexico and the Peninsula Shepherd Center, an outreach to the elderly and housebound of the Point Loma neighborhood where is our parish. He spoke of special equipment he needed. We talked about which icons to write next and how St. Francis Day was approaching.

Then I very tentatively mentioned the Pecos School of Iconography
which I had just discovered yesterday. The tuition fee is $2100 and on top there is transportation costs from San Diego to Albuquerque and from Albuquerque to Santa Fe and from Santa Fe to the Abbey. I am none too good in math, so please forgive me if my estimate is way off, but I shouldn't wonder if the entire cost would end up around $3000, what with also having a bit of spending money for an unforeseen needs that might arise. To me, such an amount of money is about as possible to find as would be expecting to get the moon if I asked for it.

Already my mind is full of the work God has in store for me. Fr Mike is giving me an office in the church office building to use as a studio, the church is paying for paints, supplies everything. All I need to do is show up and work. I beseech your prayers. The doors could not open any wider or any faster. God is calling and my response is "Here I am, Lord. Let it be done to me according to Your will."


  • At 9:06 AM, Blogger Dave B. said…

    Wonderful blog - and your icon work is truly a joy to behold. The flicker site works fine. Thank you for including me - what a gift. Mary

  • At 8:27 AM, Blogger Jim said…

    Here in Illinois, we have a State agecy, the Illinois Art Council that makes small grants. It has paid for a friend's folk music lessons -- banjo and mandolin among other things. Might be worth checking with you State Assembly person's local office.


  • At 10:40 PM, Blogger Sister Mary Paul said…

    Wonderful post.

    I,too, experienced two near-deaths and each one brought new lessons, directions, and grace. They are a true blessings. As yours, they are a gentle as still water with No Fear; but, peace and tranquility. One knows that God is directly present.

    Sister Mary-Paul, Diocese of Los Angeles


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