“The world of iconographers is very small, and everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Things haven’t changed much in 13 centuries. And what I expected to happen, happened. Everyone condemned my work and said I was being frivolous and disobedient. So basically, what it took was just the courage to say, ‘I don’t care.’ I feel that what I’m doing is very much in line with the tradition. I seriously consider the implications of every icon I paint.”
Robert Lentz, 1996
Soon after returning to the Catholic Church, Robert ended up homeless on the streets of San Francisco. When he eventually found work cleaning St. Mary’s Cathedral at night, he rented an apartment above Bridge Building Ministries, a small urban center for Catholics working at the margins of society and the church. The priest who ran the center, Daniel O’Connor, became Robert’s friend and mentor. The people who came to the center to work or pray introduced Robert to issues of peace and justice that have been part of his work ever since.
“I try to listen to the people of God. The type of people I rub shoulders with nowadays are not traditional priests or monks but alienated Christians. They feel that religious institutions have outlived their usefulness and are scandalized by the ways that they continue to shackle the Gospel. They’re angry. They’re searching. These people are the ones I try to listen to. I hear from them about Dorothy Day and Mother Jones. I heard from them about Archbishop Romero and other martyrs of Central America. Black people ask, ‘Why can’t we have a Black Christ?’ And artists wonder why someone like Johann Sebastian Bach or the artist Georges Rouault isn’t worthy.”
Robert Lentz, 1985
Following the lead of the Second Vatican Council, theologians like Leonardo Boff were beginning to differentiate between the Reign of God and the Church in the 1970’s and 80’s. When someone asked Robert to consider painting an icon of Gandhi in 1983, he struggled with the decision for several months until he realized that holiness belongs to the Reign of God and that God’s Reign is much larger than the Church that exists to serve it. He painted Gandhi and then went on to paint Harvey Milk and many other non-Christians who have sacrificed their lives for other human beings.
“The majority of my critics are uncomfortable with the way I move back and forth between the cultures in which I have had to live since childhood. They want tidy, black-and-white worlds that I have never known. From childhood I have had to deal with a Technicolor world in which I was never quite sure why there were so many fences. Byzantine icons stay safely behind Byzantine walls and look out at the rest of the world. Catholic images are hemmed in by Catholic fences. My icons ignore walls. They belong wherever there is life.”
As a Franciscan, Robert celebrates the insight he had as a small child on the Colorado prairies. He finds God in all things and brings unlikely symbols into his icons. His saints hold chipped coffee mugs and wear ratty sweaters. Some saints play musical instruments. Others knit sweaters or peel potatoes. Animals accompany many of his saints, and he paints the animals with the same care as he paints the human figures, for all of creation is called to transfiguration in Christ, when God is all in all at the end of time. Perhaps the most startling of his icons, however is a seraph with wings of 23-karat gold leaf painted directly on the rusted lid of an old garbage can he found in a vacant lot. “God’s glory is as evident in the beautiful rusted iron,” he says with a smile, “as it is in the expensive gold leaf. Maybe it’s even more obvious in the rust!”
“A Christian is one who, everywhere he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him.”
Fr. Alexander Schmemann.