Friday, August 30, 2013

That Fountain, Filling, Running, Although It Is The Night.

The sad news this morning of the death of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

I hadn't thought about it quite this way until this morning but I've been a reader of his for decades.  His voice has been a  steady presence in my life and I'm grateful for his writing and the witness of it, especially during the 'Troubles' in the north of Ireland.  

The eleventh canto from his 1984 poem "Station Island" is one of my favorite poems by him.  For me, it is a poetic meditation not only on the poetry of St. John of the Cross but on the fathomless depths of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, that overflowing wellspring of life and love. 

As if the prisms of the kaleidoscope
I plunged once in a butt of muddied water
surfaced like a marvelous lightship
and out of its silted crystals a monk's face
that had spoken years ago from behind a grille
spoke again about the need and chance
to salvage everything, to re-envisage
the zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift
mistakenly abased...
What came to nothing could always be replenished.
'Read poems as prayers,' he said, 'and for your penance
translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.'
Now his sandalled passage stirred me to this:
How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.
But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources' source and origin
although it is the night.
No other thing can be so beautiful.
Here the earth and heaven drink their fill
although it is the night.
So pellucid it never can be muddied,
and I know that all light radiates from it
although it is the night.
I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night.
And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven and all peoples
although it is the night.
And the current that is generated there
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.
And from these two a third current proceeds
which neither of these two, I know, precedes
although it is the night.
Here it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
because it is the night.
I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
although it is the night.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

No Other Remedy

Of course, as I already knew yesterday, fortuna had really nothing to do with the setback I experienced with the halo of the icon of Christ. As is the case, inevitably, also in the spiritual life, it wasn't bad luck that was my problem but that I cut a few corners along the way.
So it was back to the basics. I ground the bole, first in water until it was smooth, then added the glue and ground it a second time.

I used a big brush --the biggest brush I could manage-- to float the bole on the icon. I don't know why exactly I held back earlier and applied it with a smaller brush, but I did and it made a difference. So the first layer of bole is back on the board and we'll see how it all turns out.
I keep a little collection of quotations by St.Teresa of Avila next to my prayer corner in the studio, open to this admonition of her's. It reminds me of my friend, the newly departed servant of God, Sr.Rosemary, who chose the quotations and designed each page with her friend Sr.Mary Grace at the Carmel of Terre Haute, Indiana.
When I look at her calligraphy I am reminded of her beautiful spirit. But I'm encouraged both by the words of St.Teresa and by my friend's example of perseverance in prayer and the hidden life of Carmel, not to give up on the 'one thing necessary', which is always communion with Christ in prayer.
My temptation in prayer which I readily admit to succumbing to more often than I like to admit, is to cut corners, to rush, to let my mind wander and then get so discouraged that I give up altogether.
So in the life of prayer, as in the work in the studio, there's no other remedy but begin again.

Wheel of Fortune

The ancients as well as medieval people never seemed to tire of meditating on the idea of the "rota fortunae" literally, the "wheel of fortune" as a reminder of the transitory nature of worldly success. Fate or luck, personified as the goddess Fortuna, was depicted turning the crank on a large wheel. Seated on the wheel were various people either ascending to the top of the wheel or descending to the bottom.
In our example of the "Rota Fortunae", (courtesy of a regal looking fellow wearing a crown is seated at the top. He is holding the symbols of earthy power. But his crowned companion to is right is already headed downward, his neighbor has lost his crown and his regal attire and the poor unfortunate on the bottom is falling off the wheel entirely!

But to his left, clinging to the wheel with all his might, another man is being slowly raised up and the man ahead of him reaches for the prize.

I too managed to take a ride this evening on the "Rota Fortunae" . Of course, my turn on the wheel involved (what else?) gilding. The wheel started turning as I began carefully applying gold leaf to the bole of the halo of the icon of Christ that I have been hard at work on for the past couple of days.

After over an hour of painstaking work, I applied the final piece of gold leaf. There I was, the fellow reaching expectantly for the crown and orb, which appeared to be just within reach. After waiting for the requisite length of time , I began gently burnishing the gilding. That was when Bella Fortuna gave the wheel a turn -- the halo wouldn't burnish! And then she gave it another turn -- each stroke of the burnisher was scraping off the gold leaf!

Something, it soon became evident, was wrong with the bole, which meant that it had to come off. All of it, which involved soaking the bole, scraping it all away and then cleaning off the muddy red clay mess smeared on the icon.

In the end not too much the worse for wear.

So I'm ready to climb back on the wheel. I plan on hanging on tight and hoping that I'm on the upswing as I get ready to gild that halo again.

Is it my imagination, or does Fortuna have a slight smile? And isn't she supposed to be blindfolded?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Within a World Torn By Grief

I've been slowly re-reading "Hidden and Triumphant:The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography by the Russian scholar Irina Yazykova. A couple of years ago my friend Bob Hurd sent it to me and I immediately and eagerly read through it. I was particularly interested in learning more about the rediscovery of the icon in the 20th century.
In returning to it again, for a more reflective re-reading, I was struck by this sentence by Ms.Yazykova concluding the introductory chapter:
"We will explore together the icon's path of development within contemporary culture-- a culture so often referred to as post-moder, post totalitarian, and post Christian-- and see that icons continue to be windows onto eternity, and, within a world torn by grief, the constant testimony to divine joy and the inexhaustibility of hope."

We are confronted daily with "a world torn by grief". During recent days, of course, there are the appalling reports from Syria of hundreds (possibly thousands) of Syrian civilians killed and wounded by nerve agents, presumably at the hands of the Syrian government. And the flight of tens of thousands of refugees from Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan (only the most recent wave of refugees trying to escape the murderous violence of the civil war in their country)

Each person who has been killed or wounded there, or who has been forced to flee, is not a statistic but infinitely precious to our loving Creator, the Father of us all, and thus, our brothers and sisters. That they are Sunni or Shia, Christian, Alawite or Druze adds or subtracts nothing from their human dignity, made as they are, in the image and likeness of God. Each of them is a living icon, a witness, even in their suffering and torment, to the compassion, goodness and love of God.
Far removed, except in the solidarity of prayer from so much destruction and sorrow, It is good to be reminded as an iconpainter of my vocation to work in the service of the icon, the silent but eloquent witness to the One who is Beauty, Truth and Goodness.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ora et Labora (continued)

Today and yesterday were all about gilding and prayer. Yesterday I applied gold leaf to the haloes of the icon of the Mother of God and Jesus which I am working on.
The red bole on the halo is a mixture of clay and glue. First, I breathe on the bole. The warmth and moisture of my breath makes the bole become sticky for just a few moments (perhaps 10-15 seconds).

Then I quickly press the gold leaf onto the bole and gently rub on the back of the paper that the gold is attached to.
It's a time consuming process, because in order to be able to burnish (or polish) the gold leaf, I have to gild the halo not once but twice.
It took me most of yesterday to gild the haloes and then to begin burnishing them.

Burnishing the gold also takes time - there is no rushing the process. If everything goes right, burnishing is simplicity itself. Using an agate burnisher (a completely smooth agate set in a wooden handle), you rub the gilded surface with the agate until it begins to shine. Piece of cake! Unless something goes wrong. Which always seems to happen. There may be tiny holes in the gilding or the burnisher lifts up some of the gold or there is one spot that just doesn't want to shine, no matter how much you burnish it. Which usually means making corrections (faulting) to the gilding. but in the end it is worth it.

These last few days have also been a time of prayer. I'm grateful that my studio is also my oratory.

My urgent prayer of supplication has been for Egyptian Muslims and Christians in the aftermath of the coup that toppled the government of Muhammed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected President of the country a year ago. This has led to demonstrations against the new government by Morsi supporters, demonstrations that that army and security forces have fired upon, killing hundreds of protesters in at least four separate incidents that can only be charactorized as massacres.

In addition to violence between pro and anti-Morsi rioters in various Egyptian cities and towns, extremist elements in the Muslim community appear to be scape-goating the Christian minority around the country and mobs have looted and burned over 60 churches and church related buildings in the past week.
Praying evening prayer tonight was for the feast of St.Bernard of Clairvaux, the great eleventh century reformer and Doctor of the Church (called the Doctor mellifluus, the Honey-sweet Doctor for his love of the word of God and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary) yet preached the catastrophic Second Crusade.
The reading, from the Letter of St. James, gives me much to ponder.
"Wisdom from above is first of all innocent. It is also peaceable, lenient, docile, rich in sympathy and the kindly deeds that are its fruits, impartial and sincere. The harvest of justice is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace."
May it be so, in our hearts and in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Egypt.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

First Fridays

I had planned to spend this coming week in the studio with my friend Sharon, who is also an iconography student of mine. however, she is not coming because a dear friend of hers, who was in the last stage of a terminal illness took a turn for turn for the worse and died this past Wednesday. Understandably she decided to cancel her trip to Juneau and remain with her family and friends. This is a sad time for her.

Despite this change in Sharon's plans I will be in the studio next week, barring any developments at the diocese or parish that require my attention.

I hope to complete two icons -- the Korsun Mother of God and a second icon of Jesus during this coming week. They are intended for use at the Cathedral.

My colleague Barry, at the diocese had a great idea a while back which he shared with me. On the first friday of each month the art galleries and museums in Juneau have opening receptions for exhibits. they usually go from 4:00-7:00pm. what if, he wondered, we offered a different sort of art experience at the Cathedral: the opportunity to spend some quiet time in front of an icon. A time for quiet reflection and prayer with an icon after the exhibit openings were over.

That seemed like an inspired idea to me and I volunteered to provide the icons of Christ and of the Korsun Mother of God. My thinking is that with two we'll be able to alternate them each month.


This afternoon I began work on the cartoon for the icon of Christ. I'll be working on it and the Korsun Mother of God this coming week. Sharon and her friend Karen and her family will continue to be in my prayers.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mary, Help of Christians, Pray for Us!

Iraqi Christians worshipping at the Divine Liturgy on Easter Sunday 2013 at Mar Youseff Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad (AP photo/Karim Kadim)

I began a new icon yesterday, the Mother of God of Korsun. It is an icon that I have painted more than once and I base the icon on the cartoon originally drawn by my teacher, Fr.Egon Sendler.

I had been planning to paint this icon for some time, but I received added impetus on Saturday when I encountered a group of visitors to the Cathedral while I was vesting to serve at Mass in the morning. They were Chaldean Catholics, originally from Iraq but now living in California. We spoke briefly, when I told them that I pray every day for Iraqi Christians and the Church in Iraq, they thanked me but said,don't forget to pray for Christians in Syria and for the Syrian people caught up in the civil war there.

They joined the rosary that was being prayed in the church but they could not stay for Mass. One of the women in the group approached me and asked, "Deacon, we have to leave, but could we receive Holy Communion?" In Iraq their family members and friends, the faithful and their bishops, priests, deacons and sub-deacons risk their lives each time they gather for the Eucharist. "Of course", I said.

Saturday was the feast of St. Lawrence, martyred in Rome in the 3rd century. They knelt devoutly in the sanctuary to receive Holy Communion. Looking at them I could only think of the modern day marytrs of Iraq, those who are relatively well known like Archbishop Faraj Rahho and Fr. Ragheed Ghanni and the many other martyrs who are known only to their families and neighbors.

They asked me to bless them, which I did, in the name of the Church and we made our goodbyes. Their presence was a blessing and a living reminder to remember our brothers and sisters in Iraq, to pray for them and to support the work of charities such as Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Catholic Relief Services, who provide material and spiritual aid to the Christian churches of Iraq.

So as always, the work of icon is rooted in prayer. For this icon of the Mother of God my prayer intention is for Iraqi Christians and the Chaldean Catholics and other Oriental Orthodox and Protestant communities in Iraq, for their safety and survival and for an increase in our solidarity with them, so that they know they are not forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the rest of the Church.

Mary, Help of Christians, pray for us!


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sowing Bountifully, Reaping Bountifully

Yesterday was the feast of St.Lawrence, deacon and martyr. It is a day with special meaning for me because on August 10th seven years ago I was ordained a deacon, alongside my friend and classmate Vince Hansen.

. He was martyred in 258 in Rome, three days after the martyrdom of Pope St.Sixtus Ii and his deacon companions.


The deacon Lawrence was renowned for his love of the poor.

When ordered by the prefect to produce the treasure of the Church, Lawrence famously appeared before him with a crowd of widows and orphans, blind and crippled beggars and impoverished children and elderly people, the poor of Rome.

This so angered the prefect that he had the deacon scourged.

Then he was martyred on a gridiron over a blazing fire, dying after cheerfully telling his tormenters, "i'm done on this side, you can turn me over."

His example, both as one who loved the poor and as a courageous witness to the love of Christ reportedly so moved the people of Rome that many became Christians as a result.

The first reading from Second Corinthians for yesterdays Mass for the feast of St. Lawrence begins, "Whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly and whoever sows bountifully will reap bountifully. ". There it is, in the life and death of the deacon Lawrence, a life given with great generosity, A life, like a handful of seed, sown prodigally, yet yielding such a rich harvest that Lawrence soon came to be regarded as one of the foundation stones of the Church of Rome.

As a deacon, as a disciple,, that is what I want to do with my life, to give it away lavishly out of love for Christ. May the example and the prayers of St. Lawrence help my life to be the seed freely given which will yield an abundant harvest.


[The wonderful photos of the St. Lawrence window of Bourges Cathederal are vy Stuart Whatling and are part of a an amazing collection of medieval stained glass and sculpture that he has documented and made available at uk]



Thursday, August 8, 2013

Opening Up the Icon

For the past month and a half I've been working on a large icon of the "Ladder of Divine Ascent". I'm getting to the end of "opening up" the icon, which involves applying the base colors of all of the forms that are in the icon. Ideally, when this stage of the work is finished, the icon will be covered in beautiful,even, transparent, yet saturated passages of various colors in egg tempera. That's the theory, anyway.

But it takes a while to get to that point. First the cartoon, the master drawing for the icon, has to be drawn.

This is one section of the cartoon in progress.

After the lines of the cartoon are traced onto the panel in Conte crayon (rubbed on the back of the cartoon) , the trace lines are then drawn-on in silverpoint (a silver wire in a holder that leaves a light but permanent line on the white gesso of the panel). Then the silverpoint lines are redrawn with a brush in red ochre mixed with egg emulsion, and the entire panel receives a transparent coat of yellow ochre.

The next step is gilding the icon. Once the areas to be gilded are covered with three sanded and polished layers of bole (a mixture of red clay and glue), they are covered with gold leaf.

The gilded areas are then polished to a bright shine with an agate burnisher.

Then, finally, its time to start "opening up the icon."



Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Last weekend, while in Baltimore, I had a chance to visit the Cone Collection of early 20th century at at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone sisters collected paintings by Henri Matisse in the 1920's and 30's and their collection of his work is the largest public collection in the United States. i was able to see paintings face-to-face that I had been looking at for decades but in books. I was surprised by the scale of paintings (either larger or smaller than I expected), the paint thickness (Matisse thinned his paints more than I realized) and even by technique (what I had thought was paint was actually sgraffito -- Matisse used the brush handle to scratch away the wet oil paint to reveal the white canvas under the paint layer.) Who'd have guessed?


The famous "Pink Nude". Much smaller than I had expected.

Larger than I expected. Bright colors but applied in thin washes of color.

This painting was much bigger than I expected.

Which is the difference between encountering a work of art (or just about everything and everyone in this life) at one or more removes and face-to-face.