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/
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/
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 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/
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.
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
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.
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.
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.