Hannah, Samuel... a new icon
Kontakion of the Prophet Samuel, Tone 8
Thou wast a precious gift to God before thy conception; thou didst serve Him from infancy like an angel and wast granted to foretell future events, wherefore we cry to thee: Rejoice, O Samuel, thou Prophet of God and great high priest.
Today I am working on a new icon, a commission which is to be a gift to a lady who lost her son Samuel at a young age. She has a deep faith and it is a gift from a friend as a condolence and prayer.
The image I have in mind is of Hannah offering her infant son, the prophet Samuel, to Eli the priest at Shiloh. This came from a discussion with the donor. This morning I am scouring for possible models from existing images, and reading meditatively the Scriptural story from 1 Samuel 1. I use Evernote to clip images and passages I find interesting or useful. It is a great programme because it is like a folder full of clippings which you can then re-organise and revisit.
I began the day with the Jesus Prayer and then have tried to draw that into this period of reflection, trying to hear the Lord's voice like the movement on the waters in the Pool of Siloam, spotting the gentle ripples and following them back towards the source.
Reading over the Biblical narrative, one or two phrases leapt out, prominent among them v.16: "Do not think your servant a worthless woman; my prayer has been prompted by my deep sorrow and misery.” And v.6: "Because the Lord did not give to her a child during her tribulation, and during the discouragement of the tribulation, she was broken-hearted." (I use the USSCB website for their liturgically authorised text, and the Orthodox Study Bible which reflects the views found in the Orthodox churches).
In the icon we bring peace because we bring people to see Christ, we draw them out of the ugliness of a world where God seems absent or invisible to the point where they rejoice even in the midst of their sorrows because they dwell with Him, where He is close and is our Comforter. This passage shows the same process: Hannah is broken hearted, feeling abandoned and shamed by God, and tormented even in her own home for years on end. There is no relief, even the tender and attentive love of her husband is not enough. God has abandoned her is all she can think, and without Him her life is a curse. Even when she prays before Eli, she is rebuked for being drunk even though it is out of her desperation she prays. But it is as this point that God presents Himself to her through the seemingly innocuous and generic words, humble morsels really, words which I am sure the priest had issued many, many times, but they are words which speak directly to Hannah's heart, pared back as it is by her acute long-suffering and so as the words are spoken to her heart that has come waiting and longing to hear. The priest's words are perhaps prayed rather than simply recited after he is humbled having misjudged her? His prayer is certainly heard, as her heart's heaviness is lifted and she is at peace, as her change back at home reveals: "Eli said, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have requested.” She replied, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes,” and left. She went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and no longer appeared downhearted."
Here perhaps is something that speaks to the bereaved mother for whom the icon is intended, the conduit for the work of mercy and peace which is the 'task' of the icon?
I was also touched by the delay in her return to the temple, not because she wasn't grateful to God, but I think because she just wanted those few more months with her little son before she gave him away, gave him back to God. She had that depth of confidence in God to know that He wouldn't reprimand her for that, indeed would want her to take a little time to enjoy this wonderous gift He had granted her. She wasn't prevaricating, just wanting a little space in which to enjoy what God had given before fulfilling her promise to Him (1 Sam 1:21-23). Maybe there is an echo her for a mother who had her son just a little while, before God took Him from her, a way of reflecting back with gratitude for the time that has been even if it is hard that it has now come to an end after so short a while?
Thus the offering of Samuel is the most poignant moment - though he has been the blessing she asked for, he also costs her dearly, perhaps all the more dearly, for having been the gift granted in response to a prayer in which he was first offered sacrificially: “O LORD of hosts, if you look with pity on the hardship of your servant, if you remember me and do not forget me, if you give your handmaid a male child, I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life." In this dynamic we have something that echoes of the gift of the Christ Child who is born to die: in the Nativity icon the new born Christ is lain not in a manger of hay but a stone sarcophagus, the Word choosing to offer Himself as the sacrificial Lamb even before He takes flesh and is born among us. And it is the Temple that is the place of sacrifice, which is what Shiloh, one of the local temples, was all about. Here is the pain and the glory.
As for models, I have found a rather delightful 13th century English manuscript by William de Brailes, one of only two named manuscript illuminators from Medieval England. As this is a gift for a lady active in the Church of England, this seems culturally sensitive.