This post links to RAnn's Sunday Snippets.
|Eleusa Theotokos icon by Byzantios in the St Mauritius chapel|
It has been more than a year since my last post on this blog. I apologize to the handful of readers who were following this blog for my sudden disappearance. The turn of events I’m about to recount took a lot of my time and focus. I started writing this post on 22 August, a humble offering to the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Queen and Mother, on the feast of her Queenship. I hope to post this in time for the feast day of her Nativity on 8 Sept. Then just around the corner is the feast of her Holy Name on 12 Sept, now a special day for our family, for reasons this post will explain.
This story begins on a Sunday, 2 June 2013, a week after my previous post. It was the second First Communion Mass in our parish. The church was again very full and there were almost no seats free. I found a place to sit in front of an icon of the Blessed Mother and Child Jesus in the chapel. I found it hard to concentrate on the Mass, because I could feel a very strong energy (I don’t really know what word to use) from the icon. It was very physical, like the flow of heat you feel when you open a hot oven. I “felt” (is “feel” is the right word?) the Blessed Virgin ask me to paint the image and help spread the light and love of her Son by spreading the image. I said, “Yes, but I please help me, as I don’t know how”. I took two photos with my phone. (Everyone was taking pictures, because it was the First Communion Mass, so it did not seem so unusual for me to take the photos.)
I started making my first sketches the next day, 3 June. Later, as I did some research about icons, I learned that this type of icon showing the Blessed Mother and the Child Jesus cheek to cheek with His arm around her neck is an Eleusa Theotokos (Mother of Tenderness). By coincidence, 3 June, the day I stared the first sketches, was the one of the three feast days of the Theotokos of Vladimir (the Vladimirskaya), the famous Eleusa Theotokos icon credited for saving Moscow from invasion several times in it’s history. (This particular feast day is 21 May in the Orthodox calendar and 3 June in the Gregorian calendar.) I did not know anything yet about painting icons. I found an icon painting course, but it didn’t start until August. I felt I could not wait two months. If I skipped some days without doing some work on the image, I would dream about it at night. I decided I’d have to try going forward with the work as soon as possible, without the course. I found plenty of help on the Internet. (Thank You, God, for creating man with enough intelligence to create the Internet!) There were lots of websites about icons and YouTube videos about how to paint icons. I also found a very good book called “Techniques of Traditional IconPainting” (by Gilles Weismann) from amazon.
I worked with acrylic paints on canvas which I already had at home. (Traditional Byzantine techniques involve using powdered tempra pigments and egg emulsion on wooden boards. I would later learn to work with these through the icon painting course.) Coincidentally, I finished the icon on 22 September, the feast day of St Mauritius, patron saint of our parish! It took a long time, 3 ½ months, from start to finish, because we were away for the summer holidays. Also, I would often hesitate to start a new stage because I would be afraid of making mistakes. Then I would wait a few days, sometimes 1 or 2 weeks, until I felt ready to go forward, praying always that God would guide my hands. Our parish priest blessed the icon for me on 25 Sept. I didn’t tell him the story how it all came about. (That would come a few months later.) In any case, on 27 Sept, two days after the blessing of the icon, we moved across the canton to our new home in a new town.
Actually, the picture I painted (or should I say, painted through my hands) does not look exactly like the icon in the chapel. I think her eyes look sadder, more pensive. I had done many sketches, and she always looked sadder than in the original. One day, while I was working on the image, I asked the Blessed Virgin why this was so. A few minutes later, I opened my Pieta prayer book. The page I randomly opened to read that she had spoken to Berthe Petit on 25 March 1912, “I have called myself the Immaculate Conception. To you, I call myself Mother of the Sorrowful Heart. This title willed to me by my Son is dear to me above all others.” It seemed like an answer to my question.
I make a small aside here about finding our new home. We had been searching for a house for almost 3 years. Almost every weekend, we were crisscrossing Canton Zürich to visit houses advertised on the Internet. We had given up hope of ever finding something that we could afford. I have a great love for the Camino, which is known as the St Jakobsweg in Switzerland. (I wrote about my first Camino in this post.) One day, on a whim, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could live near the Camino. Funnily enough, it turned out that region where the Camino goes through Canton Zürich was actually very attractive in terms of house prices and commute times. (Who knows why we hadn’t thought of it earlier.) One month after the “conversation” with the icon at the First Communion Mass, on 2 July, we found our future home. The house is about 3 km away, as the crow flies, from the Camino. (It was only the second house we viewed using the Camino criteria. I can literally say that the Camino de Santiago led me home. Thank you, St James!) Deciding to buy the house was not easy. Very soon after, we found out that my mother-in-law was ill and perhaps it was not a good time. However, in the end, after a lot of cost-benefit analyses (me and my husband) and a lot of prayerful deliberation (me), we went ahead with the purchase. The seller was an English family who had already moved back to the UK. The only day possible for the husband to come to Switzerland for the appointment with the notary to finalize the sale was 12 September. Only a few weeks after did I realize that we had finalized the sale on the feast of the Holy Name of Mary!
My husband thinks I am crazy when I tell the story like this. Can the Camino and the experience with the Blessed Virgin really have anything to do with finding the house? In my heart I feel that it was not just chance or coincidence. In one of his homilies, the priest of our new parish said that there are no coincidences, just the hand of God. I also love that quote attributed to Einstein. “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” In any case, any time you read “coincidence” in this post, what I really mean and believe is “by the Hand of God”.
We immediately fell in love with our new town and were very soon settled in. The kids made friends quickly. We can hear cowbells and have amazing views of the Alps on the walk to school. One of our neighbors, when we told her where we were moving to, was a bit skeptical. “Is it not … hmm, a bit too provincial? All those cows …” I did have to buy mud boots for the school walk. But that is a small price to pay for finding a little piece of heaven in the Swiss countryside. There are two wonderful parishes where I go Mass regularly. I have started serving as a lector (in German) and have applied to be a Sakristanaushilfe (assistant sacristan?), which has been my dream job for a long time now. Our town is called Ottikon. I like how it rhymes with “Gott Ikone”, which in German means “God icon”. That inspired me to start working on an icon of God the Father (using the icon of Lia Galdiolo as the prototype), in thanksgiving to God for leading us here. My Russian Orthodox icon-painting teacher disapproves of this, as they don’t believe that we should attempt to depict God the Father. Out of respect for her views, I work on it on my own at home. I love this wonderful teacher. Finding her and learning icon painting under her guidance was one of the biggest blessings I’ve been granted in this adventure! (I speak in the past tense because she retired in the summer.)
|The God the Father icon I am working on, beside Lia Galdiolo's prototype|
Sometime in March 2014, about six months after we had moved, I was pondering the turn of events set off by the experience with the Blessed Virgin and her icon when I remembered that she had asked me to paint the image and spread it. I realized that I had only done half the assignment. (The icon hangs in our attic, where I have a little prayer room. My husband is an atheist, and he wanted no religious images in the house, except in the attic. Almost no one ever sees the icon.) So I decided to print some prayer cards, about the size of a business card, with the image of the icon in front and the Hail Mary in German printed on the reverse side. I thought that I could leave these cards in churches and give them out to people when the chance arose. Coincidentally, the first batch of cards arrived from the printer on 25 March, the feast of the Annunciation!
I sent some of these cards to the parish priest at St Mauritius, our old town and the parish where the original icon hangs, along with a letter recounting the story. He was very happy to receive the cards and asked if I had more. I ordered another batch of cards German. I showed them then to my mom, who then asked if she could have them in English. So I made more. All together, there are 3000 of these cards making their way around Switzerland, the United States, the Philippines, along the last 100 km of the French Way of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (that's a story for another time), and the Vatican.
Over Ascension weekend this year (end of May 2014), my family and I headed for Cannobio, a little town on the shores of Lago Magiore in Italy. Cannobio is close enough to Switzerland that the drive is doable for the kids, and far enough into Italy that the pizza is excellent and cheap. There are lots of little roadside chapels scattered about. On the day we arrived, I slipped a card past the grill of the locked gate of a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Grace (see this post for why she is special to me). The next day, the caretaker had taken the card and placed it on the altar beside a picture of Pope Francis. (At the time, I was coincidentally doing a Pentecost Novena of Pope Francis.) I was so happy. I decided to send my last box of cards to the Pope.
|Prayer card on the first day, just past the grate|
|On the altar the next day, beside the photo of Pope Francis|
When we got back home to Switzerland, I started composing the letter to Pope Francis recounting the chain of events set off by this icon. I was sending him a box of prayer cards, asking if he could help me carry out my “assignment” to spread the image by perhaps giving them away to the pilgrims who come to visit him. It was only when I dated the letter, 2 June 2014, that I realized that, coincidentally, it was exactly a year to the day since the “conversation” with the icon during the First Communion Mass! How appropriate and perfect.
The last weeks of June and July sped by with all the end-of-the-year activities. We were then away for the summer, off to visit family. Upon our return to Switzerland in mid August, there was a letter from the Vatican. The Blessed Virgin’s prayer cards made it past the Swiss Guards! My husband disparages it as a generic form letter. I of course believe that Pope Francis read my letter and that he won't be entirely surprised when I turn up in the Vatican in a year or two with an icon of St Francis for him. (In my letter, I told him that I would make an icon of St Francis of Assisi for him and that I hoped to make a walking pilgrimage on the Via Francigena to deliver it. Coincidentally, the patron saint of the parish I hear Mass at most often is St Francis of Assisi.) Anyway, since Pope Francis is waiting for me, I had better start working on that St Francis icon and saving up for that trip!
Looking back on the past year, it has been an extraordinary adventure that the Blessed Virgin led me and my family on. I don’t know yet where the road goes from here. Whatever triumphs and trials and joys and sorrows the road ahead brings, I pray that the Blessed Virgin continue to intercede for us (and I mean "us" in the wider, universal sense of "us") and continue to love, teach, nourish, protect, and lead us ever closer to Jesus. Through Mary to Jesus!
PS. If any of you have a favorite icon or depiction of St Francis, would you please share it with me?
PS. If you have a blog or a Facebook page, would you consider sharing a link to this post to help with the "assignment"? Thank you!
PS. If you have a blog or a Facebook page, would you consider sharing a link to this post to help with the "assignment"? Thank you!
PS. Thank You cards (in sets of 8) with the image of the Eleusa Theotokos icon are available through the Donation Center of the Spiritual Army of God the Father. All proceeds go towards supporting the various outreach activities of this ministry.---
The Blessing of St Francis of Assisi to Brother Leo (and my prayer for you, dear reader)
The Lord bless you and keep you.
May He show His face to you and have mercy.
May He turn His countenance to you and give you peace.
The Lord bless you!
The icons I painted in my icon painting class, under the guidance of Susanne Guler, the most amazing teacher. All one really needs is a good teacher and a bit of patience.
|St Michael the Archangel|