The last testament of Benedict XVI

How does he spend his days in the Mater Ecclesiae monastery? What led him to make the difficult decision to renounce the pontificate? These and other questions are answered by Pope Benedict XVI in his book The Last Testament (Bloomsbury Continuum). The book is based on an interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald, author of the book-interviews Salt of the Earth (1996) and God and the World (2002), which were written about then Cardinal Ratzinger, and also the book Light of the World (2010), the result of an interview that was done during Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The Last Testament is the first book-interview written on a pope emeritus.

Sitting in the serenity of his new home, without the pressure of the pontificate, Benedict XVI begins his interview practically at the end: His current life where he is dedicated to prayer and study, and in which his time is spent receiving visits from his friends who come from different parts of the world to dialogue with him.

The Pope emeritus talks about how the idea of leaving the pontificate grew in his mind and heart, even though something like that hasn’t happened in more than five centuries in the Church’s history. It was a difficult decision made with the full awareness that God asked him to withdraw and leave this difficult task to a younger and more vital person. Humility, realism and an intimate union with God were the elements that led him to make a historical decision, wise on the one hand, but difficult on the other. The almost eight years of his pontificate were guided by the first words that he gave when he was elected Pope in which he said he was only “a simple and humble worker of the vineyard of the Lord.”

The interview also has a biographical tone in which Benedict XVI speaks of the Ratzinger family—his parents, his personal relationship with his two brothers, Mary and Georg, the environment in which he grew up in the bosom of a humble family, living in the convulsed Germany of World War II and his years of study. He also talks about some details of the Second Vatican Council, a meeting in which he participated as a young priest, witnessing a decisive moment for the history of the Church, in which new methods and expressions were promoted to transmit the Word of God; the same of yesterday, today and always.

He also talks about his predecessor St. John Paul II with whom he worked from 1981 to 2005 and with whom he established a beautiful friendship. He admired his vitality, the constant presence of God in which he lived, and how both personalities (John Paul II, more sociable, Benedict XVI, more timid) could complement and understand each other so well. He also shares his reaction and feelings regarding he day he was elected Pope, and shares some reflections, aspects and difficulties of his pontificate.

He highlights Pope Francis’s vitality, joy and his missionary zeal in which he always wants to go out to the peripheries and bring the most distant to the Church.

He also shares his literary hobbies (some of his favorite books are A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare and Dialogues of Carmelites, whose libretto is based on Bernanos’s eponymous book). His favorite painter is Rembrandt and his favorite composers are Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Although the title The Last Testament sounds a little harsh, this book gathers the words of a wise man who has had to face many challenges in his life and who, in the final stretch, leaves us the testament of his reflections full of wisdom, experiences and sound advice.

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.