Pages 12 to 16: “Windows to Heaven – The Spiritual Journey of America’s First Female Iconographer”
Shirley was preparing to leave for her Saturday painting class at the Art Institute in downtown Chicago. She said her goodbyes to us all. Dad insisted on driving her to class and my mom concurred. Shirley refused to acknowledge Dad’s offer. She needed some private time to contemplate the day and her work. Assuring them both she would be fine, Shirley grabbed her portfolio and scurried to the door to make her way to the bus stop. Our parents were concerned about the muggings going on in the downtown Chicago area, primarily around the Art Institute. Shirley was a beautiful girl, with her olive complexion, raven black hair, and dark eyes; they were very worried about her safety.
Shirley felt exceptionally energetic that Saturday morning. One could see it in her steps and attitude. She felt she was going to breeze through her work and finish a mountain of painting projects. The feeling of independent assuredness shone through. The Lincoln 11 bus ride to the elevated train station was quiet and uneventful. After purchasing her ticket at the station, she climbed the stairs to the platform. She felt it was clear sailing to the Art Institute. The train platform was deserted; not a soul going in either direction, but what do you expect at 6:30 on a Saturday morning?
Suddenly Shirley had an eerie feeling. She heard nothing but she felt she was not alone. She quickly glanced around; no one was there. She would never admit it, but she wished she had taken Dad’s offer. It was too late. Unexpectedly a tall blond-haired man was standing a few feet behind her. He greeted her by name and slowly moved closer. Shirley felt nervous but confidently returned the greeting.
The man started talking to Shirley. Startled and confused, her mind was swirling; she had to get in control. Building up courage, she asked him if they had previously met. The man noticed Shirley’s uneasiness and told her that she sees him every Sunday in church. The family had attended St. Haralambos and the Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago from Shirley’s infancy. Shirley knew all the parishioners by name. She painstakingly pulled at her memory, racked her brain trying to remember him; nothing. The last thing she wanted to do was offend one of her fellow parishioners but she could not remember the man. So she asked his name.
The man dodged the question and calmly proceeded to tell her about herself and all about her life; her fears, weaknesses, prejudices, strong points, hopes and dreams. This man petrified her. How could he know so much about her? He was telling her things she had never even shared with her mother, let alone her girlfriends or parishioners. All the facts of her life were being recited to her as if read from a book. He left nothing out. When he finished Shirley was in a state of shock. This man was revealing things no one could have known about, not even her parents, because she never told anyone; these were her private thoughts.
The elevated train arrived and stopped before them. When she checked her watch, a whole half hour had passed. Shirley saw that others had joined them on the platform but she did not remember hearing them or seeing them come up the stairs behind her. She was even more uncomfortable. Shirley and the man boarded the train together. She thought she could avoid him on the train. Instead, she found herself heading for the last open seats, which unfortunately were two adjoining seats. Unavoidably, he joined her.
During the train ride, the man commented on Shirley’s work and her gift of painting. He had not stopped talking since their encounter on the platform. He went so far as to say she would be famous one day if she followed a path. Shirley explained to the man that she worked hard, learning all she could, in her endeavor to become a famous artist. He interrupted her, continuing to tell her that the work she would be famous for was not her current style of painting. She was going to leave that far behind.
Shirley was perplexed. Painting was her life. She asked the man what was she going to paint. If she was a stellar artist, why would she change periods or styles. It made no sense. The man plainly announced she would become a religious artist, an iconographer. Shirley was dumbfounded. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She believed she was with someone crazy. The man proceeded to prophetically explain that she would adorn churches with iconography and be great at her work. Shirley was speechless and boldly told him he was insane. Iconography was a dead art form, merely copy work. An artist doesn’t become famous painting Icons. There was no creativity in “copy work”. Emphatically she insisted that an artist doesn’t go to school to learn techniques and styles of painting to become an Iconographer.
He smiled and said simply it was not what she wanted, but her heavenly “calling”. Shirley asked again who he was. This time he was a little more forthright. He responded that his name was Michael. He pointed out to Shirley, that she indeed sees him every Sunday in the front of the Church. Shirley told him that she sings in the choir and sees the front of the Church from the choir loft, but, she never had seen him. Michael told her, that as she faces the front of the church, he stands to the left near the Holy Altar. Shirley knew she was being taken. She told him all she sees are Icons on the Icon screen in front of the Holy Altar. Correct, he told her. He was on the left door of the Icon screen. That was all Shirley needed to hear. She thought first she was crazy. She was now convinced he was crazy; but, how could he know all that he did about her? Michael knew things she never shared with anyone. The shock must have shown on her face.
The train reached the Wabash station. They both rose from their seats. Shirley gathered the courage to ask him why he was speaking to her. Again, Michael quickly explained that she was going to accomplish a great many things in her life. She was going to work in the church and become famous painting Icons. Reality hit. Shirley stopped laughing in disbelief and started listening more intently as the seriousness of this spiritual encounter started to seep into her mind. Michael continued telling her she would experience several pivotal events in her life. Some of these events were transitional and others were instructional.
Exiting from the train, Michael accompanied her through the deserted Chicago streets, as they walked towards the Art Institute. Along the way, he laid out the events in the spiritual journey of her life. They arrived at the steps of the Art Institute. Abruptly, he pointed out that she should have listened to her father and mother that morning and had her dad drive her into the city. Pointing to a bush close to the steps of the Art Institute where they stood, he told Shirley that there were evil people all around looking to harm innocent victims. As he spoke these words, the bush rustled, and from somewhere in the tangled branches a hooded character appeared and ran away. Shirley could not speak. Startled, she watched as the ominous figure ran off. She could hardly breathe, let alone say a word.
Michael relayed his final message as it was time to leave her. There was another woman he had to visit to help change her life. Shirley finally regained her voice and asked Michael if she would ever see him again. He told her he was with her always. He was the Archangel Michael. God sends him to those who need to be shown a direction. Shirley was one of those people. She would accomplish some great things in her life. She could not ignore the opportunity.
Michael told her that his mission was to impress upon her the importance of what was expected of her. First, she must overcome her shortcomings and faults. Secondly, she must learn about her Orthodox Christian faith and Iconography. Finally, there would come a time when she would arrive at the pinnacle of success. Before this successful moment, someone who had been very evil to her would capture her attention. If she ignored this person and turned her back in unforgiveness, all she had gained would be lost. She had to learn about forgiveness. Archangel Michael would be with her always to watch over her. Shirley walked up one step and turned to Michael to ask another question. She saw no one, only an empty street. She ran out to Michigan Avenue. No one was there, not even a lone car in either direction.