July 30, 2018

Art, spirit, and the old-lady icon

Oak tree in Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, Oakland, CA

Shirley du Boulay’s An Extraordinary Life is a fascinating biography of St. Teresa of Avila. The book’s cover image is from an 18th c. painting, and as in all famous images of Teresa of Avila, Teresa is lovely, and maybe 17. So when I read what she looked like when she got to the point in her life where she had real authority, it makes me wish there were icons of her looking like this:

By the time peace had been declared between the Calced and the Discalced Teresa was sixty-four and describing herself as “an old crone.” She was stout now, leaning heavily on the ebony stick Lorenzo had sent her from the West Indies; her teeth were black, her skin “the color of earth,” her three moles, once adding piquancy to her face, now sprouted hairs. She felt old and tired, her left arm was useless, and her health so poor that to feel even tolerably well was sufficiently unusual to deserve mention to her correspondents.
— Description of St. Teresa of Avila in An Extraordinary Life by Shirley du Boulay

Religious icons are for gazing at, but that’s not all there is to it. An icon is a window, and as you gaze into it, something gazes back, shining out through the image and influencing your spirit. While I don’t have the skill to create the icon of Teresa of Avila that I have in mind, I’ve recently found a different source of icons in my life.

I spend a few hours a week as a hospice volunteer, and I’m learning how to do it without being overwhelmed or closing down. My spiritual director spent decades doing full-time hospice work, and she says it’s possible to stay open—wide open—as long as you don’t identify with your feelings or try to control them. She speaks of simply staying present to what’s true in the moment, within you and in front of you. I heard this in my volunteer training, too.

Okay. How? And where do the icons come in?

Teresa icon for sale on Etsy

Icon of St. Teresa of Calcutta, for sale on Etsy. (This isn’t Teresa of Avila. Hey, how come Teresa of Calcutta gets to be old, but not Teresa of Avila?)

Let’s imagine I’m on a hospice “vigil visit.” I’ve been asked if I would like the opportunity to sit with a woman named Jessica, who’s actively dying. Jessica is elderly, she’s in a Medicare facility with two roommates, and her family isn’t around. She’s mostly unresponsive and nonverbal. I’ve checked in with the staff, and they know I’ll be sitting here for a while. I’ve taken a good look at Jessica, and it doesn’t seem to me that she’s uncomfortable, so I don’t need to report anything or take any action. What now?

Maybe I sing to Jessica, or talk quietly to her. I put a hand on her arm, if that seems okay for her, or hold her hand if she seems to want that.

I let go of everything I don’t need to know—what she’s dying of, where the family is, who that is in the picture by the bed, what her life has been like. And I let go of everything I don’t need to do—fix things, satisfy my curiosity, fill silences.

I told you Jessica is elderly, and let’s also suppose she’s missing most of her teeth. Her mouth gapes open, and her skin is leathery. She has an impressive collection of whiskers, and her hands, which are of no use to her now, are gnarled and curled like a bird’s claws.

Sound familiar?

Gazing at Jessica, I realize that she’s my St. Teresa of Avila icon.

Gazing at Jessica, I’m trying to catch sight of God. I’m watching for a glimpse of life’s depths, a glimpse of whatever it is that the Spirit knows that I need to see.

And being gazed at through Jessica, I’m wondering what God sees of me.