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By the Nearness of Brushstrokes: Icons Magnifying God

"I'll step down from the Council," I announced last night at the Pastoral Council meeting. This move to allow freedom for activism comes upon the completion of my first term, not until September, but in order to give ample time for elections. 

"I know you've given it great prayer and discernment," Amy Logan, our Council Chair said. One of the treasured experiences was my role offering the following at one of the first lay-led prayer evenings held over zoom, New Year's Eve 2020.

~~

 I love icons. Icons are everywhere. They literally crowd ever inch of wall space. The moment I entered the threshold of this oxymoron of a man, a hairy bald man, this stranger’s house, he is a priest of the Russian Orthodox giving a few of us a tour inside his home. What I see is not a story, not a hobby or collector’s passion. Thousands of small painted icons hung on the wall, and between gilded frames is plush red padding, the icons are pillow quilted into the fabric of the house, I think.

The impression is all I had when the notion of praying with icons was introduced. We should require this lesson early in our screen-sharing lives, perhaps, because the practice of beholding, the kind of seeing through the frame into God’s loving gaze back at us, smiling at our world in gentle acceptance—if I understand it, the way to come into the prayer with an icon is to get ready for what God shows you. In other words, the icon is a window, a mirror, more. The artist of an icon is not a materialist. The beginning of an icon is symbol. Every brushstroke of course to achieve that symbol is a prayer. The artist ritually fasts in purification before setting into motion over the blank canvas. I say this as we approach the new year, openly intrigued with you where we are headed, asking with you to pray for our world with gravity and love and in the openness to transcendence that at any rate, in God’s own time, magnifies us too.


In the new year, the precipice of a calendar year suggests always the fall, the first fall into sin, the original error of our ways, the structure and pattern of retreats often must reengage the faithful toward a confession of sin. I once had a long retreat with the Jesuits, and on top of the thirty days of prayer in silence, we added a few extra days of silence, just to get into the silence, just to prepare the way. In this silent retreat, we began with a profound meditation of our purpose, the first principle and foundation. May we all meet our maker and our foundational, incarnate Christ who so loves the world, that we too desire in all affection the completion in God’s time, the fullness of God, the coming of the Kingdom.


Heady stuff. Heart-wobbly stuff. Knee-knocking stuff.


It all surfaces, all our reaction, our petty recoiling. But at the bottom is gratitude. I recall a long lonely walk, the kind that the loneliness is not there, only the warmth of a night covering you like a blanket of stars, a walk to a large park with a hill and a reservoir, where with the reflection of a few man-made lights, I felt the simplest gratitude to be a good person, something that I hope I still can say in the simplest way, as a recognition of a gift of my parents, my neighbors, my teachers, my health, a world outside my control finally, in God’s hands.


My spiritual director heard this and said, I think now you are ready for the first week. This was to say, in reference to the four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius advised the first week to be filled with meditations of hell and in the scariest dispelling horrors way, until the grist for the mill emerged and the retreatant expelled it in confession. Having said all this, I come finally back to Paul’s world of demons and spirits, and the ministry of Christian reconciliation. “And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”


Discipleship in our world will ask of us new challenges. No-one needs to read a sermon of Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “Ambassadors of Christ,” though it would be heartening, his testament of courage that led him to cell 92 not far from Nazi Berlin awaiting execution. Bravery and boldness is the stuff of beginnings. Discipleship today, reconciling the world, imploring others on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God—this is knee-knocking stuff—and we can’t begin the task until we have first wet our thirst in God’s unquenchable thirst for us, until we taste the desire God has for our goodness to emerge, flourish, and magnify.


God wants us to be a sign of God, Christ the ultimate symbol, gives us in the spirit so that we can be as Paul says, Ambassadors of Christ, to carry the flame, taking the torch and running our portion of the relay. The first fire is the one that does not burn. It is the burning bush, the mysterious What is that? What is that! What. Is. That becomes, Who is speaking. Who is that! Moses saw in the wilderness, in the unknowing world of signs, what no one, no unlettered person could miss or fail to understand, and what Moses obeyed, the God who is eternal, in Christ became personal so that each of us could know further, more closely.

 

The staircase in our house has an echo of that rustic Russian transplant whose Cyrillic alphabet I could never understand. The beard, the deep eyes, REI vest over an all dark robe, He has not come to my mind as Emily and I create our sacred stairway, slowly adding one icon, then another. In thinking of him now, I seem to read “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak, and I feel the social unrest of his people willing to part with the old ways and find a new beginning in the United States. He brought the traditions of faith with him, accompanying his flock like so many of the national parishes remaining from Isaac Hecker’s era. He allowed the immigrant to recall amidst the newness, a preservation of what overflowed, a reconciliation rather than a trespass.

 

In our house where my residing purpose is to care for my children and care about my children’s needs, and wonder about protecting them from their father’s shortcomings, I sometimes reminded of how God blessed parents, regardless of our idiosyncrasies. I mean, every kid has to learn to poop. We read this in the official parenting selection of the month by Taro Gomi, “Everyone Poops” every animal, and we are animals. Sorry, this is a poop-positive household, but you’re right to feel uncomfortable with me talking about it. I do convey that to her in some sense, I think, because Eleanor must go upstairs to hide when she poops. She understands already that you go into a corner to do your business. Soon we will have to enter into the official stage of potty training. In the meantime, there is the beginning phase, the gentle playfulness by which I grab her and bring her to the changing table. 

 

On our staircase is a large portrait of St. Romero my mother brought back from a delegation. She and I went almost 20 years ago to our sister parish, a village built in the ancient hillsides where maize was sown 5000 years ago. Arcatao was a shock in a good way for my faith, the stories of civil war took a focus when a playful, childlike man showed me a remnant mortar shell, and in gestures conveyed something of his wound from shrapnel, pointing to the scar in his skull. Only this year has a fresh book about the assassination of Monsignor Romero, told by one of the attorneys who successfully prosecuted the assassin in a United States Court in 2004. As he frames his narrative with the scene of the crime, like many a good mystery, the opening pages begin with an eerie feeling. The advertisement run in the daily paper made public that exact time and place of the Archbishop’s whereabouts. It troubled him. The sisters of charity reasoned with him perhaps he ought to cancel. But it was in God hands he told them, so despite the advertisement, often run in papers as out and out propaganda for the political purposes of the conservative oligarchs, here was a memorial Mass for a wealthy woman, signed by members of the elite class, names instantly recognizable for their high and mighty belonging—yet this individual was known for her charity and concern for the people. She had in a sense, made a new beginning from the old ways. A few months before Monsignor Romero was shot while performing Eucharist, the Ambassador of the United States to El Salvador wrote, in a secret Embassy memo, that while many social movements turned to Romero as a symbol of the good that could come to the poor, the most upsetting turn of events would be in fact the assassination of Romero. His words were prophetic, we say, bitter fruit of a worldview marked with cynicism in the world.


Paul’s vision is at least hopeful when he calls us to become Ambassadors of Christ, not to hold the trespasses of the world against them. If, then, to make our way into this world, again, if we are to pass into the screens for a working world that is the new market, then let us reflect on our reflection. Let us ask if we are ready to look with Paul’s eyes of faith. Would we say that we could look at the icon of Romero, or of any saint, and see all that God calls us to be for our neighbors?


I want to end with a poem by Shel Silverstein, from “A Light in the Attic.” A poem unaccompanied by one of his wonderful squiggly illustrations, he called The WhatIfs.

 

Last night, while I lay thinking here,

Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear

And pranced and partied all night long

And sang their same old Whatif song:

Whatif I’m dumb in school?

Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?

Whatif there’s poison in my cup?

Whatif I start to cry?

Whatif I get sick and die?

Whatif I flunk that test?

Whatif green hair grows on my chest?

Whatif nobody likes me?

Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?

Whatif I don’t grow taller?

Whatif my head starts getting smaller?

Whatif the fish won’t bite?

Whatif they start a war?

Whatif my parents get divorced?

Whatif the bus is late?

Whatif my teeth don’t grow straight?

Whatif I tear my pants?

Whatif I never learn to dance?

Everything seems swell, and then

The nighttime Whatifs strike again!

 

Let us end by honoring the anxiety of beginnings, inviting in our Whatifs, our fears, whatever they may be, so that we may acknowledge from them some wisdom. Who are we to be Ambassadors of Christ? Remember what God has given to this Paulist Center community, our blessings, our purpose is never far off. Our mission, we remember is to hold our dear ones. Our mission is to announce the news of God again, to make ourselves known to God, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ.


--originally shared December 31, 2020, Lay Prayer Reflection with Paulist Center zoom community.

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