SS Simon and Jude
28 October 2012
It was the 1970’s: the college chapel was dark, heavy and over-crowded. The altar was more sideboard than board and the place was full of that quintessentially Anglican smell of devotion: polish. Two students, doomed to become Cathedral deans, had painted the walls brick red.
People were ready for change, so during a half term break, when most people were away, four students including a senior member of staff hired scaffolding, and took saws, axes and hammers. They rolled up the curtains and priceless Persian carpet, sawed the hollow altar in two, like a magician with his assistant in a box, and to open up the place, pushed the pews to the sides. The brick red walls became white and when people came back after the break, there was an audible intake of breath – of delight. It was only later, when they had got their breath back, people said accusingly, “By what authority did you do these things?” But it was too late then. They’d been done.
The newly ordered chapel was no longer an old fashioned dining room. It was more ‘Habitat’. Simple, open, clean-lined - not to say empty. There was a vacuum, and so a competition took place amongst the ordinands to introduce a cross on the east wall. Three entries were received, all stored in the bike sheds. One was made of huge black railway sleepers, and nearly brought the east wall down. One was made of rope and was ingenious but not to scale. The third was wonderfully imaginative: two gracefully carved pieces of different interlocking woods. Full of energy – but it gave people bad dreams. It would not do.
And so, instead there would be an icon. The VP had heard about Marianna Fourtunatto, an Orthodox Russian émigré who painted icons. He went to see her in her home in Notting Hill and asked if she would paint an icon for the college chapel. “What of?” she said. “The Lord,” he said. “Which Lord?” she said. They settled on Christ, the Word of God. “How much will it cost?” he asked. “Whatever you choose to give me” she said. “When can you do it?” he asked. “I’ll let you know” she said. The VP left her: an outwardly slight, but very impressive woman.
Time went by. A year passed. No news. College folk knew that Russian time was not the same as western time, so held their peace. Another year passed, the VP went to see her. She had been ill, she was still ill, and did not know when she would not be ill. More time passed. At Westcott, people began to doubt. But the VP sent her a card to wish her a happy Easter (taking care to remember to get the Orthodox date right.) He thought the odd jog now and then might kick-start the project. And this time it must have done. Because the day after Easter, the phone went and it was Marianna. “Your icon is nearly ready” she said. As he hadn’t heard a squeak in ages, this came as something of a shock. But nothing compared to the googly she then bowled. “What text does your community want to put on it?”
Now this icon was going to be central to the college’s devotion – not least because the chapel was so plain. So it was crucial that it did not in any way become divisive. So it was decided, anyone who wished could submit a suggestion for the text – anonymously or not, but they were to do it without consultation with others.
A good many envelopes were received and without exception all suggested texts from St Johns gospel. And all but one came from the final discourses, and of those, all but one were of the same verse. And there had been no consultation. Rather than post the result or phone it, the VP took it to Marianna in London. The all but finished icon was propped up on the sofa in her flat. It was the first time he had seen it, and he writes: ‘it was rather odd having lunch with the Lord looking at me.
‘When we started to speak about it –Him- the first thing she said to me was, “He’s not angry is he?” I tried to reassure her He was not. “Ah good” she said “I was so frightened He would be. I’ve been so conscious of all the evil in the world while I was painting your icon, my own anger might have passed into it”.
They had lunch, watched by the Lord, propped up on his couch, holding his empty book. As they ate, the VP told her of the turmoil raised by her question about the icon’s text. And then he told her their answer: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” To his surprise and embarrassment, Marianna wept. “It is indeed the text of this icon,” she said. “When you asked me to paint an icon of the Lord, I felt it was beyond me. To represent a saint to a community is hard enough – but the Lord himself... But I had to do it, for you had asked, and the Lord had given me my vocation. I did not choose it: he chose me. And it has reduced me to despair at times.”
The VP left her to paint in the words. Now the days went by and he heard no more, and prepared for another long wait. But no, the day before Ascension day in 1979, the phone went. “Your icon is ready. I’m bringing it to Cambridge tomorrow.” They hurriedly assembled as many of the college as they could in chapel, and she brought it in, the icon she had painted at such a cost. She was invited to say a little about it – but perhaps understandably she spoke about icons generally rather than about this one. Then she got up and, without a backward glance, walked out of the chapel, leaving it – leaving Him.
And every day for over thirty years now, He has always been there, like a faithful shepherd: He looks out for you, He calls out to you: ‘You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you’. It’s as if he says, ‘You may be unfaithful, but I will remain faithful. You may wander, but I will find you. I will always be here. No-one will harm you. You are mine.’
Today, we remember Simon and Jude, early apostles, early followers and friends of Christ. Ordinary people like you and I, but called to be extraordinary. Called to be friends of God. And it is an opportunity for us all to take stock, to ask ourselves what is it that we are being called to? We are all children of God and we are all called to be friends of God, but what is it in particular that God is calling you to be, calling you to do? What are you passionate about? What makes you tick? It’s wonderful that we are all so different, each one of us blessed with differing skills and gifts, different personalities and passions, different hobbies and jobs. It’s incredible really when you look around and see all the different things people are doing in this community. We must continue to be a place where people are encouraged to be themselves and to try new things. I have long loved the reply of an 85 year old woman when asked what she might do differently if she could live her life over again: ‘I would try to make more mistakes next time. I would take more chances.’ We must support each other in all walks of life, in all professions and celebrate the diversity of our profession of life and faith.
The myth of vocation is that it is only for a select few – this is nonsense. We all have a story, a history, a name and an identity. We’re all unique. We all have a vocation. I was playing badminton with a guy this week and we got talking about what we did, what our jobs were. And he from an early age loved Biology, and is now a Research Director for Unilever, and travels the world with his test tube in hand. He knew what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be - he knew his vocation at the age of 17. And loves what he does - Incredible! And yet many of us aren’t really sure, even in our 30‘s or 40‘s, never mind in our teens.
But today’s gospel reading reminds us that God’s call to us is persistent: it is the call to be and to trust. Like a shepherd every day, Christ speaks over and over the same word to us – our true name, our true identity. Our vocation, you could say, is how we respond. It is the work of a lifetime, a labour of love.