Green Leaves, Red Flames, and Glimpses of Vocation

A reflection by Sarah

One of the many lessons I keep repeating is that God often uses unpredictable means to get my attention. This was especially true during a season of my life when I was feeling strongly pulled towards a celibate vocation but knew I wasn’t going to be able to live it at that time. As I’ve written before, I’m glad I waited to commit fully to a celibate vocation because being ready for this way of life takes time. I wanted to be reasonably sure that God was in fact calling me to celibacy before completely embracing some form of celibate life as my vocation. At the time of this story, I thought I was crazy for even contemplating celibacy, as I was in a non-celibate relationship with a woman I’ve chosen to call Leah.

One summer while on retreat, I sat at the dinner table nearly every evening with a priest who seemed to understand my uncertainty intuitively. Frequently, I asked him questions about how he understood the role of celibacy in his vocation to the priesthood, if he experienced loneliness, and if he had any regrets about forgoing marriage. This priest could tell that I wasn’t casually exploring monastic life with no real intention of committing to a celibate vocation of some kind. Though I never shared anything with him about my sexual orientation or relationship, I believe that he could actually tell I had a sense of where God was leading me, and was trying to figure out how to get there despite doubts about meeting my need for human companionship along the way. One evening after our meal, he pulled me aside and drew something from his satchel: an icon of the Mother of God the Unburnt Bush, though I did not yet know this name for it. Then he said to me, “I’m leaving tomorrow to go back home to my parish, and I feel very strongly that the Mother of God would like you to have this icon.”

Icon of the Mother of God the Unburnt Bush

I was totally surprised, completely flattered, and taken aback. The icon was absolutely beautiful. What could have inspired this priest to leave me—adrift and pitifully clueless—with such an amazing gift? I’m not sure anything else in the world could have spoken to me in that moment as this icon did. Throughout my life, one of the ways I’ve felt God’s presence most strongly has been via my perceptions of color. The Mother of God the Unburnt Bush icon remains to this day one of the most colorful I’ve ever encountered. Even more captivating than most I’ve seen, it is packed full of action, containing a multiplicity of stories on a mere 9” by 12” wooden panel. Simultaneously blown away and honored, I asked if he could tell me more about the meaning behind different images within the icon. He responded by directing me to take the icon back to my bedroom and let the Mother of God teach me about it herself. In time, the icon would tell me the fullness of its own story. I received the gift with gratitude and carried it away.

As I sat on my bed staring down at the image, the first sight that caught my eye was the Mother of God, surrounded by green leaves and red flames. I realized that this icon was a representation of Moses and the Unburnt Bush from The Book of Exodus. I recalled that Exodus describes the bush as burning, yet unconsumed. Gears turned in my head, and it clicked that the Unburnt Bush was a prefiguring of the Mother of God in the paradox of her virgin motherhood. At that time, I found myself focused on the primary images of the icon rather than those in the background. I noticed Moses, removing his sandals, kneeling below the Mother of God as she holds her infant Son. As I contemplated the three central figures in this icon, I felt inspired and convicted that saying yes to God’s call would not always be easy. Sometimes doing what God asks is incredibly hard and involves saying, “I’m committed,” even when that means arduous tasks and frightening possibilities. I thought about how Moses stood before the Unburnt Bush in preparation for leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Perhaps I was beginning my own period of preparation for what God would have me do even if I wasn’t able to do it yet at that point. I also thought about how two celibates are central images in the icon: the Mother of God and Jesus himself. As I gazed into the eyes of the Mother of God and of Jesus in the icon, I caught the first glimmer of hope that perhaps a celibate life could be worthwhile and fulfilling even if those qualities seemed fleeting and out of reach at the time. Surprisingly, I also felt an overwhelming sense of peace even though life seemed uncertain and my questions of vocation were far from settled. In that moment, God reached into my heart and assured me that things were in process, and I was in process.

Over the past four years, that icon has been a source of strength for me almost daily. Within that span of time, I’ve experienced beginnings and endings of relationships, a move halfway across the country, a reevaluation of my own sexual ethic, and the beginning of my celibate partnership with Lindsey. The Mother of God the Unburnt Bush icon currently hangs in Lindsey’s and my living room, alongside many other images that are spiritually significant for both of us. Sometimes when I walk by this image, I catch the eyes of the Mother of God for a moment, and I get a reminder that she’s here praying for me and helping me to find strength at times when the demands of a lay celibate vocation are at their greatest.

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