A day of cleaning at Kilninian

Well, that’s the way life is. After a day filled with puffins, cormorants and seals (plus a gorgeous sea-eagle watching over its vast territory from high up in the skies), there comes a day of cleaning, washing and scrubbing!

It is amazing what three people can achieve in a bit over two hours of work. I wish there were more opportunities (and more helpers) to do this sort of things for the church. Kilninian is such a lovely old building, one falls in love with it the more time one spends inside. 

Besides, there are things one only discovers doing things like this – the wooden frames of the windows, for instance, are badly damaged by the rain and we shall have to replace them very soon. I only saw this today, when I climbed on the ladder and got to see the high windows from very close.

I think we need one more day of hard work like today, then we can focus on replacing the windows, repairing the doors, polishing the floors and so on.

We started the day with the Divine Liturgy, did some serious cleaning, now it’s time for a long walk on one of the beaches on the coast. A blessed day to everyone

 

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The Mother of God and Athos in my life – obeying to the voice of my spirit

I have not posted here since before Christmas. To answer the obvious question: no, I have not decided to stay on Athos – although, to tell you the entire truth, the real question in MY mind is not why I keep going to Athos, but why I keep leaving the Holy Mountain. The answer is simple, really. There is an ongoing, long-lasting battle in my heart, between what my heart wants and what my hearts knows. My heart wants to stay on Athos, because there, in the desert of the Mountain, it finds the peace and seclusion it longs for. But my heart also knows that God’s will for it is to return to the Isles.

And so, day by day, my heart has to make a choice between what it wants and what it knows to be God’s will. Like everyone, I am always tempted to chose the path my heart loves. It is especially difficult not to go down that path when there is nothing visibly wrong with it. What could be wrong in a monk’s choice to follow his desire for silence and solitude? What could be wrong in a monk’s choice to put himself under obedience to an Elder who has more years of experience than I have years of life? What can be wrong in a monk’s choice to abandon all and entrust Himself to God’s will?

Nothing. There is nothing visibly wrong in that, except that God’s will for me (at least for now) is to do something else, somewhere else. Athos seems to have this role in my life, to remind me always that to follow my heart can be just as dangerous as to follow my logic. God speaks to one’s spirit, not one’s heart and not one’s brains. Don’t ask me what the spirit is, or where it is ‘located’ – I have no idea; read the Fathers if that is important to you, they write at length about it. All I know is that there are at least three voices in myself: my brain (which I have learnt early on in my life not to entrust with spiritual questions), my heart (which I find the most difficult to fight) and a strange, third voice that feeds on my prayer, Communion and love.

This third voice – if I allow myself to listen to it – guides me in a way that is above my brain and my heart. In my life, I feel that the Mother of God has been using the Holy Mountain to remind me of this third voice. This is the voice I must obey, not my logic, not my feelings. When I finally received a blessing to enter a monastery to become a novice, I wanted to go to Athos, despite the fact that my spiritual father had directed me towards Bucovine. I told him I felt called to the Holy Mountain, and I was not telling a lie. I told him my heart was on fire when I thought of the Holy Mountain – and again, I was not telling a lie.

Eventually, my monastic brother and I bought two one-way train tickets to Thessaloniki and started the journey on the path our hearts encouraged us to follow. But we kept praying for God’s will (I remember praying every minute of that train journey) and I have no doubt that my spiritual father prayed with us. We travelled South through Romania, we crossed Bulgaria, and all was amazing. My heart was indeed on fire, my prayer poured out of me almost by itself. Then, we reached the borders with Greece and it all collapsed on us. For absolutely no reason, both of us were taken off the train. We had all the necessary documents, we had no other luggage except our clothes and some books – and yet, we desperately watched the train depart and continue its way to Thessaloniki, while we were forced to walk over the border and find our way back to our spiritual father. My heart had wanted Athos. God’s will for me at that moment was Bucovine.

That was the first time the Mother of God used her Mountain to teach me that what is pleasant to one’s heart is not always God’s will for us. It is a painful lesson. Incomparably more difficult for me than bypassing my brain and its will. The heart is a dangerous thing, as it becomes intimately close to one’s being, almost one with it. To let go of my heart’s vision for my life and entrust that vision to God’s will is by far the most difficult thing I’ve had to do. Ever since that train ride, from my very first steps into the monastic life, Athos has been my teacher in this painful lesson: salvation is found in God’s will for me, not in the will of my mind, nor in the will of my heart.

Athos – the desert of the Holy Mountain – is the first love of my heart. Yet, once again, the Mother of God reminds me that Christ’s will is above the will of my heart. I have returned to the Isles. I have a mission here. The vision of this Monastery is not mine; I know that now. The vision belongs to Christ and the Celtic Saints. Like all of us, I also walk in darkness, I walk in hope, I walk in obedience. Slowly, in time, this vision reveals itself to me. I am grateful beyond words to the Mother of God for teaching me this difficult lesson. Only She, in Her motherly love and care, could have such patience with someone like me. I have left Athos having been reminded of a most valuable lesson, but also having been revealed a bit more of Her vision for our Monastery.

I’ll tell you more tomorrow, this is already way too long…

We are all One

In a few hours, I’m flying to Thessaloniki, from where I’ll get the bus to Ouranopolis, the port to Mount Athos. I’ll be away until January 4th, so have a blessed Feast of the Nativity and a happy New Year.

This has been a tough year, in ways that I cannot even begin to express, and I’m only now starting to feel the effects. Tiredness, hopelessness and fear, sadness to the point of despair – all of these have haunted me relentlessly during the last twelve months. To say that 2016 has not been my favourite year would be too kind, even for my standards. To say that 2016 has been even remotely a good year would be beyond insincerity and would approach hypocrisy.

We have achieved many things for the Monastery, and for that I must thank you. I have tried to let you know, to the best of my ability, how much I appreciate your support. All my hard work, all my best intentions, all my sacrifice would amount to nothing without you and your hard work, your best intentions, your sacrifice. Together, we have done incredible things this year, and I trust that, by the grace of God, we shall do even more in 2017. For all of this, I thank you. You are in my prayer always, where ever life takes me.

That being said, the Monastery exists in this world and cannot ignore the world. Monasteries are doors between this fallen world and the Kingdom, calling our fallen nature to its true prototype, encouraging us on the way, guiding us step by step, as we fight to let go of our fallenness and we learn to see ourselves through the eyes of God. This is why monasteries exist, this is their purpose.

And this is where I’ve fallen mostly in 2016. Although I’ve kept far from the political fights that consumed the world, I have allowed their noise to disturb me, I have allowed them to distract me from the things that truly matter. I have kept silence over the outpouring of hatred that drowned the world over the Council, Brexit or the US elections, but I have not succeeded to hold on to the silence in my heart.

As a monastic, I have no responsibility to get involved in these fights. Monastics are dead to the world, and to get involved is a failure towards one’s calling. When people accused the Abbas of the Desert for refusing to get involved and judge various people or causes, they sent their accusers to the cemetery and told them to ask the dead buried there to judge them. As a monastic, my responsibility is to stand among you, silent and dressed in my black vestment, as a reminder that our true Calling, our true Identity and our true Home are somewhere else.

As the world rages consumed with passion for one cause or the other, a monk’s calling is to silently remind those who have the eyes to see that we are all mortal and that the real fight, the real cause, the real passion should be for something entirely different: the salvation of our souls. All else is dust.

It is my responsibility, therefore, to tell you all that no one won in 2016. There are no winners. We have all lost. We have all allowed hatred and doubt and fear to enter our hearts. We have all judged, we have all looked at Christ’s image, our brother, and saw in him the enemy. We have all built walls: some have built walls against those who are different from them, others have built walls against those who build walls. There is no difference between walls: regardless of what motivates them, they are all expressions of a void in our hearts. That empty void where Love should have been.

I’m going to Mount Athos for two weeks with this in mind. I’m not looking for rest, physical or emotional. I’m going to regain my perspective of the world and myself. I need to taste silence to be reminded of the things that matter. I need to touch holiness so I may redirect my steps toward it. I need to see sparkles of the Kingdom, so I may turn my back to this empty noise and start walking towards Life again.

I leave behind 2016 with a void in my heart. I pray, I pray with all my strength that Love Incarnate will return once more and fill it. I pray for me, I pray for you – the same prayer, for we are all One. We are ALL One.

Icons of the Celtic Saints

Over the last few years, I have received a great number of emails and messages from people who feel a closeness to the Celtic Saints and who would like to own a hand-painted icon for their private life of prayer. Most of the options I found were either too expensive (for me, at least), or they were mass-produced generic icons. That is not wrong in itself, but it does take away from the unique character each icon should have.  it also means that it becomes very difficult to personalise the icon, so that elements of Celtic Christianity, as well as specific details from the life of each saint are difficult to include.

As it usually happens, I looked in all the wrong directions until the obvious solution simply presented itself to me. One evening, as I was praying before my own icon of St Seraphim, I realised I could simply get back in touch with the iconographer who painted my own icon. He was the right choice for my personal icons, so he should be good enough for anyone else. He is not a famous master, he does not run a workshop employing other people. He is a simple man whom I have met while he was working in our monastery in Moldavia. He was involved in the restoration of the fifteenth century iconography in our main church. I grew to like him, as he was a quiet and faithful man, and so I eventually asked him to paint an icon of St Seraphim for me to use in my cell.

So I’ve got back in touch with him to ask if he is still painting (he is an older gentleman), and I’ve asked him to paint a series of twelve Celtic Saints for us. These are the first three: St Columba, St Brendan and St Patrick. Because he does not mass-produce, he had the time to work with me on the composition of each icon. We selected specific details relevant to the life of each saint and we replaced some of the Byzantine elements with Celtic ones (such as using Celtic Crosses, the Celtic symbol of the Trinity, the Celtic style of monastic tonsure etc).

So here they are: each of them unique and unrepeatable, each of them carefully thought about and prayed for. We only have one copy of each, and they are available from our online bookstore. Subsequent orders will incorporate all specifically Celtic and personal details, but will not be identical to these ones. Original hand-painted icons are always unique. In style and quality, they are exactly what I own and what most monastics in Moldavia use in their cells. They are all hand-painted on wood, with golden leaf; the wood is enforced on the back for a longer life; on the back of each icon there is a small painting of a Celtic Cross, and the words: ‘Monastery of All Celtic Saints, Isle of Mull, Scotland’. All icons have already been blessed by me, but you may take them to your church for a blessing, too.

For more details, see these links:

Icon of St Patrick of Ireland

Icon of St Brendan the Navigator

Icon of St Columba of Iona

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Gratitude

First, I’m grateful for the ride. Grateful for the journey. Grateful for everything that made me who I am. Good and bad, virtuous and sinful, it all hardly matters before the extraordinary, unbelievable, totally-beyond-logic fact that I exist. I am grateful for just being, for breathing, for sparkling with life for a moment. Regardless where I’m coming from, regardless where I’m going, having existed is an unthinkable gift. Regardless what I do with it, this life – this day, this very moment – remains a gift for which I’d need another life just to express my gratitude and awe.

I’m grateful for God’s endless patience with me. I’m grateful that He waits for me to grow, that He doesn’t interrupt this growth, that He allows all this time for my search for meaning. I’m grateful He remained close to me through my moments of sin and through my moments of virtue. I’m grateful He worked virtue in my being, so I may experience even but a shade of His presence. I’m grateful He allowed my sins to happen and didn’t force virtue upon me when He foresaw me walking towards sin. I’m grateful for the complete freedom He allows me, His creature, and for the ultimate respect and trust He shows me by granting me this freedom.

I am grateful for being where I am today, for doing what I do today, for having been found worthy to work in His world even for a moment.

Finally, I am grateful for the mystery I perceive hidden in my flesh. I am grateful I can look at myself and see a mystery waiting to be fulfilled in the age to come. This flesh and its sins, this mind and its limits, this heart and its ugliness, all of myself here and now: I am grateful for it all, for out of this death, out of this nothingness a new I, an I which is now but a mystery to myself, an I ‘in His image and likeness’ will be revealed in the Kingdom, according to His promise.

Above all, I am grateful for this promise and for the Cross on which He died out of Love: mad, unjustified, unnecessary, completely free and Self-sacrificial Divine Love  for me, and for you, and for this whole world.

Two days of silence with St Seraphim

‘Silence is the mystery of the Life to come’, St Seraphim used to say. Silence is a mystery, a sacrament of the Life to come (in the sense in which Confession and Baptism are sacraments of this life) for many of the holy men and women of Christianity. At the end of a lifetime of ascetical struggles, at the end of a lifetime of prayer, fasting and vigil, at the end of an interrupted line of temptations collapsing over them from all sides, these holy people speak of silence.

I was recently blessed to spend two days at St Seraphim’s Monastery in Diveyevo, Russia. Diveyevo literally means ‘of the virgins’, as this is a monastery for women founded by St Seraphim while he lived in the monastery for men in Sarov. Everything in this monastery was built according to St Seraphim’s personal instructions, as he received them from the Mother of God. The number of churches, their feast days, their position within the monastery, the great ditch which surrounds the monastery (the kanafka) – every detail was determined by St Seraphim’s visions. Every day, all the nuns still walk around the monastery, following the kanafka and praying with a rule of prayer passed down to us from the Mother of God Herself.

It is an extraordinary feeling to stand at the centre of the Monastery and to think that you are surrounded by earthly churches built strictly according to a heavenly vision. These are silent buildings. They have nothing to do with the world around. They belong somewhere else. They speak a different language, one that does not distract one from prayer. Despite their size, they possess a sort of transparence which encourages one to pray and remain silent. There are people everywhere, at all times. I was in the Monastery at 5 am, I was in the Monastery at midday, I was in the Monastery at midnight. There are always services somewhere, there is always someone praying in a corner, someone with their arms up towards the sky, someone silently using their prayer rope by a wall. And yet, there is constant, deep silence.

Then, there are the sisters. Most of them live the common life of the Monastery; they work together, they pray and eat together. Yet in Diveyevo there still are recluse nuns, living alone in the houses nearby; there still are fools for Christ, roaming the place dressed like mad women; there still are hermits, living a life of complete solitude and silence in the forests around. St Seraphim himself experienced most of these monastic ways of life, and his spirit lives on; his grace still protects and inspires the Monastery.

I spent most of my time in Diveyevo simply standing in front of St Seraphim’s relics. At times, I prayed. At other times, I just looked on. I watched as other people approached his relics. I watched as they prayed, as they cried, as they rejoiced to be there, so close to his gentle giant of Christ’s Kingdom. It was a humbling experience to just stand and wait. I waited until all my prayer dried out, until all the discussions in my head dried out, until all my feelings got tired, until I saw all I could see. I waited until all the noise in my head and my eyes and my heart was consumed, and then I felt a spark of silence of a different kind.

From time to time, when there were fewer people around, the sisters invited me to approach the relics. They waited for me to prostrate three times, then quickly uncovered the relics so I could venerate them. Then, just as quickly as I’d approached, I went back to my corner and waited some more: for yet another spark of that silence, and another invitation to approach. One can spend a whole life doing just that. Silence is addictive; at least, this sort of silence is addictive. Once you taste it, everything else seems wasteful and bitter.

I attach a few photos for you. I prayed for everyone there – I prayed for those who pray for us, for those who support us financially, for those who help us with advice. Nothing, absolutely nothing we have done so far would be possible without you. I prayed for those who love this Monastery and for those who hate it. I did my best (which was not much) to pray for everyone. We all need prayer these days. The entire world needs prayer these days. May St Seraphim pour his grace and deep joy upon all of us.

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Icon of the Resurrection

Like the icon of Sophia, which we’ve discussed in a previous post, this impressive work of art also works as a deep and challenging theological thesis about one of the central beliefs of Christianity: Christ’s Resurrection. It is worth pointing out from the very beginning that the title itself is misleading. Rather than representing the actual moment of the Ressurection, the icon reveals the mystery of that moment indirectly, through the effects it has on humanity. A more appropriate title could be Salvation of the Humankind. The choice not to depict the moment of the Resurrection is in complete accord with Orthodox iconographic canons, which prohibit depicting that tremendous mystery. The Resurrection is described through actions, effects and implications, but never focusing on the very moment when Christ came back to life.

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This particular icon of the Resurrectiom is dated to the end of the sixteenth century, and comes from the church of St Nicholas (Mokrovo) in Yaroslavl. Today, it is kept in the museum of Old-Russian Art in the Yaroslavl Kremlin.

The textual sources of the elements in this icon are very diverse, in keeping with the Orthodox idea that Revelation is an ongoing process. As such, old and new texts are united into the same Tradition, passing forward the same essential message: Christ is Risen, and in His Resurrection there is hope for everyone. The apocryphal Gospel according to Nikodimos, selected Psalms, Prophecies from the Old Testament, verses from the Triodion (a collection of church services used during the Paschal Fasting period), akathists, canons, texts and prayers from the writings of the Church Fathers: they all inform this extraordinary icon. Each detail in its composition references a text, a story, a tradition.

The icon as we see it now was first composed in the fourteenth century. This was linked with a renewed interest in Nikodimos’ apocryphal Gospel, which was brought about by a new full translation of the text published at the time. The text relates the story of Christ’s Descent into Hell after His Crucifixion, from where He resurrected with the Forefather Adam, as a symbol of the whole human race. This is represented in the icon by Christ’s central figure. Having broken hell’s gates (which now lie under His feet, tellingly arranged in the form of a Cross), Christ ascends from hell holding Adam (humankind) by the hand. Next to Adam is Eve, fallen at Christ’s feet. Following Adam are those risen from the dead (symbolically dressed in Resurrectional white clothing).

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St John the Baptist leads the righteous of the Old Testament towards Christ. According to Orthodox theology, St John descended into hell after his beheading, like all the saints of the Old Testament. In hell, he brought the Good News to the entire human-race. Pay attention to the fact that St John leads a row of saints to Christ (they all have hallows around their heads), whereas the Forefather Adam is followed by people without hallows. There is also a row of ‘un-saintly’ people joining the Resurrection above the row of Holy Prophets and Kings. This is in accordance with St John Chrysostomos’ Prayer on Pascha night, in which the Resurrection of All is affirmed, such that hell is left ‘empty’.

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Christ is represented several times in the composition. Apart from the central image of His Descent into Hell, there is a smaller figure of Christ in the lower-right corner of the icon (as we look at it), showing the Resurrected Christ as he appeared to the myrrh-bearing women. These are also represented, together with the Angel who met them and moved the rock to allow them to enter the now empty tomb. Just below the empty tomb, the Roman guards are fallen sleep.

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In the opposite corner of the composition, the Angels are depicted defeating the devil. Hell (represented as a fiery monster) ‘throws up’ its content (to quote from the Pascha service), setting free all those who had been under its power and who are now welcomed into the Kingdom – note the Gates of the Kingdom wide open, just under the crushed gates of hell and the defeated devil, and the Angelic Hosts welcoming everyone inside.

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Starting with the eleventh century, the composition of the Resurrection icons became increasingly complex. The previous patterns of these icons used to be much simpler and focused on one or the other of the Scriptural details of the Resurrection (such as the myrrh-bearing women or the Angel) leaving the others aside. Starting with the eleventh century, more complex iconographic compositions were created. These included several of these details into the same scene, and also attempted to generate meaning by creating whole narratives within the icon. Sometimes, as we see in this particular icon, these complex compositions even bring together on the same canvas narratives that belong to different times and places.

Many of the characters are repeated in the composition, as they move from one narrative to another. For instance, Christ is represented three times in the icon, while the good thief appears four times. The good thief is of particular interest to the Resurrection story, because his actions surround the Resurrection. His death on the cross and conversation with Christ are some of the last things that happen before Christ’s death, while his entry into the Kingdom (the first man to do so, according to Tradition) is one of the very first things that took place after Christ’s resurrection.

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Like poetry, which was the preferred style of the ancient hymn writers, painting overcomes the barriers imposed upon logical narratives by chronology and a sense of geography. Instead of being a drawback, this is a major advantage of art, which makes it highly relevant as a theological tool. Chronology and geography are irrelevant in relation to Christian revelation: Christ’s Incarnation, His Crucifixion and Resurrection affect the essence of the whole world, and are not limited to a certain time and space.

Icon of Sophia, the Wisdom of God

I’ve recently travelled back to some of the ancient Russian centres of icon-painting: Moscow, Rostov, Yaroslavl and Vladimir. As Communism destroyed many of the churches and monasteries in these places, there was a real danger that the icons themselves would be lost. In order to protect them, a large number of them were taken from the churches, declared national treasures and ended up being preserved in local museums. Entire iconostases (icon screens), huge frescoes, ancient miracle-working icons known and beloved by the whole nation, icons by St Andrey Rubliov, Dionisios or Theophan the Greek are now gathered in these museums and galleries. I thought perhaps I should write a few lines about one or two of them, as a way to bring you with me as I continue to travel.

The first one that caught my attention is a very rare icon from Yaroslavl, representing Sophia (Holy Wisdom). We all heard something about sophiology (it’s one of those words we all know, but no one can explain), but very few of us have actually seen an icon of Sophia. Apparently, as I learnt from an explaining note in the museum, there are a several types of icons dedicated to Sophia, just as there are several types dedicated to the Mother of God or Christ. This one is a seventeenth century icon from the Church of Prophet Elijah in Yaroslavl and is currently kept in the museum of the Yaroslavl Kremlin. This particular composition is known as the Novgorod type of sophianic icons. Its first version dates to the fifteenth century and is found in the Church of Sophia in Novgorod.

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Apart from the rich visual symbolism, the icon also includes selected texts from the Scriptures relevant to its theme. Quotes from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians are joined by texts from Old Testament texts, such as the Wisdom of Solomon or the Book of Prophet Isaiah. Interestingly, and something I particularly love, along these Scriptural references the icon-painter also included texts from church services.

I like that because it underlines two central Orthodox ideas. First, it shows the unity of thought and belief among these sacred texts regardless of the context in which they were written. Secondly, it demonstrates that the revealing action of the Holy Spirit is not restricted to a certain age or time, but goes on through the centuries. Despite our sinfulness, the Holy Spirit continues to reveal Christ to our world.

At the centre of the composition is a representation of Sophia, Wisdom of God, as a crowned Angel with a face of fire and wings. Sophia is surrounded by an aura of Divine Glory and sits on a throne supported by seven pillars. Under the feet of Sophia there is a stone, as a symbol of all Creation being subdued to the Word of God. The right hand is depicted in an act of blessing, while the left one holds a sceptre.

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To the sides of Sophia, in typical Deesis composition, stand the Mother of God and St John the Baptist. The Mother of God holds the text ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…’, while St John’s text says ‘This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world…’. Both the Mother of God and St John the Baptist are represented with wings and they are wearing crowns.

Behind them follow St John the Evangelist (‘No one has seen God except His only begotten Son…’) and St John Chrysostomos. Bringing these two saints together emphasizes the same idea of an ongoing Revelation. The Evangelist and the composer of the Divine Liturgy are depicted in identical manner, with no difference of glory. This is a strong visual statement about Tradition understood as a path of ongoing Revelation as opposed to tradition reduced merely to a museum of ancient beliefs.

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Above the fiery Angel of Wisdom there is a complete representation of Christ in Glory.

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Higher still, the Lord Sabaoth sits on a throne of Cherubim and is surrounded by a choir of Seraphim. The text in his left hand has the ancient call: ‘Listen to me, my people…’. Around the glory of the Lord Sabaoth there are the typical symbolic representations of the four Evangelists (the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle), the angelic hosts, the sun and the moon.

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For comparison, I include one more version of the icon. Despite its simpler composition, it still follows the same pattern and includes most of the same elements. This icon is also from Yaroslavl, but from the museum inside the Metropolitan Palace.

Sophia 17th Metropolitan Palace

Help us choose a cover for the new booklet

We have almost finished work on the new booklet published by the Monastery. This will be our first booklet since the beginning of the year after, when we published ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. We are still grateful to Kh Frederica Mathewes-Green for writing the text for that.

The new booklet is called The Voice in Confession and is built around the podcasts on Confession recorded for AFRadio. It follows the full notes I took for those recordings, more than half of which were not developed in the podcasts.

The illustrations of this new booklet are once again created and donated to the Monastery by Dr Mihaela Schiopu, who has also painted the images we used for our booklet ‘On Prayer’. The inside of the booklet will contain ten portraits of contemporary Elders, drawn by Dr Schiopu.

For the covers, she has painted two portraits, and I find it difficult to decide which to use for the first cover (the one with the title) and which for the last cover (the back of the book).

I include both of them below. I tend to think that ‘Cover version 2’ is a better option for a first cover (the composition is more suitable for the purpose, and I’m fascinated by the power in that gaze). At the same time, though, I also love the gentleness and peacefulness in ‘Cover version 1’.

What do you think? Which one should we use for the Main Cover?

Cover version 1

Cover Version 1

Cover version 2

Cover version 2

The icons of Yaroslavl

In my travels for the Monastery or the University, I’m often asked (usually by non-Orthodox or recent converts) about iconography: what is its place in Christian worship? What are icons good for? I find it amazing that the question even exists. For me, it’s like asking what is the use of love. None, really, except love itself. Only the experience of love itself can justify love. I am convinced that the same applies to iconography – only the true experience of an icon itself can justify iconography.

Yes, an icon is a theological statement: just as depictions of God were heretical in the Old Testament, it has become heretical after God’s Incarnation to claim the impossibility of such depiction. God took on our human nature, God took on human flesh and bones – real flesh and bones, like yours and mine. As such, this human body – its shape, its colours,its consistency – can and indeed should be depicted in painting precisely as an affirmation of the reality of Christ’s body and Incarnation. An icon is a much stronger, much more direct, much more striking theological statement about Christ’s Incarnation than any written dogma.

Yes, icons are also ways to visually represent the history of our salvation. Painting can do the same thing writing does, only that it works differently. On the one hand, people who cannot read (children, the illiterate, those speaking a different language that the language of worship) can still follow the story of the Gospel through these visual depictions. On the other hand, even those who can read relate and understand things differently when these stories are represented visually through painting. It’s one thing to read a poem on a page, a different thing to hear someone recite it out-load and an entirely different experience to hear it arranged musically, as a song. The same applies here. The same story about Christ’s pain in the Garden of Gethsemane can impact you in entirely different ways when you read about it or when you see it painted in an icon.

Anyway, icons can do something else too. This is something I’ve discovered personally, through my own experience. There are people who cannot read, but there are also people who will not read. I know, because I was one of them. For these people, there is only one hope, and that hope is God’s direct intervention in their lives, and – sometimes – this intervention takes the form of a real experience of an icon. When people ask me about icons, I wish I could put them all in my pocket and just fly them to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow or the two extraordinary icon museums of Yaroslavl: the one in the Kremlin and the one in the Metropolitan Palace. To me, a monk and a priest, these museums are some of the (if not the) most transformative and holiest spaces I was blessed to visit and experience.

The icons of Yaroslavl are large, amazing ‘theses’ about the deepest Christological dogmas. They reveal ancient truths and point to new revelations. A Psalm, a hymn, a story, the history of a place, of an icon, of a saint, even a dogma – the iconographic masters of ancient Yaroslavl seem to be able to take anything and transform it into creations that are just as spectacular as works of art, as they are as theological writings. I was crushed by the intensity of these icons. I had to take long breaks between rooms, to sit down and gather strength as I moved from one section to the other. The museums are simple and unassuming buildings, sometimes almost falling apart; the light is terrible and the general aspect of these spaces is simply unfit for a museum. And yet, time after time, among these strange and imposing figures looking at me with their other-worldly eyes, I rediscover a sense of purpose to my life, a sense of reality of God’s presence. As for for the shortest second in the history of my life, I am touched by Someone and this touch both heals everything and re-opens all wounds at the same time.

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