Since April 10, I have been learning how to write icons in the Orthodox style. Icons are both a form of artwork and a way of praying. I was nervous to begin painting my icon of Christ the Good Shepherd because I was unsure of my painting abilities. I only knew that I really wanted to try my hand at this since I had heard it was a deeply prayerful and spiritual practice. So off I went!
Along the way, I learned quite a bit, and not just about icons. I learned a lot about myself and my relationship with God. I warned my teacher that I was a perfectionist going in and after a sigh, she told me that it’s not about the icon being perfect, but I do need to be happy with it because I’ll be praying with it. If there are things that bother me enough to distract my prayer time, I better make them as I like them! More on this later…
My icon writing sessions begin with a beautiful prayer that my teacher uses. It’s a prayer asking God to help me focus on only this and for God to speak to me through what I’m doing. It’s a prayer that asks God to help me to use my God-given gifts in painting for prayer and worship. It’s a prayer asking for help not comparing my work to others, for God alone can judge the prayer. It’s a prayer asking opening my heart to pray for others as I work.
I’ve found that between this prayer and the practice itself, I settle into icon writing and that it becomes the thing I can focus on at that moment. I can’t think about my future or the call process (where I’ll be serving as a pastor), or trying to solve anything else going on. I am solely devoted to spending time working slowly and deliberately on the icon. Focusing on individual garment folds, on wood grain in Jesus’ staff, the curls of the lamb’s wool, or on the gentle eyes of Christ. I have to move slow and appreciate the details. I can get overwhelmed by the overall picture, but at some point I just have to begin, one stroke at a time.
And that’s another thing about icon writing. Icons are painted going from dark colors to light, symbolizing our transformation from sin and death to forgiven and alive in the light of Christ. But while I was painting this first icon, I found it awful difficult to believe that my finished icon would look as it was supposed to. While you’re in the middle of it, you can’t possibly see that this is the right thing to do or that mistakes will somehow work out and that the icon will be beautiful – something through which you’ll be moved. Even knowing that this is a tradition thousands of years old and with the experienced guidance and hand of my teacher, I found I was doubting that my icon painted with the same techniques and theory would even remotely resemble any icon!
Regarding my perfectionism, while I was painting, I found that I definitely had things I wanted to keep tweaking and fixing (futzing is the word that best describes this 😉 ). Others would say it looked good, but I wasn’t completely satisfied. Or it was really fine and I kept trying to “fix” it, each time really risking making it worse. It was hard to let go and to trust that it would be fine. It was hard to let go and accept the little imperfections, knowing that only God can create something perfect. I know that I do this all the time in everyday life, seeking to control and to make things as perfect as I can, without really trusting God. For those who haven’t tried it, it’s exhausting! To keep messing with something rather than letting go and allowing God to work, trusting that God is acting and with our best interests in mind.
It was also interesting to watch how the members of the class praised one another’s work, but pointed out all of the imperfections in our own icons, whether or not anyone else could see them! What a life lesson! Staring at the icon up close means you often miss the larger, overall effect. It’s helpful to have others hold it up from afar so you can take it all in. How often do we get blinded in our own little world that we miss the larger picture of what God’s doing?
It’s also amazing the way people may use the same techniques and the same icon pattern, but that each icon turns out unique in some way, reflecting the person who made it and their prayer to God. For example, one day I found that I was spending a ridiculous amount of time working on the lamb in my icon and I wondered how others had been able to finish so quickly. As I meditated on this, I realized that I felt really connected to that little lamb, safe and secure around Christ’s neck. I realized that I am that little lamb, the one for whom Christ laid down his life – the one safe in his hands. I needed to spend time painting and reflecting about that relationship, hearing again that miraculous good news.
I have just finished putting varnish on my icon and I have asked God that it might be a blessing to myself and others and that we may encounter God through it. It is not perfect, and there are still things that jump out at me as “errors,” but when I look at it, it speaks to me of Christ’s love and mercy. It invites me, beckons me, to pray and to spend time in quiet reflection with God.
I still have so much to learn about icons and painting, but I give thanks that this first one has been a great experience and I look forward to continuing!