Feast of the Holy Innocents
As a young boy, my mother told me that in Slovakia (where she was born) birthdays were not celebrated. But name days were. She said that if I were in Slovakia I could only celebrate my birthday on December 28 if it were also my name day. And so I asked her, “What name would I have?” She answered, “You would have to be named Innocent for the Holy Innocents. And they would be your patron saints.” I then decided it was best to stick with Bobby.
Over time, I thought little about those young boys — infants and toddlers -- slain by King Herod. Since there were at least three Saint Roberts, and none of them very interesting, I searched around for patron saints I would like: saints who could be my friends. How would I choose them, or how would they choose me? The answer for a little Catholic boy like myself was easy: Holy Cards!
St. Martin de Porres was my favorite… the only saint whose skin was brown and contrasted so nicely with his black, brown and white robes. I liked the smart way Martin dressed… and that he was a peacemaker, placing food out for dogs, cats, and mice together!
Then there was St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Since my brother, Steve, already claimed St. Stephen of Hungary, I befriended the other Hungarian saint. I loved the way she always carried either bread or roses.
Of course, there was St. Michael the Archangel, but my dad had the name. And on and on. My Holy Cards — not only the saints, but Jesus and His Mother -- were tucked away in my prayer book, and I liked their faces more than the words on the written prayers.
Years passed, and I became an icon painter. What I loved about this quiet form of visual prayer was that the faces were the next-to-last to be painted. But eyes were the very last. Only when the eyes appeared was the Icon finally finished. And I still never know how they will look. Or, more importantly, how they will look at me. For I have learned that they hold me in their gaze more that I look at them.
And so my spiritual practice is dwelling with their life stories as I slowly paint their figures, their faces, their eyes. I rarely tell any stories any more, and have become a “silent storyteller”, at least with spoken words. Years ago I would tell their stories surrounded by listeners in the churches. But that door has closed for me. So now, without an audience, I dwell on sacred stories in my mind’s eye. And I silently paint what they reveal to me.
You may wonder, did I ever paint those Holy Innocents who died on the day I was born? Who are they for me? The ones who died when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled into Egypt. They are friends, even though I have never seen their faces, nor heard their names?
But what of those holy innocents who were martyred in Cairo this December of 2016? Will I let them be hidden and anonymous, just another statistic — and quickly eclipsed by the most recent news events? How do I paint them, how do I pray with them, in the turmoil of political and religious terrorism?
The Holy Family, Fleeing into Egypt (unfinished icon):
For many years, I painted only my spiritual companions, one-to-one and face-to-face. They are as much a part of "the communion of saints" as people I meet in my everyday life — at home, at church, in my community. But they were also have names. They have faces.
But something happend in the wider world that changed that for me. It started in the Ukraine, and then happened in Libya. Next it was France, and just two weeks ago it was Egypt. Christians were being martyred. They are the Holy Innocents of today.
Commentary (unscripted and unedited) on this unfinished icon:
My icon of the "23 Egyptian Martyrs of Cairo" is not quite finished, and I will repost when it is done. Meanwhile, here is my spoken commentary to mark the innocents whose names and faces are too easily hidden from us. For me they are not victims. They are martyrs. And they are now my patron saints.
Commentary on St. Damiana of Egypt:
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