Christ the All Merciful
Jesus said, 'This is what the Kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain - first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.'
Mark 4: 26-29
It is easy to feel down-heartened about the state of Christianity in Britain today. Church attendance, we are continually told, is in free-fall, while practicing Christians are bundled out of the public square with almost celebratory haste. Yet the parable of the growing seed encourages us to look at the situation differently. The Kingdom of God is mysterious and unquantifiable. It cannot be measured, weighed or counted. It grows in secret ways and places that are foreign to the linear, rationalistic mind. Night and day it grows, whether we sleep or get up. We need eyes to see it though, and ears to hear, neither of which are easy to obtain in this spiritually obtuse age. The good news, however, is that signs of renewal can in fact be found all around us, often in independent, non-official, non-obvious places. The sacred art of Aidan Hart is one of these places.
Hart was born in England in 1957, though he spent most of his early life in New Zealand, where he trained as a secondary school teacher and began practicing as a sculptor. He became a member of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1983, returned to live in England and started his career as a professional iconographer. He lived for two years as a monk on Mount Athos, then spent six years as a hermit in Shropshire. He is now married with two children.
Hart's website - www.aidanharticons.com - illustrates the quality and quantity of his work as well as the sheer variety of his oeuvre: panel paintings, frescoes, carvings, illuminated manuscripts, mosaics, and more. He is also in demand as a teacher, speaker and writer, and his website gives numerous examples of his written and spoken work. He has written two books, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting (2011) and Beauty Spirit Matter: Icons in the Modern World (2014), and was elected a fellow of the Temenos Academy in 2015. He now has over 900 commissioned works in private and church collections in over 25 countries.
What I find especially cheering is that this great wellspring of spiritual and artistic energy should be bubbling up from the heart of our country. Aidan Hart lives and works in Shropshire, one of the quietest and most sparsely populated counties in England. Maybe some of that calm and stillness carries over into his art and strikes a chord with a public desperately in need of the peace and centredness that only contact with the Divine can bring. Modern men and women, as T.S. Eliot observed in Four Quartets, are 'distracted from distraction by distraction', but these distractions can only numb the ache of a life lived without ultimate point or purpose. They cannot save or heal. Aidan Hart's icons, on the other hand, can help do exactly that, imbued as they are with the salvific, restorative peace that Eliot in the same poem calls, 'the still point of the turning world.'
Hart's icons have a particular resonance, I feel, for those of us with a connection to the British Isles, simply because his work features so many British and Irish saints. This icon of the sixth-century saint, Kentigern of Strathclyde (also known as Mungo), for instance, is a fine example:
Hart's abundant body of work, emanating from the quietness of Shropshire and informed by his monastic experience, plays an analogous role, I feel, to the lives and work of St. Kentigern and the other British and Irish saints of the late Roman and early Anglo Saxon periods. This was a time not unlike our own in many ways, an age of uncertainty and incipient chaos, where the moral and social values that underpinned the Pax Romana for centuries were falling apart, undermined from within and without. St. Kentigern, as a young man, wanted to take a step back from the Empire's collapse, living a life of prayer, simplicity and solitude in a small cell near an extinct volcano. But as with the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt a century previously, he discovered that others came seeking him, recognising in the life he was living something of the meaning, authenticity and integrity that the Western Roman world had to all intents and purposes already lost.
Aidan Hart's work punches precisely at this level. People encounter it once, then come back for more, just as the men and women of the fifth century came to St. Kentigern. There is a depth and a seriousness to it, together with a joy and a radiance, that cuts right through the tightening mesh of contemporary life - the soulless bureaucracy of the state, the spirit-sapping squeeze of market forces and the adversarial, increasingly polarised nature of political debate. His icons speak the language of Truth, and people respond to that. When you look at his art, you feel at home. The human heart was made for God, irrespective of all the decline we see around us. It will always resonate - no matter how unconsciously or inarticulately - to an icon, a piece of music or a poem (Four Quartets again, for example) which speaks at that level.
It is also important to challenge contemporary misconceptions as to what religious faith entails. Aidan Hart does this very well in his talks and essays. All too often, we suppress the stirrings of our hearts and turn away from a relationship with God because we feel it will somehow cancel out our personality or consist of nothing more than adherence to a strict set of rules. In his talk, The Icon Tradition From Within, Hart shows us that the opposite is true. A life lived in faith is a liberation, not a prison sentence. There is nothing legalistic or self-annihilating about it. On the contrary, it rescues us from the dead ends of individualism and sets us on the path to community and love, a fertile place of life and growth where our true calling and identity can shine forth:
'Although our walk with God is according to the commands given to all, the details of this walk are unique because each one of us is unique ... And one's true, God-illuminated self is the greatest gift we can give to others. White light is made of many colours, and our task is to be one of these colours.'
Our ultimate destiny is not a fixed and final state of 'eternal bliss', but rather a dynamic, two-way relationship with Christ, leading us 'further up and further in' - as C.S Lewis put it in The Last Battle - to the beating heart of the Holy Trinity. As Hart told his listeners in a talk at All Saints Anglican Church, Baschurch, Shropshire:
'We are all called to be transfigured. We are called not merely to follow Christ at a distance, but to be Christ-bearers, to shine with the same glory, the same light of divinity with which he shines.'
To contemplate the work of Aidan Hart is to take a first step on that journey. His sacred art frees us from the prisons of our egos and helps us frame our joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, triumphs and frustrations in a wider, more spacious context, packed full of meaning and love and brimming over with 'that peace which passeth all understanding.' As such, his iconography stands as an outstanding counterpart to the diminished spiritual horizons of our age, 'shining with the same glory, the same light of divinity with which he shines.'