‘Do Whatever He Tells You’: iconographer Cecelia Aguallo
By Jean Torkelson
Photo by Roxanne King/DCR
One in an occasional series exploring how Colorado Catholics put into practice, in their own lives, Mary’s counsel—and Archbishop Samuel Aquila’s episcopal motto—“Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
Ten years ago, Cecelia Aguallo was not in a good place. She and her husband were facing a family crisis and trying to raise three granddaughters. Their budget was skintight. Life was hard. One day was especially bad.
“I was so sad,” she recalls. “I was crying, and thinking, ‘I don’t understand God very well.’ But the Holy Spirit has many ways of teaching, and even though I’m not the smartest student he ever had, eventually I found what I was looking for.”
That was the day Aguallo walked into a workshop to learn iconography. She didn’t know what she expected to find there, but she felt led by God to deepen her faith, “so I walked obediently and with humility through the process.”
She says she was apprehensive, but trying to follow “Do whatever he tells you,” “even though it was hard.”
Today, Aguallo (pronounced Ah-WY-oh) is a passionate teacher of iconography, and helps direct the Iconography Guild of Denver. She is eager to share the ways the ancient art has indeed deepened her faith and revealed fresh, new ways of contemplating God and his saints. She prefers to teach the classic Byzantine and early Russian style of the 10th-13th centuries, but points out that all traditional iconography follows strict forms and rules, and it is said that, upon contemplation, an authentic icon can reveal a “third dimension” with a deeper spiritual meaning.
“Icons are written for the soul,” Aguallo said. “They are not meant to catch your eye with their beauty, but to invite you … to enter into a prayer relationship with God.”
Even the strict discipline of iconography has meaning.
“That beautiful verse—‘Do whatever he tells you’—even that is reflected in the icons,” she said. “We don’t say, ‘I think I’ll make the eyes bigger or shape the nose differently,’ we adhere faithfully to the extant icons.”
“Do whatever he tells you” also speaks to a spiritual mystery that is also contained in the icons—that obedience leads to true freedom, Aguallo said.
Photo by Roxanne King/DCR
When painting an icon, she explained, “Strict adherence to rules gives us so much freedom. It’s a paradox.”
In other words, there is a freedom to use gradations of paints and colors, but within strict iconic parameters. And that’s just like life.
“The closer we stick to God’s rules, the freer we are. Every time we pick up that brush, we are reminded that God is giving us the freedom to live in happiness.”
The rich symbolism and spiritual teachings that can be drawn from traditional iconography makes it much more than “artwork.”
“We see it as a vocation, something that God has called us to,” Aguallo said. “I feel that’s especially important in this iconoclastic society that we live in, which destroys anything of value God has created. We believe that, in working with icons, we are God’s servants, and his hands.”
As for her personal faith journey, Aquallo believes that by blindly saying “yes” to God on a day of great sadness, God opened up many blessings, not only to a fulfilling life in iconography, but also a deeper understanding of his laws and love. By following the lesson of “Do whatever he tells you,” even life’s most difficult moments are meaningful.
“There is a saying, ‘as you work on an icon, an icon works on you,’” she said. “The theory is we are all living icons and in spiritual formation, whether we realize it or not. And when God calls and you say ‘yes,’ and follow him blindly, even when you fall you can pick yourself up. Everything in life is a learning lesson.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister