Learning About Life by Monsignor Ferrarese

Recently, I had the good fortune to sign up for an intensive workshop on “writing Icons”. I was told by our teacher, a great Greek iconographer named Theodore, that one does not paint an icon, one ‘writes’ it prayerfully. The writing of icons is a spirituality that comes from the Orthodox world. Walk into any Orthodox Church and you will see dozens of beautiful icons: of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and many of the saints. There are no statues allowed in Eastern Orthodox Churches; nor are there stained glass windows. Icons fill the walls and individual icons are placed on stands where the faithful can venerate the image by kissing it. Each icon is a work of prayer, not of art. The believer prays as he or she ‘writes’ the icon. The work is considered holy.

So I was one of 18 people who took the 6-day workshop. We each wrote an icon of the Mother of God holding the Christ child. The icon was small: about 15 inches by 10 inches. But it took 6 days working nonstop (except for Mass and meals) for 8 hours per day. The use of individual colors (30 different colors went into the icon) were carefully applied, often with multiple brushes. It was very difficult and frustrating at times, but it was also a deeply rewarding spiritual experience.

But, like learning anything, it teaches you many things about life. For instance, we were beginners. Our work was hard and sometimes sloppy because we were still learning to hold a brush and understand the different ways paint is applied. We all expected to be DaVinci’s right away. But there are no short cuts to learning! Whatever it is: driving, golf, playing a musical instrument, learning a new language: we want to get it right away and be good at it. But it takes a long time to train the body, to focus the mind. You can’t just give up as soon as you begin! You have to keep working hard and long hours before making even an inch of progress. A noted author once said that creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration!

The next thing I learned was that everything has its rules that must be kept exactly. One of the things our icon teacher kept saying is, “Look, look, look a long time at the model you are seeking to ‘write’ before you put any paint to the surface”. Once you paint the wrong way or the crooked line, or use the wrong color, it takes a lot time to correct your error and then you have to learn the right way to do it. How often are we impulsive in living our lives, when we should wait and size up the situation before we make a mess of things!

There can be a whole spirituality built on this insight of the importance of attention. Attention is a powerful thing. Sometimes I have seen parents being oblivious to their children because they are glued to their smartphones. But it doesn’t help that the kids are also glued to theirs! Kids crave attention because for them, at their young age, attention equals love. No attention, no love, no matter how expensive the toys or the schooling. Without attention, children shrivel up.

Often this ‘attention to attention’ is cited as Mindfulness. This is helpful, but as I said in earlier essays, as believers we must extend that mindfulness to the spiritual realities of our lives. Mindfulness or attention must be both fixed on external reality as well as internal, spiritual reality.

The reason why I think that these insights came to me so strongly during the Icon Workshop that I attended is that we have a natural propensity to float along without asking ourselves some basic questions. But when we are confronted by a new set of circumstances that challenge ourselves to look at things afresh, we begin to see things that are very basic in life, but that we just do not notice any more (if we ever did!). Entering the realm of the Icon, with its spiritual focus and the difficult techniques that it inspires and requires, taught me a lot about life and about ways that I can grow in self-knowledge and self -discipline.

This argues well for all of us in trying new things, especially things that challenge us. So, learn a new language, pick up an instrument that you’ve always wanted to learn to play and take some lessons, or ‘write’ an icon or two. The rewards of learning are far greater than what is actually accomplished. We may not become new Beethoven’s or Picasso’s, but we can better appreciate the art and ourselves!

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