The Altar and The Portico (II)

Head 6. By Aidan Hart, 1979. Ceramic.

THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR

The Relationship of Orthodox Iconography and Gallery Art

Part II: Gallery Art (here for Part I)

The journey of an artist  

At this stage in our story, by way of illustration I would like to be a little biographical. I will speak a bit about my own journey first as an artist in the world and then as an iconographer.

Though born in England, I was raised in New Zealand. Although as a child I had a modicum of education in Christianity, I ultimately came to believe in God’s existence through trees. In my childhood home there were splendid samples of trees and bushes in which my friends and I used to play hide-and-go seek and build huts. The many hours spent in their branches nurtured a deep respect and love for trees. Quietly I came to believe that a higher Wisdom must have made such splendid things. In them, function and beauty married. Trees were my proto-evangelists, leading me to belief on God.

It is pertinent that the Psalm verse set for feast days of Evangelists  -“Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19:4a) – is actually referring to the skies, to creation. The previous verses read:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;

And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.

Day to day pours forth speech,

And night to night reveals knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

Their voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3)

In other words, the beauty of creation is a form of proto-evangelism.

This early experience of being led a step closer to God through creation is the seed of my belief in the importance of threshold beauty. In fact, in gratitude to trees for being my proto-evangelist, thirty years later I planted 5,000 native trees in the hermitage where I then lived.

After graduating in literature and biology I began work as a sculptor, eventually going full-time. By then Christian within the Anglican/Episcopalian church, I was seeking ways to indicate in my sculptures the spiritual nature of the human person. Most of these works were not for church commissions but for gallery exhibitions.

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This period reinforced for me the role of threshold art, art that was not overtly religious or liturgical but which might draw some people a little closer to at least a primitive belief in the spiritual.

As a Christian I wanted this spirituality to embrace the material world, not to be a flight from it. I felt that this incarnational approach was all the more important in a secular age which worshipped matter and where one could not assume any prior knowledge of Christianity.

There was a parallel in the then communist and atheistic Russia. I had heard that many people there began their journey to Christian faith with Buddhism. They could not take the step straight from atheism into fully-fledged faith, but  they could took their first steps by following what is essentially an agnostic philosophical system, and one that did not require a communal and liturgical commitment as did Christianity. Having discovering some truth within Buddhism, but eventually finding it incomplete, many of these seekers then progressed onwards to Christ. I came to believe that the right sort of art, portico art, could do a similar thing, and so I wanted to make art that would affirm the numinous quality of life.

But before attempting this numinous quality I was convinced that as a sculptor one had to begin with technique and gain proficiency in depicting the material world, particularly the human body. Only then could one progress to suggest invisible realities. St Paul’s advice seemed pertinent: But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual (I Cor. 15:46).

Since God had created both the material and the spiritual realms I believed that one would echo the other.

After mastering the essentials of modelling the human body, including making anatomical studies.

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I then concentrated on how to indicate the spiritual nature of the human person. I tried varying degrees of abstraction.

Head 6. By Aidan Hart, 1979. Ceramic.

Man with a White Turban. By Aidan Hart, 1981. Ceramic, plaster and fabric.

Man in Green Shirt. By Aidan Hart, 1982. Ceramic, pigmented plaster, fabric.

To abstract means literally to “draw out”, and in its original meaning it denotes the discovery and manifestation of the essence of the subject, and not departure from reality as it tends to be understood today.

The art most influential for me at this stage was Egyptian and African work. Although perhaps too disembodied, too extreme in their abstraction, these sculptures helped me to reach some conclusions about how to indicate the spiritual. Most notably I learned the importance of a strong vertical axis or elongation; stillness rather than agitated movement; and emphasis on the eyes. Constantine Brancusi and Modigliani were also influences.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. By Modigliani, 1919.

Bird in Space. Constantin Brancusi, 1930.

Having thus studied the two poles of figurative naturalism and abstraction I then sought ways of uniting them, of incarnating the spiritual in flesh. In retrospect I see now that I was trying to hint at holiness – essentially, to sculpt icons.

Gradually I came to some conclusions how to do this stylistically,  but knew I still needed help in such a task. In due course a friend suggested that I should visit two Orthodox monks in New Zealand, one of whom was an icon painter. My friend said that icons did what I had been trying to do for some years. So I visited the monks, and found at their little monastery all that I had been seeking, both artistically, spiritually and historically.

Man in a White Turban, 2. By Aidan Hart, 1982. Ceramic, plaster, fabric.

In 1983 I was received into the Orthodox Church and soon afterwards returned to my birth place of England, where I began work as a full-time iconographer.

The last thirty-three years I have spent more or less full time as a liturgical artist, working first in relief wood carving, and then panel painting, fresco, stone carving, silverwork, and more recently, mosaic. But my earlier labours in pre-iconographic work as an exhibiting sculptor taught me the potential of gallery art to draw people a little closer to faith, to a sense of the numinous.

Crucifix,  at St John of Kronstadt Convent, Bath, UK. By Aidan Hart, 1985. Limewood/linden.

The Annunciation. By Aidan Hart, 2012

The Transfiguration. Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church, Leeds, UK. By Aidan Hart, 2012. 20 feet high, fresco.

Our Lady of Lincoln. Lincoln Cathedral, UK. By Aidan Hart, 2014. Polychromed limestone carving

Episcopal staff, for the Patriarch of Russia. By Aidan Hart. Solid silver, 2016.

St Mary Magdalene and The Mother of God (unfinished). Detail from crucifixion for St George’s Orthodox Christian Church, Houston, Texas. By Aidan Hart, 2016. Mosaic.

How can gallery art operate as a portico to belief?

For me personally there are two types of artwork that do this: that which depicts suffering but with compassion, and that which suggests the world transfigured by light. The creators of such artworks are not necessarily people of faith, but they have grasped some truth in their search, and because this truth is an image of spiritual reality it elevates us.

Art of compassion

So first, compassionate art. Such works can help us see the divine image beneath suffering, and even behind ignorant acts. They show us that what makes us capable of suffering is also what makes us human. The Church Fathers tell us that although only holy people are in the likeness of God, all people are made in the image of God. It is precisely our God-given freedom that allows us to choose the wrong as well as the right. Compassionate artists do not idealise, but nor do they judge the wrong doer or feed on their suffering.

Dostoyevsky was the literary genius of such compassionate work, as was also the Greek writer of short stories, Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911). In his short novel “The Murderess”, which is about a lady who kills the daughters of poor islanders so the parents don’t have to pay their dowries, without in any way condoning the murderous acts Papadiamantis somehow manages not to condemn or hate the woman herself.

In the artistic realm, compare a Rembrandt painting, a Van Gogh, or an Alberto Giacometti sculpture with the works of Francis Bacon.

Self Portrait. Rembrandt van Rijn,1659.

Rest from Work (after Millet). By Vincent Van Gogh,1890.

The Walking Man I. By  Alberto Giacometti, 1960.

Self Portrait. Francis Bacon, 1969.

The first two indicate the suffering of humankind with pathos and compassion. Bacon on the other hand – despite his undoubted brilliance as a colourist and the visceral power of his work – seems to feed on the suffering and torment of his subjects. One feels that he needs suffering to feed his inspiration. Indeed he said:

The feeling of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.[5](Francis Bacon)

It is true that great art needs a certain tension. Sentimentality and its consequent flaccidity is the bane of those trying to be positive in their art.  But even iconographers, who are trying to suggest an harmonious world, feel the tension between aspiration and reality, the struggle to express both brightness and sadness, joy and sorrow, strength and gentleness.  But to feed on negativity is different from depicting it with empathy  and identity.

Art of illumination

Another form of threshold art is the art of illumination. Ascetic writers both East and West describe three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination and union. In the degree to which the soul is purified it experiences the created world illuminated by God’s grace, animated by the divine logoi or words that direct and sustain each thing. We see not just the bush, but the bush burning. In due course this leads the person towards union with God Himself, with the Logos who spoke the logoi.

Icons indicate this luminous grace symbolically by such things as gold lines on trees, furniture and garments, and of course also haloes and golden backgrounds.

Threshold artists will indicate luminosity in less symbolic ways. And most critically, they personally will not necessarily relate this light to God. But through their fascination with the way light interacts and animates matter they, perhaps inadvertently, hint at a world aflame with grace.  The Impressionists are the obvious school that come to mind.

The Japanese Bridge at Giverny. Claude Monet, 1896.

The Impressionists have been criticized for being somewhat too sensual in their depiction of nature, even sentimental. Most Impressionists were not particularly religious people, but I suggest that their preoccupation with the interaction of light with matter meant that they inadvertently hinted at a transfigured world, a world not just reflecting light but radiating light. One feels just this when standing before a Monet haystack, as also a Van Gogh sunflower, landscape or farmers.

First Steps, after Millet. Vincent van Gogh, 1890. “I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal”.

The light seems to emanate from within these objects and not merely reflect off their surface.

Unlike the Impressionists, Van Gogh was quite deliberate about the spiritual aim of his painting. He wrote:

And in a painting I’d like to say something consoling, like a piece of music. I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations…[6]

And in the sculptural realm Constantin Brancusi too was conscious of his purpose. He wrote:

The artist should know how to dig out the being that is within matter and be the tool that brings out its cosmic essence into an actual visible essence. [7]

Brancusi’s Paris studio.

Might not such an art of illumination help keep alive in us nostalgia for the paradise that is our true home? What is the fall if we do not know the heights from which we have fallen? What is paradise lost if we have forgotten paradise? What is salvation if we do not know into what we are being saved? If hell is darkness, then it is a place where luminosity is absent, where all appears without light, where we experience the flame of the bush without its light.

From prophecy to evangelism

In conclusion, we ought to have no time for a religiosity that wants to keep us enclosed within church walls, makes us fearful of the outside. True faith finds and rejoices in the good wherever it is found. As Saint Paisius of the Holy Mountain taught me, a healthy soul is like a bee that seeks flowers and ignores rotting flesh. An unhealthy soul by contrast is like a fly that ignores vast fields of flowers and is attracted to a little rotting flesh.

One task of the Church is therefore to find the partial good in its surrounding culture and bring it to fruition. In this respect, living as we are in an increasingly non-Christian but educated epoch, our task is akin to that of the Apologists of the first centuries after Christ. They sought for truths in the Greek philosophy of the time, putting aside what was wrong, adopting what accorded with truth, and adapting what was partial. We need to embrace this creative and theological activity in our own times.

Some contemporary icon painters have done the same with modern art, most notably Gregory Krug.

Christ the Saviour, Fr Gregory Kroug.

Whether or not he consciously adopted aspects of modern art, the fact remains that his unique icons could only have been made in the 20th century. Dr. Isaac Fanous certainly adopted aspects of Cubism into his Neo-Coptic iconography in a deliberate synthesis of old and new.

The Transfiguration.  By Dr Stéphane Réne, of the Neo Coptic school founded by Dr. Isaac Fanous.

A prophetic assessment of a culture will not always of course be affirmative; it will also be critical. I suggest, for example, that an Orthodox Christian’s reading of art history will differ from the dominant narrative of secular scholarship. Scholarship reveals facts, but these facts need to be interpreted. Too often, for example, the history of art has been measured against the assumption that naturalism equals realism. So Byzantine art is considered without perspective, while Renaissance to be the champion of proper perspective.

In reality, Byzantine art uses five or six systems of perspective. These offer a far richer palette with which to express spiritual reality than the mathematical one-eyed system propagated by the Renaissance.

The Annunciation, showing different perspective systems.

They also accord more closely with our subjective experience of reality. For example, even though I do not see both sides of a building I know that they are there, and therefore the icon will often depict these sidewalls simultaneously through its multi-view perspective.  Unlike single view perspective, icons depict what we know and not just what we see. This is in fact the metaphysics behind much of early modernism, which reacted against the neo-Classicism then dominant in Europe.

The secular art historical narrative has also been too silent about the spiritual impetus behind much of the early modernist movement. Kandinsky for example was quite articulate about the spiritual aims of his art, most notably in his work “On The Spiritual in Art”, which was particularly influential in its English translation. Although perhaps more a Theosophist than an Orthodox, his Orthodoxy nevertheless informed a lot of his thinking, and sometimes, as in his “Sketch with Horseman”, icons provided inspiration for his compositions.

Sketch with Horseman. Vasily Kandinsky, 1911, showing the influence of icons, in this case, Elijah in the fiery chariot and St George slaying the dragon.

For Kandinsky painting was a spiritual exercise with spiritual aims. He wrote:

The artist must train not only his eye, but his soul.[8]

The world sounds. It is a cosmos of spiritually affective beings. Thus, dead matter is living spirit.[9]

We have already discussed the consciously religious basis of Brancusi’s work. (for more discussion see my article  “Constantin Brancusi” in http://aidanharticons.com/category/articles/).

The Scriptures and the history of the Church teach us that the best missionaries first discover what God has already revealed to the culture they are addressing, and only then begin to proclaim the Gospel. These evangelists are first listening prophets and seeing seers, and only then preaching missionaries. They perceive the words of God already accepted by the people and then try to take their listeners to the next stage.

The Apostle Paul. By Archimandrite Zenon, crypt church of Feodorovsky Cathedral, Petersburg.

Although St Paul was indignant about all the idols that he saw at the Areopagus, he began his address not by condemning his listeners for idolatry but by praising them for being so religious. He went on to base his message on their inscription to “An Unknown God”. He built his Gospel narrative on this germ of truth, even quoting their own philosophers and poets.

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[5] Quoted in Art, Robert Cumming (DK, London, 2005), page 433.

[6] Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh, 3 September 1888, (Letter 673), in Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters.  http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let673/letter.html.

[7] Brancusi, in F. Bach, M. Rowell and A. Temkin, Constantin Brancusi. MIT Press, 1995. Page 23.

[8] Quoted in  Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York, 1994), eds. Kenneth C. Lindsey and Peter Vergo, page 197.

[9]  Kandinsky, in “The Blaue Reiter Almanac”, quoted in  Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, page 250.

Source: Orthodox Arts Journal

 

 

The Pentecost icon

 

Every year I discover new ‘details’ in the Feasts’ icons. This Pentecost what caught my attention was the old king at the bottom of the Pentecost icon, mysteriously in a small semi-circle.  The more I studied the icon though, the more questions came to my mind. What is St. Paul doing here, since we know he became an Apostle after the feast?! …

pentecost icon.jpg

 

The Icon for the feast of Pentecost is also called the Descent of the Holy Spirit, as it is a depiction of the event described in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:1-4) when the Holy Spirit descended as tongues of fire upon the Apostles gathered together and enabled them to preach in different languages. However, the Feast of Pentecost is not only the commemoration of an historical event, but a celebration of a present reality: the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Likewise, the Icon for Pentecost is much more than the depiction of a past event.

pentecost St Peter and St Paul Uncreated Church

The presence of the Apostle Paul in the icon, even though at that time he had not yet converted on the road to Damascus, hints that this icon is more than a purely historical picture. Sometimes, the evangelists Luke and Mark are also shown, despite also not having been present in the upper chamber at Pentecost. The gathering, then, is a representation of the Church. The Apostles are seated in a semi-circle, representing a unity and harmony similar to that found in Icons of the Holy Trinity. As in icons of the Holy Trinity, a semi-circle, rather than a full circle, is used so that we as observers are drawn into the unity.

pentecost Descent of the holy spirit orthodox pilgrim uncreated Church

The source of their unity is in another semi-circle at the top of the icon, showing the descent of the Holy Spirit. From the blue semi-circle (c.a. mandorlas) a single ray of light for each of those gathered shines down to illumine them. Sometimes the “tongues of fire” described in Acts are shown at the tips of the rays, ready to descend upon the Apostles. Other times, the tongues of fire are shown already within the halos of each of the seated Saints. Some icons of Pentecost show a dove, either within the mandorla at the top of the icon, or even descending upon those gathered in the upper chamber. Given the appearance of the Holy Spirit as a dove during Christ’s Baptism, it is understandable that this physical image of the Spirit is also used in Pentecost icons. However, the Holy Spirit appeared as tongues of flame at Pentecost, and a dove at Christ’s Baptism, being – in reality – neither of these things. Therefore it is inappropriate to depict the Holy Spirit as a dove at Pentecost, or indeed in any icon except those for the Theophany feast.

 

pentecost orthodox pilgrim the world and the Uncreated Church

 

 

At the bottom of the Icon is another semi-circle, showing an old king against a dark background. He is often named as Kosmos and represents the world. He is crowned as a symbol of earthly authority – i.e. he represents all the peoples of the world, rather than the whole of creation. He is sat “in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79), and is aged to show the corruptibility of the world. Yet he also holds a blanket containing scrolls representing Apostolic teaching (compare with the scrolls held by the Apostles in the Icon itself and “the meaning of objects held by saints in icons“). Though in darkness, the descent of the Holy Spirit has not only reached the Apostles, but also all corners of the world into which the Apostles will preach the Gospel. The Empty Seat A striking aspect of the Pentecost Icon is the empty space at the centre, between the Apostles Peter and Paul. This central seat is a place of honour, the “Teacher’s Seat” around which the Apostles are gathered. Why is it empty? Because it is the seat Christ should be sitting in, Who has ascended physically into Heaven. Yet Jesus promised many times that though He would leave them physically, He would instead give to them the Holy Spirit as a comforter, advocate, and guide. This promise was first realized at Pentecost, and is still true today. Therefore, the Icon, which is also an Icon of the Church, shows the Apostles gathered in unity, sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit, surrounding Christ Who is invisibly present. The world, Cosmos, is at their feet, ready and waiting to be harvested through the passing on of Christ’s teaching.

 

Some icons of Pentecost show Mary the Mother of God in the centre, occupying the “Teacher’s Seat”. Surviving icons of this sort are usually western (the above comes from the border between Finland and Russia). Mary was present at Pentecost, though as already mentioned, the icon is not primarily a historical snapshot of the event. The Theotokos’ presence in the centre is not problematic though, as she is the ultimate exemplar of a Christian. With Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven, the Holy Spirit acts within people, and through the Saints Christ is manifested in the world. Mary is therefore shown in the “teacher’s seat” as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically, as His mother, and spiritually as His disciple). Nevertheless, the “empty” seat is a more widespread and, I believe, more impressive image of both Pentecost and the Church. The Apostles are seated as equals, with no individual among them taking the central seat of authority. They don’t need to. Their unity as the Body of Christ is sustained through the real “Vicar of Christ”: the Holy Spirit.

 

 

Blessed are You, O Christ our God, who made fisherman all-wise, by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them, drawing all the world into Your net. O Loving One, glory be to You. (Apolytikion for Pentecost) More About the Feast of Pentecost>>

 

Source: Pentecost Icon as an Icon of the Church

He Laid His Hand On Him

The Life and Ministry of St John the Baptist through Iconography

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St. John the Baptist has always been very special to me, ever since I converted to Christ and started regularly visiting my spiritual father, a spiritual child and tonsure of St. Paisios, at the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner (Prodromos).

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 John the Baptist uniquely bore record of both the Dove and the Lamb, la Colombe et l’Agneau. He was the angel-messenger of both the Holy Spirit and the Word, on earth, but also in Hades. He “saw” the Lamb walking in the middle of people in the Person of Jesus. And he testified with an absolute certainty that he “saw” the Holy Spirit descending on Him in bodily form like a dove. (Lev Gillet, La Colombe et L’Agneau, The Dove and the Lamb)

29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)

32 And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. (John 1:32)

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The Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist  John is  a towering figure who bridges the Old and New Testaments and who reveals, more precisely than his forebears, the object, the aim, the goal, the purpose of the preceding two-thousand history of the Hebrew people: namely, the advent of the Messiah, the God-man, the Savior, Jesus Christ. That was so since, as Saint Nicholas Velimirović of Ochrid and Zica writes, Saint John “especially differs from all of the other prophets in that he had the privilege of being able, with his hand, to show the world Him about Whom he prophesied.” [Prologue, Vol 1, p. 34.  The Prologue of Ohrid: Lives of Saints, Hymns, Reflections and Homilies for Every Day of the Year]

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“Moonless” 
From your desert, my Saint John

where once your voice was heard

remember us and pity us

who are wasting away in a wilderness

full of human population.

By Alexandros Papadiamantis

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

The Bridegroom and the Friend of the Bridegroom

“He that has the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.” (John 3:29)

Being born exactly half a year before Christ, John the Forerunner by the exact time of his birth depicted his mission of preparing the way for the Lord. He was born at the time of the year (June 24) when the day begins to grow shorter after the summer solstice, whereas the Nativity of Christ occurs (December 25) when the day begins to grow longer after the winter solstice. These facts are an embodiment of the words spoken later, by the Forerunner, after the beginning of Christ’s preaching:

“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). “The herald of the Sun, the Forerunner” was John the Baptist, who was like the morning star that announces the rising of the Sun of Righteousness in the East. (Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco at http://passaicrussianchurch.com/books/english/ sermons_john_maximovich.htm#_Toc100019529)

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Life of John the Baptist, Baptistery of St. John (Battistero di San Giovanni), Florence

St John the Baptist "Angel of the Desert" (17th Century, Russian)

Amazing details above! … Why is this Saint, almost uniquely, shown in many icons with wings? … As well as “the Baptist”, John is also known as “glorious prophet and forerunner of Christ”. Therefore, the presence of the wings is to symbolize John’s status as a divine messenger (in Greek “Evangelos”, from where the word “Angel” is derived). It’s worth noting that the wings of the archangels (Gabriel, Michael etc.) in icons are largely symbolic too, as they are not specifically described as having wings in the Scriptures.

But if that were all, then why aren’t the prophets of the Old Testament, or the Apostles, shown with the angelic wings of divine messenger? The answer, in the words of Jesus Christ Himself, is because “among those born of women there is no one greater than John;” moreover, he is “the culmination and the crown of the prophets”, as the hymn from the feast of John’s nativity proclaims. Therefore, St John is a special example among the Saints of an earthly “angel” and a heavenly man. As such, he is also described as the “Angel of the Desert” in the inscriptions of icons.

The life John led in the desert was angelic for two reasons. On the one hand he proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, becoming a herald of God like the angels. On the other, he lived a life of chastity, abstinence, and prayer, not being mindful of material needs, but with his attention fixed firmly to heaven. This is the life of the angels, and why the monastic way of life is sometimes called “angelic”, as well as why St John is the patron of monastics, hermits, and ascetics. For both reasons, it is appropriate to show St John with the spiritual wings of a dove.

She that once was barren now brings forth Christ’s Forerunner, John, the culmination and the crown of all the Prophets. For when he, in River Jordan, laid his hand on Him Whom the Prophets preached aforetime, he was revealed as God the Word’s fore-chosen Prophet, His mighty preacher, and His Forerunner in grace.
(Kontakion from the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist)

Icon of John the Baptist (16th Century, now in Yaroslavl)

This is another vita icon, which shows not only John the Forerunner and Baptist, but many of the other feasts and traditions associated with him.

An explanation of the scenes often found in these icons is given below.

The scenes used in the 16th century Yaroslavl icon … are taken from a number of well-established sources: the Protoevangelium of James, the Gospels (notably St Luke’s), and other histories of the Church that record what happened to St John the Baptist’s remains after his beheading. Starting at the top left, and going from left to right across the icon, the scenes shown are:

  1. The angel Gabriel appears to St Zachariah in the Temple, announcing the future conception of a son: to be called John (Luke 1:11-17).
  2. Zachariah is struck dumb for doubting the angel’s words, the people outside the Temple realizing he has had a vision of God (Luke 1:18-22)
  3. The Conception of John the Baptist (Luke 1:23-25)
  4.  The visitation of Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, the Mother of God (Luke 1:39-42)
  5. The Nativity of John the Baptist
  6. The murder of St Zachariah in the Temple by Herod’s soldiers, for not revealing where John the Baptist was hidden (Protoevangelium of James Ch.23; alluded to in Luke 11:51)
  7. St. Elizabeth hides the young John from the Herodian soldiers in the cleft of a mountain (Protoevangelium of James Ch 22, paralleled by Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt with Christ; Matthew 2:13-23)
  8. St. John, as a youth, is led into the desert by an angel, fulfilling the promises given to Zachariah, and Zachariah’s own prophecy (Luke 1:67-80)
  9. After years of ascetic life, “the word of God comes to John… in the wilderness. (Luke 3:2)
  10. John baptizes Jesus Christ in the River Jordan
  11. John baptizes the multitudes who flock to him (Matthew 3:1-6)
  12. John denounces the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7-10)
  13. John is imprisoned for his criticism of Herod Antipas (not the same Herod who ordered the murder of Zachariah)
  14. The Feast of Herod, where Salomne is presented with the head of John the Baptist after beguiling Herod with her dancing.
  15. The Beheading of John the Baptist (the last three scenes are all recorded in Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29)
  16. John’s disciples take his body away for burial (usually shown without the head – Matthew 14:12)
  17. St John the Baptist appears in a dream to monks, telling them where to find his head.
  18. The First Finding of the Head of John the Baptist
  19. The appearance of St John to a monk in his sleep.
  20. The Second Finding of the Head of St John the Baptist

Other scenes that might be present include: Zachariah, mute, writing out the name of John; the denunciation of Herod by John; the preaching of John in Hades (the forerunner of Christ in life and death); In the centre stands John the Forerunner himself: the “angel”, or messenger, of the desert, holding a platter with his head. Other icons may show St John holding a platter with the infant Christ on it, also known as the melismos, or the Lamb of God.

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The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner;
For you have proved to be truly even more venerable than the Prophets, since you were granted to baptize in the running waters Him Whom they proclaimed.
Wherefore, having contested for the truth, you rejoiced to announce the good tidings even to those in Hades:
That God has appeared in the flesh, taking away the sin of the world and granting us great mercy.

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Links:

The Protoevangelium of James

The Beheading of John the Forerunner and Baptist

The Nativity of John the Forerunner and Baptist

The Baptism of Christ (by St John)

The First and Second Finding of the Head of John the Forerunner

The Third Finding of the Head of John the Baptist

 

Icon of John the Baptist in the Greek Style

This Icon also encompasses all of the Church teaching about St. John the Forerunner: his announcement of the coming of the Messiah, Who was Jesus; his  preaching in the wilderness; his baptizing of Jesus Christ, and finally his beheading on the orders of Herod for censuring the King.

… John is depicted … in the desert, wearing animal skins, with unkempt beard and long hair … The axe laying at the foot of a tree is an obvious reference to John’s own prophetic warning recorded in Scripture:

And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

To the bottom right of the picture, is John’s head on a platter, just as it was presented to Herod’s step-daughter, according to the Gospel of Matthew. It is because of this that John also holds a cross – the cross of martyrdom – and is turned to Christ in supplication, holding a scroll bearing the words:

Seest Thou what suffer those who censure, O Word of God, the faults of the unclean. Not being able to bear censure, Lo Herod cut off my head, O Saviour.

Over St. John’s camel-skin clothing is invariably a green robe, which symbolizes “earthliness”, and in this case it is because John grew up outside, in the wilderness. Later saints who also took up the Christian struggle in the wilderness can also be depicted in green for the same reason, and are sometimes known as “Green Martyrs”. That is to say they are martyrs (literally meaning witness) to the Faith, not by the shedding of blood, but by their ascetic struggle. Of course, St John is a both a green martyr and a martyr who shed his blood, hence the presence of the green robe and the cross.

John the Baptist preaching in hell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John was the forerunner of Christ on earth, but also in Hades. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial, and descent into Hades, John too descended there to preach the Gospel of Repentance and coming of the Messiah to the imprisoned souls: The glorious beheading of the Forerunner, became thus an act of divine dispensation, for he preached to those in hell the coming of the Savior. Let Herodias lament, for she entreated lawless murder, loving not the law of God, nor eternal life, but that which is false and temporal.

He Laid His Hand On Him!

Source: iconreader.wordpress.com

The Womb and the Tomb

 

Icon of the Nativity compared with the Icon of the Resurrection

Left: Christ in the manger; Right: the Empty Tomb

No description of the Nativity Icon would be complete without mention of Jesus’ appearance in the manger.

It should be never forgotten that Jesus came to us in order to die – this was known by Him, at least, from the very beginning. Therefore, in Iconography, the manger in the Nativity Icon deliberately resembles a stone coffin, the swaddling clothes resemble a burial shroud, and the cave itself can even be said to prefigure Christ’s tomb.

With the side-by-side comparison shown above of the Icon of the Nativity with the Icon showing the Myrrh-bearing women discovering Jesus’ empty tomb, no more words are necessary. (1)

The Passion of Nativity

… Let us look more closely at the child in the relief.  “His tight swaddling clothes are evocative of burial wrappings.  In the byzantine tradition, there is an intentional connection between the swaddling clothes of the infant in a Nativity icon and the burial clothes of the Epitaphios (epi– upon; taphos- grave or tomb) icon which is venerated and anointed during Great Friday Vespers.  Also on Great Friday, the “soma” icon on the crucifix is taken down from the cross and shrouded in identical wrappings before it is processed and reposed in the sanctuary.”

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“…Note, as well, that the “manger” is a cave, a small hollow in a rock formation that mirrors Jesus’ tomb in the gospels.  In many icons, Jesus’ cradle is a stone box.  Who would lay a child in a coffin? What macabre motive would make an artist paint a baby as a mummy and give him a tomb as his nursery?  Indeed, the motive is not macabre, but joyful and eschatologically triumphant: we only understand the significance of the incarnation if we hold it in tension with Jesus’ saving death; we may not separate the two.  This also reminds us that the liturgical year commemorates events in the life of Jesus but it never parses the paschal mystery.”

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Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem 

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, and the oldest in the Holy Land (founded in 325)

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A virgin womb, conceiving thee, revealed thee;
a virgin tomb, receiving thee, concealed thee.

We glorify her from whom thou didst receive a beginning in time,
and we honour him that ministered to the end of thine earthly life for our sakes,
asking that through their prayers, O merciful Saviour,
we might be deemed worthy of thy Kingdom of the Heavens.

Theotokion on the Praises for the Feast of St. Joseph of Arimathea
Appendix to the July Menaion, Holy Transfiguration Monastery

 

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Church Of The Nativity Bethlehem Stable

All the eschatological themes of the Advent season converge in the Nativity tableau and are carried forward into Christmas.  This should not surprise us.  The birth of Christ and his salvific death form the cosmic fulcrum upon which the beam of human history rests, with creation and eschaton at each end.  In a nativity icon this is super concentrated.  Incarnation and eschaton are so ingeniously and inextricably intertwined that we might not even read “passion” in what is written in the icon unless we understand the symbolic significance of the iconographic elements.  The best known example of this is the gifts of the wise men: while gold and frankincense represent Jesus’ kingship and priesthood, respectively, myrrh, used for embalming, is a symbol of his death.

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When I look at a Nativity icon and I see a child embraced by death, and embracing death, I have at least an inkling of what Rilke was, perhaps, trying to convey in the first Duino Elegy:

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” (2)

 

(1) Posted on by 

(2) Posted at https://memoriadei.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/the-ox-the-ass-and-the-passion-of-the-nativity/

On Earth As It Is In Heaven ❧

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.

Hagia Sophia Interior (Ayasofya) - Istanbul

‘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. …

 

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… 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).

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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.

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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)

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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

 by the evangelists, representing the beginning of the church, and then the saints in their tiers below. To the medieval mind, hierarchy meant freedom; it was the mark of identity and security. This axis and hierarchy exist also in the iconostasis as a miniature version of the same concept. The vertical axis has another interpretation which is the approach of god and man. The dome, most brightly lit and filled with angels, is heaven. It touches the nave at the pendentives, where the evangelists are painted, because they record the meeting of god and man. alternately, some churches have four great feasts which are theophanies at the pendentives, for the same reason. The Theotokos of the sign in the apse represents the Church reaching back up to god. Christ appears in the sign before her, emphasizing that by the Incarnation He is already with Her.

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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. …

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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.

 

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ISLAM VS. CHRISTIANITY — MOSQUE VS. ORTHODOX TEMPLE

 

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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.

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… 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.

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(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/

Between Son and Mother

A virtual, photographic pilgrimage to shrines in Greece and Cyprus dedicated to the Feast of the Mother of God Presentation or Entry, Entrance, Eisodos in the Temple (November 21)

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Iconography of the Entrance of the Theotokos at Hilandari Monastery–MOUNT ATHOS

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The Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa in AmorgosENTRY96entry7

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Panagia Malteza of Santorini

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Panagia Odigitria of Kimolos

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The 11th Century Church of Panagia Kapnikarea in Athens

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The Monastery of Panagia of Machairas in Cyprus

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No one stands between Son and Mother

Give us salvation


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“Today, the most pure temple of the Savior, the precious bridal chamber and Virgin, the sacred treasure of God, enters the house of the Lord, bringing the grace of the Divine Spirit. The Angels of God praise her. She is the heavenly tabernacle.”

 

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Draganescu Sistine Chapel

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The Romanian Orthodox Church is considering a Romanian monk persecuted by the communists and known as the “saint of Transylvania” for sainthood. … Boca, who became a monk in 1940, was harassed by the Securitate secret police, detained and did forced labor on the Black Sea Canal, a notorious labor camp where tens of thousands of political prisoners worked in the 1950s. In 1959, he was banned from leading worship and the Prislop monastery, where he is now buried, was converted into a retirement home. He was forced to retire from the church in 1968 and spent 15 years painting religious images and icons in the small church of Draganescu in southern Romania. The church’s interiors are now considered among the most beautiful in the country. Elder Arsenie Boca reposed in the Lord in early 1989, a month before Romania’s anti-communist revolt, aged 79. Though he is not yet canonized, Elder Arsenie’s grave, located in Prislop Monastery, is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims every year, where many miracles occur. One miracle which everyone can see is that the flowers over his grave never die or wither , neither in the hot summer or the frigid winter.

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For his amazing life, the  documentary “Fr. Arsenie Boca – Man of God” is a MUST.  “His colleagues at the Theological Academy of Sibiu named him ‘The Saint’, he is considered a founding father of the Romanian Philokalia by father Dumitru Staniloaie, who thought of him as an unparalleled phenomenon of Romanian monasticism.

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Sought after and followed by thousands of believers eager to quench their spiritual thirst from his inexhaustible spring of serenity; legendary for his prophesying and healing gifts, painter of souls and painter of churches, man of culture, philosopher of sciences and religion, father Arsenie Boca was, just like Saint Basil as depicted by him in his essential work The Path of the Kingdom.

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A disciple calmly walking across the stormy seas, an unmoving pillar against the troubled waves, a man among people, providing guidance and strength with otherworldly serenity, unflinching in the belief that God alone is ruler of our world. An unequaled personality, a magnet for thousands of people in all walks of life, and also a target for suspicion for the authorities of his day, who failed to understand the source of his exceptional power to gather people around him.” 

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As one person interviewed in this documentary says: “Fr. Arsenie made Christ transparent to us.” He still does. His presence in the midst of us after his passing is a reminder of the proximity of Heaven. This film is an opportunity to (re)discover it for ourselves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptbTap5NHqw

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The Sistine Chapel of the Romanians: the Draganescu Church

Father Arsenie Boca lived in Draganescu for 20 years and in 1968 he began painting the parish church, a work that took him more than 15 years. As he wasn’t allowed to celebrate service, some of the priests who visited the church over the years claim that Arsenie Boca has actually painted the sermons he delivered at Sambata de Sus.

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Rainbow colors reverberating in frescoes, light flowing from Christ’s Resurrection, Heaven trickling down through the painting brush, that’s the way the murals painted by Orthodoxy beacon Arsenie Boca at the “St. Nicholas” Church of the Draganescu town – Giurgiu County can be translated and rendered into metaphor. …

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Prophetic Artist in Shackles

His frescoes are diaphanous, and the images are accompanied by metaphors referring to people’s weaknesses and sins, by aphorisms, quotations from the Holy Scripture, sometimes by teachings of the Father and biblical scenes: the Resurrection, a picture of hell, the Group of the Righteous. The paintings are said to have a visionary, prophetic content, as it is known that Father Arsenie Boca had the gift of spiritual far-sight: one of the scenes, two tall buildings engulfed in flames, is said to allude to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, not to mention those where items like a cell phone, a space shuttle, satellite dishes, all unusual things in that period, appear.

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For his paintings, the art documentary “Picturi ale pr. Arsenie Boca pe biserica din Drăgănescu” at https://vimeo.com/82791105 is a MUST. Also, go to http://www.themidlandhostel.com/the-sistine-chapel-of-the-romanians-the-draganescu-church/ and http://www.agerpres.ro/engleza-destinatie-romania/2014/11/22/destination-romania-the-draganescu-church-swathed-in-father-arsenie-boca-s-prophetic-paintings-18-04-37 and watch a short art film “Father Arsenie Boca, one of Romania greatest Saint”  at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r6ZX8M8vwY

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Morning prayer by Arsenie Boca
Lord Jesus Christ, help me let go of myself today, as I can create great problems from small and insignificant issues, and this way, caring for myself, I will lose You.

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Lord Jesus Christ, help me so that the prayer of Your Holy name will wander (work) through my mind more than lightning on the sky, so that I stay clear of even the shadow of bad thoughts as, look, I am sinning every minute.
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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, because we stumble as we are walking in the dark. Our temptations are closing the eyes of our mind, forgetfulness has become like a wall amongst us, turning our hearts to stone and all together have made the prison cell in which we keep You crippled, starving and naked, wasting our days.
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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us and set fire to this prison cell, light up the love in our hearts, burn the thorns of our temptations and make our souls bright.

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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, come and live within us, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit prays through us with unspoken sighs, when word and mind don’t have the power.

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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, because we don’t realise how imperfect we are and how close You are to our souls; and how distant we become through our sins. Shine Your light over us, so that we see light through Your eyes and live eternally through Your life. Our light and joy, praise be to You!

Amen!

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