Wednesday, November 25, 2015

St.Christopher, Pray for Us!

This time of year and this year in particular, the whole world seems to be in motion.

The Holy Father sets out this week for Africa, where so many pilgrims even now are journeying to see him and pray with him.  Refugees and migrants in their tens and hundreds of thousands are on the move.  And in my own country, the airports and highways are filled with travelers headed home for Thanksgiving.

All this travel in a time of so much apprehension and fear and uncertainty.  The State Department issued a worldwide travel advisory for US citizens this afternoon and in France, Belgium and throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East no-one knows when or where terrorists might/will strike again.

Living in the comparative isolation of Douglas, Alaska, I won't be leaving town for Thanksgiving.  But I've been thinking about travel and travelers the past few days as I've worked on the drawing for a relief print of St.Christopher, patron saint of travelers.  He is shown bearing the Christ-child across a river with a swift current.  Tradition says that the saint, who was a giant of a man, was bowed down the weight of the child, who was almost to heavy for him to bear.  When they reached the other side, he realized that he was bearing Christ, who bears the weight of the whole world.

In the Middle Ages St. Christopher's image was placed in churches and on street corners and stamped on medals in the devout confidence that travelers who looked on his image would arrive safely home.  After the Second Vatican Council, in a (seemingly) less credulous era, St. Christopher was (unfortunately) removed from the Roman Calendar because there was no conclusive evidence that an actual saint named Christopher ever lived.

Yet he remains quite popular.  Not surprising really, for who can fail to be attracted to a saint whose name means Christ-bearer.  Which isn't a bad description of Christian discipleship and the universal vocation to holiness (see Lumen Gentium).

Like Christopher, each of us helps to bear other Christs a little or a long way through the swift, sometimes raging currents of life in this uncertain, dangerous but grace-filled world.

Yet our lives, our days, this world, are, in every moment, borne by Him.  Who bears us, in life, in every danger and distress, even in death itself, safely home.

St. Christopher, pray for us!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Welcoming Syrian Refugees: Not Because They Are Christians But Because We are Christians

I keep a photo of a Syrian refugee family in the prayer corner of my studio, at the foot of the large icon of Mary and Jesus. The mother is wearing what looks to be a hijab, which would indicated that this holy family fleeing the violence and killing in Syria is probably Muslim.

Which is all to the good, because when Jesus commanded us to welcome the stranger, he included Muslims (and everyone else). Their picture is set up there because I want their beautiful faces to be a reminder to pray for them and for all of those who are desperate to find shelter, safety and most importantly, welcome.

In the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, it is even more important to redouble our commitment as disciples of Jesus to see His face in the faces of those who are poor, forsaken and uprooted, and to welcome them with the same mercy and compassion that we hope He will welcome us when we stand before Him on the last day.

As Jesus said, we should not be afraid of those who threaten to kill our bodies, such as the despicable wretches who murdered so many innocent people in Paris on Friday.  Rather, we should be afraid of those who urge us to only welcome Christian refugees and turn away Muslims, for if we heed thei counsel, we will surely imperil our souls.

St. John Chrysostom (the great Syrian Doctor of the Church) who was a tireless advocate for the poor and downtrodden, taught that in the end, it not be the rich and powerful who will testify for us before the judgment seat of Christ, but the poor and the powerless.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

They Shall Not Pass!

I try not to listen to the radio when I'm in the studio painting icons but on Friday afternoon I had taken a break to run some errands in the car, so I was listening to the radio when the first reports of the terrorist attacks in Paris were being reported live on the air. Events were still unfolding but it was evident that many innocent people had been killed and wounded by gunmen all over the city.  Like everyone else, I'm in shock -- horrified, angry, very, very sad.  

This morning, predictably, the Daesh (who call themselves the Islamic State) claimed responsibility and declared that Paris had been targeted because it is a center of "prositution and obscenity".  Which is absurd, given that  the Daesh label as prostitutes any women who aren't wearing burkas, force Yazidi and Christian women into sexual slavery and  jubilantly celebrate the truly obscene violence they routinely inflict on helpless, innocent people.

But it doesn't surprise me that they would have a particular contempt and hatred for the French and for Paris, which they rightfully understand has been a major center for Western art for centuries and is the city where French artists and artists from around the world have lived and produced masterpiece after masterpiece.  

The Daesh have denounced as idolatrous any depiction of human or animal forms, and they have demolished with fury the great monuments of Assyrian and Hellenistic art that have fallen into their hands in Mosul and Palmyra.  

The museums of Paris feature not only images of human beings and animals, but are filled with sculptures and paintings of the nude (mostly, but not exclusively female) figure. Which is not surprising: since  the Renaissance, the great masters of French (and European art) have celebrated the human figure.  Certainly, painters such as Chardan, Corot, Pissaro and Cezanne primarily painted landscapes and still life, but in a humanist culture such as France's, the figure, which is to say, the human body, has pride of place. 

A humanist culture that is, as in any human enterprise, not without faults, false directions, contradictions and of course, sin, yet a  culture, deeply rooted not only in classicism but in the Christian faith and in Catholic culture.   That is to say, it is a culture engaged in a profound search for beauty, goodness and truth in human life and human relations, which are an intimation and reflection of God, who is ultimate Truth, ultimate Goodness and ultimate Beauty.  

Christian art is an intense reflection on the mystery of Incarnation, on how the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us.  which means that at its heart, Christian art is iconic: depicting the work of grace in human history and in human beings.  For in the person of Jesus, who is at once divine and human, the human person is fully realized and revealed to us.

In their own search for ideal form and beauty in the human form, French and other artists pay tribute in their own way, to the breathtaking beauty and grace of men and women made in God's image, a beauty which is at once something we all hold in common and yet is unique to each person.  

Every person is the supreme work of the Divine Artist, made for eternal life and infinitely loved by God, and thus, of infinite value and dignity.  Our works of art, however irreplaceably beautiful  and valuable, are but a  reflection of  the infinitely greater worth of every human person, even those who degrade themselves with these evil acts which we witnessed on Friday. 

As I pondered these shocking events in Paris, what came to mind was this sweetly delicate drawing by Henri Matisse, a reminder of both the beauty and vulnerability of each of us, the "soft targets" of these new barbarians, these savage neo-iconoclasts. 

They shall not pass!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Getting in Touch with My Inner Salieri

A friend and student of mine, who is herself a cloistered Carmelite sister kindly shared with me some of her thoughts on St. Therese (and the rough sketch of a pattern for her icon.)  I based the pattern I drew on her own completed icon of St.Therese, which she has graciously given me permission to shamelessly copy.  Besides saying that the drawing bore a passible resemblence to the actual Carmelite habit, and the gentle but firm suggestion that I lose the flowers in the background, she also shared some great insights into Therese herself.  

She sharted that she thinks the key ot understanding St. Therese is that she is the Mozart of the spiritual life - simple, direct, profound, but in the end, elusive.  And she noted that while Therese has grown on her, that as the oldest in her family, she found Therese, who was the youngest in the Martin family, less than sympathetic.  But she also wrote that as she has matured in the spiritual life, St.Therese has directed her to what is most essential, which is to rely, unreservedly, on the love and mercy of God.  

So thanks, Sister, for opening the door of my heart (if only just a bit more) to this elusive genius of the spiritual life.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Please Capture My Heart!

I've begun reading "Shirt of Flame:A Year with St.Therese of Lisieux" by Heather King.  Its an introduction to the life of St.Therese and her "Little Way" refracted through the life and experiences of the author, an ex-lawyer, recovering alcoholic, contemplative and Catholic convert at midlife.  I'm only a chapter past the introduction, but I'm hoping that this might provide me with the way into a deeper appreciation of this remarkable saint who is the patroness of our diocese here in Juneau and whose shrine north of town on Lynn Canal is a place of particular devotion to her.   And of course, because I read and pray better with a brush in my hand, I've also begun drawing the pattern for an icon of her.

Given all that, you'd think a devotion to St.Therese would come naturally to me.

Well, think again.  For reasons that I don't fully understand, I've never really warmed to St.Therese.  Not dislike or repugnance or disagreement -- but to date, she hasn't yet seized hold of my imagination or more importantly, captured my heart.  Which is necessary (at least for me!) to compose an icon that has any life or truth in it.  Yes, I understand that the icon, (which makes visible the person or salvation narrative invisibly present to the one coming before in prayer ) does not depend on the ability or temperment or even the understanding of the iconpainter.  But for me at least, grace has to build on nature, which in my case means that there has to be an inner resonance between the saint or the mystery which is the subject of the icon and my own spiritual vision and understanding.  That vision, however weak, fallible and limited, is, for all that, uniquely my own.

So as I begin to ponder what Heather King has to say about St.Therese (presented throughout the book in the words of her spiritual autobiography), I hope this holy young woman who dedicated herself to the Child Jesus and to the Holy Face, will indeed seize my imagination.  And that she will eventually capture my heart.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Living in Time and Rememberance

As the year begins to draw down, I'm reminded that there are so many calendars in our lives and that it is these calendars that tell us who we are, as peoples, as communities of faith, as families and as individuals.  Remembered in every calendar are those moments over time, in the words of Gaudium et Spes of "joy and hope, grief and anguish" in the life of a people, or a faith community, or a family or an individual.

On my own personal calendar for October was my sister Nancy's birthday, who would have been 60 years old on the 29th.  (She was a year younger than me and died when she was 11.)  As with everyone, I have a personal calendar of joys and griefs, hope and anguish that I chose to observe each year, ranging from the delightful and lifechanging such as meeting my wife Paula for the first time (December 18th) and our first kiss (January 2nd).  Other dates in my calendar were filled with such hope and promise: our wedding anniversary (October 23rd), the births of our daughter and son (July 19th and April 12th, respectively) and my ordination as a deacon (August 10th).

And the inevitable events of grief and anguish, which are both universal and deeply personal: my sister's death (January 14th) and the deaths of my teacher and mentor Pere Igor (March 17th); of my friends Helena, Raul, Buddy and Richard (June 28th, November 13, February 5th and August 6th).

But of course, we live, not only observing the feasts and memorials of our own personal and private calendar, but within larger calendars that include others: the yearly observences of nations and peoples, the monthly calendar of the tides and annual cycle of the seasons, which is the earth's calendar and the cosmic calendar of the moon, the sun and the stars.   And for believers, the religious or liturgical calendar.

What we remember and what we anticipate are bound up in all of these calendars, which in their various cyclic observances overlap with the arc of our lives from birth to death to eternal life.   I'm thankful for the ways in these cycles allow me, allow us, to live in time and in rememberance
and in anticipation of the world to come, which is beyond time and somehow brings together past, present and future.

I am grateful that all of these various cycles of time afford me the opportunity to set aside the time to remember all of the beloved persons and events of my life.  As each year of my life has unfolded, this is such a joy and a consolation.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Kneel Here, Please

Ordination of Fr.Michael Galbraith October 23rd, 2015
Laying-on of Hands by the Priests of the Diocese
Photo by Brian Wallace

As a kid I grew up around the theatre.  My dad taught drama and stagecraft for a living as a high school and then a college teacher.  He did summer theatre too, and when I was old enough, I got to help out with putting together stage platforms, painting flats and hauling lights up and down ladders.  The aspects of theatre that appealed to me most had to do with all aspects of painting -- mixing colors, applying paint, texturing, working really big.  I tried acting in a few plays (such as the older of the murdered princes in Richard III) which was always problematic, combining acute anxiety (stage-fright) with a lack of coordination and an alarming but predictable tendency to step off the stage due to extreme nearsightedness (the little princes didn't wear glasses, it turns out.)

But really I admired and appreciated too all of the men and women working behind the scenes - the folks operating the sound and light boards, the costumers, the prop masters and most of all, the stage managers, whose role is to somehow to hold the whole everything together at rehearsal and especially during the performance.

I cherish the time I spent with my dad helping out in the summers but I never felt called to a life in the theatre (unlike my sister, Margaret, who became a circus clown and a tap dancer- she's really good, too!)  Which is why, I suppose that I could never imagine that as a deacon I'd find myself serving as a master of ceremonies (a stage manager of sorts) at the liturgy.

The sacred liturgy isn't theatre, of course, but in Catholic ritual, everyone has a particular part (ministry) assigned to them that they perform in the liturgy.  The MC's job is to make sure that the liturgy, especially a complex liturgy like an ordination, seemlessly unfolds according to the rite, with everyone involved standing, kneeling, moving, processing, praying at the appointed time.

Ideally, if the MC is doing his job properly, two things occur: 1. the assembly and ministers don't have to worry about what comes next, which allow them to enter more profoundly and prayerfully into the ritual action and 2. regardless of what might go ary, the MC remains calm,reassuring and encouraging.  And just as with iconpainters, an MC ideally disappears so that the icon of Christ (in this case, the Body of Christ at worship) takes, as it were, center stage.

Last Friday, I had the privilege of serving as MC for Deacon Mike Galbraith's ordination as a priest for the Diocese of Juneau.  Fr. Mike, who will be serving as an associate pastor at Holy Name Parish in Ketchikan, will be a great addition to the presbyterate of our diocese and has all the signs of being a wise and compassionate pastor of souls.  Ad multos annos, brother!

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Life Together

The Conception of Mary
The Wedding Icon

It's our thirty-third marriage anniversary today.  A life together that began with just the two of us but that has only gotten larger and fuller over the intervening years.  So many days as a couple, as spouses, as husband and wife, filled with countless, ordinary moments and choices and decisions made with passion and joy, hope and uncertainty, (with sadness, conflict and tears along the way, to be sure), that somehow have given us such extraordinary gifts, faith, children, ministry, community, each other.
With Christ at the center, an ever-flowing wellspring of grace that has sustained us along the way.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Icon and the Belt-Sander

The Centre d'Etudes Russes, Meudon 

Twenty-three years ago this week, my wife Paula and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary in        Paris at the Centre d'Etudes Russes .  We were there with four friends and students from the Mt.Angel Iconography Institute.  We were there to study with Fr.Egon Sendler SJ (Pere Igor) as students in his basic course.

What a remarkable time that was!  Pere Igor's wisdom, enthusiasm and joy was inspiring,  I learned so much from him each day in the old German barracks (erected during the Occupation ) he'd converted into a classroom and a studio.  I chose the icon of St.Elijah ascending to heaven as the image I would paint.  He would, typically, inspect my drawing, pronounce it "Marvellous! " or Terrific!" And then proceed to erase half the drawing.  Usually he said very little to me, except a few imperatives such as "Simplify!" "Find the essential form!"  

When, after two weeks of diligent work, I completed the icon, he singled it out for effusive praise.  He held it up before the class and commented that he was a mere artisan, but that I was a true artist!  Then he declared in a very lighthearted and comical tone, that the only thing necessary to make it perfect was a belt-sander!  As you might have expected, this got a big laugh from the class.

While I hadn't really taken his artisan/artist comment seriously at all, I was perplexed and hurt (crushed, if truth be told) that he would say, even in jest, that a belt-sander would improve an icon I'd spent so much time and effort bringing to completion.  And which, in my (unspokem) estimation, surpassed the work of anyone else in the class, including, (I'm embarassed to admit) even the work of my master, Pere Igor.

I realized that shrewd spiritual father that he was, he had intuitively grasped my secret sin (hidden, if not from him and my fellow students, then from myself.)  That sin was pride, of course, pride in my ability as an artisit, by which I sought to prove to God (and anyone else who might be interested ) that  I was a worthy person deserving of admiration and praise.

It wasn't the icon that required the belt-sander,  it was me!  The carapace of pride, which was hardening around my heart, needed to be humbled, to be scraped away.  I realized that whatever I managed to accomplish as an iconpainter was nothing , rubbish, actually, to quote St.Paul, compared the icon God had created me to be, being brought to perfect (still a daily struggle) by Christ Jesus.

Which is the only icon that for iconpainters (and everyone else) matters in the end.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ver Sacrum

I was in high school when I first came across the art of the Austrian Secession movement and their magazine Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring).  The art of the Secession, an outrider of modern art in fin-de-siecle Vienna used elements of classical mythology, Japanese design and European folk art in painting, architecture, textiles and graphic arts.  it was a repudiation of the academic art that was the prevailing (and state sponsored) style favored by the Hapsburgs.

I was particularly taken by Secession graphics with their  rhythmic patterns,  organic forms, solid matte fields of color, and  bold contrasts of darks and light.

The world of the Hapsburg Austria, (with all of its brilliance, decadence, and intractable contradictions) including this artistic movement, was swept away by World War I.  Sixty years later the bold contrasts, dynamic lines, asymetrical composition and repeated pattern of the Secession, took hold of my imagination.  Which, (athough I didn't realize it at the time) prepared me to appreciate those elements in thr traditional icon.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Mary, More Glorious Beyond Compare Than the Seraphim!

One of the hymns I have come to love over the years is the beautiful paean to Mary, the Mother of God that is sung at the end of the Great Vespers service in the Byzantine liturgy.  It is very brief, but what a wonderful hymn of praise:

" More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim!  Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word; true Theotokos, we magnify you."

One of the many beautiful treasures that Catholics and Orthodox Christians share is a common love and veneration of Mary, the Mother of God.  In our iconography, divine worship, in our theology and in our life of prayer, we can't seem to find enough superlatives to praise the Mother of Jesus (and our Mother too).

Unfortunately, one of the controversies that sadly continues to divide our two communions is the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception.  Unfortunate, because when Pope Pius IX definitivly declared in 1854 that Mary had been "preserved immune from all stain of original sin", neither Church thought well of each other.  Orthodox Christians, who were not consulted, largely regarded the dogma as yet another instance of papal presumption and aggression, especially after an abortive apostolic letter in 1848 calling on the Orthodox churches to union with Rome.

In the atmosphere of hostility and suspicion that existed between Catholics and Orthodox prior to the Second Vatican Council, this dogma, which was intended to confirm the faith of Christians, tragically deepened the schism.

For me, the language of redemption, applied to Mary, makes the most sense.   That is to say, she was redeemed by grace, prior to her birth (and prior to the birth of her Son, Jesus).  All of the faithful are redeemed, totally and entirely, in the waters of baptism.  This "new birth of innocence" in which every neophyte shares, was preserved in Mary, through her humble cooperation with grace.  Tempted by sin no doubt (as was her Son) but reliant on God and obedient to God's will in all things.

What makes her "more honorable than the Cherubim" was the humble obedience of the one "blessed among all women", who was glorified and made radiant by God's grace.

May we, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the All-Holy Mother of God, deepen the bonds of love and communion between our beloved Orthodox and Catholic churches!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Praying for Syrian Refugees

Today is the memorial of the Church Father and martyr St.Ignatius of Antioch.  For the past four years his feast day has been a particularly apt day to remember in prayer the suffering Church of Syria, as the majority of Syrian Chrisrians belong to either the Orthodox or Catholic see of Antioch.  It is also an opportunity to pray for the people of Syria, and the refugees within that war torn country and those seeking refuge in Europe. 
The late Fr. Basil Pennington wrote a wonderful little book on the rosary entitled "Praying By Hand"' which I would recommend to anyone seeking to deepen their meditation the traditional mysteries of the rosary.   

But he also sugggested that individuals are free to meditate while praying the rosary on other incidents from the life of Jesus or themes drawn from his earthly or resurrected life.  As the US Catholic Bishops wrote in their pastoral letter, "Behold Your Mother"' :
"Besides the precise rosary pattern well-known to Catholics, we can freely experiment... New sets of mysteries are possible."   

Which is why in my own life of prayer, I have been meditating five incidents from the Holy Family's on flight into Egypt as a means of binding myself in prayer to the refugees fleeing from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
1. Herod Orders the Massacre of the Innocents.
    Prayer Intention
     -- for all of the victims and perpetrators of violence in Syria and Iraq
2. In a Dream the Angel Warns Joseph to Flee with his Family.
    -- for all those faced with abandoning their homes, livelihoods and communities
3. The Holy Family Make the Perilous Crossing of the Desert
    -- for all those risking their lives crossing the conflict zones, deserts and the sea.
4. Jesus, Mary and Joseph Find Refuge Among the Egyptians
    -- for all those working daily to assist and welcome the refugees
5. The Holy Family Are Able to Return to Nazareth
    -- for an end to the conflict and peace with reconciliation in Syria

This is just my way.  But in whatever way you.  Choose to pray, please pray for the refugees and for an end to the war in Syria.

Why I Always Use Red Bole

It turns out that burnished water gilding, that is applying gold leaf to a bole ground and then polishing it with an agate (or a dog's tooth) burnisher until it shines, is actually easier than you'd think it would be.  The secret is to apply a thin coat of gilder's clay mixed with size to the gesso, sand and polish it, and apply the gold leaf.  Piece of cake --  sort of -- as long as everything goes exactly right.  But if the clay/glue ratio is off, or its too dry or too humid, or there is unusual solar flare activity, forget about it going as planned.

But lately I've been able to manage to get pretty good results gilding and burnishing haloes.  Not bad for 35 years of effort!  Pretty OK.   Not perfect-the gilding is NEVER perfect, there's inevitably a flaw, a fault, a thin spot or a pinhole if you look carefully enough, which why bole is usually red. (The red makes the faults disappear.)

Seems to me an apt, if homely metaphor for grace .  The color is wrong, of course -  it is our sins that are like scarlet, not grace, but isn't it grace that covers over our faults, failings and sins and makes them disappear?

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Egg and I

Had a few minutes last evening to paint in the studio, where I'm working on two little icons - one is of the Mother of God of Kazan, the other is of Christ.  They are both on egg tempera, a painting medium of great antiquity by which earth or mineral pigments are bound together with egg yolk and applied to a wooden panel that has been surfaced with plaster.

Which got me to thinking about my first encounter with egg tempera back when I was in high school.  The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco in 1972 had an exhibition of the paintings of the 20th century American painter Andrew Wyeth.  His subject matter didn't particularly appeal to me, but his painting medium, which was egg tempera, certainly did.

At the exhibit, it was possible to get up very close to each of the paintings and to look carefully at how he handled the paint.  (So much is lost in a photographic  reproduction of a painting!)  The transparency of the colors, yet their saturation and vibrancy immediately appealed to me.  Unlike in an oil painting, in an egg tempera painting, gradations of color are not made by blending colors on the palette  but with hatching lines, applied in overlapping strokes of pure color onto the panel.  Wyeth's palette was largely earth colors - yellow and red ochers, green earths and various umbers and siennas, (which, unbeknownst to me at the time, is the foundational palette of iconpainting).

Fortunately for me, my dad taught theatre and stagecraft, and had bins of dry pigrment, which, mixed with hot glue, were at that time, used for stage painting.  And our refrigerator had a carton of eggs, so I set out to paint an egg tempera painting on a sheet of masonite primed with acrylic gesso (knowing nothing about supports and grounds!)   It turned out OK, but my life and my life as an artist took a different direction until a decade later I found myself learning how to paint icons -- in egg tempera!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Breaking Radio Silence

After two years of radio silence its time to start blogging again.   Its not that I ever stopped writing - far from it.  Rather, all of my writing, all the time seemed to be for work.  Which is important writing to do, but all the energy for my own writing, for this blog, drained away.  I hadn't exactly lost my voice, but I was having trouble finding it. 

A lot to share.  Stay tuned.