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 | By Joey Reistroffer

Creating an icon is a process of prayer

Seven folks spent a four-day retreat at Heart Ridge Retreat Center in the upstate, praying and creating icons of our mother. They were guided by the hand of God, inspiration from Mary and the teachings of iconographer Meijun Lu.

The environment was perfect — a serene lake setting with forests and quiet places to walk. The retreat is a place where visitors can unplug for a few days.

But this was much more than a back-to-nature journey into the Blue Ridge. It was an incredible adventure into faith.

Some knew their way around paint while others had dabbled in it a bit. And a few had no artistic background at all but were willing to stretch themselves and engage in something new.

“I am taking four exit ramps off of my comfort zone,” George Petersen said. “I am not an artist.”

Still, he embraced the challenge. He said his sons are grown, and he wanted to do something new to deepen his faith.

“It was so far away from what I would normally choose to do, but I needed to think about something that was going to push me,” he said.

This was it.

“I’ve always loved seeing icons. Here’s an opportunity to do one. I’m going to give it a shot,” Petersen said.

Then reality hit that first evening at Heart Ridge.

“I started getting cold feet. That was the devil,” he said. “After the first night, I thought, ‘This isn’t going to happen.’”

That is when Petersen said his wife texted him a homily about expectations, and that helped ease his discomfort.

“I just need to hang in there,” he thought. “God is giving me graces. If I give up on this, then I’m not going to get the graces.

“It wasn’t easy, but I was grateful that I had the grace to stay,” Petersen said, but he pushed through the doubt and relied on the Lord.

“I have no control. I have no expertise. Yet, I am required to produce this painting. I have to rely on God and others,” he said. “I have to surrender myself to the process.”

Lu was there for him and so were the others. Petersen discovered that he wasn’t such an odd fit.

“We were learning together. I had a good teacher and good classmates,” and Petersen also learned a lot about himself. “It requires patience, fortitude and diminished ego. You have to go through these processes.”

Only then can the icon creator experience God’s guidance.

“Surrender to God takes a lot of practice,” he said. “This is the first time that I’ve had a modicum of success in doing that. … For me to spend three and a half days painting an icon and not thinking about work … in and of itself is a grace. The biggest grace I got.”

Petersen said his icon did not measure up to the others; nevertheless, he is proud of his effort.

“It’s not museum or church quality, but it was made out of love,” he said.

Now he has his icon of Mary displayed in his home.

Deidre Cooper said that Petersen was the only guy in the group, and she appreciated him because of the humor he brought to Heart Ridge.

“It was a really diverse group in terms of our faith background,” Cooper said.

She said Lu — whom everyone called Ella — and the icon of Mary that they were creating brought the group together.

She used to paint in high school. This, however, was not about painting. Artists don’t draw icons, Cooper said.

“It’s called writing an icon,” or praying an icon.

“We’re not really the artists creating art. It is a prayer process. You are praying as you create it,” Cooper said. “I just wanted to sort of have a new way of approaching my faith life,” she said.

And she approached it one step at a time; one detail at a time.

“It is very detailed,” she said. “It has many, many steps — layers upon layers upon layers of different steps.”

It could have easily been a weeklong retreat, she added.

“It was very nurturing to the spiritual life,” Cooper said. “We started each day with prayer. We listened to spiritual music. We got connected pretty easy.”

The process of creating this icon of Mary was a struggle, but it brought a lot of joy, Cooper said.

“It was so much more than creating a piece of art that you take home,” she said. “It was a prayerful process.”

Cooper described being immersed in that process — listening, being guided and being led.

She even described finding closure to a difficult part of her life while she was outside holding her icon of Our Lady.

“How many times Mary has cradled me in difficult times … and this was an unexpected spiritual revelation. … It was kind of a peacefulness,” she said. “That was the most moving” part of the retreat, she added.

Cooper said it was no coincidence..

“Ella picked the icon that we would paint, and she chose Mary,” Cooper said.

Cooper had high praise for Ella’s guidance.

“She had a great amount of understanding for each individual,” Cooper said, embracing Ella’s authenticity and truthfulness.

“It was difficult sometimes to be patient with myself. There were a lot of points in time where you had to stop, back up and begin again,” she said.

So she did, and she learned to focus.

So did the others.

“We all sort of worked overtime,” Cooper said. “We kept working in our free time.”

The icon of Our Lady meant that much to them.

“You entered into a relationship,” Cooper explained. “This was not just a picture to put on your wall.”

Kathryn Debnar, 80, from North Myrtle Beach, agreed.

Debnar said that she has no artistic background, but she is always open to new experiences.

This type of prayer definitely was different for her.

“You had to consciously breathe and pray,” she said of creating the icon.

“It’s what comes out of you,” she said of the experience. “Let the Holy Spirit come out of you, and I think that’s what happened.”

Debnar said Ella offered incredible support and explained the process so well.

Thursday began with introductions, then the learning started on Friday, with Ella talking about weights and widths and line techniques. 

“She’s delightful. She’s quiet. She’s kind. She starts everything with prayer,” Debnar said of Ella.

“On Saturday, I realized I’m not an artist, but I can learn what I can bring to this. I can be better,” Debnar said. “I don’t see me. I see my effort.”

It was quite an effort.

Debnar said she never finished her icon, but she had gone as far as she could go.

“The peace that was inside me is what matters,” Debnar said. “I carried an unfinished piece home with me, but the finished piece is me. The feeling and the focus that was inside me was finished. That is what I took home.”

And that was guided by the Hand of God and inspired by Our Lady.