Jumping for joy: for love, for mercy, for life

Matt and Mindy Dalton

In the late spring of 1967, a single, young, energetic, smart, musical and athletic woman growing up on the East Coast found herself pregnant in her early 20s. In upstate New York she often frequented the local golf course for she enjoyed the outdoors and was an avid golfer. Out on the course she had met a 46-year-old gentleman who was married; however, his wife was at home dying of cancer.

Seemingly, now this young woman’s life was turned upside down. Her mother sent her to live with an older brother in Colorado and for the most part she lived nine months alone, carrying a baby in her womb. Her brother traveled a fair amount so she was quite isolated in a place where she basically knew no one.

How can it be that 46 years later God turned what appeared to be a tragedy into an abundance of life? That baby in the womb was Mindy, who 23 years later would marry Matt. We now have seven children, ages 4 to 21.

Mindy: I am so thankful that my birthmother chose life and through her one act of heroic courage, our entire family for generations now “jumps for joy.” One cannot even begin to imagine what my life would be if it wasn’t for the charity of my birthmother and the family that adopted me. And now as a mother myself, to experience the joy of God’s love, mercy and life through our seven children is a tremendous blessing. The accompanying photo was taken last week, when all seven gifts were home with us.

Recently I’ve been spending many hours helping my father fight through some difficult health issues. He is alone now because my mom passed away five years ago. When leaving the hospital the last visit, my dad’s eyes filled with tears, and with a lump in his throat, bloodshot eyes and his voice cracking with gratitude, said to me, “Thank God we adopted you through Catholic Charities all those years ago…” My parents had seven biological children, six boys and one girl, but they wanted their only daughter to have a sister, and so they adopted me and gave me a tremendous life.

Matt: I often contemplate the gift that Mindy, my bride, has been. She was conceived sometime in the spring of 1967 and born in February 1968. The papal encyclical of Pope Paul VI called “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”) was given to the Church on July 25, 1968. Less than five years later, the tragic law of abortion was made legal in our land on Jan. 22, 1973. Often my reflections turn to these dates and I find myself thanking God for the courage of a single young woman impregnated by a married man. Today, given the culture of death that has infiltrated our country, who knows what young women in this same predicament may do? Oh Lord Jesus, shower us here in this country with your love, mercy and life. This is why we are the Catholic Church. Through the sacraments, God is present to us every day, if we want; we have only to cooperate with all of his gifts. God—no matter where we have been or what we have done in our lives—can make all things new again, if only we turn and follow him.

 

 

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.