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Eleven people gathered in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Church in Rothesay for an unusual Lenten retreat. Over four days, the group learned about iconography and painted or “wrote” an icon of their own, called “Christ Pantocrator.”

Through parish news, friends, co-workers and eNews, the 11 learned about the retreat and set aside the week of March 13 to study under the direction of Fr. Benjamin Von Bredow, a parish priest in Shelburne, N.S. Samuel Landry, youth and families minister at St. Paul’s, organized the event and participated as well.

Samuel and Benjamin met at Kings College in Halifax, where both were exposed to religious icons. Fr. Benjamin became hooked on the sacred art “at a similar workshop as I am currently doing,” he said, in 2016 at Kings College.

“It appealed to me. It’s the carrying forward of a very long Christian tradition of sacred art. It is an artistic tradition that appeals to my spirituality.”

When Samuel and rector Paul Rideout were discussing Lenten events, the idea of a workshop or retreat on iconography was pitched.

Fr. Benjamin described an icon as “a treasure of the Christian tradition from the first century. It is a gift to our Church, but not well known outside the Eastern Church.”

He further described icons as a doorway to heaven — where one looks at the icon and prays through it to Christ himself, realizing that doorway both transports us to heaven and allows Christ to see us and transform us.

“It’s a piece of art meant to be a meeting place between us and God,” said Samuel. “It’s not just decorative.”

But icons in the Christian Church have had a rough history. Accusations and fears of them becoming objects of idolatry — and even the question of whether it’s blasphemous to depict Jesus or God in art — led to some churches destroying their icons during the period known as Iconoclasm — literally ‘smashing icons’ — under the Byzantine Empire from 726 to 842 AD.

These same fears and questions surfaced in the 1500s during the Reformation.

Since then, iconography has been more popular in the Eastern Church, to the point where finding even the proper wooden boards on which to paint is difficult. This time around, Fr. Benjamin had to buy the boards, made from linden wood, online from Bulgaria.

The retreat began Tuesday evening with a presentation that was open to the parish. Fr. Benjamin set the stage with the history of iconography. Then for the next three days, the group ate together, and worshipped at Morning and Evening Prayer and Eucharist — all intentional and successful at forging bonds and framing the painting times.

While most participants had some connection to St. Paul’s, some didn’t necessarily know each other before starting this Lenten journey. By day four, it was apparent that strong friendships had been made.

“It’s been an intense and joyful experience as we struggled along,” said Samuel. “We spent days in the ‘wilderness,’ slowly working towards a fuller image of Christ.”

The image of Christ they painted — Christ Pantocrator — was one of the first images of Christ developed in the Early Christian Church and remains a central icon of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It depicts Christ holding the New Testament in his left hand, making the gesture of teaching or of blessing with his right. 

When all 11 icons were lined up on the altar at St. Paul’s, they looked strikingly similar, illustrating the fact that iconography is less about creativity and more about reproducing an image.

Fr. Benjamin expected retirees would make up his students, but there were a variety of ages and backgrounds.

Dr. Claude Botha, a psychiatrist in Saint John, was feeling the stress and strain of working in health care. It was his co-worker, Bev Blisset, a St. Paul’s parishioner, who suggested he needed some down time.

“I took this as a time to refresh and recentre,” he said. “It’s worked. Very much so.”

Bev herself was grateful for the experience.

“I value the beauty and silence of the retreat, to spend time with God,” she said. “It’s beyond fulfilling. I haven’t picked up a phone or a screen. It’s the divine unplugging. It’s been splendid — good for the soul.”

Klaudia Ross of Moncton made a lot of sacrifices to get to the retreat. She arranged with her husband to home school their children, something she normally does, and she prepared the week’s worth of meals before driving to Rothesay.

“I’ve been wanting to paint an icon for a very long time,” she said. “I wanted to learn to paint with egg tempura and to use gold leaf. This is definitely not the last time I’ll be doing this.”

Isaac Brown also came from Moncton, appreciating a break from the usual and the camaraderie.

“It sounded like fun,” he said. “It’s more work that I anticipated, but fun.”

Erin Rideout, on maternity leave, worked on her icon while holding three-month-old Benedict.

“If I’ve managed to do this with a baby in tow, anyone can do it!” she said.

Fabiola Martinez, whose children attend St. Paul’s youth group, spent the week painting an icon with her mother, Elena Rodriguez, who was visiting from Mexico.

“This is very fun, a very interesting technique,” said the professional artist. “We are having a close conversation with God.”

The fact that Fr. Benjamin speaks Spanish was extra helpful for Elena.

The Rev. Andrew Horne, though juggling parish demands, was there at his wife’s suggestion.

“My wife, Heidi, said I should try new things,” he said. “It’s been a crazy week. The last four nights I have had the most amazing dreams. It’s because of this. I’m using different parts of my brain.”

Fr. Benjamin was happy with the week’s outcome — 11 icons that were “remarkably consistent. That’s a sign of success,” he said. “I hope the icons will remain a focal point for prayer and a reminder of the presence of Christ in our material world.”

The New Brunswick Anglican visited during the final hour of icon painting, and attended the blessing of the icons service, led by Paul and Fr. Benjamin, who anointed each icon with oil.

Then the 11 participants were invited to venerate the icons — to come forward, make the sign of the cross and offer a deep bow.

After the service, they gathered in the hall for a lunch of seafood chowder, courtesy of Bev. Then Fr. Benjamin varnished each icon before the participants slowly said goodbye to each other and to a week that was, by all accounts, unusual, fulfilling and inspiring. 

1.  Samuel Landry puts the final touches on the edge of his icon during the iconography retreat at St. Paul's, Rothesay.

2. Fr. Benjamin Von Bredow, standing, instructs the class.

3. The group after the icons were complete:  Front row: Erin Rideout, Isaac Brown, Elena Rodriguez and Fabiola Martinez. Second row: Claude Botha, Greg Redford, Andrew Horne, Bev Blissett, Leslie Allen. Back row: Samuel Landry, Fr. Benjamin, Klaudia Ross.

4. Fr. Benjamin anoints each icon during the service of blessing. (Samuel Landry photo)
McKnight photos, unless otherwise noted.

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