According to tradition, the first icon-painter in the Church was the evangelist Luke, and the first icon he painted was of Mary. This is a big deal, so, naturally, there’s an icon of it. In that icon of an icon Mary stands with the baby Jesus to the side, while Luke sits, studies, and paints. I was reminded of this image when reading something in a letter from Basil about models for Christian living.
Basil’s point is that we should look to the Scriptures for examples of Christian virtues, to see them in action. “For in them are not only found the precepts of conduct,” he says, “but also the lives of saintly men, recorded and handed down to us, lie before us like living images . . . for our imitation of their good works.” There’s the virtue—and the virtue in practice. To successfully live grow in our faith, we need to study both, and we turn to the Scriptures for models.
Looking to Mary we learn, among other things, obedience. Faced with the announcement from Gabriel, she says, as Luke records, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Looking to Paul we learn zeal. John the Baptist, humility. The Apostle John, devotion.
Basil similarly offers several examples from the Old Testament. From Joseph’s example we learn to appreciate chastity and flee sin. From Job we learn fortitude and constancy. From David and Moses we learn how we can be both valiant for God’s truth and also meek in spirit, a rare and precious combination.
To these and other models we must continually turn, says Basil. “[J]ust as painters in working from models constantly gaze at their exemplar and thus strive to transfer the expression of the original to their own artistry, so too he who is anxious to make himself perfect in all the kinds of virtue must gaze up on the lives of the saints . . . and must make their excellence his own by imitation.”
Basil connects prayer to this effort. Hinting at the same point, the icon of Luke and Mary reveals an angel leaning over his shoulder providing direction. We must remember that we cannot undertake the imitation of virtue without the help and power of God. We study the Scriptures, apply them in prayer, and trust God’s direction.
What would happen in our lives if we focused on gathering all we could glean from the life of just one of the saints and putting it into practice? What if you focused on Mary, or Joseph, or David? What qualities do they model that you could benefit from imitating?