Thanks to the generosity of Sion College and the Diocese of Southwark, I enjoyed my first ever sabbatical in 2016. It started on Easter Monday, and I was back in time for the pre-ordination retreat in June which, as DDO, is an important part of my role. I spent roughly a month each in three countries: Israel, Cyprus, and the UK, and had a wide range of experiences including ecumenical encounters during Orthodox Holy Week, gaining my International Certificate of Competence as a sailor, and witnessing first-hand the political complexities of living in Israel. It was a rich and rewarding time which will stay with me and inform my life and ministry for many years to come.
I have a long-standing interest in iconography, and some years ago went on my first icon-writing retreat at Alton Abbey, under the watchful eye of Dom Anselm Shobrook. I wanted to write an icon during my retreat but wished to remain open to which image I might use. So I packed an ‘icon travel kit’ of pigments, brushes, gold leaf, and various accoutrements, and a gessoed board, and waited to see what might transpire. During my time in Jerusalem, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre several times, at different times of day, having been struck by it during my previous, fleeting visit. I was particularly moved by the devotion around the ‘anointing stone’, just inside the main entrance; I sat there for a while, and noticed the large mosaic on the wall behind it, of the Lamentation upon the Grave (‘Epitaphios Threnos’), or Lamentation of Christ, based on John 19: Jesus has been taken down from the cross and laid on the anointing stone to be prepared for burial. His mother cradles his head in her arms, John the beloved disciple holds his hand, Joseph of Arimathea his feet, and Mary Magdalen wails, her arms outstretched. It was not an imagine with which I was at all familiar, and I found it compelling. I started to search for icons of the lamentation, to see if this would be a possible subject for my icon.
I thought about it a lot while in Jerusalem, and decided to start it immediately I arrived in Cyprus. So, in Larnaca, I found a print shop to get a high-quality print-out of the icon I wished to use, bought some fresh eggs for the tempera, took a deep breath and made a start. I am not very experienced – this would be my third icon, and my first without supervision – and I confess I was nervous. I said some prayers, and began work.
I am sure there are set prayers for before, during, and after working on an icon; however, I found it helpful just to be as attentive as possible to the task in hand. I found it interesting to reflect on what came to mind as I focused on this image and how I might best replicate it, and I was always surprised how quickly I was able to forget my surroundings – and everything else – and become entirely consumed by the image, and my response to it. I started and ended with an articulated prayer, but in between I just tried to remain as open and alert as possible. I found that this works for me. Also, I find this slow work, which is also spiritually helpful. I could not rush this even if I’d wanted to, and I knew it was going to a be a long job. There was some peace to be had in accepting this, and I found it freed me to be receptive, attentive, careful.
And so I did it bit by bit, some days I spent an hour or so, other days it took up most of the day and evening, depending on our location, and other plans. Staying in a beautiful house in Nicosia during Orthodox Holy Week we soon learned that everything was completely closed for the Triduum – so I worked on the icon, and an attended the liturgies at the Cathedral. One of the most moving moments, which made me realize that this image on which I was working was exactly the right one for me at that time, in that place, was to behold the central place of this image in the liturgy of Vespers on Good Friday. This image of the Lamentation is less often found in icons (or mosaics, such as the one in the Holy Sepulchre), but is most familiar as an intricate, embroidered scene on a large cloth which is anointed, and placed on a table sheltered by a bier (to represent Jesus’ tomb) which is highly decorated throughout the day with hundreds of flowers. Near the end of the evening liturgy, this Epitaphios is processed through the church and, in Nicosia, outside the building, where it was held high by the priests as the faithful queued to venerate it by passing underneath it – from the death of the tomb to new life.
I left Cyprus for the UK with the icon more than half-completed. I spent a happy couple of days working on it when staying with a friend in Lincoln and, to end my sabbatical, I had a six-day silent retreat in a convent in Ditchingham, which was the perfect place to focus, uninterrupted.
I am pleased with the result, and it will remain a profound reminder of my sabbatical in all its different aspects. Fortunately, an icon can never be perfect because only God is perfect; mine is certainly flawed, but the gift of so many hours of open attention while I was working on it was precious and helpful to me. I have already started another, though now I’m back in full-time ministry it is progressing far more slowly. But I find the process a valuable way to escape from my own concerns and focus instead on what God might show me through a particular image and the process of trying to replicate it.