To forget this Beauty is to lose sight of the Heavenly Kingdom. Above all we must learn to desire Beauty. It was not for theology or propriety that the Byzantines so adorned their temples. It was for Beauty. In Beauty lies Truth, and by it we show our Love for God.
‘GOD DWELLS THERE AMONG MEN’
In 988, emissaries of Prince Vladimir of Kiev visited Hagia Sophia. They famously remarked, “only this we know, that god dwells there among men.” This statement highlights the attitude towards holy temples that was universal among ancient religions – that a god actually lived in the temple. Christianity has moved away from this belief, but Orthodoxy retains it as a liturgical concept. In an Orthodox church, Christ and the saints are present among the faithful. Prayers are directed towards their icons, not towards the sky. …
… This is a great difference from Western architecture. A Gothic church is a monument offered up to God. It is an attempt by man to order and beautify all that exists in creation. It points upward to God the Father who is outside of it, and prayers are directed likewise. in contrast, an Orthodox church is introverted. The interior represents Heaven, and to enter it is to step into the New Jerusalem. God dwells there among men, and they have no need of the sun, neither of the moon, for the Glory of God illumines it (cf. Revelation 21 : 23).
Light pours into a Gothic church through great decorated windows. Broken into dazzling colors, it overwhelms the materiality of the walls. The stonework itself magnifies the effect, as it is thin and delicate, and carven with most delicate tracery. The weight of the stone is denied. The worshipper is at once conscious of the awesome radiance and power of the light without and the tenuous structure of the material within. The light beautifies the structure by dematerializing it, even until the stone itself looks like rays of light.
The walls of an Orthodox church are immensely thick and strong. The windows are small and up high, set deeply into the openings. The light is seen reflected off the thickness of the wall, rather than directly from the windows. In some Byzantine churches the window is translucent alabaster or marble, so that the light seems to glow from within the wall itself. Gold mosaics or bright frescoes play the light from many surfaces. Polished lamps and inlaid furniture reflect highlights from every direction. Deep aisles or side chapels behind arches appear as mysterious shadows in the distance, which make the church look brighter by the rich contrast. This is mass transfigured by light. It is the same light as in the icons, holy and all- pervading, the Uncreated Light which emanates from god to his creation. The stone and plaster glow from within. They do not seem transitory, but more real. Walls and piers seem as silent and as still as ancient mountains. They are bathed with the Light of Christ, and are sustained and strengthened by it as we are.
… A church building is the structure and organization of all the icons within it. As a unified edifice, these make up a single integrated icon which encompasses all the history and theology of the Church. The organization of the icons broadly follows three architectural axes.
The first axis is west to east. This is the liturgical axis. The narthex repre- sents the fallen world, and is used for preparation and exorcisms, for judg- ment is at the gates of heaven. The nave represents the redeemed world, or the Church, where the faithful gather among the saints for the worship of god. The sanctuary represents highest heaven; the altar is the throne of god and his tomb. (1)
The second axis is vertical and can be understood as hierarchical. The Pantocrator is at the top of the dome with hands outspread, embracing the universe he created. Below are angels in their appropriate ranks, followed
The third axis is circular and horizontal, the interplay of icons cycling around the nave and relating to one another across it. This axis often por- trays the flow of time, although it can express many other relationships as well. The great feasts may be ordered chronologically around the nave, or specific feasts may be combined or face one another to highlight theological connections. In a large church there may be hundreds of biblical and historical scenes, and their placement with respect to one another and to the principal feasts can suggest almost limitless depths of interpretation.
Historically, church builders have struggled with the interplay of these three axes. …
THE TEMPLE AS COSMOLOGY
… Of all forms, the cube and the dome are the most sacred and universal in architecture. The cube or square represents the earth, while the dome symbolizes the sky. It was ever the desire of the Romans to combine these forms and represent the universe. They achieved this at Hagia Sophia. The square nave has the most water-like pavement in the world. Sheets of wavy blue-gray marble flow from the altar like the river of the water of life from the Throne of God. Rows of columns rise from the banks like trees. Amazingly, the builders abandoned the thousand-year-old tradition of the Classical orders, and crafted a new type of capital which looks like the fronds of palms blowing in the wind. The arches above the capitals are decorated similarly. The whole nave is like a walled garden of unimaginable scale, the very image of Paradise.
ISLAM VS. CHRISTIANITY — MOSQUE VS. ORTHODOX TEMPLE
… In Islam they build mosques that have the quality of jewel boxes. They are ornamented with a tremendous richness and regal splendor, but are completely devoid of anything iconographic, anything representational. They seem like abstract spaces, as does the Muslim worship within these spaces — the bowing down toward a mihrab, which is, in and of itself, nothing, but only an abstract architectural gesture that indicates the direction of Mecca. And of course, the Islamic faith emphasizes that man is very low and that God is very high, and that, really, the two do not meet; they surely do not meet in the sense that they meet in Christianity. So regardless of how beautiful a mosque may be, mosque architecture has never sought to convey an impression that God is within the mosque. It only conveys the impression that man has attempted to dignify himself by beautifying the mosque to an extent that man might be found worthy to kneel before God (because, of course, one only kneels in a mosque). So, if it is true that the emissaries of St. Vladimir attended services in an Orthodox Church, a Catholic Church, and in a mosque, I think it’s very appropriate that they would have observed that only in the Orthodox Church does it seem that God dwells with men. The very specific and deliberate attempt of Orthodox liturgical art is to convey that impression, and this is, of course, the fundamental gospel of Christianity.
… A good modern building flooded with white light can be beautiful and people will often call such a building uplifting or inspiring. But we need to remember that the purpose of liturgical architecture, of an Orthodox church, is not to uplift and inspire but to make us mindful of the presence of God and the saints. Traditional architecture does this iconographically by revealing the beauty of the uncreated light shining through the saints, through the icons, and by suggesting the veil of mystery and the cloud of witnesses around the altar. For this iconographic technology to be effective requires a certain dim and mysterious light so that the reflections of light off of the gilded icons can be seen as brilliant and even supernatural in the setting of a dark church. A church that is flooded with natural light robs the icons of their ability to shine more brightly than the sun.
(1) For the full article “ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN ❧ Form and Meaning in Orthodox Architecture by ANDREW GOULD, go to http://nwbstudios.com/articles/On-Earth-As-Heaven.pdf
(2) For excerpts of the article “Mass Transfigured by Light”: The Iconic Vision of an Orthodox Church and ANDREW GOULD’s interview, featured in the current issue of Road to Emmaus Journal, go to http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/andrew-gould-featured-in-road-to-emmaus-journal/
An Introduction to the Art of Reading God’s Word accompanied by some of the most beautiful medieval manuscripts
Black Hours (M. 493 › Morgan Library & Museum)
WE BELIEVE THAT THE SCRIPTURES constitute a coherent whole. They are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed. They bear authoritative witness to God’s revelation of Himself – in creation, in the Incarnation of the Word, and the whole history of salvation. And as such they express the word of God in human language. We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is one of obedience.
We may distinguish four key qualities that mark an Orthodox reading of Scripture, namely
Prayerbook of Claude de France (MS M. 1166 › Morgan Library & Museum)
In the words of Roger Wieck, curator of manuscripts at the Morgan Library: “An artistic triumph…” The personalized prayer book of the French queen Claude de France enchants us especially by its delicate paintings in a charmingly small format of 69 x 49 mm, and even more so by the unusual wealth of illustration it contains.
FIRST OF ALL, when reading Scripture, we are to listen in a spirit of obedience. The Orthodox Church believes in divine inspiration of the Bible. Scripture is a “letter” from God, where Christ Himself is speaking. The Scriptures are God’s authoritative witness of Himself. They express the Word of God in our human language. Since God Himself is speaking to us in the Bible, our response is rightly one of obedience, of receptivity, and listening. As we read, we wait on the Spirit.
But, while divinely inspired, the Bible is also humanly expressed. It is a whole library of different books written at varying times by distinct persons. Each book of the Bible reflects the outlook of the age in which it was written and the particular viewpoint of the author. For God does nothing in isolation, divine grace cooperates with human freedom. God does not abolish our individuality but enhances it. And so it is in the writing of inspired Scripture. The authors were not just a passive instrument, a dictation machine recording a message. Each writer of Scripture contributes his particular personal gifts. Alongside the divine aspect, there is also a human element in Scripture. We are to value both.
Each of the four Gospels, for example, has its own particular approach. Matthew presents more particularly a Jewish understanding of Christ, with an emphasis on the kingdom of heaven. Mark contains specific, picturesque details of Christ’s ministry not given elsewhere. Luke expresses the universality of Christ’s love, His all-embracing compassion that extends equally to Jew and to Gentile. In John there is a more inward and more mystical approach to Christ, with an emphasis on divine light and divine indwelling. We are to enjoy and explore to the full this life-giving variety within the Bible.
Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV › British Library)
The Lindisfarne Gospels doesn’t need many words of introduction: it’s one of the finest works in the unique style of Hiberno-Saxon or Insular art, combining Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements.
Because Scripture is in this way the word of God expressed in human language, there is room for honest and exacting inquiry when studying the Bible. Exploring the human aspect of the Bible, we are to use to the full our God-given human reason. The Orthodox Church does not exclude scholarly research into the origin, dates, and authorship of books of the Bible.
Alongside this human element, however, we see always the divine element. These are not simply books written by individual human writers. We hear in Scripture not just human words, marked by a greater or lesser skill and perceptiveness, but the eternal, uncreated Word of God Himself, the divine Word of salvation. When we come to the Bible, then, we come not simply out of curiosity, to gain information. We come to the Bible with a specific question, a personal question about ourselves: “How can I be saved?”
As God’s divine word of salvation in human language, Scripture should evoke in us a sense of wonder. Do you ever feel, as you read or listen, that it has all become too familiar? Has the Bible grown rather boring? Continually we need to cleanse the doors of our perception and to look in amazement with new eyes at what the Lord sets before us.
We are to feel toward the Bible with a sense of wonder, and sense of expectation and surprise. There are so many rooms in Scripture that we have yet to enter. There is so much depth and majesty for us to discover. If obedience means wonder, it also means listening.
Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (Acc., No. 54.1.2 › Metropolitan Museum of Art)
All miniatures are in demi-grisaille, a painting technique using mainly shades of grey and coloring for the figures’ face and hands. The surprising amount of details that can be fit in such small space is outstanding.
We are better at talking than listening. We hear the sound of our own voice, but often we don’t pause to hear the voice of the other person who is speaking to us. So the first requirement, as we read Scripture, is to stop talking and to listen – to listen with obedience.
When we enter an Orthodox Church, decorated in the traditional manner, and look up toward the sanctuary at the east end, we see there, in the apse, an icon of the Virgin Mary with her hands raised to heaven – the ancient Scriptural manner of praying that many still use today. This icon symbolizes the attitude we are to assume as we read Scripture – an attitude of receptivity, of hands invisibly raised to heaven. Reading the Bible, we are to model ourselves on the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she is supremely the one who listens. At the Annunciation she listens with obedience and responds to the angel, “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). She could not have borne the Word of God in her body if she had not first, listened to the Word of God in her heart. After the shepherds have adored the newborn Christ, it is said of her: “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Again, when Mary finds Jesus in the temple, we are told: “His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:5l). The same need for listening is emphasized in the last words attributed to the Mother of God in Scripture, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee: “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it” (John 2:5), she says to the servants – and to all of us.
In all this the Blessed Virgin Mary serves as a mirror, as a living icon of the Biblical Christian. We are to be like her as we hear the Word of God: pondering, keeping all these things in our hearts, doing whatever He tells us. We are to listen in obedience as God speaks.
Westminster Abbey Bestiary (Ms. 22 › Westminster Abbey Library)
Out of all the Bestiaries, the Westminster is considered to be one of the most beautiful and richly decorated bestiaries in the world, and is full of all kinds of incredible descriptions, legends and myths.
IN THE SECOND PLACE, we should receive and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is not only obedient but ecclesial.
It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture. A book is not part of Scripture because of any particular theory about its dating and authorship. Even if it could be proved, for example, that the Fourth Gospel was not actually written by John the beloved disciple of Christ, this would not alter the fact that we Orthodox accept the Fourth Gospel as Holy Scripture. Why? Because the Gospel of John is accepted by the Church and in the Church.
It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, and it is also the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked him, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” And the Ethiopian answered, “How can I, unless some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:30-31). We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not always self-explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as we read our Bible. Scripture reading is a personal dialogue between each one of us and Christ – but we also need guidance. And our guide is the Church. We make full use of our own personal understanding, assisted by the Spirit, we make full use of the findings of modern Biblical research, but always we submit private opinion – whether our own or that of the scholars – to the total experience of the Church throughout the ages.
The Orthodox standpoint here is summed up in the question asked of a convert at the reception service used by the Russian Church: “Do you acknowledge that the Holy Scripture must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which has been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, has always held and still does hold?”
We read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals. We read as the members of a family, the family of the Orthodox Catholic Church. When reading Scripture, we say not “I” but “We.” We read in communion with all the other members of the Body of Christ, in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. The decisive test and criterion for our understanding of what the Scripture means is the mind of the Church. The Bible is the book of the Church.
Godescalc Evangelistary (Ms. Nouv. acq. lat. 1203 › Bibliothèque Nationale de France)
Why is this manuscript so important? In the words of Godescalc himself:
Golden words are painted [here] on purple pages,
The Thunderer’s shining kingdoms of the starry heavens,
Revealed in rose-red blood, disclose the joys of heaven,
And the eloquence of God glittering with fitting brilliance
Promises the splendid rewards of martyrdom to be gained.
To discover this “mind of the Church,” where do we begin? Our first step is to see how Scripture is used in worship. How, in particular, are Biblical lessons chosen for reading at the different feasts? We should also consult the writings of the Church Fathers, and consider how they interpret the Bible. Our Orthodox manner of reading Scripture is in this way both liturgical and patristic. And this, as we all realize, is far from easy to do in practice, because we have at our disposal so few Orthodox commentaries on Scripture available in English, and most of the Western commentaries do not employ this liturgical and Patristic approach.
As an example of what it means to interpret Scripture in a liturgical way, guided by the use made of it at Church feasts, let us look at the Old Testament lessons appointed for Vespers on the Feast of the Annunciation. They are three in number: Genesis 28:10-17; Jacob’s dream of a ladder set up from earth to heaven; Ezekiel 43:27-44:4; the prophet’s vision of the Jerusalem sanctuary, with the closed gate through which none but the Prince may pass; Proverbs 9:1-11: one of the great Sophianic passages in the Old Testament, beginning “Wisdom has built her house.”
These texts in the Old Testament, then, as their selection for the feast of the Virgin Mary indicates, are all to be understood as prophecies concerning the Incarnation from the Virgin. Mary is Jacob’s ladder, supplying the flesh that God incarnate takes upon entering our human world. Mary is the closed gate who alone among women bore a child while still remaining inviolate. Mary provides the house which Christ the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) takes as his dwelling. Exploring in this manner the choice of lessons for the various feasts, we discover layers of Biblical interpretation that are by no means obvious on a first reading.
Grimani Breviary (Ms. Lat. I, 99=2138 › Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana)
A monumental witness to the splendor of Flemish art produced during the Renaissance. Perhaps an outstanding features of this manuscript is the choice of motifs, which alternate between religious and lay themes.
Take as another example Vespers on Holy Saturday, the first part of the ancient Paschal Vigil. Here we have no less than fifteen Old Testament lessons. This sequence of lessons sets before us the whole scheme of sacred history, while at the same time underlining the deeper meaning of Christ’s Resurrection. First among the lessons is Genesis 1:1-13, the account of Creation: Christ’s Resurrection is a new Creation. The fourth lesson is the book of Jonah in its entirety, with the prophet’s three days in the belly of the whale foreshadowing Christ’s Resurrection after three days in the tomb (cf. Matthew 12:40). The sixth lesson recounts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites (Exodus 13:20-15:19), which anticipates the new Passover of Pascha whereby Christ passes over from death to life (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7; 10:1-4). The final lesson is the story of the three Holy Children in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), once more a “type” or prophecy of Christ’s rising from the tomb.
Such is the effect of reading Scripture ecclesially, in the Church and with the Church. Studying the Old Testament in this liturgical way and using the Fathers to help us, everywhere we uncover signposts pointing forward to the mystery of Christ and of His Mother. Reading the Old Testament in the light of the New, and the New in the light of the, Old – as the Church’s calendar encourages us to do – we discover the unity of Holy Scripture. One of the best ways of identifying correspondences between the Old and New Testaments is to use a good Biblical concordance. This can often tell us more about the meaning of Scripture than any commentary.
In Bible study groups within our parishes, it is helpful to give one person the special task of noting whenever a particular passage in the Old or New Testament is used for a festival or a saint’s day. We can then discuss together the reasons why each specific passage has been so chosen. Others in the group can be assigned to do homework among the Fathers, using for example the Biblical homilies of Saint John Chrysostom (which have been translated into English). Christians need to acquire a patristic mind.
Morgan Crusader Bible (Ms M.638 › Morgan Library & Museum; Ms Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2294 › Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Ms Ludwig 16 83. M.A. 55 › Getty Museum)
In this manuscript history is depicted in great detail, without any text and recalls the Creation of the world, the Righteous Wars and the deeds of the most important characters of the Old Testament. The Crusader’s Bible fascinates through its rich and refined gold embellishment which comes to enhance the luminosity of the colors.
THE THIRD ELEMENT in our reading of Scripture is that it should be Christ-centered. The Scriptures constitute a coherent whole because they all are Christ-centered. Salvation through the Messiah is their central and unifying topic. He is as a “thread” that runs through all of Holy Scripture, from the first sentence to the last. We have already mentioned the way in which Christ may be seen foreshadowed on the pages of the Old Testament.
Much modern critical study of Scripture in the West has adopted an analytical approach, breaking up each book into different sources. The connecting links are unraveled, and the Bible is reduced to a series of bare primary units. There is certainly value in this. But we need to see the unity as well as the diversity of Scripture, the all-embracing end as well as the scattered beginnings. Orthodoxy prefers on the whole a synthetic rather than an analytical approach, seeing Scripture as an integrated whole, with Christ everywhere as the bond of union.
Always we seek for the point of convergence between the Old Testament and the New, and this we find in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy assigns particular significance to the “typological” method of interpretation, whereby “types” of Christ, signs and symbols of His work, are discerned throughout the Old Testament. A notable example of this is Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem, who offered bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis 14:18), and who is seen as a type of Christ not only by the Fathers but even in the New Testament itself (Hebrews 5:6; 7:l). Another instance is the way in which, as we have seen, the Old Passover foreshadows the New; Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea anticipates our deliverance from sin through the death and Resurrection of the Savior. This is the method of interpretation that we are to apply throughout the Bible. Why, for instance, in the second half of Lent are the Old Testament readings from Genesis dominated by the figure of Joseph? Why in Holy Week do we read from the book of Job? Because Joseph and Job are innocent sufferers, and as such they are types or foreshadowings of Jesus Christ, whose innocent suffering upon the Cross the Church is at the point of celebrating. It all ties up.
A Biblical Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, on every page of Scripture, finds everywhere Christ.
Vienna Genesis (Codex Theol. Gr. 31 › Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)
It is the most ancient purple manuscript surviving today. The fragment of the Genesis (from the Greek Septuagint translation) is compiled in golden and silver ink, on a beautifully purple-dyed calfskin vellum. Each page contains a lavish miniature depicting the text, for a total of 48 well-preserved images.
IN THE WORDS of an early ascetic writer in the Christian East, Saint Mark the Monk: “He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor.” As Orthodox Christians we are to look everywhere in Scripture for a personal application. We are to ask not just “What does it mean?” but “What does it mean to me?” Scripture is a personal dialogue between the Savior and myself – Christ speaking to me, and me answering. That is the fourth criterion in our Bible reading.
I am to see all the stories in Scripture as part of my own personal story. Who is Adam? The name Adam means “man,” “human,” and so the Genesis account of Adam’s fall is also a story about me. I am Adam. It is to me that God speaks when He says to Adam, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9). “Where is God?” we often ask. But the real question is what God asks the Adam in each of us: “Where art thou?”
When, in the story of Cain and Abel, we read God’s words to Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” (Genesis 4:9), these words, too, are addressed to each of us. Who is Cain? It is myself. And God asks the Cain in each of us, “Where is thy brother?” The way to God lies through love of other people, and there is no other way. Disowning my brother, I replace the image of God with the mark of Cain, and deny my own vital humanity.
In reading Scripture, we may take three steps. First, what we have in Scripture is sacred history: the history of the world from the Creation, the history of the chosen people, the history of God Incarnate in Palestine, and the “mighty works” after Pentecost. The Christianity that we find in the Bible is not an ideology, not a philosophical theory, but a historical faith.
Then we are to take a second step. The history presented in the Bible is a personal history. We see God intervening at specific times and in specific places, as He enters into dialogue with individual persons. He addresses each one by name. We see set before us the specific calls issued by God to Abraham, Moses and David, to Rebekah and Ruth, to Isaiah and the prophets, and then to Mary and the Apostles. We see the selectivity of the divine action in history, not as a scandal but as a blessing. God’s love is universal in scope, but He chooses to become Incarnate in a particular comer of the earth, at a particular time and from a particular Mother. We are in this manner to savor all the uniqueness of God’s action as recorded in Scripture. The person who loves the Bible loves details of dating and geography. Orthodoxy has an intense devotion to the Holy Land, to the exact places where Christ lived and taught, died and rose again. An excellent way to enter more deeply into our Scripture reading is to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Galilee. Walk where Christ walked. Go down to the Dead Sea, sit alone on the rocks, feel how Christ felt during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness. Drink from the well where He spoke with the Samaritan woman. Go at night to the Garden of Gethsemane, sit in the dark under the ancient olives and look across the valley to the lights of the city. Experience to the full the reality of the historical setting, and take that experience back with you to your daily Scripture reading.
Then we are to take a third step. Reliving Biblical history in all its particularity, we are to apply it directly to ourselves. We are to say to ourselves, “All these places and events are not just far away and long ago, but are also part of my own personal encounter with Christ. The stories include me.”
Betrayal, for example, is part of the personal story of everyone. Have we not all betrayed others at some time in our life, and have we not all known what it is to be betrayed, and does not the memory of these moments leave continuing scars on our psyche? Reading, then, the account of Saint Peter’s betrayal of Christ and of his restoration after the Resurrection, we can see ourselves as actors in the story. Imagining what both Peter and Jesus must have experienced at the moment immediately after the betrayal, we enter into their feelings and make them our own. I am Peter; in this situation can I also be Christ? Reflecting likewise on the process of reconciliation – seeing how the Risen Christ with a love utterly devoid of sentimentality restored the fallen Peter to fellowship, seeing how Peter on his side had the courage to accept this restoration – we ask ourselves: How Christ-like am I to those who have betrayed me? And, after my own acts of betrayal, am I able to accept the forgiveness of others – am I able to forgive myself? Or am I timid, mean, holding myself back, never ready to give myself fully to anything, either good or bad? As the Desert Fathers say, “Better someone who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than a person who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous.”
Have I gained the boldness of Saint Mary Magdalene, her constancy and loyalty, when she went out to anoint the body of Christ in the tomb (John 20:l)? Do I hear the Risen Savior call me by name, as He called her, and do I respond Rabboni (Teacher) with her simplicity and completeness (John 20:16)?
Reading Scripture in this way – in obedience, as a member of the Church, finding Christ everywhere, seeing everything as a part of my own personal story – we shall sense something of the variety and depth to be found in the Bible. Yet always we shall feel that in our Biblical exploration we are only at the very beginning. We are like someone launching out in a tiny boat across a limitless ocean.
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 118 :105).
Lectio Divina is a four-part way of reading Scripture:
Lectio. Read. God is speaking, so I listen intently to what he says.
Meditatio. Engage. God is speaking to me, so I listen personally.
Oratio. Pray. God is speaking to me, so I listen personally and reply personally in prayer.
Contemplatio. Live. God is speaking to me, so I listen personally and reply in prayerful living.
By Bishop Kallistos Ware: “How to Read the Bible” at http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/11/1/4.aspx#obedience
Source: MEDIEVALISTS.NET, “Top 10 Most Beautiful Medieval Manuscripts” http://www.medievalists.net/2015/10/03/top-10-most-beautiful-medieval-manuscripts/
Since I began icon carving full time 4 years ago now, I had a secret list of the things I wanted to make, certain objects and images that were dear to me. To my own joy and surprise, I have been progressively checking off items from that list with ongoing commissions, making even those objects and icons I did not think could find patrons such as complex reliquaries, wedding crowns, opus sectile icons or the image of the Holy prophet Jonah.
One of the images I had secret hope of making is Christ pulling St-Peter out of the water. For those who have read some of my writings one can quickly see how it encompasses so much of my vision of the incarnation, of death, resurrection and the pastoral reminder on where to focus our eyes when advancing into the chaotic world. So last year, when a patron commissioned this icon at a size of 4’ x 5’ for St. Peter Orthodox Church in Bonita Springs, Florida, I was ecstatic. This is the biggest icon I have carved to date.
In working out the drawing for the icon carving, I based the composition on my favorite version of this event, a 12th century mosaic from Sicily.
Many details are different, but the basic composition is the same. I reduced the size of the boat to make it less overwhelming and to fully have St-Peter under the boat. I also wanted to make sure we could see at least the eyes of all the Apostles. I changed Christ’s left hand so that instead of holding a scroll, it was placed in a position suggesting the upcoming motion, the rising of St-Peter. I also added a few details, such as a dragon head on the boat and I changed the shape of the mast and sail to suggest a Chi-Ro.
One of the things that kept changing as I worked on the drawings was just how deep Peter was in the water. The priest of the parish, fr. Hans Jacobse, commented that he really wanted the water to be high up on his body to give that sense of sinking, but this created some challenges for me because I still wanted us to see St-Peter. Wood is generally opaque to say the least. In the mosaic version, there is wonderful use of transparency and so I began pondering just how it could be possible to at least suggest transparency in wood.
I wanted the composition of the water to say something about the event and so beyond suggestions of transparency to show that St-Peter is actually in the water, I also designed it so to have a wave wrapping around his right foot in an image of the Psalms:
The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. (Psalm 116:3)
The water under Christ’s feet in contrast seems to shoot out from under them, organized by their contact with them. I gilded some of the water to add to this sense of the organizing and transfiguring effect Christ has on creation.
Visually, I was looking forward to taking further the experimentation in carving water I had begun in my icon of Jonah. I wanted to create a sense of almost overwhelming movement which would contrast with the vigorous yet safe relationship established between Christ and St-Peter. Christ holds St-Peter by a firm grip, reminding us of the grip Christ has on Adam in the icon of the resurrection. Their gazes are fixed on each other, Peter with a hint of surprise and Christ with calm compassion.
When Christ appears to the Apostles floating at sea, the waters are rising in a tempest. Christ approaches them above the flood, mastering the chaos, the chaos of the primordial waters, the chaos of the passions, of doubt, of all that is in the world of death. St-Peter is the only one to dare walk out with Christ, but because of this boldness, when peering into the storm he panics and sinks. Which one of us has not experienced this? We can imagine St-Peter crying out:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. (Psalm 69: 1,2)
But the face of Christ appears to him through the waves and his hand reaches to catch him. We can hear St-Peter confess:
He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. (Psalm 40:2)
This is St-Peter, the son of Jonah, both the stable “rock” and the one who sinks, the bold fisherman who finds the gold coin in the fish’s mouth, but also that one in constant danger of being swallowed by the sea.
This is his story repeated over and over in the Gospels, the story of the one who recognized Jesus as Christ then immediately called out by Christ to “get behind me Satan”, the one who tells Christ he will never deny him then deny him three times as the three days of Jonah in the fish, the three days of Christ in the grave. To meditate on this cycle in the story of St-Peter is to pierce so many mysteries of the Church, so many signs of the times and so many cycles in our own lives.
What is the end of this, what is the end of this story? When Christ appears to the disciples on the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection (John 21), it is the same sea in which St-Peter sank when attempting to walk on water. St-Peter recognizes his Lord on the land, and this time he does not walk on the water. This time his boldness leads him to dive into the deep, to put on his garment and voluntarily plunge, then to be asked three times by Christ: “Peter, son of Jonah, do you love me?” It is not when we walk on the water that we are closest to Christ, but it is when our boldness serves humility. It is when our boldness leads us to die that we are closest to the image of Christ. What impossible thoughts to consider, what scandal it is to fathom such things?
Coming back to our icon, we can say without hesitating that the image of St-Peter being pulled out of the waters is an image of our salvation in so many ways, and I find great joy in having made it. I hope it will be a blessing for the parish to which it is headed.
Process of Icon Carving
Comments: Andrew Gould “A masterpiece of the highest order. Astonishing! My favorite detail is the Viking-like prow on the ship – a pagan monster fleeing the sanctification of the waters. And a bit of an iconographic curiosity – a wood carving depicting a wood carving.” John Tkachuk “An icon making an icon!“
An African fable (UGANDA)
ONCE upon a time there was a potter and his wife who had one child, a little boy, and as he grew older they were grieved to see that he was different from all other children.
He never played with them, or laughed, or sang; he just sat alone by himself, he hardly ever spoke to his parents, and he never learnt the nice polite manners of the other children in the village. He sat and thought all day, and no one knew what he thought about, and his parents were very sad.
The other women tried to comfort the potter’s wife. They said: “Perhaps you will have another baby, and it will be like other children.” But she said:
“I don’t want another baby; I want this one to be nice.” And the men of the village tried to cheer the potter. “Queer boys often become great men,” they said. And one old man said: “Leave the boy alone; we shall see whether he is a wise man or a fool.”
The potter went home and told his wife what the men had said, and the boy heard him, and it seemed to wake him up, and he thought it over for a few days, and at last one morning at dawn he took his stick in his hand and went into the forest to think there.
All day he wandered about, and at last he came to a little clearing on the side of a hill from which he could look down over the country. The Sun was setting over the distant blue hills, and everything was touched with a pink and golden light, and deep shadows lay on the banana gardens and forests in the distance, but the boy saw none of these things; he was footsore and weary and miserable, and he sat down on a fallen log, tired out with his long day.
Suddenly a lion came out on to the clearing.
“What are you doing here all alone?” he said severely.
“I am very miserable,” said the boy, “and I have come into the forest to think, for I do not know whether I am a wise man or a fool.”
“Is that all you think about?” said the lion.
“Yes,” answered the boy, “I think about it night and day.”
“Then you are a fool,” said the lion decidedly. “Wise men think about things that benefit the country.” And he walked away.
Then an antelope came bounding out on the clearing and stopped to stare at the boy.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I am very miserable,” answered the boy; “I don’t know whether I am a wise man or a fool.”
“Do you ever eat anything?” said the antelope.
“Yes,” said the boy, “my mother cooks twice a day, and I eat.”
“Do you ever thank her?” said the antelope.
“No, I have never thought of that,” answered the boy.
“Then you are a fool,” said the antelope. “Wise men are always grateful.” And he bounded off into the forest again.
Then a leopard came up and looked suspiciously at him.
“What are you doing here?” he asked crossly.
“I am very miserable,” answered the boy; “I don’t know if I am a wise man or a fool.”
“Do they love you in your village?” asked the leopard.
“No, I don’t think they do,” said the boy. “I am not like other boys. I don’t know them very well.”
“Then you are a fool,” said the leopard. “All boys are nice; I often wish I were a boy; wise men mix with their fellows and earn their respect.” And he walked on sniffing.
Just then the big grey elephant came shuffling along the forest path, swinging his tail as he walked, and picking a twig here and a leaf there as he passed under the trees.
“What are you doing here all alone in the jungle when the Sun is setting?” he asked. “You should be at home in your village.”
“I am very miserable,” said the boy. “I don’t know if I am a wise man or a fool.”
“What work do you do?” asked the elephant.
“I don’t do any work,” said the boy.
“Then you are a fool,” said the elephant. “All wise men work.” And he swung away down the path which leads to the pool in the forest where the animals go to drink, and the boy put his head down in his hands and cried bitterly, as if his heart would break, for he did not know what to do.
After a little while he heard a gentle voice by his side: “My little brother, do not cry so; tell me your trouble.” The boy raised his tear-stained face and saw a little hare standing by his side.
“I am very miserable,” he said. “I am not like other people, and nobody loves me. I came into the forest to find out whether I am a wise man or a fool, and all the animals tell me I am a fool.” And he put his head in his hands again and cried more bitterly than ever.
The hare let him cry on for a little while, and then he said: “My little brother, do not cry any more. What the animals have told you is true; they have told you to think great thoughts, to be grateful and kind to others, and, above all, to work. All these things are great and wise. The animals are never idle, and they marvel to see how men, with all their gifts, waste their lives. Think how surprised they are to see a boy like you, well and strong, doing nothing all day, for they know that the world is yours if you will make it so.”
The Sun had set behind the distant hills and the soft darkness was falling quickly over the forest, and the hare said: “Soon it will be chilly here; you are tired and hungry, and far from your village; come and spend the night in my home and we will talk of all these things.”
So they went into the forest again, and the hare brought the boy water in a gourd and wonderful nuts to eat, and made him a soft bed of dry leaves.
And they talked of many things till the boy said: “My father is a potter, and I think I should like to be a potter too.” “If you are, you must never be content with poor work,” said the hare. “Your pottery must be the best in the country; never rest until you can make really beautiful things; no man has any right to send imperfect work out into the world.” “Nobody will believe in me when I go home; they will think I am mad,” said the boy. And the little hare answered: “Man’s life is like a river, which flows always on and on; what is past is gone for ever, but there is clear water behind; no man can say it is too late, and you are only a boy with your life before you.”
“They will laugh at me,” said the boy.
“Wise men don’t mind that,” said the hare; “only fools are discouraged by laughter; you must prove to them that you are not a fool. I will teach you a song to sing at your work; it will encourage you:
|“When the shadows have melted in silver dawn,
Farewell to my dreams of play.
The forest is full of a waking throng,
And the tree-tops ring with the birds’ new song,
And the flowers awake from their slumber long,
And the world is mine to-day.”My feet are sure and my hands are strong.
Let me labour and toil while I may.
When the Sun shall set in a sea of light,
And the shadows lengthen far into the night,
I shall take the rest which is mine by right,
For I’ll win the world to-day.”
… So the boy went back to his village, and he found his mother digging in the garden, and he knelt down and greeted her as all nice Baganda children do, and he saw how pleased she was. Then he went to his father, and said: “I want to be a potter; teach me your work and I will try to learn it.” And the potter was very much pleased to think that he would have a son to take on his trade after him, and all the people in the village heard and they rejoiced with the potter and his wife.
And the boy worked hard, and in after years he became a famous potter, and people came from all parts of the country to buy his pottery, for everyone knew that he never sold anything that was not beautiful and well made.
Source: THE KING OF THE SNAKES AND OTHER FOLK-LORE STORIES FROM UGANDA
“Landfill Harmonic Is A Film about the Love of Music”
… “Landfill Harmonic” was a film that took me straight out of that lull. It made my soul smile, and I’m willing to bet that it will do the same to each and every one of you. Rarely does a film come by that touches you so purely. This is exactly what happened to me. “Landfill Harmonic” is a film that will inspire you, embrace your soul, and prove that magic can be found in the most unexpected places.
You can view the teaser for the film below:
I was given the privilege to see this film while attending SXSW this year, and it was amazing. I was touched by the plight of these people, and entranced at the ingenuity of them. To steal a line from “Jurassic Park”, “Life finds a way.” Humanity is a wonderful species, and “Landfill Harmonic” is one of the best examples of this.
There are too many instances where we discredit people due to race, gender, and circumstance, but given the opportunity, we all have the potential to shine. I highly suggest seeing this film when it releases. As some of you know, I have been a musician for most of my life, and “Landfill Harmonic” made me want to play. I don’t really have the words to describe this feeling, except to say that the film inspired me, and made me want to create something as beautiful as what I had just witnessed.
Here is the official SXSW synopsis of the film:
“Landfill Harmonic” follows the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan musical group that plays instruments made entirely out of garbage. When their story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight. Under the guidance of idealistic music director Favio Chavez, the orchestra must navigate a strange new world of arenas and sold-out concerts. However, when a natural disaster strikes their country, Favio must find a way to keep the orchestra intact and provide a source of hope for their town. The film is a testament to the transformative power of music and the resilience of the human spirit.
The way that these kids play their instruments is delightful and their passion for music is incredible. Favio Chavez is their teacher and mentor, and I had the opportunity to shake his hand. I really could tell him nothing except thank you. I don’t even think that thank you could begin to sum up my appreciation for him and what he has done in Paraguay. The funny thing is that he seemed to understand exactly what I was saying. This is one of the wonderful things about music.
The most impressive thing about the film is how the community has banded together to help these children. The children’s music brings them hope, and allows them to see that they can all change their stars.
“Landfill Harmonic” needs your help. Spread the word about this film. Be proactive and help contribute. Part of the proceeds from the film will go to the Recycled Orchestra. They take donated instruments as well. You can get all of the information that you need on the official site for the film, Landfillharmonicmovie.com.
Directed by Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, “Landfill Orchestra” is a lesson in how precious life is, and why we should not take music and art for granted. I applaud everyone that has contributed to the making of the film, and especially Favio Chavez and the children. You keep on making brilliant music, because I get butterflies in my stomach every time I hear you play it.
Below, are some images from the film:
By “Landfill Harmonic Will Touch Your Soul” by Brad Repka at http://flicksided.com/2015/03/20/landfill-harmonic-will-touch-your-soul/#respond
Be sure not to miss their inspiring Ted talk at http://ed.ted.com/on/p2vivxdA
You may never look at a painting by Pierre-August Renoir in quite the same way again after seeing this three-minute film. It didn’t show in his artwork, but Renoir suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis during the last three decades of his life. He worked in constant pain, right up until the day he died.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Filmed Painting at Home (1919)
His hands were terribly deformed. His rheumatism had made the joints stiff and caused the thumbs to turn inward towards the palms, and his fingers to bend towards the wrists. Visitors who were unprepared for this could not take their eyes off his deformity. Though they did not dare to mention it, their reaction would be expressed by some such phrase as “It isn’t possible! With hands like that, how can he paint those pictures? There’s some mystery somewhere.”
The film of Renoir was made by 30-year-old Sacha Guitry, who appears midway through the film sitting down and talking with the artist. Guitry was the son of the famous actor and theatre director Lucien Guitry, and would go on to even greater fame than his father as an actor, filmmaker and playwright. When a group of German intellectuals issued a manifesto after the outbreak of World War I bragging about the superiority of German culture, Guitry was infuriated. As an act of patriotism he decided to make a film of France’s great men and women of the arts. It would be released as Ceux de Chez Nous, or “Those of Our Land.” Guitry and Renoir were already friends, so when the young man embarked on his project he travelled to Renoir’s home at Cagnes-sur-Mer, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. The date was shortly after June 15, 1915, when Renoir’s wife Aline died.
In Sacha Guitry: The Last Boulevardier, writer James Harding describes the scene:
The choice of time was unfortunate. That very day Renoir’s wife was to be buried. Sacha went to the old man who sat huddled arthritically in his wheel chair and murmured: ‘It must be terribly painful, Monsieur Renoir, and you have my deepest sympathy.’ ‘Painful?’ he replied, shifting his racked limbs, ‘you bet my foot is painful!’ They pushed him in his chair up to a canvas, and, while Sacha leaned watching over his shoulder, Renoir jabbed at the picture with brushes attached to hands which had captured so much beauty but which now were shrivelled like birds’ claws. The flattering reminder that he was being filmed for posterity had no effect on the man who, on being awarded the cravat of a Commandeur of the Légion d’Honneur, had said: ‘How can you expect me to wear a cravat when I never wear a collar?’
Renoir died four years after the film was made, on December 3, 1919. He lived long enough to see some of his paintings installed in the Louvre. When a young Henri Matisse asked the suffering old man why he kept painting, Renoir is said to have replied, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
“… This spring, I received an email from an American client which left me both intrigued and slightly anxious. Would I like to paint a new icon depicting Christ’s interaction with the Rich Young Ruler described in each of the Synoptic Gospels? Yes, of course!
… I had heard this story before of course – it is the moment when Christ says “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven”. Like many Christians I was both baffled by the imagery but also struck by a few words in the sentence before, when we hear “Christ looked at the young man and warmed to him”. Does this mean that before this moment, Christ had not felt warmth – or love – for this rich young person? What changed for Christ in that moment that it is marked in the gospel? My client was very clear that THIS was the moment to be shown in the icon – that second when we are told how Christ felt agape for this person who had approached him with such an important question. In our correspondence, he said “The wealthy need a savior too, and they know it. Their spiritual position is precarious even if not their social and logistical position.”
Initially I drew the figure of Jesus sitting – traditionally he would sit and the crowd would gather and sit around his feet. However, my client suggested both should be standing – this was a dynamic interaction between Christ and the Young Ruler, rather than a more simple ‘teaching’ scene. As we are told in the Gospel of St Mark:
As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.
And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They were even more astonished and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” Looking at them, Jesus said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
Christ is ever so slightly taller, as He is mature in body and of course His Divine Nature. He is clothed traditionally, with the red robe of His human nature adorned by the blue outer garment of His Divinity. He is shown with a clear, compassionate expression – with His right hand He blesses and I chose that His left hand should be open, extending towards this young man who has come seeking His teaching on life and how to be saved. It is not a begging, not a pleading – it is an open, loving invitation to the young man (and all of us). “Here, take my hand, and I will lead you into Paradise”. He is shown not quite standing, not quite moving – Christ was about to leave at the end of a long time answering, telling parables, teaching. Yet He hesitates, having heard the direct question and honest response of this wealthy young man.
The Young Ruler is, obviously, dressed very differently. My client and I discussed at length how we could show his material prosperity and how that should be illustrated. Garish colours? Gold and jewels? Furs even? It was very tempting to have some real ‘fun’ with this ensemble, to communicate just how extravagant his wealthy behaviour had become. And yet there is nothing intrinsically wrong with his wealth – it is a fact of his life, like brown hair or a straight nose. I felt that although he was rich, he was not intrinsically ‘bad’ or even tasteless …
I sat down and gazed at the form of the young man. I had spent hours drawing him, over and over, until I got the combination of supplication, enquiry and so on, combined with the transformed nature of the icon as right as I could. I knew that I wanted him to be bright. Yet as I sat there, I knew that, underneath the almost turquoise terre verte I wanted for his robe, there must also be a deep layer of azurite – the same as Christ’s robe. Here was a young man who wants to be saved, who wants to be with Christ – and yet he already is with Christ, and he already partakes of that Divinity in his person by virtue of being human and therefore already formed in God’s likeness and image. I had to find a way to show that all humanity, whether rich or poor, is a part of God’s likeness and that his wealth was no bar to this – if only he (and we) can recognise it.
This led to a slightly different choice for his cloak – the inner red, which grabs our attention here, and on his delicately shod feet is a genuine (and poisonous) vermillion. This is the most intense colour I ever use and it certainly grabs attention. Who other than a very rich person would travel with such impractical, highly decorative garments? His shoes illustrate that he does not have to walk for miles; he rides a fine horse or is perhaps carried on a litter. His cloak is sewn with pearls and yet they would not help protect him from weather; this is all about displaying status, like designer labels in our day perhaps. His hem and crown are both gold, as is the decorative panel on his cloak. However, you might be wondering why I didn’t use real gold, as there is lots of gold leaf on the background of the panel.
Gold, in an icon, is not used to depict the metal gold on this earth (or not solely that). In this instance, the gold in background is a 23 ½ carat gold leaf, double layered over a red clay base. As simply put as possible, the gold is the presence of the unseen God “in whom we live and move and have our being”. He is closer to us than our own breath and yet cannot be seen with eyes. This gold is a reminder of that presence and part of the ‘transfigured reality’ that icons show us.
When gold is used on a garment, it is not to show itself but the light of divinity transforming material, fabric, garments, just as Christ’s robes were transfigured on Mt Tabor; the Light of God transforms the very matter around us as far as we are able to see it. So the lines of gold on the robe of the Virgin Mary, the lines of gold on the robe of an infant Christ etc., all are signs of the indwelling of God possible within His good creation when it is transmuted by His presence and in the fullness of its potential reality.
The crown, hem and cloak are therefore painted with a bright Italian yellow ochre to illustrate the decorative nature of his garments but not their essence. They are finely figured in the Byzantine style of the 12th-13th centuries and, I hope, communicate how wealthy this person would have been to wear such finery.
…. Behind Christ, there is in the distance a waterfall – He is the life-giving water which not only quenches all who thirst but is so essential for life in the hot, desert country where this icon will live. Around Christ’s feet, there are a few native plants from the Colorado region as well – Columbine, blanket flower and a reference to Christ as the vine.
There is also an element of ‘sacred geometry’ involved. Between the figures, one can see the shape of a chalice. There is a Communion taking place between Christ and this rich young ruler, similar to the Eucharist celebrated daily in churches throughout the world. A similar chalice shape exists in the Rublev Holy Trinity, which I was studying at the time.
I was sad to complete this icon. I am always reluctant to let them go, having been blessed by spending so many hours in prayer with them and getting to know the Saints or the passage of the Gospel in this case. But I am more delighted than I can say to know that it is going to be shared with so many who wish to bring the Gospel and good news of Christ’s love to more in the community and that it will be so well cared for, and prayed with. I should perhaps say I feel sad, but also immensely blessed.”
For the complete article “A New Icon Composition: Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Katherine Sanders • October 9, 2015 • Orthodox Arts Journal go to http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/a-new-icon-composition-christ-and-the-rich-young-ruler/
“This is a difficult post for me to write … I have always believed that Art and Nature are two vital ways to make our prayer come to life, two ways to lead us ‘into’ knowing God. And yet, I feel God has offered me such a rare gift at the end of a very tough year that I need to give myself time to allow it to sink in before I fully understand what I was given. … I was on a day-tour of the Grand Canyon.
The sense of unmanageable Beauty one has before the wilderness of the Grand Canyon is just that: a true revelation of God, a true revelation of the correct relationship we are to have with Him. When I was there, facing this extraordinary demonstration of what authentic creativity is, all I felt was silence: a thick blanket of silence that covered my heart, my brain, my body… Before God’s presence, one goes numb, afraid to even breathe, afraid to approach it or draw near in any way. My eye-sight is not worthy to touch such beauty, my voice is not real, authentic enough to even whisper a prayer; all of one’s senses go silent, paralysed before such overwhelming power.
And yet, my heart continued to pray in a different way. Deep down, my being seems to hide a different kind of worship, a different kind of relating to Christ. I don’t know when and how I learnt it; it just exists, the way instincts simply exist. Before such beauty, one discovers how different we are from what we’ve learnt to think we are – we are so much deeper, so much more beautiful, so much more able to worship and truly pray. It’s as if we were created with a set of spiritual senses and abilities, which we later – for some painful reason – fail to recognise in ourselves and fail to develop. We waste so much of our own being, we are so removed, so distant from our real selves… We learn to adapt to this world, and we end up replacing our spiritual senses with material ones.
Then, in moments like these, we find ourselves face to face with His presence, and a sort of engine just starts working again in our hearts – all by itself, with no input, no doing of our own.
I was simply present; I was in awe at the presence of my true self as much as I rejoiced in God’s presence. There was nothing but silence in me; yet, this silence was as alive, as ‘eloquent’ in its worship as the most grace-filled moments I’ve been blessed with the Holy Altar.”
Let us contemplate our own mortality and ‘refute’ the nihilism of ‘mercy’ killing with artworks of Beauty. Classic Christian art such as Purcell’s Elegy for the Funeral of Queen Mary can be so uplifting! Let us also draw upon all Art that has something of God in it, or that through it something of God can be refracted, such as Kurosawa’s Dreams and Rumi’s poetry.
Man that is born of a woman
hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery.
He cometh up, and is cut down like a flow’r.
He flee’th as it were a shadow,
and ne’er continueth in one stay.
In the midst of life we are in death:
of whom may we seek for succour,
but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
For sublime Purcell please go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYELAu9hqdU
Kurosawa’s Dreams ends with a funeral procession for an old woman in a village that plays like a wedding. Instead of mourning, the people celebrate joyfully as the proper end to a good life. The whole village turns out for her funeral. Kurosawa stages the funeral procession as a celebration of a life. Music is played, a song is sung, people dance in the procession as if it is a parade, and it’s a joyous scene. At the end, the traveler picks and places his own flower on the rock like the children before him.
For Kurosawa’s last Dream, watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEEOfJdGzcQ
As for Rumi, the mystic poet and Spiritual Sufi Master, let the ecstatic vision of his hauntingly beautiful ‘Death’ poem speak of itself!
When I die …
When my coffin
Is being taken out
You must never think
I am missing this world.
Don’t shed any tears,
Don’t lament or feel sorry
I’m not falling
into a monster’s abyss.
When you see
My corpse is being carried
Don’t cry for my leaving,
I’m not leaving,
I’m arriving at eternal love.
When you leave me
In the grave
Don’t say goodbye.
Remember a grave is
Only a curtain
For the paradise behind.
You’ll only see me
Descending into a grave.
Now watch me rise.
How can there be an end?
When the sun sets or
The moon goes down
It looks like the end,
It seems like a sunset,
But in reality it is a dawn.
When the grave locks you up,
That is when your soul is freed.
Have you ever seen
A seed fallen to earth
Not rise with a new life?
Why should you doubt the rise
Of a seed named human?
Have you ever seen
A bucket lowered into a well
Coming back empty?
Why lament for a soul
When it can come back
Like Joseph from the well?
When for the last time
You close your mouth,
Your words and soul
Will belong to the world of
No place, no time.
For Rumi’s “When I Die”, please watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEwJm-RPhNE