They’ve been waiting for months now, like patients on an organ donor list. Two large icons—one of Christ, the Life Giver, and another, The Mother of God, Directress—sit unfinished in my studio. A few well-meaning students have offered encouragements like, “Oh, they’re almost finished,” and “I love the blue highlights on Christ’s inner garment.” But the images are suspended… like embryos stuck in the birth canal. Their faces are expressionless masks; their lips, a ghoulish, green sankir, thirsty for a wash of vermillion red. Their eyes, empty and pale, waiting for the life-giving lights and distinctive black lines which are the trademarks of this ancient Byzantine art form.
My studio is upstairs, making it easier to avoid the anxious stares of my orphaned pieces. About once a week when I’m forced to walk through the second story landing to attend to some business in one of the upstairs bedrooms, I hear them calling out, like neglected children: “Why have you left us? Is there something wrong with us?”
Sometimes I stop and look at the unfinished images with a melancholy longing. The other day I paused before the icon of Christ, fingering a soft sable brush and scanning the jars of pigments on the nearby shelves. There are eggs in the refrigerator, waiting to be broken for Him. Their yolks, themselves a type of life interrupted, are ready to bind the dry pigments and fill my palette with a range of ochres and siennas for the face of Christ. Everything I need is here, waiting for my touch.
Icons in various stages of completion, models used for instruction, surround me. A finished icon of the Archangel Gabriel watches over the desks and work tables arranged along the banisters overlooking the den below. The cathedral ceiling slants down towards the studio and provides natural light through two well-placed sky lights. Closing my eyes, I can see a procession of icons that have come to life on this desk over the years—saints, angels, martyrs, and various types of the Mother of God and Her Son. Opening my eyes to the work on the table which beckons me, I fight back tears, take a deep breath, and walk away. I feel like the Rich Young Ruler when he discovered, with great sorrow, that he wasn’t up to the task. He wasn’t able to sell everything to follow Christ.
Much has been written about writer’s block. We are told to “just do it”—to write something every day. Blocked on that next chapter of your novel? Stuck on a shifting point of view in a short story? Struggling with ethical issues in an essay? No problem. Set it aside and write a journal entry instead. Or just write whatever comes to mind. You can always revise it later.
Unfortunately, writing icons isn’t like that. (Painting icons is called “writing” because you are writing the life of the saint with pigment.) It’s not about what to write. It’s about how… about being prepared. Really, it’s like approaching the sacrament of Holy Communion. It’s spiritual work, bringing these sacred images to life. All icons are sacred, but these two on the tables in my studio are intended for the nave of a church. People will venerate them. They will bow before them and kiss them and light candles to put beside them. Smoke, like incense, will rise to heaven with their prayers.
So what’s blocking me? It would be easy to make excuses. I’ve been busy with other things—writing, caring for a dying friend, traveling. But the truth is, we usually make time for the things that matter most, don’t we? Writing is fun. Caring for the sick is rewarding. Traveling is exciting, and can also be a great escape from real life.
My husband and I just got home from a twelve-day trip to Greece. It was part vacation, part spiritual pilgrimage. We visited many Orthodox churches and monasteries, prayed before the tombs of numerous saints, and venerated scores of icons—some ancient, some miracle-working, and some, simply beautiful. My favorites were actually contemporary works done by the nuns at the Monastery Evangelismos on the island of Patmos. The master iconographer, Mother Olympia, studied under Fotios Kontoglou (d.1965), my favorite contemporary Greek iconographer. (Kontoglou had, among his students, the famous painter El Greco.)
Mother Olympia’s work is prevalent in churches all over Europe. Before she died, she taught several nuns at the monastery, and their work fills the Catholicon (main church) now. As Sister Tabitha gave us a tour, she pointed out the large wall painting of the Dormition of the Mother of God, saying that most of it was painted by the nuns, the students, but that the face of the Holy Virgin was done by Mother Olympia. Writings about her speak of her deep spiritual life, which shows in her icons. They have an other-worldly beauty, a mystical quality that comes from her closeness to God. She was prepared.
Early in the history of the Church, most all iconographers were monastics. They lived secluded lives—away from the cares and temptations of the world—probably more disciplined than mine. You really shouldn’t paint icons if you’re not at peace in your soul.
Perhaps my own sinfulness is blocking my way upstairs to finish these two icons. Students are calling and emailing to ask the dates of my next workshop. I don’t have an answer for them. I’ve been stirred up for several months, allowing some hurtful interactions and difficult situations to disturb my peace. The high road in Orthodox spirituality involves quietly receiving insults, rejection, and even abuse with thankfulness. Humility is the goal, not the praise of men. This self-effacing approach to life goes against the grain of modern secular psychology. It’s an acquired taste, learned through self-denial and the thankful acceptance of suffering.
The life-coach writing for Real Simple magazine would probably tell me to walk away from the difficult relationships that are causing my pain. She might tell me to use my anger to fuel my work… to paint or to write through my pain. Some of the Psalms of the Prophet King David, who suffered much pain at the hands of others and as a consequence for his own sins, are full of anguish. Of remorse. But… anger?
So, I turned to poetry. First I wrote “Benched,” which pretty much described how I was feeling at the time.
Next I explored the possibility of needing to broaden my circle of friends and find kindred spirits in new realms, so I wrote a poem called “Wide Margins.” It was about outsider artists and people who are marginalized by society, which was how I was feeling. This one cried out for a louder venue, so I hand-printed the poem on hot press watercolor paper and illustrated it with gouache, with encouragement from a group of fellow artists at our monthly gathering.
Finally, I wrote one that explores the healing of the pain and anger in verse. I called it “Growing Pains.”
When the poetry doesn’t work, I drink… usually just enough to take the edge off. Alcohol offers a few hours of numbness, but sadly, the receptors for pain are also conduits for creativity.
Sobriety—it’s about more than not being drunk. It’s clear-eyed brush strokes and poetry that knocks your socks off and page-turning prose. It’s Iris Dement singing, “I choose to take my sorrow straight,” and Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks) turning a personal affront into a hit song with, “I’m Not Ready to Make Nice.” It’s Mary Chapin Carpenter singing, “forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.” But it’s also allowing yourself to be human, and turning that broken humanity into something redemptive with every stroke of your pen or brush or keyboard.
“I’m mad as hell!” Maines croons. So, was she mad when she wrote the lyrics? Was she still mad when she recorded the song? Virginia Woolf said one shouldn’t write while angry—that it destroys all chance of objectivity, or something like that. It was in her book, A Room of One’s Own. She was talking about how Charlotte Bronte’s anger hurt the integrity of her work in Jane Eyre. (Must not have hurt it too badly… I think there are still a few copies of the book in circulation today.) But Woolf’s point, as I remember, was that anger blocks the writer’s view of her characters… of her story. That she will end up writing about herself instead of them.
If that’s true of fiction, how much more important is that concept when it comes to the spiritual work of iconography? If I can’t take communion when I’m angry (and I’ve abstained quite a few times recently,) how can I paint the face of the Mother of God, or of Her Son? Can I just offer myself, warts and all, and climb the stairs to my studio “just as I am”? Would God accept the sacrifice of my art even if it’s offered with unclean hands? For that matter, when would my hands ever be clean enough?
It’s a Catch 22, much like the great hunger and thirst I feel for the Body and Blood of Jesus on the Sunday mornings when I’m not prepared to receive it, either because I didn’t keep the liturgical fast or because I didn’t let go of anger and seek reconciliation first. Seems like that’s when we need God’s healing the most, when we’re suffering the consequences of our own sin. But the Mystical Supper isn’t a sloppy affair. It’s not a “come as you are” event. It’s a feast, and wedding garments are requested. If we lower the Holy Eucharist to the standards of a fast food drive through, it will no longer be Holy. So, how do I get unblocked?
There was a prostitute in fifth century Egypt named Mary. She loved all the wrong stuff. She even got on a ship full of pilgrims bound for Jerusalem to venerate the true Cross, which had been placed in a church there. Her purpose on the voyage was to find customers, and she did, indeed, defile many a young boy on that tumultuous ocean voyage. But upon arrival in Jerusalem, she began to be curious about their faith, and tried to follow the crowds into the church. As she attempted to step over the threshold, an invisible force blocked her way. It wasn’t just because she was a prostitute—God knows how many of us have sold out to people or things or ideas in this life. It was because she was unrepentant.
After several failed attempts, she fell on her knees before an icon of the Mother of God outside the door to the church, asking forgiveness and begging entry. Her repentance was accepted, and after entering the church to venerate the Cross, Mary spent the rest of her life as a hermit in the desert, away from the things and people she had used and abused. It was her path to salvation… to healing.
Like Saint Mary of Egypt, I often cling to the things that feed my appetite for pleasure… including anger, because anger feels better than pain. And for some time now, like Natalie Maines, I’ve not been “ready to make nice.” But oh, how I long to finish those icons. To climb the steps to my studio and fall on my knees and ask God to take away whatever is blocking me. Maybe I’ll do this soon.
But just as I was almost ready to make nice, I suffered another hit. Unintentional, but even accidental gashes hurt, especially when the scab is still new. So, I took off for the beach, where I could stand beside the ocean and be reminded of my smallness. Two days… alone. On the drive down to Gulf Shores I talked with a friend on my cell phone and told her about the dream I had the night before:
Walking on the side of a mountain with a group of travelers, I leave a gate open and a small child falls off the cliff. Certain that I’ve caused her death, nausea over takes me, and grief. The child’s parents find her, miraculously alive, later on in the dream. I approach them to share their joy, but they shun me. Their cold, unforgiving looks freeze my heart.
In the same dream, my Goddaughter, Hannah, who is (also in real life) pregnant, delivers twin boys. So my friend (on the cell phone) tells me this:
In dreams, death is often a good thing. The child that fell off the side of the mountain could be my ego. The source of my anger. My pain. It almost died, which is good. But we are never completely free of ego (pride) in this life. But the dream shows that I’m moving towards letting go of the anger. I’m closer to being ready to make nice. Thanks, in part, to the twins.
Yes, the twin boys represent my masculine side—my strength—which is fueling my two passions, writing prose and icons. When I let the anger (ego) die, I’ll be able to approach the icons again.
But why Hannah? In my dream, Hannah represents purity of heart, and also God’s mercy. Hannah has known suffering in her young life, and has overcome many difficult obstacles without becoming bitter. It is not insignificant that she is the bearer of the male twin boys in my dream. Hannah was actually visited by the Mother of God when she was a child. Humility attracts the grace of God.
As I write these words, waves are lapping the beach a few feet away. It’s my last day here, and I feel the push and pull of the ocean, of life forces so much larger than my anger. I let them pull the anger away, and I remember the words of a song I heard last night at a restaurant in Gulf Shores. The song was “Let Go,” and the songwriter, Bud Smith, sang it with an upbeat attitude, tempered with the humility of lessons learned. I find myself singing it now—when you’re walking through your day, let go.
It almost sounds trite to say that a soft rock song and the beach could play such a big part in something as important as letting go of anger. But they did. I’m home now, and as I walked up stairs today I found the way to my icons was open. The anger is mostly gone, and I’ll start to paint again soon. I’ll probably go to Confession first (it’s therapeutic, not juridical) and get started next week, but I’ve begun the process, the preparation.
One of my favorite writers, the late Madeleine L’Engle, said:
Until we have been healed, we do not know what wholeness is: the discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, or write, is an effort towards wholeness…. The important thing is to remember that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us and which we must humbly serve, and in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.
An effort towards wholeness. I can do that. What a relief to learn that I don’t have to be healed in order to seek wholeness. Hopefully, I’ll be seeking it the rest of my life. And acquiring a taste for humility. But at least for today, I’m ready to make nice. And paint icons.
Susan Cushman is an iconographer, artist and writer living in Memphis, Tennessee. Her essays have appeared in First Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life (online version) and skirt! Magazine. She does commissioned icons, teaches Byzantine iconography classes, and speaks on iconography at colleges, churches and secondary schools. She blogs at http://wwwpenandpalette-susancushman.blogspot.com .