Saints Kilian, Colonat and Totnan – Icon of becoming One with Christ

At times, Christ finds a soul who so loves Him and so gives herself to Him that He fully unites Himself with her, and the human soul becomes Christ-like even in this life. For such souls, though, earthly life is usually not long anyway. They either bury themselves in a cave of the earth, of the world buries them in a grave.

The lives of Saints Kilian, Colonat and Totnan were unknown to me until a lovely lady from Germany commissioned the Monastery to write an icon of their martyrdom. These three Celtic Saints – a bishop, a priest and a deacon – brought Christ to the very people who eventually killed them. As is so often the case, their message of love was fought back with hatred. Their offer of the Gift of Eternal Life was rewarded with suffering and death.

In some way, though, the hatred of the world is almost irrelevant for these souls. It is irrelevant because whoever gives himself fully to Christ knows deep down from the very beginning that love will make him One with Christ. And, because they are One, they will share both Life Eternal and death on the Cross.

When they came to kill Saints Kilian, Colonat and Totnan, the saints fought back the only way Love allows one to fight back. Rather than reach for a gun, rather than respond to violence with violence, to hatred with even more hatred, they did the only thing a Christian heart knows. They loved their murderers to the end, and they died the way they lived – offering Christ to the world.

The three saints knelt. They lifted together a Scripture above their heads. They put nothing between them and their murderer except Christ. This Scripture, stained with the blood of the three Martyrs, is preserved to this day, as are their holy relics.

When we wrote this icon, as we were praying for a composition, the recurring image that came back to me was the Face of Christ, and I understood that this icon is not an icon of the three Celtic Martyrs. Because of the way they lived, because of the way they died, and because of the way they loved Christ and His creation, they had become one with Christ. Christ’s Light embraced and transformed them to the point where they became one with Christ. Their icon had become an icon of Christ.

We wrote this icon in such a way that is says something of their martyrdom, but this is essentially an icon of Christ and those who love Him enough to follow Him on the Cross. The faces of the three martyrs are reduced to the essential lines of their humanity, while everything else in them is melted in Christ’s Light. If you look closely, you will note the subtle lines of a bishop’s vestments, or those of a priest’s vestments. They are hidden deep in their flesh, as if to say that their priesthood has become part of their humanity.

The face of the murderer is the only one painted in profile, to signify that his murder condemned him to losing his personhood. While the love of his victims makes them One with Christ, the hatred of his heart condemns him to never become a full person. Judas is similarly depicted in icons of the Last Supper – the only one among the Apostles who is shown in a profile.

Christ’s Holy Face shows sorrow but this is not sorrow for His beloved ones. They are already His, and in Him they have found Eternal Life – the three crowns in His hand await them. This is the sorrow of the Son of God for those who – from Adam until the last day of His creation – choose hatred over Love, the sword over the Cross, death over Life.

Holy Martyrs Kilian, Colonat and Totnan bless us to love Christ with your love, and pray to Him for us.

Biographical details concerning the Saints and more images can be seen here: https://www.shop.mullmonastery.com/product/saints-kilian-colonat-and-totnan/

St Oran – Icon of Holy Old Age

Some years ago, I witnessed the death of a lovely lady who was slowly taken away by cancer. It was a terrifying experience for all involved, but it mostly affected her daughter, who was the old lady’s only child. When we learnt about the cancer, it was a disaster. Her daughter was in such despair that she became medically depressed and suicidal. When I think back to that time, I remember being more worried about the daughter than the old lady who was actually dying. Days came and went, then weeks, then months. It all lasted close to two years until the old lady passed away and finally found her rest. By the time it happened, we were all expecting it and it came as no surprise. What did come as a surprise was the daughter’s transformation during these long months. The despondent young woman I knew had simply disappeared. There was pain in her still, but not the self-destructive kind of pain that had controlled her mind before.

Years later, we met again in England. We had coffee together and we remembered her mum. As we were talking, out of the blue, she said: ‘My mum gave me the two greatest gifts one can receive in this life. She gave me life and she taught me how to die.’ The dying old lady had shown her despairing daughter how to peacefully let go of her past, and how to lovingly embrace her present, for only the present – good or bad – is real, and only in what is real God can reveal Himself. She had taught her daughter patience in suffering. She had taught her that there is dignity in pain, and that one can accept the help of others in the most intimate moments without losing one’s human dignity. One can totally reveal oneself in one’s naked weakness with simplicity, as a gesture of love, of inviting the other to fully participate in your life, with its cruelty and its indescribable moments of beauty.

We lose so much as a society by ignoring our elderly. We waste so much love by not paying attention. So much wisdom, so much experience, so much opportunity to learn how to deal with life’s greatest challenges pass us by because we do not have the heart to simply pay attention to them. We do no have the heart to enter when these people invite us into their most intimate, their most fragile and awe-inspiring experience – the moment of their death. Because we are so consumed with our own pain, so focused on our personal tragedy, we do not have the heart to love people as they die. We run. We hide. We look away. And so, they die alone, and we age in fear of our own death, because we have refused to see and learn and get prepared. And all this happens under Christ’s all-seeing eyes.

St Oran was the oldest among St Columba’s companions. He was the first to die – by some accounts willingly, as a sacrificial gesture that made the Christian history of Iona possible. He was the first to be buried on the island, and his relics are the first to sanctify the earth here. He was also the first to stand before Christ and pray for his brethen face to Face, in the Kingdom. St Oran was their Elder, the one who taught them how to live and how to die.’

‘Who does not have an old person in his life, should buy one’ – the translation of this old Romanian saying loses its literary savour, but it does keep the basic idea. Old people are one of the most valuable ‘commodity’ one can have, for nothing and no one else can offer us the gifts that they have to offer.

Through the prayers of St Oran, may we all see the loving Face of Christ one day. Happy Feast everyone!


Commission going to Canada. Photos and more information on the Monastery Bookstore: https://www.shop.mullmonastery.com/product/st-oran-of-iona-icon-of-holy-old-age/

St Kenneth

Today – October 11th – we celebrate St Kenneth’s Feast Day – his isle, where he lived as a hermit for some time, is just off the coast of Mull. His cave, which can still be visited today, is one of those extraordinary places where suddenly we all go silent and feel the need to hide in a corner to pray.
 
St Kenneth sought silence and solitude all his live. He retreated to his isle shortly after landing on Iona with St Columba, as one of his original companions. His heart longed for something else, something deep, something real – and Christ gave him the strength to follow that blessed longing to the end.
 
May we all open to the grace of hearing this secret longing of our hearts, and may we all be blessed with the strength to leave all and follow that longing.
 
Happy Feast, everyone!
More images of the icon (including full-size) are posted on the bookstore site: https://www.shop.mullmonastery.com/product/st-kenneth/

St Ita – A Mother’s Cry

Decades ago, when my spiritual father was a little boy in Communist Romania, he came very close to death. A violent disease almost killed him. An orphan by father, with a mother exhausted by worry and work, the four-year-old child was certain to die by morning. But then, with no doctor in the village, no money to travel and seek help somewhere else, no hope or human help left, the survival instinct of the mother took over and resurrected her faith.

Faith is a strange thing. One lives one’s entire life thinking faith is deep in one’s heart. Then, in a moment of real crisis, one discovers with horror that one’s heart is in fact empty, and that what we called faith is merely an illusion and the appearance of faith. And then, the whole world collapses around us. Things that were certain fall to the ground in the fraction of a second. The sources of our strength melt away. Hope disappears. Even the desire to get up and fight is vanished. All is lost. The fall is complete and final.

And then, out of the depth of that fall, out of the death of that abandonment, faith blossoms in one’s heart, and – against all human reason – one’s heart starts beating again.

When all was lost, faith blossomed in the heart of the little boy’s mother. She took the child, by now fainted and with no sign of consciousness, and she run to the village church carrying him in her arms. There, inside the dark wooden church, she knelt before the old icon of the Mother of God and gave the child away. This is an old habit in our remote villages. ‘Giving the child away’ means that the mother abandons her child and gives it to the Mother of God who becomes the child’s new real mother.

My spiritual father told me once how his mother placed him on the floor of the church, before the icon of the Mother of God, and left him there, almost dead, while she went a bit further to pray. She had given him away. She had abandoned him, and he now belonged to the Mother of God. Should he die, he was Her child. Should he live, he will always be Hers. The mother prayed long and her newly found faith made that prayed alive. By early morning, the little boy opened his eyes and started eating again. Slowly, life returned to his frail body.

All his life, to this day, he has considered the Mother of God his proper mother. His natural parent was his care-taker, the one who cares for him on behalf of his real Mother. That little boy grew to become a priest, serving the Mother of God each day of his life, as gratitude for restoring him to life and for accepting him as Her child. That little boy is my spiritual father, and I share in his gratitude to the Theotokos – without Her, he would not be here to keep me alive.

When the person who commissioned this icon of St Ita approached me, she also asked me to pray for one of her children. For some reason, this story of my spiritual father’s life came to my mind, and we created the composition of the icon to illustrate this story of a mother’s cry. It is a personal story, but it is also universally valid. Sooner or later, all parents have to find the strength, have to find the faith to let go of their ‘possession’ of their children and ‘give them away’ to Christ and His Mother.

Parents are entrusted with the most wonderful gift. To take care of a human being is endlessly frightening. To take care of a child, in full awareness that the child is Christ’s Own Image, can be a paralysing responsibility. But one can find immense wisdom and comfort in the primitive gestures of our peasants. They teach us that one only has to love this new Image of Christ; one only has to care for it ‘with fear and love’; one only has to kneel down before the Mother of God and ‘give the child away’ to Her. She will never fail to love. She will never fail to heal. She will never fail to guide.

In this icon, St Ita kneels before the Light of Christ, keeping the children He entrusted her close to her heart. She loves them, but she does not own them. She has given them away to God and God Himself is now their Father.

I pray this icon brings joy, peace and healing in its new home. May St Ita bless and guide all of us.

Commission going to Canada. More images of the icon are available here: https://www.shop.mullmonastery.com/product/st-ita-a-mothers-cry/

St Drostan – Spiritual Fatherhood

Bishops, priests and monastics – male and female – can suffer (God willing, maybe not all of us do) from a type of loneliness that comes from the responsibility of always comforting (without being comforted), always forgiving (without ever being forgiven), always getting everyone back on their feet and spiritually renewed (while hardly ever receiving any spiritual support themselves). Yes, this is the cross we were given; and yes, this is the path we have taken. And yet, we are all human – clergy and monastics included – and like all humans, we need forgiveness, we need light, we need support, we need to be allowed to get up and start again. We need what all humans need – to feel loved.

There is so much I love about St Drostan, yet I suppose it is this particular miracle – the healing a priest called Symeon – that brings him instantly close to my heart. There is something special to me, a priest, about this story. St Drostan’s miracle speaks loudly about a suffering which is rarely talked about in the Church, a kind of suffering that goes mostly unnoticed by all except those who are affected by it – the clergy of the Church.

Because of this perception – that clergy should never need any help – priests and monastics tend not to ask for help when they suffer. And they do suffer, for it can be very lonely as a priest. It can be depressing. Live can get very dark. People forget that our bishops, priests and monastics are the most exposed among us – spiritually, they are on the front line, they are the ones under the greater attacks, they are the ones both God and the devil test most. God does it out of an excess of love; the devil – out of an excess of hatred.

St Drostan’s miracle spoke to me because it envolved the healing of a priest, but also because of the nature of that healing. Symeon, the priest, needed light. The priest had lost his sight, had lost his direction, had lost his hope. When darkness engulfs the heart of a priest, that is no ordinary darkness, but the deepest of the deep. Symeon, the priest, goes to St Drostan to ask for light, and St Drostan opens his spiritual eyes to the Light of Christ.

When we were working on the compostion of this icon, there were a number of things I wanted it to convey. Priest Symeon (note his epitrachilion, a symbol of his priesthood) has his eyes closed, as a sign of the spiritual darkness which is fighting him. There is complete abandonment on his face. St Drostan is his last hope, and he places his soul in the hands of this holy man. I know from my own experience how much a priest longs to be blessed himself, to feel a hand over his own head taking away his sins, forgiving him, granting him light and the hope of a new beginning. A priest can hold his hands over hundreds of heads in a week, praying for all, absolving all, while his heart longs for a loving hand above his own head.

St Drostan does precisely that. His expression is loving, but focused and deep in prayer. He does not look at the kneeling priest, but at the Light pouring through his hands over Symeon’s hands, completely aware that this Light (not himself) is the source of all healing and salvation. Like all confessions, this icon depicts the meeting of three Persons, not two: the spiritual father, the son and God Himself. Symeon’s humility (he is kneeling before the saint) comes from his need and despair, but St Drostan’s humility (note his posture) comes from his awareness that he is doing God’s work, in His Maker’s presence (which is why is is slightly bowing, as if standing before Christ). I purposely chose not to depict St Drostan as a priest (although he was ordained), because I wanted to signify that spiritual fatherhood is not an exclusive charisma of the ordained clergy – the Tradition of the Church has kept the memory of simple monks (and, indeed, nuns) whom Christ had blessed for this particular work.

Finally, pay attention to the Light that crosses the icon diagonally, from the upper right corner to the lower left one. This Light, the Uncreated Divine Light, God Himself, descends from Heavens and first rests on the spiritual father. St Drostan’s hallo is ‘fed’ by the divine Light, as a sign that his holiness is God’s holiness – God and Man become one in His Divine Light. The Light then travels from the spiritual father onto his hands, as a sign that holiness is always translated into holy works. In this case, the holy deed is the healing, the restauration of Symeon’s sight, the very gift of the Divine Light from the spiritual father to his spiritual son, who have now become as one. in God’s Light.

I would like thank the family who commissioned this icon. As I prayed for an understanding, for a vision of what this icon should look like, I was reminded once again of how much I owe my own spiritual father. I am totally aware that all I received through him came from Christ; I am aware he is only human. But for me, this ‘only human’ man has kept me spiritually alive (and has spiritually resurrected me many times). This icon is the perfect gift for one’s spiritual father, the most simple and direct way to tell him that nothing of his sacrifice is forgotten. It lives on through me. I am alive through this sacrifice.

Glory be to God for all.

More images are available on the Monastery online store: https://www.shop.mullmonastery.com/product/st-drostan-spiritual-fatherhood/

 

St Bede – To Know through Love

I look at St Bede’s life and it becomes obvious to me that the madness of the world in which we we live feeds on our lack of love for each other. We can scream at each other at the top of our voices – we shall never hear what the other one says, because they don’t speak out of love, and we don’t listen in love. There is no oneness between us. There is no humility. No genuine openness. We are paralysed in our ‘truths’, our righteousness – ultimately, we are consumed by the idols we have created. Our world is falling not because of sin, but because of selfishness and lack of love. I look at St Bede, I look at St Silouan, I look at all these wondrous holy people, and their silent prayer reminds me that the way to salvation – for myself and for the world around – does not come from screaming my truths louder than everyone else. Quite the contrary, what we all need is silence, so that – in this blessed silence – we may hear the Voice of the One Truth – that Truth Who is also the Path and the Life.

There is a story about a meeting between St Silouan the Athonite and the other Elders of the Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon on Athos, when the Saint was asked why he does not read the papers. Does he not want to know what happens in the world? Does he not care about the world? After all, those were the horrid years of the Second World War. In his humble and quiet way, St Silouan replied to say that one does not need to read the papers to know what goes on in the world. One simply needs to pray with love for the world, and that opens one’s heart to feel the pain that torments the world. That is still knowledge, but not knowledge of the mind, information collected from the outside, but knowledge of the heart, that comes through shared experience of the same reality.

There are many stories like this about the Saints. Ancient or modern, their way of ‘knowing’ has very little to do with the cold manner in which we relate to gathering ‘information’. Their love opened them to the world, made them one with the world, and this oneness told them all they need to know about it. I’ve heard this many times in confession, too – mothers who tell me they ‘know’ when their children are going through a rough time, although they live thousands of miles away. Husbands and wives, live-long friends – people connected by love know each other in ways unrelated to ‘information’, but to a sort of shared experience.

St Bede entered the monastery when he was about seven, to access the best available education of the time. Except for a few brief visits to other monasteries, he spent his entire life in his Monastery. This is not an extraordinary fact. To this day, many monks and nuns – from Athos to monasteries in the Holy Land, Egypt and many other countries – never leave their monasteries and never interact with the ‘outside’ world in any other way except through prayer. Yet this self-imposed distance, this physical separation does not generate a spiritual separation from the body of the Church. On the contrary, when their asceticism is offered with love, they become one with the world and they know it in ways that remain inaccessible for the rest of us.

St Bede spent his life in his Monastery, but wrote over sixty books on topics as varied as history, canon law, poetry, grammar and chronology. If one takes the time to listen with patience to all those whom God brings in our lives; if one is not obsessive with promoting one’s own opinions about things, but rather listens and discerns; if one is not overcome with the need to control others and impose one’s own righteousness upon them – if one simply allows others to exist freely around himself and opens oneself to them in love, then no physical distance can come between us.

Only lack of love can separate and break  us.


Commission going to Oxford, England.

More photos on the Monastery Bookstore: https://www.shop.mullmonastery.com/product/st-bede-love-as-knowledge/

 

St Ita – raising up Saints

St Ita is known as the Foster Mother of God’s Saints, because so many of the children she raised became holy. I am very grateful for this particular commission, because it very much deepened my relationship with St Ita and it helped me put into words something I had intuitively known for long intuitively concerning the education of children.

One way of another, parents of all sorts – adoptive, natural, spiritual parents – are given the responsibility of other human beings, and they have to somehow help their children reach the holiness of their full potential in Christ. Parents are given their children to love and educate, to guide and direct towards Christ, through the maze and swamp of a world that is filled with temptation and sin.

How does one turn one’s children into holy people? How did St Ita manage to plant the right seeds into the hearts of her children, at the right time, in the right manner so that they grew and brought forth the fruit of Christ’s image into their being? How did she manage to set the spiritual foundation so that these children would grow to become the likes of St Brendan the Navigator?

I knew in my heart, and it now became clear to my mind, as well, that the central thing is to always point them in Christ’s direction. I learnt very clearly from St Ita that parents have to clean their eyes first, so that we let go of our obsession with the sinfulness of the world and focus our whole being on the sparks of holiness that lie hidden in the world. Once our spiritual eyes learn to focus (almost instinctively) on that which is holy in the world, once we learn to turn ourselves towards the manifestations of Christ’s presence in the world (the way flowers always turn to follow the sun, and never turn to reflect the darkness of the sky) – then and only then we can pass that wisdom to our children.

Ita means ‘thirst for holiness’, for the saint spent her life looking for holiness, thirsting to find it in the created world and within herself. We all grow spiritually through what we consume spiritually. If we feed ourselves on fear, bitterness and an obsessive need to look for the evil in the world, that evil will end up shaping who we are. When we invest our time and effort looking for what is wrong and dark around us, we are in fact enslaved to that darkness and we shall ultimately become its reflection. We shall wither away, like a flower that forgot to look at the sun and always turned to face the dark.

Look at world trying to find Christ in it. Look at every situation, look at every human being, in any context and try hard, try very hard to always identify the signs of Christ’s presence. Once you find them, point them out to your children. Teach your children to spend their lives looking for Christ. Teach them to always turn their spiritual eyes to face His light. Teach them to allow Christ’s presence in the world to shape them, rather than to become obsessed with the sinfulness of the world.

Let darkness pass by, let dirt wash away, let temptation fight itself and do not let it touch you – teach your children to look for Christ, teach them to identify Him in any context, and help them always follow Him. Christ has made your children free. Do not enslave them to the fear of sin to the point where they are frightened to open their hearts to the world. Your children are free, they are loved and they are immeasurably valuable in the eyes of their Creator. Help them find that love of Christ, and teach them to hold on to the seeds of that love in their hearts – if later in life they chose to water these seeds through the choices they make as they grow up, you have raised a Saint.


Commission going to Saskatchewan, Canada.

More photos of the icon are posted on the bookstore site: https://www.shop.mullmonastery.com/product/st-ita-mother-of-saints/

St Fillan and the healing power of love

Our first commission of St Fillan was linked to the story of the repentant wolf that willingly bows down in obedience to the saint’s gentleness. It was a commission for which I am particularly grateful, because I had never prayed to St Fillan before having to think about the composition of that icon. Later on, while trying to find out more information about the Saint, we’ve discovered that he is a protector and healer of people suffering from mental illnesses.

There are ancient stories about a small loch next to his hermitage, the waters of which had healing powers through the saint’s prayers. People who suffered from many mental afflictions would travel to see the saint and to ask for his intercession. Once they immersed in the waters of the saint’s loch, they regained their health and spiritual strength. Some of them spent the night in the cold waters, waiting for God’s mercy to descend upon them.

Mental illness… Mental suffering… What exactly does that mean? How many of us, how many of the lovely, wonderful people I know who suffer from depression, loneliness and fear still thirst to this day for someone like St Fillan, whose love can heal them? There is something fearsome and beautiful about this Saint who made himself a vessel for the Holy Spirit, so that God’s presence in the temple of his holy body may soothe and heal the pain of his brothers.

Holiness does not come easy. We always forget that. Holiness only comes through self-denial and self-sacrifice to the point of death – be that physical death, or death by removing oneself from partaking into the world in order to open oneself to Christ. Only sacrifice bears the fruit of holiness, because only the one who has enough love as to give one’s life for the sake of one’s brother is perfect.

Saints are holy not because they are special, nor because they are loved more by God. Saints become holy because their hearts burn with love for the world – that holy fire kills them to the world, and turns them into temples of the Holy Spirit. The healing power of a Saint’s love has nothing to do with our romantic vision of holiness, and it has everything to do with their determination to self-sacrifice for the life and salvation of the world. Saints become Christ-like in their love and healing power because they become Christ-like in their willing self-sacrifice.

The whole world needs healing today. We all need someone to love us not because of who we are, but despite who we are. We need Saints like St Fillan to love us unreservedly and unconditionally – only such Christ-like love will drag us out of our profound sadness and loneliness. Through the prayers of St Fillan, may we all feel the healing power of Christ’s presence in our lives.


For more information and detailed photos visit the Monastery bookstore.

St Cuthbert – full size

I’m travelling these days, so this will be brief. I just cannot let St Cuthbert’s feast day pass without a mention. There is something about St Cuthbert that connects him in my heart with St Seraphim. There is something common in the way they succeed to let go of everything and focus on the one thing that truly matters for them. There is something common in their gradual evolution from monks living in large influential communities to remote holy hermits. There is definitely something common in their determined rejection of any position of authority – St Seraphim refused to be named the abbot of his monastery, while St Cuthbert abandoned his episcopal see and returned to his beloved island.

Above everything, though, there is definitely something common in their understanding of prayer. St Seraphim prayed for a thousand days and nights in the deep Russian forests. St Cuthbert entered the cold waters of the North Sea down to his shoulders, and prayed like that, night after night. Both approached prayer the way most people approach a deadly disease: something out of which one either returns resurrected as a new man, or sinks deep into death. For both of them prayer was not a search for comfort – physical or emotional. For both of them prayer was the fighting scene between Life and death, something so serious that it could only be done while facing death in the face – Russian winters and the North Sea waters are both life-threatening, but this closeness of death gave life, gave meaning, gave energy to their prayer.

I love St Cuthbert and St Seraphim in the same way, with a combination of awe, fear and longing to experience something – be it only a shadow – of their spiritual strength and determination. May we all be blessed through their prayers, and may we all – through Christ’s endless mercy and love – be allowed to taste something of the sweetness of their prayer. Happy Feast Day, everyone!


This commission goes to Wenatchee, WA, USA


More details photographs available on this link.

St Patrick and the Jesus Prayer

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ to my right, Christ to my left.
CHRIST WITHIN ME.

This icon is precisely about that last line: the fulfilment of it all, the calling of all creation, the true self of each of us: my Creator within my being.

Press your hands against your heart and feel Christ – I’ve seen the old fathers in my monastery make this gesture as they were praying the Jesus prayer. Completely unaware of what they were doing, entirely caught up in the reality of whatever they were experiencing – something almost like an unwilling confession, they were pointing to their heart as if to say: here, here is where Christ lives. I remember feeling ashamed to witness this. I remember looking down, as if trying not to stain what I was witnessing with the unworthiness of my own heart. That gesture of theirs, those fingers pressing against their chest have been with me ever since, and this icon is about THAT.

Press your hands against your heart and feel Christ. He is already there, His Kingdom has always been there. Not as a metaphor, not as a symbol, but Christ-God Himself, as real as His Body and Blood.


For more detailed photographs, follow this link.


For a new Commission, follow this link.

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