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.


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St Fillan and the repentant wolf

If you have not heard of St Fillan, please search his life and read it. There is nothing shameful in not knowing anything, in not having even heard of him or any of these wonderful Saints. We see today the effects of centuries of purposeful destruction of their heritage, centuries of constant attempts to delete their memory. When you discover a Celtic Saint of which you had no previous knowledge, give thanks to God: you have unearthed an amazing treasure. Begin from there and see where Christ leads you – there is no accident, no coincidence in the eyes of God.

St Fillan is such a treasure. I have not been able to find any previous icon of him – if you know of any, please send it to me. This icon focuses on one particular event in the Saint’s life, but tries to make something else visible. Once, a wolf killed the ox which St Fillan used to work the fields, so the wolf had to replace the dead ox and plough the fields with the saint. On the surface, this is what the icon shows.

Pray for a little while and the icon suddenly becomes the image of a confessor’s gentleness, or that of a parent’s struggle to both love and educate. This is the icon of the struggle any loving heart goes through when faced with the need to direct or to punish. Love punishes in a manner that edifies – not crushes; love corrects in a way that allows one to grow into one’s true identity (God has created the wolf to serve man, and in this obedience it finds its true meaning) – not deform one’s identity by imposing the parent’s identity on him.

When love educates, there is no battle of wills involved. In fact, there is no human will here – the only will present is that of God. Looking at their faces, it is obvious that to punish goes against the Saint’s love, while to obey goes against the wolf’s fallen nature. And yet both of them bow down to one another (see their posture) and together, they both bow to God’s will.

The hands that impose obedience look more like hands that caress, hands that bless. The one in authority has the posture of the one under obedience. When you look at their posture, one cannot distinguish who is the one in authority, who obeys to whom, for they both obey to God, and they bow down to one other.

Humanity is called to use the created world in love, not to abuse it with indifference. Humanity is called to help rekindle the true identity of the created world, not to destroy it. For after all – and this is something we should never allow ourselves to forget – our own fall, the fall of Man has dragged the world into its current fallen state.

The expression on St Fillan’s face reflects this very awareness: this animal has killed, this animal has fallen because of our fallen nature, and ultimately, because of my own sinfulness.


To commission a new work, an initial Deposit is to be paid. The balance is due when the icon is finished (usually 2 to 3 months), before being sent to your home.


For more photos of the icons, including details, click this link.

St Columba working on a manuscript

This commission was a major challenge from start to finish. It is very difficult to create a new composition of such a well known and beloved Saint. We prayed for an icon that would bring to light a new, hidden side of St Columba’s personality. For that reason, we decided from the very beginning that we would aim for a visual expression of an aspect of the Saint’s inner life, rather than focus on a particular event in his historical life.

For a few centuries during the first millennium, St Columba’s Monastery on Iona was not only the heart of the Christian Church in Scotland, but also a major centre of art and culture. Iona’s cultural influence extended far beyond the Celtic Isles through the beauty of the illuminated manuscripts written by the monks on Iona. The Book of Kells itself, one of the greatest treasures from that time which is still in existence today, was painted in St Columba’s Monastery.

The Saints himself copied texts and created many manuscripts throughout his entire life. In fact, the very reason for his presence on Iona had something to do with such a manuscript. In his youth, St Columba was involved in a dispute over the rights to keep a manuscript he had copied from an original that belonged to St Finnian. This dispute escalated into a real battle, which led to the death of several people. As punishment, St Columba was exiled from Ireland, which is why he sailed North, to the Scottish Isles. Tradition tells us that his remorse was so great that he purposely kept sailing until he reached an island from where, looking back, he could no longer see his home country. This island was Iona.

This is how we arrived to the idea behind this commission: St Columba working on an illuminated manuscript. However, the really interesting aspect to me was the personal one. As he grew older, as he sat in his cell on the tiny hill close to the monastery church, copying some text or another, was that remorse still with him? Did that terrible fall in his youth still cloud his soul?

These are the thoughts that we hoped to show in the gaze of this humble, old monk. Because these are questions that affect all of us, and we all must – sooner or later – face this anguish. How does one relate to past sins? How does one face old age still carrying the weight of a fallen nature? How does one look forward to the Resurrection while also looking back to one’s past sinfulness?

We started from the intellectual idea of an icon depicting St Columba working on a manuscript. Prayer took us to the end of this journey, where we discovered that what was given to us was, in fact, something much deeper: as icon of repentance. This holy old monk contemplating the sinfulness of his youth is endlessly more relevant to our life than the historical reality of the depicted scene. The spiritual struggle of one’s inner life remains relevant regardless of age. Through this commission, St Columba revealed himself as a teacher of repentance, one who can lead us into old age and help us bring our repentance  before Christ in a way that leads to our salvation, not to despair or abandonment.


More detailed photographs of the icon are available on our Bookstore website.

St Morwenna and her Treasure

When we receive a new commission, particularly when that relates to one of the lesser known Celtic Saints, with no previous icons readily available to compare (such as St Morwenna), where does one begin? We’ve approached this question from so many angles, and the best solution we could find was to always begins with a series of conversations. Conversations with the person who commissions us, and conversations with the Saint herself.

Everything is relevant: why this particular Saint, what is the personal connection with her, is there a story, some event, some experience, a miracle, a dream, even? It is essential to understand that personal story, because that story, that experience is our only way to the Saints herself. You, the person who commissions the work, may think that you are the active part in this process. My experience has taught me that that is almost never the case, and that the Saints themselves choose very specific people and make themselves visible through them.

You may think that writing this icon begins with you, but the reality is that it all started a long time ago, when the Saint spoke to your heart and made himself / herself manifest in your life. You are the means through which these ancient Saints step back into the world. Your commission will put a face on these Saints, it will give them a physical presence, it will act as a new entry into our world. Not that they were ever absent, but we need this physical manifestation to turn ourselves to them in prayer once again.

Which brings me to prayer… We start from your story, but then we move through prayer (you and I, together) to what the Saint wants to communicate through your story. Who is this holy person? Who is Morwenna, for instance? What is it about her that makes her who she is? The answer we received in our hearts was that of silent sacrifice, consistent and hidden sacrifice. Selflessness. And, at the end of it all, a certain sense of loneliness. The holy loneliness of one who has nothing here, in this life; the holy loneliness of one who does not belong, who purposely grows no roots here, gathers no treasure here. The loneliness of one who puts her entire existence in God’s palm and never rests until she finds herself in His Kingdom. Such people build their salvation on stone – the stone of the secret, silent virtues they have gathered in Christ.

And suddenly, out of nowhere, this image grew into our hearts: night-time, silence, a pale and tired young nun, resting her head against her treasure: the church she built for others, stone by stone, day by day, simply out of love for Christ and humanity. A treasure of love, which never rusts and never is stolen, hidden against pride and self-satisfaction by the silence of the sea and the darkness of the night which surrounds her. A treasure of love which is not on the outside, but part of who she is, part of her identity, that which makes her holy – which is why her hallo, the symbol of her holiness, includes the church in her ‘self’.

It is a frightening process in many ways. It must begin with prayer and end with prayer. No other approach is safe, for  – at the end of it all – we are the hearts and hands that make these Saints visible to the world. May we all, through their prayers, be blessed and find our salvation.

St Morwenna carrying stones

Our first commission in this series of new, original compositions was for an icon of St Morwenna. Strangely enough, our second commission was also for an icon of St Morwenna.

There is something special about this little known Saint that deeply touches my heart. Not much about her life has been preserved, but what has been remembered is the image of a simple woman, dedicating her entire life to serve all those around her. There are no spectacular miracles. No extraordinary deeds. No mountains moved.

St Morwenna’s holiness lies somewhere else. The foundation of her faith is simple, humble, silent love for people who hardly even noticed her sacrifice. Up on the top of a steep cliff – known as the Raven’s Crag – just above the stormy waters of the Atlantic, she built a small church so that the local faithful may have a place where to pray for their salvation.

She is remembered carrying stones on her head up the mountain unassumingly, in silence and humility. Day by day, she spent her life for everyone else but herself. Stone by stone, she climbed that mountain focused on the needs of those around her. Any of those people could have built that church, and yet none of them did. Only this simple woman found the love to let go of herself, to empty herself of her own needs, of her own suffering, and live for the happiness and the salvation of everyone else.

It is a story that resonates with me, as I am sure it resonates with you, too. It reminds me of all the countless, small, hardly ever noticed sacrifices that women everywhere are making for everyone else. St Morwenna built a church: slowly, silently, stone by stone. Her selfless love reminds me of mothers, wives, nuns, friends everywhere who, simply out of love – day by day, meal by meal, advice by advice, smile by smile – build this world and give it a heart.

Thank you for the opportunity you have given us to paint the icon of this wonderful Saint. May she, through her prayers before Christ, bless us all. May she, through her love and prayers, build a small church for all of us in God’s Kingdom.

 

Saint Cuthbert – portrait, praying in the sea

Some time ago, I announced that the Monastery would start a long-term campaign to create original icons of the Celtic Saints. We want to offer everyone who loves the Celtic Saints the opportunity to purchase unique, personal icons, hand painted on natural wood. The main difficulty has been to find a way to balance the desire to offer high quality icons while still keeping the costs as low as possible.

The solution we’ve found is to develop two different iconographic projects. First, we shall continue the ‘Series’ project which aims to create a series of 12 to 20 standard icons of the Celtic Saints. We have already painted three icons in this series – St Columba, St Patrick and St Brendan – and two more are now in the process of being finalised: St Ita (Ida) and St Brigid. Because these icons are standardised (in the sense that we are not creating a new composition for each new commission, but merely painting a new copy every time) and because they are painted in a simple style, very common in the monasteries in Moldavia, we can afford to offer them at the lowest possible price for a hand painted icon.

The second project – entirely different from the ‘Series’ one – aims to offer original, creative icons of very high quality. This second project is focused on quality and originality, and allows us to create icons which are entirely personalised (such as icons depicting one particular aspect or event in a saint’s life) or icons of less known saints, for whom other icons simply do not exist. This new project requires great effort, dedication and a lot of work. One has to research the life of the Saints, look for previous iconographic representations of similar events or ideas, work through multiple versions of the composition until a satisfactory one is created, then execute the actual painting. Because these are unique icons (not standardised, as the those in the ‘Series’ project), all this work is repeated for each new commission, which makes them more expensive.

It sounds extremely difficult and time-consuming, and it is indeed. But the excitement of having created an entirely new icon, the joy of taking an unknown saint’s life and finding a visual expression to it, making aspects of that saint’s life (his / her face, actions, words, values etc) visible again in an icon is immensely satisfying and an extraordinary spiritual experience both for me and for the person who commissions the icon.

I shall try to post the first commissions we have received over the next week or so. If you are interested to commission an icon, please write me an email (at ierom.serafim@yahoo.co.uk) and we shall work together through each stage of the process. Remember that the aim of this project is to focus on less known saints or to illustrate a personal relationship with one particular saint, so the more personal the icon, the more interested we shall be in the commission.

I think it is only proper to offer this icon of St Cuthbert as our first commission in this project. St Cuthbert is one the two Patron Saints of our church on the Isle of Mull, and we are extremely grateful for the opportunity we were given to create this icon which focuses on his solitary prayer at night-time, in the waters of the sea.

Icons of the Celtic Saints

About two months ago, I posted three icons of Sts Columba, Brendan and Patrick on our online bookstore, and within 24 hours we had not only sold them, but also had eight new orders. The idea is to develop a series of simple icons of the Celtic Saints which are true to Orthodox iconographic canons, while also incorporating Celtic elements and biographical details of the Saints. I feel the Monastery should find a way to provide you with beautiful, yet affordable hand-painted icons on real wood. The solution that came to mind was to be in touch with the same iconographer who painted my own icons while I lived in my monastery in Moldavia. His style is iconographically correct and heart-felt, almost peasant-like in its simplicity. He uses good quality materials and real wood, and there is a sense of spiritual health in his direct, non-sophisticated manner of painting.

After those initial icons were published, I received a great number of emails asking whether we can paint icons of Celtic saints who are less well-known or icons which depict certain scenes from the lives of the Celtic Saints. It soon became obvious that we must either abandon the plan of a complete series of Celtic icons (there simply is no time to continue the series, while also focusing on these personal requests for icons) or come up with a new solution.

After giving it a lot of thought, I decided that it is very important to continue what we started and create a complete series of icons of the Celtic Saints. By that, I imagine a number of 12-15 icons painted in the same manner, using the same dimensions and style, and preserving the same structure and composition. If you look at the three icons we created so far, you will see what I mean by that.

At the same time, I do understand the need to provide icons of lesser known Celtic Saints, as much as I understand the need to personalise even the icons of very well knows Saints. For instance, I have personally always wanted an icon of St Cuthbert praying in the sea by night, because that is the image of St Cuthbert that speaks to my heart and inspires me most.

So I eventually got in touch with Dr Mihaela Schiopu, who is one of the best friends of our Monastery (you may know her work if you have seen our booklets On Prayer and, more recently, The Voice in Confession) and have come up with a plan for a new collaboration. This way, the Monastery will be able to provide you with unique, personalised icons of the Celtic Saints, while also continuing to develop the original series of Celtic Icons.

This new blog is dedicated to our icons. I want to share with you this new adventure, step by step. To create an icon is to create a personal relationship with a certain Saint: face to face, heart to heart. Since we have received our very first commissions, I have discovered the lives of several Celtic Saints who were unknown to me, and I have fallen in love with all of them. For all of that, I am deeply grateful to those who have written to commission these icons. I pray this new blog and the icons we shall create together will provide you with at least the same happiness and spiritual joy they have given me.

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