Iconography-my first retreat experience!

Iconography-my first retreat experience!

I started cake decorating after my parents signed me up for a workshop at my local craft store and dragged me to my first class as an indignant teenager. It then became one of my favorite hobbies and a creative outlet I have continued to pursue to this day. Over the years I have grown to appreciate their gentle nudges to try new things and it was one such nudge that led me to attend my first icon writing retreat.

Growing up as a Syro Malabar Catholic, I was surrounded by icons at a young age. They were found in churches and homes all throughout Kerala. Icons have been venerated in eastern Catholic and Orthodox rites throughout history and can be traced all the way back to St.Luke who, through tradition, was said to be the first iconographer. My aunt also studied iconography a few years ago and her icons, the rich history of iconography, and the spiritual practice really caught my attention. It was truly a blessing to attend a weeklong retreat to dive deeper into that.

The retreat was conducted by Veronica Royal, an incredibly talented and experienced iconographer and teacher. On the first few days, she really set the groundwork for the week and explained that icons are meant to bring scripture to life and serve as windows to heaven. "They do this by the combination of prayers, traditions of the Church, sacred geometric composition, scriptural narratives and the intention of the iconographer to convey the saints in the light of the Holy Spirit operating within them. [1]" We learned the prayers, the materials, the traditional russian terminology for various stages or colors used in the process, and began transferring the image of Our Lady Undoer of Knots onto our boards. 

Working with acrylic paints was challenging at first. Balancing the patience, speed, and precision required to work with these paints was something I struggled with for days. Being a student for the first time in a long time and trying to avoid comparing myself with others and getting discouraged was equally challenging. It was truly a humbling and grace-filled experience as I weathered the first few days. These phrases from our daily prayers really resonated during that time:

"Lord, grant that I may meet the coming day with spiritual tranquility. Grant that in all things I may rely upon your holy will. In each hour of the day, reveal your will to me. Whatever news may reach me this day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul, knowing that all is subject to your holy will. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences do not let me forget that all is sent down by you [...] Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen."
"Work with care on every detail of your icon, as if you were working in front of the Lord Himself [...] Do not be jealous of your neighbor's work, their success is your success, too."

As we layered paint and a smooth surface was revealed and the robes of Our Lady were illuminated, it was beautiful to see her splendor revealed through these simple shapes. After talking to a fellow attendee at the end of one of these days, he recounted that just the thought that we were painting Mother Mary's fingers was mind-boggling. The icon truly was bringing a saint to life.

Throughout the retreat we prayed, learned, practiced, and grew in fellowship as we all went through this journey together. At the end of the week I left with a new skill, appreciation and a deeper understanding for icons, and most importantly a new way to put my faith into practice. I'm excited to continue to learn more about this ancient spiritual discipline and share these holy images with others!



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