Theology in color: Icons of a living faith, Church

December 8, 2015

HOUSTON — When Winnie Pizzitola's paint brush begins to swirl a splash of colorful red paint with holy water, she smiles. And she prays.

Surrounded by nearly 20 other iconographers, faith and prayer takes shape at an iconography workshop hosted by St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Houston, where Pizzitola is a parishioner. 

Led by Father Elias Rafaj, pastor of the Houston Byzantine parish, attendees learned from his more than two decades of experience of writing and teaching icons. 
Pizzitola said she finds joy and hope in writing the icons. 

"Writing an icon is a journey, the icon is the souvenir." she said. "Every journey, you enter into the spirit of the icon, making it a journey of prayer to become closer to God. Writing an icon just to write one is a waste of time. With so much fear in the world now, the more we can enter into a spirit of prayer, the better we are."

That spirit of prayer guides her hand as she writes her icons. 

"I think the fact that God put a paintbrush in my hand when I'm the least likely person to ever paint is awesome and the thing for which I am most grateful," Pizzitola said. 

All materials were provided by the parish, including boards, brushes and paints. Inspired by the Advent season, Father Rafaj encouraged the attendees to choose between several icons: St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, The Angel of the Star of Bethlehem and Christ the Messiah. 

He guided participants in the step-by-step process of writing an icon, which includes tracing the proto-type, painting the face and features, and applying the gold. Icons are an example of the transmission of the faith between the clergy and the people, Father Rafaj said. 

"(Icons) were not just illustrations, they are deeper than art," he said. "They were catechical, not merely decoration. The clergy would use them for homilies so that people could step into the event, into the mystery and into the history of faith."

Father Rafaj expressed a desire to see a stronger relationship between the Western Christian Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches and the "unknown treasures" of the Eastern Christian Churches. 

"We have that strong connection, especially with the Greek Fathers," and the Patristics, he said. And of that relationship, he asks "what has been done to nurture that awareness of all these Christian materials that come from the First Century." 

For Juliana Wang, a parishioner at Ascension Chinese Catholic Church in west Houston, attending the iconography workshop was a step forward in her understanding of the Eastern Byzantine Church. Originally from China, by way of Taiwan, Wang found writing an icon very different from other forms of paintings like acrylic, oil and, in her case, traditional Chinese art. 

"The features have a distinctive character to it. When you look at the finished product, you don't realize there are so many layers to it," Wang said. "With prayer first and meditation, you have a different feeling — not just like regular at home. Spiritually, you increase your thinking of the icon and the saint you are painting" and understand the religious aspect more. 

Like other workshop attendees, when Wang heard about the opportunity to learn about iconography, she didn't give it a second thought. 

"This is something you don't get a chance to do very often, especially when Father Rafaj has so many years of experience," she said. Thinking back on her 33-year journey of writing icons, Pizzitola finds a God-given strength in the community of both the physical and spiritual Church. 

"Our church (building) is quite beautiful," she said. "The icons inside are a team effort, so many of us worked on the icons." This reflects how in the past monks would focus on certain parts of different icons inside the churches. 

"No one can say that's my icon. It is a team effort. I love that idea of working together, one family and one body, as in Christ is one Body," Pizzitola said. 

The church, located just off US 290 and 610 Loop West, houses dozens of handwritten icons, and is still a work in progress with several more icons planned.

"We need to remember that we are all one family, one Body in Christ. And we need to respond to each other in that way, a reflection of our Catholic theology, especially in a time as difficult as ours," she said. 

Glenda Pay first encountered icons while in deep mourning. During a funeral at a Greek Orthodox church, she said the icons overwhelmed her. Five years later, she continues her iconography after learning from Father Rafaj at the same workshop. 

"My home now has quite a few icons since I first started," she said. Pay chose to write the icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker and said she was looking forward to the Christmas icons.

Pope Francis echoes Father Rafaj's desire to see more dialogue and growth between the Eastern and Western Churches. 

"The one thing that the Catholic Church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome, ‘the Church which presides in charity,' is communion with the Orthodox Churches," Pope Francis said inside Istanbul's Patriarchal Church of St. George. "Such communion will always be the fruit of that love which ‘has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (cf. Rom 5:5),' a fraternal love which expresses the spiritual and transcendent bond which unites us as disciples of the Lord." 

At a Feb. 2016 seminar at St. Anne Catholic Church in Houston, the public is invited to learn about the theology, history and purpose of iconography. More information will be available closer to the event date. 

To learn more about St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, visit www.stjohnchrysostom.com or call 713-681-3580.