Icon writing has put me in touch with prayer and the sacred strokes God has worked in my life. I realize that joy and sorrow, laughter and tears work together in time to reveal God's mysteries. – Teresa Gallmeier, OP
Sister Teresa once shared that "My preaching has come through sharing stories of beauty seen, observed and expressed in a variety of creative mediums." Icon writing is one of those mediums. Residents and visitors to Aquinata Hall enjoy a gallery of her icons lit by the natural light of the atrium windows. Images of Christ, Mary, angels, martyrs and saints go back to a time in history when few people could read or write. Images, rather than words, drew people into holy experience and prayer. Author Mary Jane Miller, in the book Icon Painting Technique, writes of icon writing as an extraordinary kind of prayer. "Through the discipline of painting and interior silence, one gains more insight into the teachings of Christ, as well as a new way to commune with the Spirit. Icons are not portraits; they are windows on a world that calls us to be still, to look and reflect, to be at peace with ourselves, and to rest in a place of thankfulness with God."
Both icon writing and gazing upon an icon reveal deep communion with God, explains icon artist and icon writing teacher Jane Cardinal. “I begin each workshop with these words: 'Upon you rests many choices which have the ability to reawaken, deepen, and direct faith in yourself and those who will venerate your icon. Be mindful of the presence you bring each time you compose yourself to write this icon. Your continual reflective focus will be the subtle spiritual key that has the power to open the way to many spiritual graces. In truth, your soul is the icon you are writing!'"
"Some look at icons and see only misshapen figures with long thin noses, huge eyes, and irregular fingers in strange positions. However, to the one who prays with an icon, these figures express a spiritual state which is not material but mystical," says Linda Schoenborn, OP, who has been writing icons since 1999.
"The written icon is a symbolic language in its color, geometric symmetry, tilt of the head, position of the fingers, and direction of the gaze," says Sister Linda. "Each icon creator is enlightened by the silent reflection on the saint, the story, symbolism, prayer, and meditative writing/painting techniques.
"I find myself drawn to different icons at different times in my life. I know that I have experienced a maturing of my contemplative life through this prayer form."
"The term 'icon writing' may confuse, but iconography has a nomenclature all its own," says Cardinal, who studied in Russia with Master Iconographer Vladislav Andreyev of the Prosopon School of Iconography. "It is called icon writing, rather than icon painting, because the brush-holder is encouraged to be obedient to a very specific process. We are not painting a portrait, we are writing an icon of God."
Sister Linda concurs, "Obedience to the process is about letting go of your need to control your writing as you are writing it. And when the icon is finished, and you gaze upon it, there is the reminder that contemplation is about letting go and letting God."
What draws a person to the icon writing prayer practice? That is a mystery in itself.
John and Joann Orlyk travel from Northville to Conway, Michigan for an icon retreat each year. For several years, he accompanied her to the retreat center and each morning when she set off for morning prayer, meditation, and icon-writing, he set out with his fishing gear. For just one day, he decided to join her instead of heading to the lake.
As a retired jeweler, icon-writing proved to be an experience of beauty, the play of light, natural colors, the quality of minerals and earth—it captured his imagination. Now, each year, when the two prepare for their northern Michigan retreat, the fishing gear stays home.
Hesychia is Greek for the practice of withdrawing from the external world, focusing on inward stillness, contemplation, and prayer.
"The language of God is silence; everything else is translation," said St. John of the Cross. "Hesychia exemplifies contemplative prayer in its highest form," says Sister Linda.
Her hands are crossed, her palms held up and open wide. The expression on her face is one of holy contemplation. In the world of icons, Hesychia is the Angel of the Countenance of God or the Angel of Blessed Silence.
"She is in a state of constant contemplation of God, and when I gaze upon her I engage in her vision of the Divine. And she gazes back upon me, inviting me
to divine peace."