The story is as old as time: A young mother due to give birth is forced to seek refuge in a lowly manger. Angels appear to shepherds in the fields and a bright North star guides wise men to the place.
“They spread the word concerning what they had been told about the child. And all who heard were amazed.”
Retold, reenacted, and chanted countless times this month – from church pulpits and grottos to private homes and school stages – the story of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus has taken many forms in its telling during this Christian Advent season.
At the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio’s 100-year-old seminary and retreat center that attracts people of all faiths from around the world, one man has retold it through the ancient tradition of “writing” icons.
Using egg tempera paints he mixes himself and applying them to a gesso board, as is the iconographer’s tradition, Fr. Clyde Rausch, a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate (OMI, the religious order that founded Oblate), paints people and events of the Bible in his tidy studio overlooking the serene grounds at Oblate.
The day Rausch invited the Rivard Report into his studio, a dozen or so of his captivating icons were on display – with names like The Raising of Lazarus, The Annunciation of Mary, and The Crucifixion – in vivid hues of red, blue, purple, and gold, each color symbolic and brush stroke full of meaning.
An enchanting icon of The Nativity is also prominent in the studio. Though he can usually create smaller icons in one week, he began this work during a previous Advent season, painted until February (Christmas on the liturgical calendar) and began again when Advent started the following year.
“It’s the Bible visually,” Rausch said of iconography. “From the beginning of Christianity, you have these sacred images. The very basic principle of icons is that in the Old Testament, you were not to have an image of God. No statues, totally forbidden.
“But when Jesus was born (the New Testament), the son of God became visually present. You can see the face of Jesus. He walked, he talked, he cried. So as John says in his gospel, ‘The Word became flesh,’ and flesh is visual.”
Thus, the Early Church established strict rules for the art of iconography, dictating everything from the technique and use of color to how the subjects were painted and the icons used in worship.
Born in Hoven, S.D. to devout Catholic parents who raised cattle and three sons, Rausch left home at age 18 to attend seminary and begin his life as a missionary. He spent his formation years at Oblate and several years in Mississippi, a post that convinced him he preferred cooler and less-humid climates. So when he professed final vows in 1965 and completed his studies in 1969, he requested Scandinavia and was sent to a parish in Sweden.
It was a job not without trials. “The people had lost hope,” Rausch said. While later on a sabbatical to renew his sense of purpose and faith, he was inspired by the words “Let God do God’s work.” From that point on, in a religious career that spanned work rebuilding that parish, serving as a provincial supervisor for all of Western Europe, working in Rome and traveling the world – and narrowly missing an assignment to the Saharan Desert in Africa – Rausch fell in love with the people he was serving.
“They are contemplative, reflective, smart, and they are survivors, like the Vikings,” he said, and the early art in their churches reflected their simple but fervent traditions. Guessing that they would respond to the spiritual teachings and the “impassive” icons of the early Orthodox Church, he invited a group to attend iconography art classes, taught by a Dutch priest he knew. Soon, he was teaching and perfecting the technique as well.
After three decades in Europe, and with his mother ill, Rausch returned to the U.S. and to San Antonio. He teaches the art form to seminarians, retreat groups, and religious men and women on sabbatical at Oblate. The art form is experiencing a revival in Western cultures and a renewed interest, and Rausch is one of several icon artists in the area.
The methods in his class closely follow scripture teaching and ecology. “You must have respect for everything God created, from the hair in the brushes to the pigments in the paint to the wood we paint on,” he said. And like the Early Church, Rausch has rules: Students must possess a mature faith – the kind that has been tested. And they must obey the teacher.
Because the painted lines in icons are sharp and free of distortion, Rausch laughs when his students worry that their misshapen lines represent a lack of faith on their part. “If it’s from the spirit … it’s what God wants,” he reassures them.
Rausch recently completed a 4-by-4-foot icon of Saint Teresa of Calcutta commissioned by a church in Wisconsin, and he sells some of his icons as well as prints made into greeting cards. But he paints as much for himself – while in prayer, listening to Gregorian chants – as for others, taking frequent breaks to invite visitors into the studio or walk the Oblate grounds, an oasis of contemplation in the congested northern sector of the city.
The work requires great concentration, the priest said. “But love can’t be forced. It has to come naturally. You can’t explain it either. If you start, it sounds cheap.
“Words don’t express it.”