Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Getting Each Step Right

Top Left: Archangel Gabriel (Annunciation); Bottom Left:St.Jean d'Arc; Center: Elousa Mother of God; Top Right: Mary, Mother of God; Bottom Left: St. Mary of Egypt

I've begun work on a tryptich which will eventually end up in the prayer corner of my studio. I did the cartoon back in October 2016, then put it aside as my Dad went into his final illness.  Almost a year later, I'm ready to begin the next stage of the work.  So this past weekend I cut the panels for the center and the wings.  And although the panels are cut, I'm a long way from being ready to begin painting.

Which is alright.

One of the life lessons I've learned from icon painting is the importance of every step of the process.  Historically and to the present day, icons are painted either as wall murals in buon fresco, secco (egg tempera on plaster) or mosaic or as portable panels in egg tempera, acrylic, encaustic, mosaic, cast metal or carved in wood or ivory in bas relief.  In every case, regardless of media, a lot of preparation and preliminary work is required just to get to the start line.

I've learned the hard way, that any rush to get to the "good parts" (the aspect of the work that is gratifyingly self-expressive) in icon painting is a mistake.  Although I try to work efficiently , there are no shortcuts.  Even those stages of the work that are tedious or boring (which I am tempted at times to regard as taking up time that could be given over to more creative activity) , are not a diversion but essential.

Essential not only in a practical, material sense -- a smooth polished gessoed surface on a panel is essential for gilding and painting -- but essential in a spiritual sense as well.  If. as has been my experience, every icon is a prayer made visible, every stage of the work is an offering of one's self and one's work to God.  The loving attention to detail, concentration and hard work to get each aspect of the work as close to perfect as one can manage, if done with the right intention, gives glory to God.

Which true, not only in the studio, but in the mundane but essential tasks of marriage, parenthood, work and prayer.    


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Our Authentic Heritage

This past weekend, white supremacists, homegrown admirers of Hitler, waving Nazi and Confederate flags, chanting the Nazi slogan, "blood and soil" and anti-Semitic slogans, rallied in Charlottesville ,Virginia to protest, in then name of defending their "heritage" the removal of a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee.
It's somehow fitting that this past weekend's shocking, disgraceful and ultimately murderous "Unite the Right" protest by the so-called alt-right (aka white supremacists), Klansmen and neo-Nazis occurred during the same week that as Catholics we remember and honor the memory of two heroic saints who died at the hands of the Nazis.

On August 14th, 1941 Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was put to death after volunteering to take the place of another Polish prisoner sentenced to death.

On August 9th, 1942 Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) was gassed at the Auschwitz death camp with hundreds of other Jews deported from the Netherlands.

The Nazis, through-going racists and anti-Semites, rationalized their genocidal campaign to eradicate completely the Jewish people as an act of "self-defense" against a Jewish world conspiracy that existed only in the depraved imagination of Hitler and those who lent their support to his murderous racist ideology.

They regarded Poles and Russians as racially inferior people,"useless eaters" destined to starve to death or work as slaves as their German overlords saw fit.

St. Teresa Benedicta and St. Maximilian Kolbe were among the millions of  Jews and peoples such as Roma/Sinti, Poles, Russians and others that the Nazis considered to be sub-human and not deserving to live, by Germans and others who cynically regarded themselves as the master race.

The message of the gospel, which they embodied, is simple: Jesus teaches us that every person and all peoples are loved, cherished and redeemed by God; that all men and women are brothers and sisters; that love is more powerful than hatred.

Despite our own faults, failings and sins, as disciples of Jesus, as Catholics, this is our authentic heritage.

Let us resist with all of our strength the pathetically ignorant but pernicious pathologies of white supremacy, racism and anti-Semitism.  

Let us pray for the conversion of those who have given themselves over to the service of such vile, hateful and sinful ideas.

Let us work together for a better, more just and more equitable society that we can take pride in again.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Ave Crux, Spes Unica

Today is the feast day of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), who on this day seventy-five years ago, perished, alongside her sister Rosa and the other Dutch Jewish deportees on her transport, in the gas chambers of  the Auschwitz death camp.  Raised in a devout Jewish home in the German city of  Breslau, she lost her faith in God during her adolescence .  As a young woman she studied philosophy and was part of the circle of the Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.  She was a prolific writer on philosophical topics and education, especially the education of girls and women. Her most personal book, 'Life in a Jewish Family' was an autobiography that was unfinished at the time of her martyrdom.
 Edith Stein sought baptism as a Catholic after reading the works of St.Teresa of Avila.  Eventually she entered the Carmelite Order.  With the intensification of the Nazi persecution of the Jews in November 1938, she took refuge in the Carmel of Echt, in the Netherlands.  It was from the Echt Carmel that she and her sister Rosa were arrested and deported to their deaths at Auschwitz.

On this, her feast day, we recall her death and the murder of millions of Jews in the Shoah, commemorate the terrible anniversary of the atomic attack on the city of Nagasaki, and pray that "the fire and fury" threatened by our President on the people of North Korea may never come to pass.

From a talk she gave to her fellow Carmelite sisters, read today in the Office of Readings, these words particularly stood out for me:
"The world is in flames: do you wish to put them out?  Contemplate the Cross: from his open heart the blood of the Redeemer pours, blood which can put out even the flames of hell."

She concluded her talk with these words:
"The eyes of the Crucified gaze upon you.  They question you and appeal to you.  Do you wish seriously to renew your alliance with him?  What will your response be?
"Lord, where shall I go?  You have the words of life."
Ave Crux, spes unica!  (We greet you, Holy Cross, our only hope)

St. Teresa Benedicta, pray for us.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The International Hotel: Forty Years Later

Silkscreen Poster by the Kearny Street Workshop

It will have been forty years ago tomorrow (August 4th, 1977) that City of San Francisco evicted the tenants of the International Hotel on Kearny Street on the edge of the financial district.  The single-room occupancy hotel was the last remaining section of the neighborhood that was known as 'Manilatown' and the tenants were mostly elderly Filipino agricultural workers and seamen who had deep bonds of community and self-help in that neighborhood going back to 1920's.

Of course they had to go, for, in the unguarded words of a city official at some point in the ten-year struggle to keep the tenants in their homes, 'the land was too valuable to allow poor people to continue to live there."

Hundreds of tenant supporters from the Asian-American and wider community showed up to non-violently interpose themselves between the sheriff's deputies and the tenants inside the building facing eviction.   I was there too with the other tenant supporters awaiting the arrival of the police.*  

When the sheriffs, mounted units and the riot squad came in force just after midnight I was fortunate I wasn't knocked down by a police horse  or clubbed on the head (which I witnessed happening to others once they started to break up the crowd.   To no on'es  surprise, it didn't take the police and sheriffs long to shove us aside and  just as the sun was coming up, the last, now homeless elderly tenant was escorted out onto the sidewalk and the eviction was over.

Photo by Chris Huie
  For me as a Christian, being there that night then (and now) made sense in terms of the Church's preferential option for the poor.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches at 2448:
...those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensible always and everywhere."

*I'm pretty sure that I'm in this photo by photographer Chris Huie from that night.  If you look carefully in the bottom right hand corner you will find the grainy image frozen in time of a much younger incarnation of this writer.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

To Read Only Children's Books

To read only children's books
To cherish only children's thoughts.
All grownup things to disperse far away
And to rise from a deep sorrow.
Osip Mandelstam 
trans. Dmitri Smirnov

This past week I began re-reading the Odyssey, in Robert Fagles magnificent translation.  As I've been reading, I've been reminded that my initial introduction to Homer was not so much textual as visual.  

As a child I was fortunate indeed to have come across the Golden Book Illiad and the Odyssey that immediately captured my imagination.  Even as a child, (or perhaps, particularly as a child) I must admit, many children's books seemed to me to be, well, childish.  Either clumsily drawn and painted, cloyingly sentimental or both.  More what the illustrator thought a child should want to look at rather at than what a child would actually want to see. 

But this book was different.  

Superbly illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen (not that at the time I paid any attention to who the artists were),  I was immediately drawn-in. I was enthralled by the wonderfully vibrant and dynamic line work and bold, expressive painting. 

By the flawless page composition . 

The large folio format of the book. 

And as a nine-year old, I loved the charioteers and heavily armored warriors with swords and spears fighting each other.
Inevitably, I suppose, beginning with the death of my sister, I learned more about deep sorrow than I'd ever thought possible.  I had to quickly put away children's thoughts.   

But that child's book which I was reminded of again this week, I continue to cherish.  

Monday, July 17, 2017

Ora et Labora

The past four days my son and his fiance have been smoking and canning fish to give away as presents to their wedding guests.  They asked if they could use our house to do this, which we agreed to after getting firm assurances that they wouldn't inadvertently burn the house down in the process.

 Every room in our house has been given over to processing, smoking and canning sockeye and king salmon.  Including the studio, which was transformed into a place to air-dry salted salmon strips in preparation for smoking.

Which coincided with the urgent task of completing an icon of St.Therese as a gift from my daughter and her novio to the parents of a young woman who lost their daughter and her friend in a tragic accident a year ago tomorrow.

In the end (as in, this morning!), I managed to finish St. Therese's icon and get it on the plane to Fairbanks (I'm assured by the good people at AlaskaAirCargo that it will arrive tomorrow morning at the latest.)

All of the labora didn't interfere too much with the ora : I managed to work my way around the racks of drying salmon when I needed to pray or work in there.  Fortunately, I don't find the smell of salmon and wood smoke offensive, which is a good thing, because I suspect that my studio (and oratory) will smell that way for a long time to come.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Liu Xiaobo, Rest in Peace

Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died today of liver cancer . Chinese authorities denied him permission to seek treatment for his advanced cancer in Germany and the United States.  Instead, he was confined to a hospital room in the city of Shenyang and kept incommunicado and under constant guard.  

He is the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in custody since 1938, when the German anti-Nazi and pacifist writer and journalist  Karl von Ossietsky died of tuberculosis while in police custody in Berlin. 

In 2010 I published this post (on an earlier blog) about him.

Liu Xiaobo is serving his fourth prison sentence for the non-violent expression of his conscientiously held beliefs in free expression, democracy and government accountability.  He is the author of Charter O8, which calls on the Chinese government to move towards democratic freedoms and to end the repression of citizens with dissenting viewpoints.

 On December 10th, 2010 in Oslo, Norway, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. 

Below is the preamble to Charter O8.

This year is the 100th year of China's Constitution, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Democracy Wall, and the 10th year since China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. After experiencing a prolonged period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognizing that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance. 

A "modernization" bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity. Where will China head in the 21st century? Continue a "modernization" under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or recognize universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Good Month's Work

On Friday I completed a month long tutorial with Indianapolis artist and art teacher Julie Perigo in an immersion introduction to iconpainting.  Working side-by-side, we completed three icons: the Holy Face (icon of Christ Made-Without-Hands); Christ the Savior and the Donskaya Mother of God (a variant of the Eleousa or Merciful Mother of God icon).  She was introduced to pretty much every essential aspect of the process, from preparing the wooden panel and the levkas/ true gesso ground; watergilding and gold burnishing; composition and drawing and egg tempera painting.   And the theology of the icon, the spirituality of icon painters and of course, prayer together and individually.

 It was pretty relentless - Monday through Saturday from 8:30am till 5:30pm, bookended with Morning and Evening Prayer.  We took Sunday's completely off and Julie had the opportunity to get out of the studio and see some of what our part of Southeast Alaska has to offer.  She visited the glacier, the Shrine of St. Therese, and had the opportunity to observe humpback whales bubble net feeding.

As I return to my full-time work in ministry at the Diocese of Juneau, I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to work daily in iconography with such a receptive, talented and prayerful student.  

Friday, July 7, 2017

Who Are These Children Dressed in White

 "Who are these children dressed in white?  They must be the children of the Israelites." 

As I ponder the estimated ten thousand migrants and refugees rescued last week from the Mediterranean, I keep coming back to the story of the Exodus, as these many peoples risk their lives to be delivered from the bondage of war, persecution, famine and poverty, with Pharoah in hot pursuit and the water blocking their way.

Middle Easterners, South Asians and Africans, Muslims and Christians are all mixed together in the millions of refugees and  migrants whose exodus is unfolding daily before our eyes.  So taking my cue from the words of the African-American spiritual, "Wade in the Water", at least for this stage of this icon, I have depicted the refugees and migrants dressed in white.  

Let us continue to pray for them, that through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Refugees and Migrants, all of her children may find deliverance and safety, especially those in peril on the sea.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Mary, Mother of Mercy, Pray for Them!

Ravensburger Schultzmantel Madonna
I'm beginning my fourth and final week teaching in the studio (and on retreat) while taking annual leave from my regular job at the Diocese of Juneau.  It is always a welcome opportunity to quiet down, reflect and pray.   I've been particularly praying for  refugees,(who are fleeing either political or sectarian violence and war) and migrants, who are trying to escape poverty, drought, crop failure and famine.

Its hard for me to understand the difference.  On one side of my family, my Alsatian ancestors were refugees, forced out of Alsace after the German defeat of France in 1870.   My Irish immigrant economic migrants, trying to survive the very real threat of starvation during the Great Hunger and hoping for a better life.  Both families made the perilous journey by sea to America and found asylum  (if not, in the case of the Irish, welcome) in the New World.

This past week, more than 20,000 migrants from Africa and Asia were rescued attempting to cross from North Africa to Europe without authorization (legal immigration is closed.  They are desperate and vulnerable and the traffickers who prey on them are unscrupulous and greedy, packing them by the thousands in unseaworthy ships and  rubber rafts.  Over 5,000 drowned in 2016 and 1,985 to date in 2017 when their boats were swamped or capsized.

It is a humanitarian and human tragedy that will only get worse, in a world in which 65.3 million people are refugees.

As I've noted in earlier posts, I pray better with a pencil or a brush in my hand, and as I was praying for those desperate people in peril in the Mediterranean and those rescuing them, the image of Mary the Mother of Mercy came into my mind.  Made popular by the mendicant orders such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the Mother of Mercy is depicted extending her cloak over those seeking her protection and prayers.  There are many, many variations.  The Ravensburger Schultzmantel Madonna is a well-known example.
And thus, this initial drawing for an icon of Mary, Mother of Mercy, Mother of Refugees and Migrants.  

Mary, Mother of Mercy, extend your protective mantle over refugees and migrants everywhere, especially those in peril on the sea!

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Month Away on Retreat (Without Leaving the City Limits)

I'm taking annual leave for four weeks to work in the studio with a student, Julie Perigo, who has come to Juneau for an intensive tutorial on icon painting.  We've already completed almost a week together and she has begun work on the Holy Face ('The Icon of Christ-Made-Without-Hands)

This icon is best starting point to introduce the theology of the icon and the spirituality of the iconographer and a good place to begin painting as well, as the composition is very simple.

She is also getting hands-on experience (no pun intended) in the craft work of making wooden icon panels and preparing the levkas (the gesso ground for the board) as well as water gilding and egg tempera painting.

I'm grateful to have the leave time to devote to working with her and being in the studio.  It is as much a spiritual retreat as work time, as I tend to pray best with a brush (or a piece of sandpaper) in my hand.

Friday, May 26, 2017

What A Gift

 In Southeast Alaska where I live, the landscape is overwhelming in size and scale.  Endless vistas of mountains, forests, water and clouds.  
Yesterday, while watching a whale (another enormous creature in every respect) while it was feeding offshore, I was given the more intimate experience of seeing a fawn on the beach.  It was crouched motionless in the rocks.  Its mother had been startled by some people walking the beach and had run off.  The fawn instinctively froze,waiting for its mother to return for it.  What a gift to be close, even for a few moments, to such a beautiful, wild creature, in such a place and in such a setting! 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Steadfast Love

Our celebration of the memorial of St. Damian de Veuster (Damian the Leper) on May 10th is a reminder of what steadfast love looks like.  Fr. Damian, a Belgian priest, dedicated his life to those suffering from leprosy who were confined to the leprosarium on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.  He gave himself completely to the lepers, and after contracting leprosy (Hansen's disease), died among them and was buried with them.

I was reminded of the steadfast love of another generous and compassionate man, Dr. Janusz Korczak (Dr. Henryk Goldszmit), a Polish Jewish pediatrician, children's author and humanitarian.  He was a man of many gifts and talents.  A skilled and compassionate pediatrician,  he established just before the outbreak of World War I a Jewish children's orphanage, Dom Sierot in Warsaw.  As the director he implemented the principles of what was then called the New Education movement, which proposed a holistic pedagogy that took into account the moral, spiritual, physical and intellectual development of the child.

He wrote: "...children should be fully understood... must be respected and loved, treated as partners and friends... [and that] one ought to behave towards [each child as] a respected, thinking and feeling human being." Under the pen name Janusz Korczak, he wrote children's books that illustrated the challenges faced by the impoverished children who were in his care.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Dr. Korczak accompanied the children and staff of his orphanage into the Warsaw ghetto, rejecting generous offers by rescuers to bring him to safety.  He refused to be separated from the children of the orphanage and walked with them to the terrifying Umschlagplatz, where the Jews of Warsaw were assembled for deportation.  On August 7th, 1942, Dr. Korczak, with 190 orphan children in his care were killed at the Treblinka death camp.

A teacher who studied under his direction wrote:
"Everyone makes so much of Korczak's last decision to go with the children to the train.  But his whole life was made up of moral decisions.  The decision to become a children's doctor.  The decision to give up a full-time medical practice and writing career to take care of poor orphans, The decision to go with the Jewish orphans to the ghetto.  As for that last decision to go with the children to Treblinka, it was part of his nature.  It was who he was.  He wouldn't understand why we are making so much of it today."

Monday, May 8, 2017

My Privilege Is To Have No Privilege

My Privilege Is To Have No Privilege


The sign of how much I love God is how much I love those I love the least.

Dorothy Day

even in heaven
hers was a minority viewpoint

she knew her Aquinas --
that to contemplate
the just punishment of the wicked
adds to the joy of the blessed

not her idea of paradise.

so without fanfare
Dorothy Day
took up residence in the infernal regions
rented a rundown storefront
taped a sign in the broken window
'House of Hospitality'.

she walked a daily picket line
protesting stiffling heat  
insatiable thirst  bad working conditions  
eternal torment

passed out copies
of her penny-newspaper
to any of the demon-harried 
who would take one

worked the soup-line
poured endless cups of coffee
scrounged cookies and day-old donuts
from a sympathetic archangel
listened patiently
to the piteous complaints
of the damned

she was last seen
at suppertime
hunched over a table
showing a weeping dictator
photos of his grandchildren.

Monday, May 1, 2017

St. Joseph the Worker, Pray for Us

Today is May Day and in the Catholic calendar the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker.
On this day, I remember with gratitude my former pastor, Fr. Donald McDonnell of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in San Francisco and the life and work of Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), who Fr. McDonnell helped inspire Chavez to found the United Farm Worker's union.

Fr. Donald McDonnell
It was Fr. McDonnell , while pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in San Jose, who introduced Chavez to Catholic social teaching and who encouraged him to get involved in labor organizing.  Fr. McDonnell, as one of the "Mission Band" of priests who ministered during the 1950's to the largely Hispanic and Filipino migrant workers in California's Central Valley, had been exposed to the low wages, back-breaking labor and dehumanizing working conditions that were the day-to-day experience of farm workers.

Cesar Chavez

Chavez went on (with fellow labor organizer Dolores Huerta) to found the United Farm Workers union, which eventually, after years of struggle with growers that involved non-violent civil disobedience, fasts and hunger strikes and national boycotts of agricultural products such as grapes and lettuce, was able to organize and represent agricultural workers.

The feast today of St. Joseph the Worker is a needed reminder of both the dignity of work and the human dignity and rights of workers.

As Pope St. John Paul II, stated forcefully in 1984 :
"The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion;
and production to meet social needs over production for military purposes."

Catholic social teaching, which Fr. McDonnell introduced a young Cesar Chavez to over sixty years ago, upholds the right of workers to organize, to be represented by trade unions, to safe and decent working conditions and to a fair and living wage.  The US Catholic bishops, in their 1983 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All" articulated ten principles related to economic justice and the rights of workers.  They are as valid and imperative today as they were almost thirty-five years ago.

On this day on which we commemorate workers and St. Joseph the Worker, may we find inspiration and hope in the United Farmworker's Prayer which Chavez wrote:

Show me the sufferings of the most miserable, so I may know my people's plight.
Free me to pray for others, for you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life, so that I can be free at last.
Grant me courage to serve others, for in service there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience, so that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration, so that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let us remember those who have died for justice, for they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us, so we can change the world.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Feeding the Fire of Anger and Animosity

On Monday two thirteen year old boys inadvertently set a playground constructed out of wood on fire here in Juneau, Alaska.  The fire took hours to contain and suppress and in the end the playground was burned to the ground and was completely destroyed.

As might be expected, feelings have been running high.  My wife Paula wrote a thoughtful and compassionate blogpost about the fire and the children who accidently set it.

I looked at the photos of the fire in the newspaper and on-line and remembered how St.Dorotheos of Gaza compared anger and animosity to a fire which begins with a small spark and then, if unchecked, quickly gets out of hand and becomes a blazing conflagration.

We live in a time of so much unchecked and bitter anger.  It's all around us.  The wrathful, far from being embarrassed by their angry words and actions, appear, convinced of their own rectitude, to exult in their righteous indignation.

But St. Dorotheos, quoting the desert father Abba Zosimos, writes:
"If at the beginning of a dissention, when there is first smoke and sparks begin to fly, if a man forestalls it by blaming himself and humbling himself before he gets drawn into a quarrel and gets into a temper, until, not remaining tranquil but wrangling and becoming reckless, he acts like a man who is piling wood on a fire which gets hotter and hotter until he has made a great blaze ."

Contributing to that great blaze, feeding the fire of rancor and animosity, whether in our personal and family relationships or in our political and social life that we must avoid, even, or especially, when the stakes are as high as they are.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Trampling Down Death-by-Death

In the Western Church today is Thursday of the Octave of Easter, the eight days during which the Church celebrates and ponders the mystery of the Lord's death and resurrection.  In the Christian East, this week is celebrated as Bright Week.

The icon has its origin in the image known as the Harrowing of Hell.

In the Christian East, the imagery of  what came to be the Resurrection icon embodies the Easter Troparian, (the musical 'icon' of the Resurrection sung in a variety of languages and melodies throughout the Byzantine Churches  during the Easter Season.)

Christ is risen from the dead!  Trampling down death-by-death! 
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life! (3x)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Three Triduum Icons by a Contemporary Ukrainian Iconographer

Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Truly Risen!
During Holy Week I came across the striking work of the Ukrainian iconographer Lyuba Yatskiv, originally from the town of Lviv.  I didn't have time to do much more than look at a few of her remarkable icons, which, despite their highly personal style follow the iconographic canons quite closely.
Their sheer intensity, for lack of a better word, is well suited to the seriousness of the mysteries which they depict.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What She Has Done Will Be Told in Remembrance of Her

On this Tuesday of Holy Week, I've reflecting on how in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, the passion narrative begins with the reading of the account of a woman anointing the Lord's head or feet.  The anointing, with costly perfumed oil, scandalizes the onlookers (including the apostles), because of the expense of the oil and the uninvited intrusion of the woman into the gathering.

I think too of how on the other end of the narrative, other women go to the tomb with perfumed oil to anoint the body of Jesus in the tomb (and these 'myrrhbearing women' discover that Jesus has risen and the tomb is empty.)

Jesus, in Matthew's gospel responds to the angry criticism by saying, "Why do you trouble the woman?  She has done me a good service for me. ...By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial."

But then he goes on to tell them: "Truly I tell, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."  Which leaves me pondering this: perhaps the woman who anoints Jesus' head with oil is proclaiming in an unmistakable way that he is truly the Messiah, the Christos, the Anointed One of God.

Those whose responsibility it would have been to have proclaimed Jesus the Messiah, that is to say, the religious authorities, not only fail to make such a proclamation, but in all of the passion narratives, condemn him as a false Messiah.  By way of contrast, this anonymous woman, not from a position of knowledge or authority, perceives Jesus rightly and like the prophet Samuel, sees beyond appearances and anoints the Son of David with the oil of gladness.

During this week Christians remember how this Messiah would die a shameful and wretched death at the hands of the Romans (which would have confirmed for allies and opponents alike that he was definitely not the Anointed.   One of God!) Yet even in this, her anointing of him in anticipation of his death and burial, is itself a paradoxical proclamation that he is the Messiah who will suffer and empty himself completely out of love.

Perhaps, it is that this woman, because her love for him, was able to see clearly the One who is Love Incarnate and boldly act to anoint him in this way.  I wonder too, if we are only able to recognize the Anointed One who is present among us in so many distressing disguises, when we are able to see them with the eyes of love?

Will the ways in which we anoint Christ in need and in distress with the extravagant and costly oil of compassion, mercy and kindness, be told in remembrance of us, "wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world"?

May it be so.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Grant Lord, Your Protection to All Who Suffer Persecution

 Almighty ever-living God, who as an example of humility for the human race to follow caused our Savior to take flesh and submit to the Cross, graciously grant that we may heed his lesson of patient suffering  and so merit a share in his Resurrection.                  Collect for Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion 

Serving yesterday at the Palm Sunday liturgies in my parish, I had the opportunity to listen to this prayer and meditate on it, in light of the bomb attacks on two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt where worshippers were celebrating, as we were, the liturgy of Palm Sunday.  Amid the carnage and destruction of yet another hateful attack by ISIS against them,  it seems astonishing that the survivors are truly heeding the Lord's "lesson of patient suffering".  But they continue to do so, refusing to retaliate, but submitting to the Cross and choosing "to bear all things" in Christ.

The persecution of the Christian minority in Egypt, (who number approximately 8 million souls and make up about 10% of  Egypt's population of 83 million) is nothing new.  In the summer of 2013, mobs angered by the removal from office of President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, burned many Coptic Orthodox churches throughout the country.  In December ISIS bombed the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo.  In the northern Sinai, at least 40 Copts have been murdered in 2017 alone and hundreds of Christians have been forced to abandon their homes and flee to Cairo for safety.

And in 2015 twenty Coptic migrant workers (and a non-Christian Chadian man who chose to die with them) were beheaded by ISIS on a beach in Libya.  They were quickly glorified as martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

As Holy Week begins, I am remembering in meditation and prayer the persecuted, martyr church of Egypt.  May the example of their steadfast and patient witness to our loving and merciful Savior, who "accepted unjust condemnation to save the guilty" (Preface for Palm Sunday) strengthen our resolve to reject hatred and violence and change the hearts of their persecutors.      

Monday, March 27, 2017

Laetare Weekend

Yesterday, with Laetare Sunday (aka the Fourth Sunday of Lent, aka the Sunday of the Man Born Blind), we reached the half-way point between the beginning of the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, and the conclusion of Lent on Holy Thursday, when the Paschal Triduum begins.
'Laetare', from the first word of Latin text of the Entrance Antiphon for that Sunday, which means 'rejoice'.

Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and all who love her: 
Be joyful, all who were in mourning.  

I'm still missing my Dad (it was two months on Friday since his death).  But within the narrow confines of the New Jerusalem Workshop, while not exactly feeling joyful, I'm ready to rejoice a little. Why? Because this weekend I'm about half-way done with the icon of St. Anne, Mary the Mother of God and Jesus that I began on March 4th.

 Which is to say, I've finished the garments, the gilding, gold assist and the highlighting of the roundel that symbolizes the heavens (and the Virgin's womb which contained the One through whom the cosmos was made.)  Still more wretched faulting of the gold to finish.  But being back in the studio, even feeling as sad as I find myself most days, and getting things done, is such a grace and a blessing.  To God be the glory!

Now on to the faces.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Wrenched Out of Our Blindness

"Healing of the Man Born Blind" two-color linocut by Robert Hodgell (1922-2000)

In the Roman rite, this weekend we celebrate the Sunday of the Man Born Blind (aka the Fourth Sunday in Lent, aka Laetare Sunday.)  In the long gospel reading from St. John, Jesus encounters a blind begger, and after declaring "I AM  the Light of the World, spits in the dirt to make a muddy slurry and rubs the mud on the man's eyes.  The beggar regains his sight and it is then that his troubles really begin as the opponents of Jesus demand that he account for himself and his miraculous healing.

Yet for each of us, who, like the beggar healed by Jesus, who have been wrenched out of our blindness, we assume a burden of responsibility for which we must make an accounting.  Although it is certainly possible to close our eyes to the lies, injustice and suffering all around us, there is a price to be paid, in this life and in the next, for blinding ourselves to it.
Blessed Monsenor Oscar Romero

Tomorrow is the anniversary of Blessed Monsenor Oscar Romero, who, in 1977, after the brutal assasination of his friend and brother priest, Fr. Rutilio Grande SJ, began to see the lives of his impoverished and oppressed people with new eyes.  For the next three years he refused to close his eyes to the relentless violence and oppression experienced by the poor in El Salvador at the hands of the military and the security forces.

As the violence intensified he denounced the thousands of killings and disappearances and those who perpetrated them, while trying to find a way to bring peace to a country on the verge of civil war.  In the end, this courageous witness who refused to look away and keep silent was martyred while celebrating Mass on March 24th, 1980.      

Through the intercession of Blessed Oscar Romero, Bishop and Martyr, may Christ heal our blindness to the burdens, sorrows and injustices borne by our brothers and sisters.  May we have the grace and courage to see with the eyes of truth and compassion.  


Friday, March 17, 2017

Remember the Marvels the Lord Has Done

Today, March 17th, is Friday of the Second Week of Lent and/or St. Patrick's Day.  It is also the third anniversary of the death of my teacher and friend, Fr.Egon Sendler SJ (aka Pere Igor).  

Reflecting on the daily readings for today, I was struck by the ways in which God's redemptive purpose is able to to be found even in circumstances of  great suffering and injustice.  In the first reading is the familiar story of Joseph, and how his brothers, out of jealousy and hatred, throw him into a cistern to die and then, when the opportunity presents itself, sell him into bondage in Egpt.  In the gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard, in which the wicked tenants beat and kill the servants of the owner of the vineyard and then in their greed, kill his son.

/But God's redemptive purpose cannot be thwarted, even by the intransigence and violence of sinners.  Joseph forgives his brothers and reconciles with them.  Jesus, from the Cross, forgives those who are putting him to death and even excuses their actions before God, "because they know not what they are doing."

St. Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and enslaved in Ireland.  Yet after his escape from bondage he returned and shared Christ with the people of Ireland.  In a similar way, my friend Pere Igor, conscripted into the war with Russia, was a German prisoner of war in Siberia for three years, where he worked as slave laborer.  He vowed, if he survived his imprisonment, to devote the rest of his life to the service of the Church in Russia and to work for Christian unity.  Which he did, for the rest of his long life.

Like Joseph and like Patrick,  Igor, (the name the Russian inmates gave him in the labor camp) had to chose whether or not to be consumed by hatred and bitterness towards those who mistreated and enslaved him.  It would have been understandable, reasonable even, for each of them to have responded that way to undeserved suffering.  

But grace and a willingness to be open to grace made it possible to chose to live and act in a different way. That they chose to love and not to hate allowed God to use their suffering for his own mysterious but always redemptive purpose.

Memory eternal, Pere Igor!

St. Patrick, Apostle to the Irish, pray for us!     

Monday, March 13, 2017

Come to the Aid of Our Weakness

I've found over the years that I really do pray better when I'm working on an icon.  Or rather, that my ability to be at least minimally raise my heart and mind to God and remain personally present despite indiscipline, laziness and distraction improves when I've got a brush or a pencil in my hand.  I don't really understand why, except to say that perhaps the concentration and attention required in drawing and painting provides a kind of scaffolding for the mysterious work of prayer itself.

Or perhaps it has to do with the movement involved in drawing and painting.  Or perhaps the act of taking up the pencil or stick of conte crayon or paint brush is, after so many years in the studio, a summons to recollection, similar to the act of passing a rosary or prayer rope through one's hands.

On the face of it, it might seem that what both drawing or painting and prayer have in common is that they are mimetic.  A drawing or painting is, in most cases, an attempt to render a natural form or in the case of icons, a canonical pattern.   Spoken prayer, in many cases, is the act of articulating received forms or patterns of prayer, the Lord's Prayer to be sure, but also prayers such as the rosary or the Jesus Prayer and of course, the psalms.

But I wonder too if perhaps drawing or painting and prayer have this in common: both seek to give expression to inchoate thoughts and feelings that we struggle to adequately render or articulate. The words of St. Paul about prayer in his Letter to the Romans, could, at least from my experience, be applied to the work in the studio as well.  "In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings." (Romans8:26)

I'm in the beginning stages of a large icon of St. Anne, Mary the Mother of God, and Jesus, and over the course of the past couple of weeks has slowly come together.    

Just like every other time, this icon has required me to shake off the distractions and excuses and to simply begin, knowing that the whole enterprise may end up as a disappointing failure.  I've needed to be patient with the fumbling about, false starts and erasures as I've attempted to put all of the various pieces together in a coherent, pleasing  way.  It has required perseverance, so as not to give up when discouraged by my (inevitably) awkward attempts to place the forms on the panel.   And humility  when the final work (inevitably) falls short of that impossible to articulate but real feeling that originally inspired the work in the first place.  

Yet the discoveries and surprises have more than made up for the sting of not quite ever being able to accomplish in reality what was envisioned in the imagination.  

All of which reminds me of what happens (for me, at least) in prayer, where even a fleeting moment of genuine and authentic communion with God is worth whatever had to be endured to bring me to that point.