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  • Constantina Alexander

St Clare of Assisi

St Clare of Assisi has been sitting in my little private chapel for nearly two years now. She must be the most patient of saints as I had left her in a partially finished and dilapidated state. Originally, this icon was the subject of a week long class and I had used it to demonstrate a few techniques but as my students progressed she was left to fend for herself.

I have a few unfinished pieces and made myself display them to guilt trip me into doing something about them at some point. I made a start with poor St Clare and here she is now, in rather better condition. She has been busy too, on my behalf. One of the students from that same course, who did this icon for her spiritual journey, got in touch with me out of the blue. She was filled with news and I was overjoyed to be reconnected to someone who adores both St Francis and St Clare. Working with icons is not just about painting, not just about art. It is something more. The working of them seems to create some metaphysical connections.

One of the questions I am often asked is, "Do you say you write an icon?" People get very hung up on definitions as if it would be a crime to make a faux pas. If you look at the word iconographia you would see it is made up of two parts icon and graphia both from the Greek meaning image and writing, respectively.

As an artist I pick up my paintbrush and make my marks. How is that different from writing? The only difference is the medium I chose to make marks with. Separating out images and words as if they are separate things may be where we make a mistake, perhaps, we get distracted away from the origin. The essential quality binding the two distinctive practices together is the intention of the one producing the work, not the work itself. My intention when working on this icon was to rejuvenate and restore and to take some time meditating upon St Clare and her qualities. By reciprocation I am certain she was also working on my inner life.

Rover enjoying one of his daily walks

As a Franciscan I have a big book of daily offices for morning, midday, evening and night prayer. If I can manage at least one of these a day I am doing well. You can be certain I have tried, in vain, to do all of them, but it became less of a prayer and more of a chore which required willpower. I decided a walk with the dog along the mountain path was much more conducive to communicating with our Creator than beating myself up having to perform ritualistic prayer several times a day. Exerting willpower may strengthen the mind but it does very little for the spirit.

There is something about praying with attention, just as there is when painting an icon or writing words with intention. I have no wish to preach what is right intention or wrong intention, that would be useless as sometimes someone may say something to us we do not like very much but if they are responding genuinely to some inner directive, which they may or may not be aware of, the message may be one we should surely listen to. St Clare was fully aware the young novitiates in her order often spoke deep truths more openly than the older sisters and she made sure they wer allowed to be heard. She would listen to them just as carefully as she listened to those who felt they had more experience. Experience, can become faded and worn. If we do not pay attention to our prayer life we may find ourselves going through the motions and congratulating ourselves but in reality we are simply going around on the same old roundabout going nowhere fast, as my brother used to say.

It is probably wise to consider all things before dismissing what someone else does or says to us; what someone else paints or represents to us. There are often meanings within meanings and our reaction only highlights our own nature and its inherent limitations and has little to do with what the other is trying to convey to us until we get over ourselves and start paying attention.

God, in his wisdom, brings challenges to our lives to get us out of our safe little ruts. Change makes us pay attention. God is clever and crafty and I so love his wiles and devices. Indeed, I think he knows I have cottoned on to his mischief and so he finds subtler ways to catch me out to elicit my attention. A relationship with God is like playing a big game of hide and seek.

This morning, being St Clare's special day, I hurried down to my chapel to make my devotions. Thinking about my experiences whilst working on the icon, I was more attentive to how I read the two recommended psalms. I made sure I took time to pause between the lines to imbibe the words more distinctly and not be in a rush to move on to the next section. Indeed, this was just how my work with the icon had progressed, with careful attention, the intention being to learn anew each nuance of the working of the image.

For a brief moment when reading aloud the first psalm I so distinctly felt a large hand spiritually curve around my whole being and scoop me up. This experience was suffused with a warmth of divine love and, I was, for a moment, quite overwhelmed. This does not mean it will happen again the next time I do the same when reading. It was simply an indication for me to witness the love from Heaven. Making an effort to understand and renew my way of worship and to continually strive to pay attention to what I am doing in all things, not just prayer, is significant.

Thank you blessed St Clare.