I first became aware of the art of Robert Lentz when his small icons began appearing on my wife’s devotional shelf. Lentz, a Franciscan friar in New Mexico, has painted icons of hundreds of bona fide saints. But the Lentz icons that grabbed my attention are of saints the church has yet to recognize: theologians, social revolutionaries, and persons whose lives have changed the world for the better. The icons in this category include Daniel Berrigan, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Dorothy Day, and Harvey Milk. Long before Oscar Romero was a candidate for canonization, Lentz designed an icon for him. (See https://www.trinitystores.com/artist/br-robert-lentz-ofm)
I love the point Lentz is making: that in every corner of life, God has set aside special people for special tasks. They existed in our homes, our offices, our churches, and in our neighborhoods. They were the saints we took for granted, whose piety we may not have detected, but whose presence transformed our lives in small and large ways. Often we were unaware of their impact until they were gone.
Lentz’s approach to iconography gives us a way to honor the memory of those people in our lives, to acknowledge their importance to us, and to thank God for the gift of special people. Perhaps few of these good people will be honored in stained glass windows, but within each congregation is the means of honoring them with special icons that will assure their stories will be remembered and told for succeeding generations.
Although I do not have Robert Lentz’s artistic talent, I was inspired by the assignment in my Lutheran Diakonia class to draw an icon of a special person in my household and in my life. San Benigno Cruz Brito, born in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba, was my wife’s father. When Martha was a toddler in Havana in the mid 1950s, Benigno, a police officer, took a political stance that offended Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and had to flee the country. Leaving his wife and daughter behind, Benigno landed in New York, got a job as a dish washer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. When enough money was on hand to bring his wife and daughter to the U.S., he secured a small five-story walk-up apartment at 452 Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. He worked as an elevator operator in the Hotel Astor while his wife, Julia, secured employment as a seamstress in the Garment District. Beny continued working until 1985, to help care for their first born grandson and, soon-to-follow, two granddaughters. Julia retired in 1991.
When I first met Beny in 1995, he and Julia were in the process of selling their house in Queens and moving in with us in Port Chester. He was a warm, kindly, laughing man who made school lunches for the grandchildren, helped transport them to school, applied his handy work skills to maintaining the house, and (as might be expected of an ex-cop) was vigilant about keeping the house and family safe. Beny was all about family – and that included me, his son-in-law. Beny died eight years ago after a sad descent into Alzheimer’s, but his warm presence and example endures in all who knew him.
Every family and congregation has benefitted from a similar loving and saintly presence worthy of an icon. I hope this icon of San Benigno de Aguada de Pasajeros will inspire many memories and stories about him for generations to come – and will be a reminder to thank God for the gift of his life and for all the other saints who continue to live quietly among us.
Of course there are other members of my family who have earned iconic sainthood, including my mother, Saint Mary of Andes, and Dad, Saint Elmore of Oneonta. Both have been long gone from this earthly sphere of existence, but they endure in the hearts and memories of those who survive.
Beny, Mary, Elmore, and so many other saints who blessed our lives; long may they be remembered, and long may their stories be told.