Friday, September 20, 2013

Natural Icons

Today is the last day of summer -- fall officially begins tomorrow with the equinox, but summer ended last week in Douglas when it began to rain (so far, without letup). My studio has a metal roof so that the drimbeat of rain is a constant rhythm when I am out there.
I am grateful for that reminder of the natural world when I pray and work there (grateful as I am to be in a dry and warm studio!). For the same reason I keep objects like rocks and shells and fossils in my little prayer corner, alongside the icons and prayerbooks. I like to keep before me a visible reminder of the infinitely varied, intricate and ancient order of creation ( a kind of natural icon) A densely black piece of shale picked up on the rocky beach, which may be 300 million years old helps me to remember and appreciate the immensity of geological time, measured in millions of years and my own, our own brief time in life, measured in decades, days and minutes.
God is beyond and behind time, yet i marvel that God invites me, invites us, to participate in his own eternal life (which is beyond comprehension) except with a loving, grateful heart, which, he generously provides and offers us.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Te Deum Laudamus

Every Sunday morning I conclude Morning Prayer with the Te Deum, the Western Church's great chant hymn of praise and thanksgiving. The title is taken from the first line, 'Te Deum laudamus', which means, 'We praise You, O God' . The Te Deum is supposed to be the response to the proclamation of the gospel at Vigils (aka the Office of Readings) but I found that while I often don't have time to pray this office, I do have time to sing the Te Deum at the end of Morning Prayer, so that is what I do.

I was getting ready to begin singing the Te Deum this morning when I realized that I had a lot to praise God for this morning. Only a week ago it appeared inevitable that the United States governmnet would launch an attack (or a series of attacks) on Syria, with the risk of escalating the already brutal and intolerable conflict there. Just a week ago we were on our knees storming heaven with prayers for peace, asking our good Lord for a miracle.
Being in the midst of events, it is impossible to know with certainty, but yesterday's diplomatic agreement to begin the process of identifying, securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons, looks a lot like a miracle to me. Or, if not strictly miraculous, in the sense of the waters parting, loaves and fishes multiplying, the dead being raised, the weeks events appear to be the answer to our prayers, a miracle of grace for which I am grateful.

I know it's too early for THE Te Deum: the war in Syria hasn't ended after all, an estimated six million Syrians are internal or external refugees and a cease-fire leading to a negotiated settlement is still a long way off.
But I think it is also important to rejoice and to thank God at every step along the way, including for this answer to prayer. So my Te Deum this morning, sung each Sunday in praise of the Lord's victory over sin and death in his sacing death and life-giving resurrection, was in thanksgiving for this amazing turn of events.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Lost in a Dark Wood

Medieval and Renaissance artists loved to paint and sculpt  the images of philosophers and poets like Aristotle and Virgil. They were pagans but Christians believed that inspired by the Holy Spirit, they revealed, in a limited, natural way, Christ and the gospel. It was Virgil, after all, who guided Dante, 'lost in a dark wood' up the steep mountain of repentance in the Purgatorio, until, at the very gates of paradise, the poet had to turn back and return to the first circle of hell.

Yes, I know, Dr. Salvador Allende was a Marxist, albeit one who was democratically elected. He had his faults and failings, not the least of which was appointing Augusto Pinochet head of the armed forces in the forlorn hope that Pinochet could be trusted to defend democracy instead of destroying it. But he had his virtues too. Allende's very first act when he assumed power in 1970 was not to arrest all of his political opponents but to sign an executive order insuring that the poor kids who lived in the slums got a glass of milk each day to strengthen their bones and teeth. For him the larger issues of the Cold War were obscured by the tin and cardboard shacks where so many of his fellow citizens were forced to live.

Allende was the first of thousands to be killed in the coup that overthrew his government on September 11th, 1973, forty years ago today.

Marxism is rightly discredited: how can people be forced into paradise? But from the confines of the dark woods of a world where half of the people in it struggle to live on less than $2 a day, there are far worse guides than a doctor who became president of his country to give milk to poor children.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Seeing and Hearing

Pope Francis
I wonder if the most significant and memorable event of the Year of Faith (which draws to a close on November 24th ), might have been the day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria and the Middle East this past Saturday.  With only a week’s notice, Pope Francis directed the entire Church (all 1.2 billion of us), to pray for peaceful and non-violent resolution of the civil war in Syria, which has already claimed 100,000 lives and forced an estimated 2 million refugees to flee the country. 

In calling for this day of prayer and fasting, Pope Francis condemned the use of chemical weapons and their possession, cautioned against any escalation of the violence or widening of the war and called for a ceasefire and urged all parties to seek a political and not a military solution to the crisis. 
None of which is unexpected coming from the Vatican.  The Holy See (and by extension, the Catholic Church) can be relied upon to always recommend  peaceful rather than a violent solutions to international conflicts and disputes.    
But in his call to prayer and fasting, Pope Francis spoke of the moral duty of every person of good will to pursue peace.  In his announcement, he wrote:

“All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursing peace.  I make a forceful and urgent call to the entire Catholic Church, and also to every Christian or other confessions, as well as to the followers of every religion and to those brothers and sisters who do not believe: peace is a good which overcomes every barrier, because it belongs to all of humanity.”

He went onto say: “ I repeat forcefully: it is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict that builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace.  May the plea for peace rise up and touch the heart of everyone so they may lay down their weapons and let themselves be led by the desire for peace.”

But then, building on the foundation of a shared humanity and our ability using reason to arrive at natural truth (in this case, that we bound as human beings to pursue peace in every situation, he became a powerful evangelist.

Into the despair and hopelessness of the present war in Syria, at a time when the threat of wider, even more violent and intractable war threatens, the Holy Father proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer.  Why?  Because, as he wrotes, “ Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace.” 

He wanted us as a Church, as disciples and witnesses of Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the Light of the world, and praying for the intercession of his Mother, the Queen of Peace, to gather publicly in prayer and in a spirit of penance to invoke “God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world.” 


September 7th was a powerful act of witness to Jesus Christ and to the way of life that he calls us to live as his disciples.  On our knees we asked God to convert and to change our hearts and the hearts of all those who have taken up arms and we appealed in prayer for all those in need and for an increase in our own love and care for the poor and the dispossessed of Syria and the Middle East.

 At the same time, by gathering to pray, we were, despite our own frailty and sinfulness, witnesses to the transforming and incandescent love of God, revealed most fully and perfectly in the Person of Jesus, which illumines the darkness of sin, suffering and death.  His light, his truth, his peace and his love, embodied and incarnated in the earthen vessels of Christians and all those who seek dialogue, reconciliation and peace, are a shining beacon of hope for those who are hopeless and cynical and in despair.

 Let us entrust ourselves and each other to our loving God, for whom nothing is impossible, and may the peaceful witness of our lives invite all men and women to faith in Christ, our Savior and our Hope.


Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for Syria, pray for us.

 (The detail of the face of Christ is from an icon by the 20th century Russian iconographer, Leonid Ouspenski.  The icon of Mary is the Syrian icon of Our Lady of Saidnaya.)








Saturday, September 7, 2013

Only Love is Creative

So much of iconpainting is (literally) waiting for paint (or bole or varnish) to dry. Which is what I spent most of last evening doing as I completed the icon of Our Lady Queen of Peace. Just in time to put out for veneration at the Cathedral in Juneau for tomorrow's Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace in Syria and the Middle East.

It's impossible to grasp exactly all that is at stake in our President's apparent decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war or to predict what sort of new world we may all be living a week or a month or a year from now. But the necessity to ask the Lord to " convert the hearts of all who have taken up arms" seems more urgent than ever.
The truth is, to quote (inexactly) Pope Francis, there are no violent solutions. Violence, as we have seen at every turn in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and now Syria, begets suspicion, fear, distrust, wrath, hatred, a desire for revenge and more violence.
A mother and a child. Powerless against the powerful and their armies and weapons. So true, yet, their embrace is both a sign and the embodied reality of love. About which another Pope, Blessed John Paul II famously said: ' Only love is creative.'
The love of this Mother and Holy Child is the lifegiving love of the Blessed Trinity that holds humanity, our world and the entire cosmos in being. Jesus, God's love Incarnate, depicted in the icon as a weak and vulnerable child tenderly embracing his loving mother, on the Cross overcame forever the powers of sin and death.
Tomorrow we will unite ourselves in prayer and fasting to the Divine Love, which overthrows the powerful, disarms the violent and raises up the lowly. May God strengthen us to persevere in prayer for the beloved people of Syria.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Finishing Touches

Putting the finishing touches on an icon is usually the most difficult stage, spiritually, of the entire process. At least it is for me. Which is not what one would expect, as this is the point at which the icon actually begins to come together. This should be an occasion of satisfaction and accomplishment. But not for me.
Just the opposite. It's at this juncture that I find myself dwelling on the weight of my sins and begin to feel paralyzed by my undeniable inadequacies and limitations (which seem insurmountable.) It's just a squalid mix of fear and pride. Fortunately, as soon as I feel this coming on, I know enough now to put down the brush and pick up the prayerbook.
Tonight, when I felt myself being pulled down into that confusing place I was grateful to discover that the theme of the psalms and reading for Evening Prayer were all about humility. Although the important thing is simply to pray -- Lord have mercy is just fine -- the psalms tonight reminded me to trust in God's faithful love and leave it at that.
So I went back to finishing the icon. I completed the faces of Mary and Jesus and painted-in the inscription that translates "Our Lady Queen of Peace". (Thank you to Deacon Greg Kandra who supplied me with the Arabic text!)
Tomorrow I hope to complete the other inscriptions and the borders. I hope to be able to have the icon available at the Cathedral in Juneau for the Day of Fasting and Prayer for Peace in Syria.
Our Lady, Queen of Peace, pray for Syria, pray for us!

Monday, September 2, 2013

O Savior, Save Us!

I'm close to completing the Korsun Mother of God that I've been working on since the beginning of August.
Aid to the Church in Need began a week of prayer for Syria that began on August 30th. The prayer they have proposed was my prayer today as I painted the faces of the icon of Jesus and his Mother this day.
Prayer and Intercession for Peace in Syria
God of compassion hear the cries of the people of Syria. Comfort those who suffer violence. Console those who mourn the dead. Give strength to Syria's neighboring countries to welcome the refugees. Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms and protect those who are committed to peace.
Let us pray.
God of hope, inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation with their enemies. Inflame the Universal Church with compassion for the people of Syria and give us hope for a future built on justice for all.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and Light of the world. Amen.

Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, O Savior, save us!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Mary, Queen of Peace, Pray for Us!

Pope Francis this morning (Rome time) spoke of his deep distress at the escalating violence (especially the alleged use of nerve agents by the Syrian govenment to kill hundreds and possibly thousands of innocent civilians ). He argued for the urgency of a negotiated settlement to the conflict and for outside nations to avoid intervening in the civil war. He called on all Catholics to undertake a day of fasting and prayer on Saturday, September 7th for peace in Syria and the Middle East, noting that this day is the eve of the feast of the birth of Mary, the Mother of God, the Queen of Peace.
He invited Christians of all denominations, as well as believers of other faiths to fast and pray for peace in Syria on that day as well. I welcome his call to be in solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters subject to the scourge of war and its attendent disasters, to pray for them and to pray for peace.
Juneau, Alaska is a world away from Syria and the Middle East, but this afternoon following Mass at the Shrine of St.Therese, this group of Armenian pilgrims from California gathered in the chapel to sing the Lord's Prayer and to pray, which they did in the beautiful chant of the Armenian liturgy. They had heard of the Holy Father's call for prayer and fasting for peace in Syria and they shared with us that some of them were originally from Syria (where there are Armenian communities) or had family members living in Syria. Afterwards, they invited our Bishop, Edward Burns and me to join them for a group photo.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to have been with these pilgrims as they prayed the prayer Jesus taught us. We are in the midst of a deepening crisis for all of the people of the Middle East but especially for the ancient Christian communities there who are faced with grave threats to their continued survival in their countries of origin.
May our prayers be joined to theirs and to those of all people of faith and goodwill to deliver the people of Syria and the region from the evil of war.

Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us!