“The original reason I began painting icons was to celebrate the goodness of God that I saw. There were people I loved deeply—the Mother of God, St. Seraphim, St. Francis—and I wanted to have them around me. Painting icons of those people is a celebration of God’s goodness and artistry. In that sense an icon is like an explosion. It lights up an entire room. It explodes on your wall. There’s a saint like Dorothy Day gazing at you! She’s present, and she’s challenging you to look at the streets and the way you respond to the Gospel. And there’s Oscar Romero asking, ‘What are you doing about the bloodshed down here?’ “There have been times when I have wanted to give painting up and find an easier way to make a living. I barely earn the minimum wage. But there is a burning inside me, a something that has to be said. I sense this is my calling. I get angry at my calling. Sometimes I get angry with God. But this is simply the work I have to do. Yes, icon painting is hard on your body, on your eyes, on your back. But the vision I have of the great God who explodes into our life—that’s enough to keep me going. When I sense that, when I remember that, it makes me feel like dancing.” Robert Lentz, 1985
Robert is a Byzantine Rite Catholic, born in 1946 in rural Colorado. After high school he spent six years with the Franciscan friars of the Cincinnati Province, studying to be a priest most of the year and working with archeologists in New Mexico in the summer. When it came time to make solemn vows, he chose to leave religious life. “I am by nature a contemplative,” he says, “ and my attraction to the Order was to its contemplative side. I am also an artist and a scholar. When changes swept through my province, I felt like a stranger.” During a controversy over married Ukrainian Catholic priests in 1975, he entered the Russian Orthodox Church. He studied iconography at Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, Massachusetts, under the monk Gregory, working 12 hours a day, six days a week, as well as taking part in the daily life of the monastery. When he returned to Colorado, the monk Gregory asked his help in starting Dormition Skete there, in Buena Vista. In 1980, Archbishop Anthony Sinkevitch of Los Angeles took Robert to the Russian orphanage in Santiago, Chile, with the hope that he might become priest for the orphans and the nuns who cared for them. In August of that year, Pinochet’s secret police broke into Robert’s house, however, and arrested him on the suspicion that he might be a Communist sympathizer. He was released when they realized their mistake, but Robert’s health broke soon afterwards. He came down with pneumonia, and when his condition worsened, he was allowed to return to the United States, to live at Dormition Skete with his former teacher. One year later, fed up with the apocalyptic ranting of the monk Gregory, he returned to the Roman Church.
“We must be honest and severe to the end. We must liberate the real and authentic even from layers to which we are most accustomed and which we hold most dear. We must deny ourselves any stylizations or aesthetic reformulations of these essentials. We must scrupulously distinguish Orthodoxy from all its décor and its costumes. In some sense we are called to early Christianity.” St. Maria Skobotsova, martyr of Ravensbruck.
For the next 20 years, Robert lived as an urban hermit, first in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, and then in the barrios of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He supported himself with his iconography and by preaching retreats and teaching apprentices. His experience in Chile had a profound effect on his work as an iconographer. He began painting icons of people who had struggled for justice and peace, instead of traditional Byzantine themes. He modeled his life on the Franciscan ideals he had pursued as a young man. In 2003 he re-entered the Franciscan Order and made solemn profession several years later. Today he lives and works at Holy Name College, near Washington, D.C., bringing together at the end of his life the many different strands that have marked his life journey.
“Ultimately Christ gave us two commandments: on love for God and love for people. There is no need to complicate them, and at times to supplant them, by pedantic rules.” St. Maria Skobotsova.