Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Icon and the Belt-Sander

The Centre d'Etudes Russes, Meudon 

Twenty-three years ago this week, my wife Paula and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary in        Paris at the Centre d'Etudes Russes .  We were there with four friends and students from the Mt.Angel Iconography Institute.  We were there to study with Fr.Egon Sendler SJ (Pere Igor) as students in his basic course.

What a remarkable time that was!  Pere Igor's wisdom, enthusiasm and joy was inspiring,  I learned so much from him each day in the old German barracks (erected during the Occupation ) he'd converted into a classroom and a studio.  I chose the icon of St.Elijah ascending to heaven as the image I would paint.  He would, typically, inspect my drawing, pronounce it "Marvellous! " or Terrific!" And then proceed to erase half the drawing.  Usually he said very little to me, except a few imperatives such as "Simplify!" "Find the essential form!"  

When, after two weeks of diligent work, I completed the icon, he singled it out for effusive praise.  He held it up before the class and commented that he was a mere artisan, but that I was a true artist!  Then he declared in a very lighthearted and comical tone, that the only thing necessary to make it perfect was a belt-sander!  As you might have expected, this got a big laugh from the class.

While I hadn't really taken his artisan/artist comment seriously at all, I was perplexed and hurt (crushed, if truth be told) that he would say, even in jest, that a belt-sander would improve an icon I'd spent so much time and effort bringing to completion.  And which, in my (unspokem) estimation, surpassed the work of anyone else in the class, including, (I'm embarassed to admit) even the work of my master, Pere Igor.

I realized that shrewd spiritual father that he was, he had intuitively grasped my secret sin (hidden, if not from him and my fellow students, then from myself.)  That sin was pride, of course, pride in my ability as an artisit, by which I sought to prove to God (and anyone else who might be interested ) that  I was a worthy person deserving of admiration and praise.

It wasn't the icon that required the belt-sander,  it was me!  The carapace of pride, which was hardening around my heart, needed to be humbled, to be scraped away.  I realized that whatever I managed to accomplish as an iconpainter was nothing , rubbish, actually, to quote St.Paul, compared the icon God had created me to be, being brought to perfect (still a daily struggle) by Christ Jesus.

Which is the only icon that for iconpainters (and everyone else) matters in the end.

1 comment:

  1. Yikes, Charles, I know what that belt sander feels like! But sometimes it's the only way to humility of heart. No wonder you look to Pere Igor as a spiritual father!