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.