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"Out of Egypt I have called my son"

(from Matthew, chapter 2, verse 15)

Back in 2008, I wrote a personal reflection on the occasion of my first visit to Egypt. I had been invited to represent my church as we supported the consecration of a new Anglican church in Menouf, a city in the Nile Delta, north-west of Cairo. These were my opening words then:

Occasionally, I look back at an event and give thanks for the way in which its significance has come to light many years later, an experience without which I would be different from who I am, or which in some way equipped me for what was to follow. It is a much rarer occurrence that the significance of an event is known, even if not understood, before it happens. Such was the case with my first visit to Cairo.

I just knew that my first visit to Egypt was going to have a lasting impact. From that visit onwards, something about Egypt has stirred my soul. It was then that I was able to go to the Egyptian Museum and view for the first time the extensive artefacts from the time of Pharaohs. I saw exquisitely crafted jewellery, gold-work, cabinetry (a rather modern term in this context) and stone carving, as well as the infamous sarcophagi. Yet, beneath the exterior, I found humankind's innate longing to create something of beauty; I found that I could connect with an ancient people who loved design, who were not content simply to represent things as they were, but who were committed to making them beautiful. Theologian Tom Wright speaks of beauty as an itch:

“the beauty sometimes seems to be the itching itself, the sense of longing, the kind of pleasure which is exquisite and yet leaves us unsatisfied”

(Tom Wright, Simply Christian, p 35).

It is this beauty, Wright argues, that holds the promise of God.

“Just as, in one of the New Testament’s greatest claims, the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdom of God, so the beauty of this world will be enfolded in the beauty of God – not just the beauty of God himself, but the beauty which, because God is the creator par excellence, he will create when the present world is rescued, healed, restored and completed.”

(ibid, p 41)

It is from that first visit to Egypt that I can trace my fascination with the connections between beauty and the Divine, the ability of our senses to guide us ever deeper into worship. Consequently,I did not hesitate to take another opportunity to immerse myself in Egyptian culture in 2009. As part of my theological training, I returned to Egypt - this time alone - and stayed for three weeks with a Coptic Orthodox convent on the edge of the desert.

I visited ancient churches, and studied icons and frescoes in the Coptic tradition that dated back to the earliest traditions of the Church. I was able to make my pilgrimage to the cave of St Antony, and to visit the Monastery of St Catherine's at Sinai, viewing the icons and other treasures held there. An individual's preparation for ordination to the priesthood is often viewed in terms of "formation", how we are changed and formed into the person God is calling us to be. For me, Egypt transformed my appreciation for liturgy and ignited a longing for creativity in worship. The deepest transformation occurred within my inner self during that time in the desert, such that I can state with complete confidence that I would not be the person - or priest - that I am now, without what I experienced there. No surprise then, that God chose later to call me to lead a parish where the medieval parish church was dedicated to St Katharine of Alexandria and a new worshipping community could be named after St Antony. When people ask how you know that God is calling you to a particular job, that was how it happened for me!

Icon of St Katharine depicting and gifted to St Katharine's Church in Irchester, Northamptonshire

At the same time as I started work in that parish, I began my training as an iconographer. I was guided in the traditions of Byzantine iconography, characterised by elegant forms and a translucency in the application of harmonious, natural colours. The first icon that I chose to complete as part of my three-year course (after the compulsory ones) was St Antony.

And so I knew, perhaps as I had known in anticipation of that first visit to Egypt, that at some point, I would need to learn more about the techniques of Coptic icons. The Coptic tradition has seen somewhat of a resurgence following the work of renowned neo-Coptic iconographer, Isaac Fanous, who worked in the second half of the twentieth century. Coptic icons are distinctive with their geometrically-round faces, shorter body forms, and in their recent development, by the use of more vibrant (though no less harmonious) colour palettes. Last week, and after some years waiting for the course to run again, I was privileged to spend three days training with iconographer Fadi Mikhail of UK Coptic Icons. Together with the other students, we tackled drawing exercises to focus on the all-important symmetry of a face crafted from a perfect circle, and painted with pigment colours that I had been trained previously never to use. Staying in the Coptic retreat house, meeting the Archbishop, sharing community with Coptic Christians from across the world, that part of me that was forever changed in Egypt sparked once more into life.

I haven't finished this, my first icon, in the Coptic style, though I will, as time allows. And I know for sure that it will be the first of many. The Divine voice called me all those years earlier into Egypt. It was a calling to obedience that brought me to the desert, the voice of the One in whom I had trusted so completely that called me to St Antony's cave. The last few months have been another desert place for me, a time when self-orientation had become difficult, and it was easy to lose sight of what I was being called to do. In God's perfect timing then, this past week I was invited back to Egypt in the form of a small painting course in a quiet corner of Essex. The One who once called me to ascend the mountain of St Antony was now calling me afresh to begin climbing out of the difficulties of recent times. My sense of vocation as an iconographer renewed, there is much to do as I move forward in my quest to communicate the Gospel through creativity and beauty.

And so I wonder, have you experienced God's promptings, repeated themes reminding you of who you are and from where you have come? As you reflect on your own journey, wherever it has taken you, how and where are you being called now?


Triptych in acrylic on canvas

featuring St Antony's Cave in the desert (left)


At the end of this week, I am setting myself up as artist-in residence at St John the Baptist Church in Cirencester. Do come along and see me at work if you are local. I shall be in the church from 13 to 26 July, Monday to Saturday, 9.30am to 5pm (subject to the church being needed for additional services). As part of my residency, I shall be giving a talk "Seeing God's world differently" at 3pm on Saturday 20 July in the church. Entrance to the church and talk is free of charge and all are welcome.

The "Praying with Icons" retreat that I am leading at Launde Abbey for 12-14 August was fully-booked but after discussion, we have added a few extra places, so if you are interested in joining us, there may yet be a chance. Click here for more details.

I have accepted the offer of a place to study for a Masters in Fine Art with Oxford Brookes University from September. I shall no doubt write more about that at some point!

AND, last month, I mentioned a new booking to lead a "Creating art in response to Scripture" workshop in June 2025. Having written in an earlier blogpost about my love of Iona, I am delighted that the workshop will form part of the Columba Week with the Iona Community at Iona Abbey in June 2025. Precise details for the week have not yet been finalised but booking details are here.

If you are interested in commissioning an icon, I am currently accepting commissions for completion in the beginning of 2025; prices begin at £170. Do get in touch to discuss an icon or other artwork that is on your heart.

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