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Chapter 11: Iconographic Obedience

When the young George started painting icons, the abbot with one or two other fathers, would come up daily to review his work for ten to fifteen minutes. Close attention was always paid to the young George, because the abbot had already accepted orders from churches and had even accepted payment, and at times had already spent the payment before the work was even completed. So significant pressure was applied on him to get the icons painted. They had assumed that since the young man had sat next to Basil Lepouras for one week, he would come back as an accomplished iconographer, accomplished enough even to have his work sold. But as is the case with anyone who is starting an art, there is always a period of trial and error, experimentation and correction, but this was not afforded to the young George. When the fathers had concluded that they did not like a certain color, they would tell the young George to correct the “mistake” and correct the color. They would come the next day to see the correction, which was not infrequently somewhat different from what they had imagined. They would then each have their own opinion and would each be to some extent frustrated that what they imagined was not being accomplished. This caused one of the fathers who came to refuse to be present during these examinations. Father Panteleimon would then ask another monk to come, but they would all refuse, saying that they did not have the expertise to criticize something in a field unknown to them. During these episodes, the young George accepted all that had happened as not only instruction in iconography, but also as well needed instruction in the monastic life.

As months and months went on, what seemed to them as successfully accomplished iconography was sent to those who purchased them. However, all adverse feedback was immediately related to the young George. This ultimately made the criticisms of the two fathers who would oversee the iconography even more severe, because the criticism reflected on them so that George was brought to the point where he was doing nothing according to his own inclination. As time progressed, the patience of the two critics wore very thin and they accused the young George of being disobedient, not copying what he was supposed to copy, of using incorrect colors, and the pressure became very great. George sincerely had a desire to please those who had come to instruct him, but could find no way to satisfy them. Many times corrections were made over and over again, but none of these corrections brought satisfaction. Throughout all these occasions, the young man would reproach himself as both being negligent or disobedient, humbling himself. He was doing the will of those who were put over him, but could not please them. It could be accurately stated that he never, on any occasion, disobeyed his superiors, even when he understood that their orders would not bring satisfaction to them. George witnessed that the impatience of his critics resulted in anger, reproaches and insults. However, the young man endured all these things with great patience and fortitude, for he had before him The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which stated that “all these insults should be taken as cleansing draughts which purify the soul.” If he had not the comfort of The Ladder of Divine Ascent and the example of St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ, it would be very doubtful whether he could have endured, and he would have fallen by the wayside as all those who had gone before him. Despite the intense pressure he was under because of his iconography, George was greatly comforted by the fact that he was in the Russian Church Abroad and that he was receiving the holy Mysteries daily.

George entered the monastery at the time of Pentecost, and now winter had set in. His father David had suffered a stroke and George went to visit him in the hospital. While comforting him in his illness he also encouraged him to renounce masonry. At that time, as it is now, many members of the Antiochian Church were involved in freemasonry. George‘s father apparently joined so as to benefit by obtaining employment. This, however, had very little effect on his job status. He remained a member of this organization, along with other church members, despite the fact that it did nothing for him materially. He went only to the third degree. Apparently to go higher meant higher dues, which he did not have to waste on something that was probably just a status symbol. The young George explained to his father that masonry is another religion and idolatry. His father listened to him, and at first rejected his plea, but then afterwards his father agreed to renounce this idolatry. He said to George, “My son, the only prayer that I have is that of the Good Thief who was crucified with Christ,” and then he said the prayer with tears, “Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.” Then tears welled up in the eyes of the young novice and they hugged each other. George then departed and he was told by the doctors that his father was dying. He requested of the family that when his father‘s death came near, that they call the monastery and let him know so that he could be there before he died. They said they would most definitely call. He went back to the monastery and reported all to the abbot and told him that within a week he should expect a phone call that his father was close to death. Indeed the phone call came, but the abbot did not inform George for some unknown reason. After four or five hours they told him, “We received a phone call. Your father is dying and your family wants you to come to the hospital now.” Because he was not told immediately, his father had already passed away. He came to the hospital only to see his dead body, to give him the kiss of peace, and he actually closed his eyes. Then the family asked him why he did not come earlier, and he explained that he was just told and came immediately. He went back to the monastery and informed the fathers that his father had passed away, and he did not say anything else as far as the timing was concerned. He always endeavored to maintain peace and harmony in the monastery. It was the afternoon of November 26th, which providentially was the feast day of St. Gregory Palamas, which would be the future name day of George. So David reposed on the name day of his son.

When the time came for the funeral, he had determined that if the masons were there, he was going to rip out whatever they put in the coffin with him. When he arrived at the funeral home the masons had just finished their ceremony. But he did not notice if there was anything placed into the coffin. The next day was the burial and he attended the church service. He made a decision to uncover the wrapping to see if there was any apron or other masonic paraphernalia. This he did, and in front of all the parish he found the apron which they put with dead masons. Of course, none of the masons had the nerve to stop or even rebuke George for what he did. He took the apron out, kissed the body, and closed the casket and escorted it to burial. When he was asked afterwards why he did this, he proudly stated to all, “My father renounced masonry before he died. Glory be to God!” The masons who were there were somewhat indignant and mumbled to themselves. The priest, however, was not displeased in the least, but just smiled.

As time continued, the iconography situation did not improve. Fathers Panteleimon and Haralambos, the only two critics, were somewhat amazed, because the iconographer had remained. He had not left after six months of what they considered constructive criticism, but what was actually unjustified illogical irritability and yelling. Georges‘ endurance, however, did not cause them to think that perhaps they should subside somewhat in their conduct, but had the opposite effect. They saw that since he was enduring their criticism, they could be even more critical. Seeing that iconography could be lucrative, the monastery would solicit more orders. Even though the skill level of young George was progressing, yet it was not at all what would be considered nowadays as adequate iconography to sell. Orders kept coming, and more production was demanded. The cost of the icons was increasing, and therefore more pressure was put on everybody involved. In time, this pressure turned to the ugly passion of anger, and this passion of anger, especially in the case of Fr. Panteleimon, could not be controlled. Week after week, whenever he would come to the icon studio, this anger would literally make him sick. He would come up into the icon studio in a state of quiet and as soon as he entered the icon room, he would lose his composure and become angry. His face would turn red and he would literally be beside himself in rage, with the veins of his neck protruding. It was a frightening sight, especially to the young novice who had never experienced such wrath. This caused the young George great grief because he had endeavored with all his soul to love his abbot as he was instructed in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, but his abbot would be so possessed by passion that he would not even wish to look upon the face of the young George, even hours afterwards when they were gathered for prayer or dining. The stress of this condition caused the young man to become physically ill.

After one horrible incident when Fr. Panteleimon left the studio in great wrath, the young George burst into tears and fell on his face before his icons and uttered words which he regretted for the rest of his life, “Oh, Lord, if this gift of iconography causes so much grief, why did You give it to me?” Immediately after he uttered the last word, he felt a snap in his abdomen. He got up from the floor and had to run to the bathroom because of the urgent need to pass water. When he tried to pass water, a constant stream of blood flowed out from him. He became dizzy and walked very slowly to his bed and laid down. That night he again had to urinate, and when he attempted to do so, another constant stream of burning blood came forth. At midnight, he was too weak even to appear in church. Besides that, he was even afraid to look at Fr. Panteleimon‘s wrathful eyes due to his previous fury just six hours earlier. He stayed in his room and slept the night and the next morning, very weak, again went to urinate. It was again a constant stream of blood. At this juncture the young man was again afraid to come down in the morning and face the abbot for fear that he was still angered at him; therefore, he waited until eleven o‘clock and had become so dizzy and weak and pale that he decided to slowly descend the stairs of the two-storey building and go to the office and ask that he be taken to the hospital. When they saw him in that condition and he told them that he was urinating blood, they immediately put him into the automobile and took him to the doctor.

The doctor examined his prostate and diagnosed that he had a prostate infection. Young George asked him, “Why did this happen?” The doctor said, “For a young, twenty-one year old man as yourself, the only answer could be that you must be under great stress.” George answered him saying, “To say great stress is an understatement.” The doctor said, “Well, you better get rid of the stress or you are not going to survive.” He gave him some medicine and within a few days he was well, although the effect of that rupture would never be gone. After this George meditated and thought very seriously about his condition and his desire to become a monk and the diagnosis of the doctor. Therefore, he determined in his heart, although he did love the abbot and the fathers so very much, he could not permit this stress to effect him so severely. He determined to show them his work and immediately do as they commanded cheerfully, and when their command did not please them and they began to display their anger, he determined that he would remain calm and take to heart very seriously the instruction of St. John of the Ladder, “to deem this chastisement as praise and this shame as honor.” And indeed, it was not very long before he had to put this resolve to the test.

His critics came, saw what was done, and began again to become angry and enraged, but throughout all this yelling, George was very calm. In fact, he was so calm that he had a smile on his face. He would only utter the monastic answer, “Yes, may it be blessed,” or “As you bless,” or “OK, I will do as you wish,” and there would be a smile on his face. When they saw this, at first they became perplexed and they left. When it happened again, they even thought that he was just mocking them, but he was maintaining his calm. After months and months of reacting this way, it became second nature to him, that if anybody would criticize his iconography, he would just acknowledge that they were right and set about correcting whatever they wished. Eventually, they showed great pride in his attitude, for he was acting like a true monk which no one else in the monastery was able to emulate. It was not only on the young George that the wrath of the abbot would be focused. It was to anyone and everyone who displeased him or if anything displeased him. When he criticized one monk, he would take it very poorly, would not answer the questions, would not talk to anybody, and would refuse to do anything. When he criticized another, he would run away to his room. When he criticized another, he would become nervous and jittery and defend himself a little bit. Another would seem that he took it well but would do that which was slightly disrespectful by staring at him like a rebuke falling back on the head of the abbot. This type of behavior on the part of an abbot is not common in a monastery, but the young Fr. Panteleimon was a person who had no control of his passions. He was not put at the head of the monastery because of his virtue. He was at the head of the monastery because he was the only monk. Indeed, when he would be yelling at the top of his lungs, someone would say to him, “Please, elder, not so loud because we have visitors here.” And then he would scream out even louder, saying, “Then let them know this place has an abbot!” This was his mentality. If anything went not according to his wishes, he would dishonor his dignity by displaying his seated passion of anger.

On one occasion, the abbot had the idea to bring to the icon studio a neighbor-parishioner who was visiting. When he began to yell at and call George a deliberately disobedient novice, the guest could not endure this for more than a few minutes, before he himself rebuked the abbot saying, “How can you say this to this man?! How can you say this to him?! If I were him, I would throw down my brushes and never paint for you again because of your attitude!” He then left the icon studio in amazement at what he had witnessed. Throughout all this time, the young George had settled it in his heart that he was never to be agitated anymore, not only because of the physical danger, but more so because it was the true monastic way.

Archbishop Gregory
Dormition Skete
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Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
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Last Updated: July 12, 2011