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A few weeks after I had defended my PhD and graduated from the University of British Columbia, I bought a ticket to Barcelona. I had heard of many people having amazing experiences on the nearly 500 miles long Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that gained popularity in the middle ages as a safer alternative to the Holy Land. In the last several decades, annual walkers of the “French Way” have risen to approximately 300,000. I love walking, but I have never done any long distance hiking apart from a hand full of overnight backpack trips. I want to walk the Camino for a lot of the same reasons that most people walk it. I have the time and the resources. I love to travel. I love Christian history, mythology and architecture. I am discerning my vocation within the church.

Of course, a pilgrimage is supposed to be more than just a long hike. Twentieth-century contemplative writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote that “the geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey.” My journey has been one of enormous privilege and blessing. Now, at the end of my education, there is no juicy job offer, no tenure-track position awaiting me; just the vacuous uncertainty of 50 or so digital black holes asking for three letters of recommendation. It is a frightening liminality; being in between my last moments of a very long career as a student, and my hoped-for profession of scholar and educator.

About a week ago, after wrapping up a course for the Forestry Department at UBC, and delivering my last midday meal to some high-rise office in downtown Vancouver for my part-time food delivery job, I packed up my truck and said goodbye to a beloved Vancouver community. As I have done many times before, I boxed up my possessions, mostly books, and hoisted a few boxes into the creaking bed of my small truck. On the morning I left, after saying what felt like weeks of send-offs and well wishes, I took one last look at the strange geometry of a familiar but empty room. Over the last week, I drove down the West Coast, staying with friends along the way. I am writing this in Oceanside, California, while I visit with family in preparation for my brother’s college graduation. I will catch a flight to Barcelona from LAX on Sunday, May 27.

Even though I leave this coming Sunday, I began my pilgrimage kneeling on the sanctuary steps of Saint James Anglican Church about a week and a half ago. After converting to Roman Catholicism in 2015, my long spiritual journey continues, and I have really fallen in love with the balance between progressive values and traditional liturgy of the Anglo-Catholic tradition that is alive and well in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where Saint James is located. At the end of my last Sunday High Mass, the Rector gave me a simple pilgrims blessing, and the love, admiration and prayers of the parishioners buoyed my spirit.

Whenever I drive to Southern California, the first thing I notice when I summit the passes of the desert mountains is the smell. It is a smell that tugs at all of the memories of my formative years and if I were to describe it, it would be something like the smell of fresh rain on hot pavement. I love that the freeway exit signs and place names read like a catechism of the Catholic Saints. Just as we call the collection of states in the Northeastern United States ‘New England’, it would not be inappropriate to call the Southwest ‘New Spain.’ I only realize now that the tallest mountain in Orange County, where I grew up, was christened by the Spanish in honour of Saint James. Santiago Peak and Santiago Canyon were familiar words with invisible histories for me as a young Mormon growing up in Orange County. There is a certain “Catholicity” to the geography of Southern California, and I am only now becoming literate to the names and charisms of the many saints and feast days that dot the state’s many post-colonial place names. Having grown up in Southern California near Mexico, and having travelled in Latin America, it feels right to finally be paying a visit to the ‘Old Country.’

The last few months have been busy with planning the logistics of the trip, making lists of cathedrals and monasteries I want to visit, and assembling the proper gear for the walk. It is only in the last few weeks that I have begun to really reflect on the spiritual reasons I am walking the Camino apart from the raw experience of the walk. Traditionally, people undertook a pilgrimage as an act of penance, petition or gratitude to God. I am certainly taking my own sins, prayers and thankfulness with me on the Camino, but I wonder if there is something more my walk could mean or put out into the world. I am not expecting any grand revelations or mystical encounters, but what does the simple act of going for a long walk mean in such uncertain times?

As I drove a long stretch of highway between the city of Saint Francis (San Francisco) and San Luis Obispo, California, I listened to a three-part series from Radiolab about illegal immigration in the United States. The series explored how toughening border security in urban areas in the 1990s had pushed desperate migrants into the deserts, who must walk for days on end to reach the United States. The number of deaths and disappearances surged drastically. Prior to 2000, fewer than five migrant deaths were reported each year. After 2000, the number has reached nearly 200 each year. And those are just the ones that are found. As Radiolab’s guests argued in gruesome detail, a dead body does not last long in the desert, with vultures, scavengers and even ants quickly dismembering and dissolving the bodies into nothingness.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers took vows of voluntary poverty and privation and sought a kind of spiritual anonymity. Desperate migrants, who risk everything to find a better life for themselves and their families all have names, stories and people who love them, and yet do find spiritual solace in the privations of the desert. As I listened to the stories of these brave people seeking a better life, a life like the one I was given through no merit of my own, I could not help but feel somewhat ashamed of my privileged stance as a voluntary pilgrim. I am going to walk for leisure, adventure and spiritual insight; they walk for their lives and the lives of their families.

In addition to my own burdens and questions, the people and petitions I am carrying with me; I will also make space to pray for refugees and migrants. For the thousands of men and women who have no other choice but to walk. I know this will not contribute directly to solving these complex global problems and heartbreaking realities. But there is a small part of me that believes that in the midst of a broken world, the earnest prayers of even one person make a difference. I am praying with my feet on a path that has been travelled by thousands of people for over a thousand years. I am going for a walk.

 

Photos: Top – the Rood Cross at St James’ Anglican Church, Bottom: New Clairvaux Abbey, by the author

Photo by Sarah Crutchfield on Unsplash

Blog and Icons by Andre Prevost, Iconographer.

Some have known their ‘path’ from an early age, and followed through on their plan. For others with limited resources, unable to pursue original goals, it left them to work through uncharted waters in trust. I was in that second category. I may not have known where I was headed, but my constant prayer was for the gift of discernment to any opportunity presenting itself; through what someone said, a news piece that came up, someone entering my life, a strong urge to speak to someone in particular, and so many others. This has led to many unexpected turns, but I’ve held through to one key piece of advise from a mentor, ‘if a door opens unexpectedly, enter it, and give it your best’.

 

Eventually, I was led to my iconography, following a strong impact of Greek icons upon me, and the need to learn more. There were no courses at the time and so I scoured all information on the sacred art form, its theology, and techniques, learning through trial and error. But here’s the crux. I was a French Canadian Latin Rite fellow, now steeping himself in the Byzantine and traditionally Orthodox form. The language and traditions of iconography spoke to me. And being very aware of who I was and who I wasn’t, I stayed close to the accepted norms and libraries of the traditional icons.

 

Opportunities presented themselves, starting with a series of icons for St. Edmund’s Church in North Vancouver. It did meet with a bit of resistance, as not belonging in a Catholic Church, but was appreciated overall. Following a move to Alberta out of necessity, I was led to a series of icons and murals within a few Ukrainian Catholic Churches. At the time, my not being of Slavic descent wasn’t a concern given the past historic aid from the pioneer French Catholic clerics. I was filling a need for these communities at the time, until an influx of Slavic iconographers started, taking up my place. It was heartbreaking, but I understood that it was a necessary renaissance for the Ukrainian community. Following the closure of this door, I eventually started receiving some requests from western Catholic Churches once again.

 

One life lesson learned through the years is hindsight, especially when there is no clarity in what lies before you. Hindsight sheds light on how the journey hasn’t been as haphazard as you thought, and makes clear the connections that were there all along. I also kept to heart a former pastor’s saying that we were like honey bees, instinctually going where we need to be.

 

A recent unexpected change in path in my uncharted waters, are the First Nations Icons. Rev. Garry Laboucane opened a conversation around the need for a First Nations icon. It was based on my experience and my affinity and deep respect for First Nations Cultures, something that has unexplainably always been within me.

 

I was at first unsettled as it was asking me to enter another door, a variation of traditional icons while being true to First Nations. Could I honour both and keep the icons theologically correct and prayerful. I needed to find that ‘bridge’ which would 1) give me permission to do this work and 2) inform my journey in keeping the icons true and such that First Nations peoples will see themselves within. I am deeply grateful to Rev. Laboucane who understood this and kept the conversation going until I reached that ‘aha’ moment when I could see the bridge, and grateful that Rev. Laboucane would be my guide in seeing traditional Christian imagery through First Nations eyes and spirituality.

 

The first icon was of St. Paul, set within a West Coast Cultural imagery. It would present Paul  as a Coast Salish man, ‘the Teacher/Messenger in the act of  journeying’, so that ‘the Coast Salish and Indigenous Peoples can see themselves within the icon as bearers of the Good News and as having a shared experience of St. Paul within their church’. The icon is strongly set within numerous symbols which resonate; the talking stick, the canoe set for another voyage, garment colours, Cedar hat, and cedar bough and parchment with the inscription of Paul’s “Follow Him and let your roots grow deep into Him” Col.2: 6&7.

 

Another icon is the Siksika Sacred Heart icon, in collaboration with Romeo Crow Chief of the Siksika Nation, set within the context of the Sundance. It required finding that bridge once again between the iconic traditional theology and of the Sundance. It addressed the need for an icon of the Sacred Heart for the Blackfoot/ Siksika Nation, portraying Christ as Blackfoot and also connecting to the Blackfoot tradition of sacrifice for the community within the Sundance. In doing more research about the Sundance, and pondering on each event, I found the bridge.

 

The Sundance has a long preparatory period before a candidate is deemed ready, which brought to mind Christ’s 40 days in the desert. The critical element of the Sundance is that it is a personal sacrifice on behalf of the community, and a lifelong 24/7 commitment, in service to the community. I came across an article by John Woodward (2014) in which he added,

How important is it that the Lakota people know that Jesus is for them and to understand that He did suffer in His incarnate body in a way that Lakota people can relate?” The article was about the Lakota, but still so pertinent for the Blackfoot, and all First Nations.

The icon includes the Sundance and the Pascal sacrifice as two separate events, with the Sundance scars on His chest and the stigmata. Its setting depicts a camp of tepees with Siksika designs, a Sundance structure, Christ is wearing a Pendelton from the Crow Chief family, and His Plains eagle feathers based on how Chief Crowfoot wore his.

 

The most recent First Nations icon is the Siksika Sacred Heart of Mary. It was designed as a pair to the first Sacred Heart icon and presents Mary in her Siksika Regalia (based on the Crow Chief family regalia). In keeping with the Siksika imagery, the traditional emblazoned heart used in Latin Rite images is depicted as a beaded pendent. It is similar to the one on the Sacred Heart icon, except that it is superimposed over her regalia without a visible neck strap. The setting has the same camp tepee configuration, but is situated near the Bow River and Castle Mountain in Alberta, which is of historical importance to the Blackfoot People.

 

An uncharted journey can be stressful the best of times, especially when supporting a family, but being open to it is essential in finding yourself where needed, when needed. My overall body of work in iconography has been varied, seen as eclectic by some.  Some don’t approve of my use of acrylic versus egg tempera. Some will not understand the recent series of First Nations icons. But it is a journey of faith, a journey of trust, and a journey of love. Each icon is a continual spiritual journey for an iconographer.  I’ve learnt through the years of persevering, that I will always be in no particular niche. For some, I am too Orthodox/Byzantine, for others, not Byzantine enough. And I will always be that fellow who can never be Slavic, Greek, or Indigenous. But so long as I keep true to my sincerity of heart, my faith in God, and keep following my due diligence in research and honouring each and every icon, I am on the right path. I know that the Spirit will guide. It may not be a path of financial stability, but the right path nonetheless. I am humbled that He still wills to use my hands in His icons.

 

Not being an exercise of ego, but one of humility, an iconographer cannot lose sight of the reality of how ones icons, even though most people will never know who you are, are deeply part so many people’s lives and prayer. That is the one thing an iconographer will never know the extent of, nor can it be imagined at any level. The fact is that during that moment between a soul in prayer with God and the prototype, the iconographer has no place.

 

Andre Prevost

Iconographer

https://www.andreprevost.com/icons.html

For comprehensive portfolio, background information and Journal entries (Blogs)