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.