Frederica: Hello, I’m in Spokane Washington at the conclusion of the ‘To the Ends of the Earth’ Conference sponsored by St. Gregorios Malankar Syrian Orthodox Church, and I’m sitting here with, I would say Khouria Heather Durka. We have all these names for clergy wives: presbytera, and preoteasa, and Pani Matka, and matushka and all these things, and here’s another one: Kochamma. And your tradition is that instead of saying Kochamma Heather, you say Heather Kochamma.
Frederica: Isn’t that right. Somebody told me a story about it: the priest’s title is Achen, and the first time they attended a gathering of priests it was Michael Achen, George Achen, John Achen, James Achen, and she thought they were all related. [Laugher]
Heather: It makes sense.
Frederica: So all these women are named Kochamma; they don’t have the same last names as their husbands, it’s so perplexing. [Laughter] But you’re an iconographer.
Frederica: You were trained by Sophronia Tamaras?
Frederica: Is that right?
Heather: Yes, yes. About 16 years ago.
Frederica: And as we were talking yesterday, it was interesting to me that, as somebody who teaches icon classes, you face a dilemma. So many people are eager to learn how to paint icons. And there are problems like, someone will take a class and set themselves up as an icon-painting teacher, somebody just wants to learn the techniques perhaps for art alone, that you wouldn’t really approve of. Or people are coming from a sort of spirituality you’re uncomfortable with.
Frederica: And you don’t want to throw fuel on the fire or allow them to misuse the holy things of Orthodoxy. So if you could tell me something about that, and about how you go about screening?
Heather: Well, what we do is we give the inquirer a list of questions, most often online, and ask them to prayerfully consider their answers. One of the questions would be, ‘Why do you want to participate in the retreat?’ Because the classes are in a retreat format.
Frederica: That’s good. Do you fast on this retreat?
Heather: Oh yes, yes. We give an outline, if that’s not part of their tradition, they’re given an outline and given a choice, but if we don’t go over that, I had one retreat where someone brought in a bag of gummy bears and plopped it down on the table. [Laughter] We decided we needed to tighten up our teaching on fasting in that way. Of course that was early on. But we make it very clear, and I think this is the biggest screening part, is that in order to do a Holy Icon you need to not only fast but you need to participate in the liturgical prayers of the Orthodox Church. And so we tell them that that is expected. If a student comes in late, they are sent out to the prayers space and they are given a list of prayers and we expect them to follow through with that.
Frederica: Do you find that some people resent this, or get angry or huffy about it?
Heather: In the early times when we were first teaching. My husband Michael is an integral part of my teaching, he teaches the theology and gives them lessons, so it’s liturgical prayer, participation in the prayers, the teachings, and the painting.
Frederica: That’s wonderful; I hadn’t heard of it being done that thoroughly before. This is something you’ve just found a real need for, though.
Heather: Mmm-hmm. Yes. So like I said, if they know that the prayers are expected, that will be an automatic screening tool, if they are expecting a more technical workshop. So another thing we do is ask them if they are an artist, could we please see their work. So they’ll send us examples of their work online, and most often everything is fine. But we had one case where there was a definite kind of occultic feel to the imagery, and we had to tell her that we just couldn’t –
Frederica: Some nudity that you weren’t comfortable with?
Heather: Oh yes, snakes and goddesses and yeah, it was not good. So I told her that we could not have her, and she’s angry. She’s sent us emails back and forth that we were judgmental. And that’s the thing: something that is so precious, it has changed my life. It has just been such a huge gift. You want to protect it.
Frederica: I was thinking about the priest at his ordination, holding the lamb and being instructed, ‘You must protect this with your life,’ and thinking about the lifetime that he will have distributing communion, and what an obligation and a burden and a joy that is, it’s a fearful thing. And it’s sort of the same way with iconography, isn’t it?
Heather: Yes, it very much is. And the knowledge of it grows over time, the precious responsibility. So we go back and forth, Father and I, about how to present this gift to our larger faith community and yet preserve the traditions, so pray for us!
Frederica: What’s the name of your website?
Frederica: So what was the first one? Sacred images?
Heather: Iconsandsacredimages.com. We separate what is an icon from what is maybe perhaps a holy image that has some iconographic influences. It’s important to make a separation; that’s also how we educate.
Frederica: Well, we have to conclude. We’re here at St. Gregorios Church and this will be the first time I’ve ever seen a liturgy of St. James, so it’s going to be interesting. Thank you so much.
Heather: Thank you Khouria.
Frederica: Khouria Heather. Heather Kochamma.