ICON: An Encounter With God - Eamonn Monson sac

Back in 2009 I was looking online for a retreat and my attention was drawn to an Icon Retreat that was taking place at the Redemptoristine Convent in Dublin. At first glance I thought it might be a peaceful time of gazing at these sacred images, a time of respite from the fractious life that I was engaged in at the time.

But it wasn’t simply a time of gazing! It turned out that participants would have to paint (write) an icon. Painting is not one of the talents God has given me but this retreat was tugging at my soul and seemed to be inviting me to stretch myself.

So, on a Monday morning in October twelve of us sat at our tables ready to begin. Our teacher was Mihai, a young Romanian iconographer. I felt like a four-year old starting school, looking at the space in front of me. The brushes, the picture that I was to work from, the blank white board onto which I would attempt to reproduce the lovely image of Our Lady. It promised to be an awful mess!

We listened to our teacher, did our best to follow his instructions and it meant picking up the brush, dipping it into the colour and applying it to the board.

I prayed as I worked for seven to eight hours a day, my mother’s memoriam card on the table as my companion. She had died just over a year previously and grief still stirred strong in me.

Looking at my icon now, eight years later, and reflecting on the process that brought it into being, it has come to be a symbol of what talent is all about. This is in the context of the Gospel reading for the 33rd Sunday.

Talents are God's own gifts given to us to enhance our lives and help us on the road to salvation. They are evidence of God's presence and activity in our lives, given in imperfect form to be developed and brought to perfection by our use of them. Like grace, we have to use our talent or lose it and losing it we let it die.

Ayrton Senna made great use of his talent for driving. A practicing, bible-reading Catholic he saw his talent for what it was - a gift given him by God - and driving formula 1 became experiences of God. On a practice run on the track he had an experience in which he transcended and entered into another dimension and spoke of having a vision of God as he crossed the winning line in a race.

I think of my mother baking brown bread - the taste of her bread fresh out of the oven, a taste of goodness, a sacred taste that somehow connects me with heaven, with God.

In my view, this is what God intends when he gives us gifts and talents - that they become a point of encounter with God, that they bring us authentic spiritual experiences when they are exercised in the way that God intends. And they only achieve this in our lives when we collaborate with God in their development.

My icon was a collaboration between God, Mihai and me. Without either one of us it would not have come into being, would not be what it is. God inspired, Mihai instructed, cajoled, challenged and worked on the parts of the icon that I could not do but - importantly for me - the face is mine. Each one doing that retreat reproduced the face of Our Lady very distinctively. I was quite amazed when I drew the first sketch of the face, amazed by myself and very grateful to Mihai who is a symbol and an image of God in the whole process.

Using one's talent is not simply about one's own personal experience of God. It is also given to touch the lives of others so that when they experience any one of our talents they are in touch with the presence and activity of God. My talent can become for you an encounter with God.

The original and abiding meaning of my icon has to do with suffering children. I took with me on the retreat the Murphy Report that had come out earlier in the Summer. It told the harrowing stories of historical institutional abuse and it knocked the stuffing out of me.

Around the time it was published we had a meeting of religious leaders about how we should respond to and deal with the report  -  on a personal as well as a congregational level. One of the speakers, a psychiatrist I think, spoke of how the stress might affect us. One symptom is a difficulty in swallowing which was something I was experiencing. Of course I had been wondering did I have throat cancer! But it was stress!

Another effect was that I ended up in hospital soon afterwards with a suspected heart attack but that too was stress. I remember lying on the bed in A&E for hours on end, not caring if I lived or died and in a strange way I felt like hospital was a refuge from the awful reality that had been unleashed upon the tender lives of innocent children.

During the icon retreat the section  of the report I was reading was on Letterfrack and the only thing I could do was to pray and paint the pain of those children into the icon that was slowly emerging in front of me.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons why my icon looks sad. A friend commented, "next time you might make her smile." It wasn't a time for smiling. And even though I was affected deeply by the suffering written of in the report, what I felt was nothing, not even a shadow of the reality.

Four months later I heard Heidi Gilroy speak at the Divine Mercy Conference about her experience of having been abused by a soldier when she was a little girl. As she described it I started crying and couldn't stop. I sobbed all the way through her talk and for quite a while afterwards. She broke open my understanding and my heart. It was as if the heart of Jesus himself was crying. I cried for the suffering and then I cried for the Mercy she spoke of, the Mercy that brought her healing.

The icon is called Our Lady of Letterfrack, Mother of the Abused - that's what it has stood for these past eight years. Its what it still stands for. 

And I've noticed now that tiny cracks have appeared all over the face of Mary like the veins that break out over the skin of the harrowed life. It occurred to me that I ought to have varnished the icon as a protection but on second thoughts there is something authentic about what is cracked and damaged; something lived-in rather than preserved.

But, cracked and sad though it be, it is not only a sad icon of suffering, it is also one of survival and has great peace; it is in itself a perpetual prayer for peace and healing.

I have not written another icon since and I think there are some talents which we are given to use occasionally, maybe only once in a lifetime, for a particular purpose. There are other talents that need to be used regularly.

It seems that for my ongoing Pilgrimage home God has given me a number of one-off experiences to keep me going further and further down the road - the Icon, the Camino and the Lighthouse, to name a few. The important thing is to recognize what is sent, to embrace it and allow it to achieve what it is sent to do.

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