Who would guess that a brawny, six-foot plus, motorcycle-riding priest would be an expert at the delicate art of cross-stitch? Father Robert Ruskamp, 53, the parochial vicar at St. Marys Catholic Church in Old Town, is just that. Born in Omaha, Ruskamp entered the priesthood in 1985, and three years ago Bishop Paul Laverde, head of the Arlington Catholic Diocese, assigned him to St. Marys Parish.
When a friend presented him with a cross-stitch rendering of the famous prayer of Saint Francis, Ruskamp was, as they say, hooked. He began practicing the art of cross-stitch about ten years ago. His specialty is the reproduction of historical icons from Russia, Greece and the Roman Church.
Cross-stitch patterns are available in a wide variety of styles; there are computer programs and Web sites that can transform any photograph into a pattern. To say that these patterns require painstaking work would be an understatement. Ruskamp says that an average work takes about six months to complete, and has about 14-20 stitches per inch, for some 80,000 stitches per pattern, with about 88 different colors. Because the stitches are so small, Ruskamp wears thick magnifying glasses while doing his work. He purchases cotton threads and other materials at local craft stores.
Icon is a Greek word meaning image. Christians use icons to facilitate prayer and the remembrance of the divine. The most prayerful part of icons is how you go into the other world and lose track of time while making them, Ruskamp said.
Traditional icons of Mary, the mother of Christ, are known as Theotokos, a Greek word meaning, God-bearer. These depict Mary in several traditional ways. The traditional styles are called the Guide, the Tender Mercies, the All-Merciful, the Intercessor or Praying Mary. Some icons depict Christ, the disciples or other saints.
Icons are more characteristic of the Eastern Christian traditions, including Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and the Byzantine and Melkite Catholic rites. They contain traditional symbols that instruct the viewer about the meanings of the faith. Such symbols might include the use of certain colors, letters, hand gestures or objects such as stars. The Ark of the Covenant and the healing caduceus of Moses are early examples of icons. As we look at icons, Ruskamp said, the persons depicted in them look back at us from the other world, praying for us, instructing and guiding us.
Sometimes, after I finish a pattern, I think about how much work went into it and say to myself never again, Ruskamp mused. Then I see a new pattern, and think how pretty it would be and start the process all over again! Like the monks of old who first made icons, Father Ruskamp hesitates to sell them. Instead, he intends to donate them to various parishes and chapels at some point. He does acknowledge that he might consider doing a commissioned work for those interested in having an icon in their church.