lenten journal: paint


Of all the gifts Ginger has given me over our quarter century of living gifts to one another, one that sits high on the list was a iconography classes. Thanks to her ingenuity and thoughtfulness, I got to go once a week to Andover Newton Theological School and work with Christopher Gosey, who was artist in residence as well as both an amazing iconographer and teacher. The gift came while my depression was at its worst and Ginger saw it as a way to offer me a chance to learn a new way of spiritual practice and prayer. She was right.

Chris offered an experience that connected with me on several levels. In the vocabulary of the craft, icons are written, not painted. (I know—tonight’s word is paint; I’m coming back to it.) Icons are also intended to be copied and not signed. The call was to trace from a “cartoon”—a line drawing of the saint or of Jesus—and then paint the icon just as it had been done for centuries. Icons are not intended to be worshipped or revered in the Byzantine tradition. They are “windows to heaven,” intended to create a thin place for prayer and worship. We mixed our own colors, adding natural pigments to acrylic medium in such a way that the paint was almost translucent. Every line on the icon had to be painted twenty to forty times to get it to the right level; the brush movements became a means of prayer and focus.

I loved the stories, the history, the preparation, the conversations, the CDs of random Russian church bells he played in the background, and the icons I finished, which hang in our dining room. After the class was over, I kept working with him until we moved south of Boston and he moved to New Hampshire. I thought about him and our afternoons tracing the lines of faith and prayer because of something Ginger said in her sermon this morning. She was preaching from Ephesians 2:1-10, but her focus was particularly on the last verse: “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life.” (New Jerusalem Bible) As she drew to the end of her sermon she said, “We are dust, which becomes pigment in God’s artwork.” We are paint.

I thought of Chris explaining to me that the black pigment was actual ash, the brown was actual dirt, and on he went through our jars of colored powders explaining how they came from earthy substances, just as we do. When I got home, I went back to some of my New Testament Greek resources to find the word translated as “work of art” is poiema, which even my spell check knows is the root word of poem, and that took me back to the sermon and Ginger’s quoting of Mary Oliver’s “Poem”:

The spirit
likes to dress up like this:
ten fingers,
ten toes,

shoulders, and all the rest
at night
in the black branches,
in the morning

in the blue branches
of the world.
It could float, of course,
but would rather

plumb rough matter.
Airy and shapeless thing,
it needs
the metaphor of the body,

lime and appetite,
the oceanic fluids;
it needs the body’s world,

and imagination
and the dark hug of time,
and tangibility,

to be understood,
to be more than pure light
that burns
where no one is —

so it enters us —
in the morning
shines from brute comfort
like a stitch of lightning;

and at night
lights up the deep and wondrous
drownings of the body
like a star.

The word paint was added to my Lenten Lexicon by my friend Claudia, who is a wonderful artist. She and I challenge each other by swapping paintings and poems: I write about what she paints; she paints about what I write. Poetry and painting are very connected for me because of our friendship. When Ginger made her statement about dust being pigment, I thought of an artist’s palette, the array of collected and created colors that create the options and opportunities for the painting, in the same way I look for words and phrases to join together in a poem. Both types of art are collections, gatherings of the elements it takes to make a whole picture.

I went back to the verse in Ephesians to notice the sentence says, “We are God’s work of art.” Not I. We. Not works. Work. We become the artwork together. We are saved together, even because of each other. Grace is incarnated in the context of community; faith becomes a verb as we learn to trust one another.

As Ginger was preaching, one of the notes I wrote was, “God is not Bob Ross.” Tonight, I looked him up on line and was reminded his old PBS show was called “The Joy of Painting.” Though I am willing to stand by what I wrote, I had to smile because the Creative Artist who imagined us and breathed us into being is the source of joy, the one who colors this world with an amazing palette of people who were made to be mixed and mingled, scattered and gathered: we are God’s artwork, God’s poem.

We are paint.



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