Saint Malachy Icon by Sister Leslie Gonia
Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Novice Sister Leslie Gonia reflects on her Saint Malachy icon that she wrote in a recent iconography class at Silver Lake College of the Holy Family, Manitowoc, WI.
Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? -Mathew 6:26-27
Gift is a four letter word that carries a lot of power. It is a word that has many meanings and therefore many powers. Gifts can affect one’s confidence, livelihood, and relationships either positively or negatively. One definition is a special ability, capacity, natural endowment, or talent. On this level the word gift impacts self image because most people have a general idea of their talents. This summer I was gifted with the opportunity to participate in an iconography course. In some sense I was excited about the class but I had to focus most of my energy on not being anxious because of my perspective on my gifts. I did not feel that I had any natural endowment in this area of art, even if it was spiritual art, and I feared a lack of talent. To say the least I was not confident in my gifts. On the first day of class our professor Sr. Mariella Erdmann described iconography: Icons are sacred images, they are windows to the eternal, they point to the transcendence of God, the iconographer is God’s messenger, and everything about iconography is for the greater glory of God. Now I really felt anxious! I wondered how I could give glory to God through iconography because I cannot paint. However, I did not worry long because the next thing Sr. Mariella said really inspired me. She said, “Iconography is not about creating beautiful art. It is about prayer. It is not about the artist. Artists should never sign icons. Iconography is a service to the church. It is a service to the people of God for the greater honor and glory of God.” The idea of iconography as a service to the Church began to transform my opinion and I began to have a conversion. I began to let go of my fear and open up to becoming an instrument for God. I began an inward journey and a new exploration of my gifts.
“Thus we say that each vessel, animal, and plant is good, not from its formation or from its color, but from the service it renders” (St. John Chrysostom).
I began to pray about writing an icon as a service to the church. The word stewardship came forth in my prayer. I think of stewardship as taking the gifts that God has given, cultivating them responsibly, and returning them with increase. I began to pray about the gifts God had given me and another definition for the word gift, something bestowed or acquired without any particular effort by the recipient or without its being earned, such as faith. I always think of faith as a pure gift and a gift that was passed down to me. My faith was cultivated by the faith of my parents. I began to think about the wonderful gift of two Catholic parents who supported my faith for my entire life and then I knew the subject of my icon. I felt called to write an icon of St. Malachy as a service to the Church. What does St. Malachy an Irish Bishop and Abbott have to do with my faith or my parents? A lot actually, in 1980 my dad was confirmed and my parents were married at St. Malachy’s Catholic Church. It is a little country church built in the 1800’s by Irish farmers and it was closed in 1981. However, the church is open for two masses every year and I have always felt close to my roots when I go there. Fr. McInnis a priest we often have at St. Malachy’s once said in a homily, “I know that for many of you this small country church is more of a Cathedral than Notre Dame will ever be.” This church is poor and it never even had an image of its saint. This year I sent my parents an image of St. Malachy for their anniversary and they took it to the church. Many of the people had never even seen an image of Malachy and so my parents left it at St. Malachy’s. I decided that I could think of no better service to the Church than to try to write an icon for this humble church building that has done so much for me and so many others. Bringing us to yet another definition of the word gift, something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance.
St. Malachy was the Bishop of Connor, latter the Archbishop of Armagh, and he also acted as an abbot whenever it was necessary. St. Malachy was responsible for many necessary church and monastic reforms because there were many corrupt lay abbots at this time in the Church. St. Malachy actually had to purchase Bachal Isu, Staff of Jesus, from Niall, the usurping lay-primate before he could take control of his see as Archbishop (New Advent). Traditionally St. Malachy is represented in iconography with a crosier in one hand and a monastery in the other in order to represent both offices of the saint. The crosier carries extra symbolism as a bishop’s pastoral staff and a sign that he is a shepherd for his people. Instead of holding a monastery in his right hand I placed St. Malachy’s church in his hand. This is a symbol for the people of the church that their patron is watching over them and interceding for them. In the background of the icon I have placed rolling hills in order to tie the icon even more deeply to this particular church in the hill country of western Wisconsin. The greens and blues in the background also represent God’s creation and living things. The red in Malachy’s vestments represents his love for the church and it is a Burnt Sienna rather than a true red because he did not die a martyr’s death. The gold in the halo connects St. Malachy to the divine and acts as a reminder of heaven. St. Malachy has a benevolent expression representing the care that he took in his ministry. According to St. Bernard, St. Malachy did not see to his own peace until Christian morals were reestablished and there was some tranquility in the Irish church.
Sr. Mariella says that art is connected to the paschal mystery through its own dying and rising. At the beginning of this process I felt like I was dying because of my anxiety about my lack of artistic talent but then through prayer I died to self and let go of that fear. Sometimes God gives us gifts we do not expect. This iconography class has given me a chance to reflect on gifts that I have in my life, to find out that I’m not as horrible at painting as I thought I was, to give a gift back to St. Malachy’s, and to trust God. I think it was good that I took this class without being endowed with natural artistic talent because then the process relied entirely on faith. Through God’s help and Sr. Mariella’s help I have written an icon in service to the Church for the greater honor and glory of God.