‘Walton’ St Paul of the Cross: An Icon from the Margins

9th October 2018

It is said that “icons” should be “read” and “prayed”.  They are more than simple pictures to be viewed.  The story and provenance of this image of our Passionist Founder St Paul of the Cross deserves “reading” as an icon.

For many years Father Austin Smith was chaplain in Liverpool’s Walton Prison.  He would always look out for anyone who seemed to be experiencing particularly the burdens of confinement.  One day, visiting a prisoner on the punishment block in solitary confinement – in his small cell barely lit with its single 40 watt bulb, with no opportunity for other interaction – Austin stayed for some time, getting to know him and helping at least to break that day’s grinding monotony.  In the course of their conversation he discovered two things – his obvious extreme loneliness and also memories of times when he had been free to indulge his love of art – drawing and painting pictures.

Austin left the cell, but returned a short time later with a piece of brown paper – admittedly not the best art material – and a few coloured pencils he had managed to find;  these he left them with the prisoner.  As he came out of the cell a nearby prison officer commented sarcastically about “the Padre” putting himself out to encourage someone, who in his opinion, entirely deserved his current confinement!

Visiting again the following day, Austin was amazed to be presented with a beautiful “totally alive” image of St Paul of the Cross – copied from a holy picture left on a previous occasion.  It was the prisoner’s gift in gratitude for a friendly word and an act of kindness.

Austin called this his “Walton Paul of the Cross Icon” –it remains special in our Inner City Mission initiated by Austin in 1971 and continuing today nearly fifty years later. 

More than a mere picture, this image is a witness to God’s Spirit alive in someone’s creativity who despite – or perhaps rather because of – experiencing human vulnerability – nonetheless, reaches beyond in search of the sacred. 

The Walton icon reminds us of Austin.  It recalls the prisoner artist – whose name we were never told. It symbolises also all the stories in the life of our Founder, whose prayerful praxis privileged the preciousness of God’s life revealed at the margins –our continuing inspiration as Passionists today.

Featured in Passio Issue 2 (UK Passionists’ Newsletter)