Thursday, March 19, 2009

PASSING OF AN ICONOGRAPHER


There they are – hanging above my desk – two religious icons, one of Christ speaking to Scribes, possibly Pharisees. However, a few of those Scribes depicted may have written about people with different political and religious viewpoints, perhaps like those of my friend who gave me the icon. On the back of this icon, in the small, precise handwriting that was Fr. John Moloney’s, is the message: “From an iconographer to an icon. Love, John.” It’s possibly the most gracious tribute anyone ever gave me. John died two evenings ago after fighting an incredible battle with cancer, and this moment, I am filled with rich memories of him copying icons, an artist creating pictures of how God lived and illuminated the lives of humans.

Fr. John Moloney came to the Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia in the late 80’s as a deacon about to begin his vocation as an Episcopal priest and so inured himself to parishioners with his passionate preaching, they circulated a petition to call him as their priest (even though this was a “no-no” for a deacon to become a priest at the church in which he had served as a member of the Holy Order of Deacons). He remained a passionate preacher and one who was devoted to outreach, and distinguished himself in many ways, but most particularly during Hurricane Andrew when he obtained a hefty grant from the Presiding Bishop to provide hurricane relief throughout Iberia Parish. He also established a chapter of Habitat for Humanity to aid people in rebuilding and constructing homes they had lost in the disaster.

A gourmet chef, John ministered to the sick and elderly by bringing them bread and wine in his Communion kit and... a tantalizing Cajun dish he had concocted in plastic containers. He believed that food, along with the Eucharist, brought joie de vivre into the lives of those who suffered. Recently, friends and I were discussing the major themes of sermons delivered by the various priests at Epiphany during our time there (which spans approximately 50 years of preaching) and decided that Fr. John’s theme was “Lord, turn my life upside down, turn your lives upside down.” A few weeks ago, before I left Louisiana, I visited with him and reminded him of this message. He was lying abed in his home in Baton Rouge and smiled widely as though he wasn’t really sorry he had preached those words so many times. Armed with the Cross, he was always going out to the disenfranchised – to those who were poor… or ignored… or outright rejected. Yet, he craved the time and the space for contemplation and was eventually commissioned by Bishop Robert Hargrove to set up a Spirituality Center at Camp Hardtner near Pollock, Louisiana where he could provide spiritual direction and retreats for those who sought deeper spirituality in their lives. Unfortunately, not enough support for the Center emerged, and he was called to become the Archdeacon for the Diocese of Western Louisiana where he served as the major administrative support for the Bishop’s work.

It is John who inspired me to become a deacon, even when the Diaconate was temporarily suspended in the Diocese. He was a presenter at my ordination, later recommending me for the office of Dean of the Bishop’s School South, to represent the Diocese on the Board of Trustees at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and to become involved in diaconal formation. He always had his feet at my back, gently prodding me to enter another phase of service in the Diocese.

After resigning as Archdeacon of the Diocese of Western Louisiana, John became the rector of a large church in Memphis, Tennessee and devoted his efforts to doing those things Christ calls us to do that most of us would rather let go undone. He worked while praying and prayed while working, seeking out people who needed His love to transform their lives and centering his vocation on charity, rather than on personal piety. He had just begun mission and outreach work with St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana when he was suddenly diagnosed with cancer of the colon, then cancer of the liver, and waged a courageous battle while enduring intense suffering.

I truly feel that wherever John was sent in his vocation, his conviction was that God had sent him to turn some place or some congregation upside down. He was always creating his own send-offs – “Ite missa est” (“Go now”), knowing that those he commissioned made out well in whatever he had sent them to do – to love, heal, serve, turn their lives and those of others upside down.

I’m not sure John always believed that he was “manifesting the splendor of His grace” as he tended the souls that had been given to him to love and help grow spiritually, but in his work as an iconographer I think he felt a certainty that he was manifesting that splendor. Today, as I sit at my desk, I think of him. Looking up at the two icons, I say to myself, “May you enjoy the mysterious presence and source of goodness you were always trying to capture in your icons. No religious daydreams now, good and faithful servant – this life of yours that you were always trying to turn upside down is surely, in God’s dimension, aright now.”
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