The collect for today’s celebration of the iconographer Andrei Rublev begins, “Holy God, we bless you for the gift of your monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, provided a window into heaven for generations to come….”
Some years ago I took a retreat among the brothers at the Society of St. John the Evangelist that focused on icons. I particularly remember Br. James’ delight in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity and its focus on hospitality. He noted that the icon was based on Abraham’s hospitality to the strangers who foretold the birth of Isaac. But, Br. James went on to say, the hospitality in Rublev’s icon reaches far beyond Abraham. It extends all the way down, generation by generation, to us, because that empty place—right in front—offers an invitation for every viewer to join the Holy Trinity at the Table, a place where each of us is welcomed, a treasured guest. The icon is indeed a “window into heaven.”
I may have written in an earlier post that at my very first spiritual direction session with Br. Eldridge, also SSJE, after I had introduced myself as a teacher, writer, and reader, he said to me, gently, “Shut up and paint.” I said, “But I can’t,” and he said, “That’s why you need to.” He encouraged me to get out of the wordy part of my brain and see in a new way. He stayed my spiritual director for twenty years until he died eight years ago, and I continue my sporadic attempts to put images on paper.
I have not become an artist; my drawings and paintings remain primitive, but in their own way they, too, I realize, have become windows into the holy – or at least clearer windows into here, this present moment. The image above is part of a daily series I did over the eight weeks it took to recover from foot reconstruction surgery in 2008. I would read a psalm, find a verse or a phrase that resonated, and try to illustrate it. Looking back at the notebook I filled with these images, I’m aware that they offer a window into the state of my soul through those long weeks of inactivity: they are hopeful, serene, searching. I was remarkably at peace.
My journals are peppered with images I’ve painted using the small watercolor paints I carry on trips, and with drawings I’ve done using anything from markers to pastels. I have a painting I did of a wall in Newark Airport while I drank coffee and waited for my boarding call; I used the dregs of my coffee to wet the brush.
In the ragged endlessness of Covid last spring, feeling particularly bleak, I made myself create what I called a “book of delights” (inspired by Ross Gay’s book by that name) in which, for a month, I both wrote about moments of joy in the day and drew a picture to illustrate one of them. Here’s the picture I drew on Pentecost of my 10-year-old granddaughter waving my mother’s red scarf that she’d worn to the service, dancing her way to the garden.
A photograph would have made a clearer image of her, but somehow because my hands moved over the page instead of just clicking a button on my phone, I “own” this happy moment more deeply.
All sorts of studies demonstrate how painting and drawing can help children identify and calm their worries. Watching my granddaughters over the years at our art table, I can attest that creative visual work can also help them celebrate – and hold onto – the joyful moments as well. Even in my older years, I find that I, too, can respond to life’s vicissitudes by putting brush or colored pencil to paper (even though I often can’t help adding words….).
So yes, Andrei Rublev’s icon does indeed provide a “window into heaven,” but I posit that our own attempts at visual responses to life, however primitive, can also offer us a window into heaven, and to here.
[Image Credits: Rublev’s icon The Trinity, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; other visual responses to the here and now were created by the author]