Monday, December 21, 2015

Holiness and Nature

The other day I was assigned to a detail that took me way out into the boonies of the military base where I am stationed. It wasn't a very glamorous detail. It had me near the big wigs of my installation, which meant I really had to be extra careful about how I presented myself. So that day was a bit more stressful than a normal day at my job is. At the end of the detail they released my buddy and I to walk around and look at the scenery, which is mostly untouched on military bases so that way training can happen in wild areas. This is sort of what I was staring at (scenery changed so as to protect national security and all that, I'm sure the COMSEC people would appreciate it)

I love being out in nature. While I'm no great outdoorsman I find the solitude and peace of nature to be refreshing. As I stared out, into the great plains, I took out my prayer rope and began praying the Jesus Prayer. As I did so it occurred to me how perfectly everything was organized. The grass held down the soil, which fed the grass. The sky let down rain on the soil and the soil returned the water back up to the sky. This great cycle worked, without fail, day in and day out without the slightest bit of help from man. If anything we depend on this order and harmony to work without even realizing it and certainly aren't as thankful as we could be that the whole world works the way it does. Either way, I was struck by the sheer order and creativity of creation. Without doing anything but being itself it was good.

I continued to look and pondered how somebody could look at something this beautiful and not see God in it. Systems left to themselves decay and die and yet here this stood, unchanging in it's ways. In my mind that suggested someone who tended it and cared for it, because I've never experience a system that just worked on it's own without help. The very existence of the plains as they are suggest a God. Peace, which is perfect order and harmony, is a sign of God. The plains radiated peace. They radiated God.

My thoughts continued to wander and it occurred to me that I had felt this sort of radiance before, this incredible stillness that was out here. I had met it in holy men and women. For anyone who hasn't met this sort of person before there's a stillness to a person who's holy. They can be laughing, talking, crying, it doesn't matter, they radiates an otherness. They are not like us because they're more human than we are. They are so like us they are other. Looking at this beauty of the plains I realized that they were radiating the same peace and contentment as the holy men and women I had met. God shone out of them both.

But then the moment arrived when I felt my own soul in relation to this calm and peace and realized I was very far from it. I was not at peace, I was not in harmony, there was no great order to my soul like there was out here in the plains or the holy men and women I'd met. I was a profound mess, profoundly fallen in a way that I'd never felt before. It wasn't that I felt judged or even guilty. Sin has very little to do with guilt, I knew that at in that moment. I simply wasn't in sync with God and everything He had made. At that moment the Jesus Prayer made sense in a way that I'd never experience before.

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

I wasn't condemned, I was simply someone out of touch and asking to be put back into good and working order. I simply wanted to fit and found that, while I didn't right then and there, I could if I wanted to. Y'know, with a lot of time and practice surrendering. As I stood there, praying in the breeze and watching the grass sway, I realized I wanted nothing more than to be like that prairie. I wanted to be in complete working order. I wanted to be in communion with God, who was radiating in that prairie so strongly that I could barely see anything else. God is in everything, even myself.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

And then came the day where I found myself praying before an icon and I realized that icons emanated something similar to being out in nature. Man, in his prayer to God, is used by God to make something that others can find that peace and harmony in. As iconographers we are called to spread the Gospel by making something that, without any other explanation, shows Christ. By prayer we offer ourselves through the board and leave something behind that others can use to find their way as well. And, even if it has flaws, Christ shines through it anyway. We become witnesses of the Resurrection by allowing the peace that comes from being in contact with God to emanate from a piece of board.

Lord Jesus Christ, Song of God, haver mercy on me, a sinnner.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Saint Michael Underdrawing

As most Eastern Christians worth their salt know, there's a certain iconography store that's only slightly on the heretical side of things. What's a little heresy now and again, right? We all know who they are and we'll keep it that way for the moment. Suffice it to say none of us buy from them, I'm hoping.

I'll confess to really liking their St. Michael the Archangel icon.

The whole St. Michael stabbing the dragon in the throat really appeals to my inner nerd, so when this comissioner asked for an icon of St. Michael I couldn't help myself, but suggested something similar to that heretical writer's icon. After all, there's nothing in his concepts that are overtly heretical, and as a good Christian it's my job to steal back from the pagans, right?


As I started on this underdrawing, I realized that a very important spiritual truth about St. Michael doesn't come up terribly often: the argument over Moses's body chronicled by Jude. In it, St. Michael is about to take up Moses's body to heaven when Satan comes to claim the body. St. Michael's response was "The Lord rebuke you!". The archangel of the heavenly hosts, the most macho being in the whole universe, did not overcome Satan by his own strength, but by invoking God against Satan and just being the channel that God acted through. As Christians it is our God-given vocation to combat the demonic. Most of the world has forgotten about Satan's existence, and we need to be on our game now more than ever. But in order to defeat Satan we must surrender to God first. This is why I changed the icon the way I did. Satan is no longer a dragon, but a black serpent without form and detail and life and all the things that you'd expect of something good. Satan has lost his form. Michael, instead of holding a shield, is holding a scroll that says "The Lord rebuke you, Satan!" The hand that clasps the spear is blessed by God from the glory of the Lord, creating a dynamic and wholesome scene. It's not anything I've ever found in my search through the iconographic tradition, but it comes from Tradition itself. And that's what an icon should do: put Tradition in full color.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Domestic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2685 The Christian family is the first place of education in prayer. Based on the sacrament of marriage, the family is the "domestic church" where God's children learn to pray "as the Church" and to persevere in prayer. For young children in particular, daily family prayer is the first witness of the Church's living memory as awakened patiently by the Holy Spirit.

2691 The church, the house of God, is the proper place for the liturgical prayer of the parish community. It is also the privileged place for adoration of the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The choice of a favorable place is not a matter of indifference for true prayer.
- For personal prayer, this can be a "prayer corner" with the Sacred Scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father.48 In a Christian family, this kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common.

Christian prayer is the ascent of the mind to God. There is no other action in the Christian life that is half as important as prayer. "We are not commanded to fast continuously or to give alms continuously, but we are commanded to pray constantly", says St. Evagrius Pontus, so it's safe to say that prayer is the most important thing a Christian will ever do. And, as the Catechism says, prayer in the home is the most essential part of the Christian life after participation in the Liturgy. The only real way to make yourself a person of prayer is if your house is a place of prayer, to make it to where you sanctify the environment you're in until others can't help but notice.

How do you do this? You need to make your house a place where prayer can come naturally. Humans, being the habitual creatures they are, need reminders to shift their minds particular ways. We do that by playing music when we work out, by having our routine before watching football,and  by having an alarm clock blare out bloody annoying sounds so we'll wake up. The point is we have ways of physically reminding ourselves to do certain things at certain times and prayer really should not only be no different but should have especially strong cues. What could be more important?

The best way to establish habitual prayer is to have a spot to pray. Traditionally it's called a home altar in the West, an icon corner in the East, but it serves the same function: remind us that there's a time and a place for prayer. It should face east, as all churches are supposed to, to remind us that Christ is coming again and to remind us of Eden in the east. There should always be a cross displayed prominently since it's the second Tree of Life. As an Easterner it tickles me that the Catechism specifically says icons (not statues or nice Renaissance-style paintings). I'm not entirely sure why the picked out icons in particular but it probably has something to do with the 7th Ecumenical Council specifically saying that icons are good and holy, so icons are what we got to work with. Displayed should be icons of Christ and Mary, along with any saints that you feel a particular attachment to. I highly recommend the corner having a shelf or a table included, because then you can put the Scriptures on the table and, since they're the Word of God, they deserve a special place in your corner. Rosaries, blessed oils and holy water, and all other types of holy instruments should be on/under/near the table, along with any liturgical materials you use. Candles are also very helpful, the lighting is gentler than electric lighting and allows for an easier time in achieving some form of stillness that doesn't involve sleep.

So, what do you do at this corner for prayers? Well, you do your own, private, prayer and the prayers of the house. What should the prayers of the house be? The Liturgy of the Hours, of course!

From the Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours

"27. Lay groups gathering for prayer, apostolic work, or any other reason are encouraged to fulfill the Church's duty, [103] by celebrating part of the liturgy of the hours. The laity must learn above all how in the liturgy they are adoring God the Father in spirit and in truth; [104] they should bear in mind that through public worship and prayer they reach all humanity and can contribute significantly to the salvation of the whole world. [105]
Finally, it is of great advantage for the family, the domestic sanctuary of the Church, not only to pray together to God but also to celebrate some parts of the liturgy of the hours as occasion offers, in order to enter more deeply into the life of the Church. " (emphasis mine)

The Liturgy of the Hours is the primary way that we learn how to pray to God. There is no better way to do it. Yes, I know the rosary's beautiful. But it's not the prayer of the Church, not in the way the Liturgy of the Hours is. Morning and Evening Prayer really isn't all that long and is relatively easy to abbreviate if you must, making it relatively flexible.  My own family, being Eastern, does the Little Hours from the Horologion and then Compline if Micah is compliant. The whole point is to pray as a unit with the Church and to become an extension of the Church, making a little (or domestic) Church. Holding communal prayer with a special place to do it in your house is highly recommended, both by the Catechism and the Saints of both lungs.

If you have a prayer corner and wouldn't mind, share pics! I'd be interested in seeing what others have come up with. My family's prayer corner is up at the top of the post already.

(All italics in the quotes were made by my for emphasis)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Saint Edmund Underdrawing

One of the commissioned icons, Saint Edmund was undoubtedly an icon I would never have done on my own. I would never have even known who Saint Edmund was if not for the person who commissioned it. She and I are long-time friends and keep in touch with each other on Facebook. So one day I noticed that she was pining over an icon of Saint Edmund that she wanted for her son. I told her I could just do the icon for her so she could have a hand-made copy of it. And so here we are.

My friend had told me that she wanted the icon as close to an exact duplicate as I could manage, which I've done, more or less. It's going to be a challenging icon to inscribe and paint and that's got me excited. Fortunately I'm writing the icon of a saint known for his endurance and hope, so there's that going for me.

Saint Edmund has a number of legends around him, but the one that seems most popular is that he was the king of East Anglia, a pre-Norman kingdom in England. Once the Normans came in and conquered everything (including East Anglia) they commanded King Edmund to renounce his Christian faith if he wanted to live. Saint Edmund refused. This man, who had just lost everything to the Normans refused to give up his Christian faith. His kingdom was demolished, a lot of his people were dead on his watch, and Saint Edmund refused to despair of salvation even still. That's courage, people! That is what we should be going for. The Normans then shot him full of arrows and, when that didn't kill him, cut off his head and threw it away. Christians looking for his body heard a wolf howling "Here! Here!" and found the wolf was cradling Saint Edmund's head. The wolf let them take it away for honorable burial. Even in death God watches out for His own.

God determines His own by seeing what and who they embrace when they've lost everything. The tests that come reveal to the self where they are actually at and what they need to work on. Some of us, though, pass the test and God takes us Home. Saint Edmund was one of those holy ones.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Platytera (More Spacious Than the Heavens) Underdrawing

One of my first experiences with Eastern Christianity was being greeted by the Platytera, staring through the royal doors. I found out later that this icon is supposed to be behind the tabernacle in every Eastern Church in the world. There's a good reason for that: this is the icon par excellance of what every Christian is supposed to be like.

Mary's arms are extended into the orans, the default stance of prayer in all Christianity. Christ's  arms are open in welcome and blessing. The attitude of a Christian should perfectly reflect this icon: we should all be in a state of constant prayer and welcoming love to all who come across us, giving them Christ, the only One Who can take away their burdens.

The orans stance communicates openess and vulnerablity. It's a stance I have a hard time understanding with God, Whom I often find myself confusing with the world and chance, which is so often cruel. How can one be open and accepting when life can feel so meaningless at times? At the end of the day what inside of us can drive back the darkness? Mary's solution is to let God fill the emptiness until all that's left is light. Our hearts are dark and empty unless God fills them with Himself, giving us meaning that many of us don't even know we needed until we found it.

This icon is that of a Christian fully in theosis, in synch with God. When others look at us they should see Christ first, living and shining within us. Anything less than Christ will not fix our broken hearts. Nothing less will do. Become this icon and the whole world will be changed.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Theology of Movement and Christ the Teacher Underdrawing

As I learned more about theology I ran across the concept of God as the "never-changing ever-new", and realized that God is not a static being. He is constantly active without changing (thus taking time out of the equation). God is Love,  The process of God loving us can be likened to dropping a huge boulder in a pond: it's only done once, but the reverberations are felt in the lake for all time. God made a decision, which all the saints joined in and which the events in our time are intertwined with. This never-changing ever-new act of love has permeated all of our existence.

Icons are the pictoral representation of that boulder hitting the lake of creation. When you look at an icon you are not seeing an image that's static, you're seeing an action that transcends time and space so profoundly that you can't track it. Similar to something moving so fast that we can only see after-images, icons  show a reality that only appears static because one choice has been made, thus affecting us forever. Each and every moment when I look at an icon I see the eternal choice of Love incarnated in that moment. The next moment is an entirely new revelation because I changed from the previous moment, but God did not. We constantly reach out or back away from the Divine Offer as God breaks into our souls, enlivening them by His presence. Each moment is a new overture of love from the Lover. The only reason why it looks different to us is because we changed in that split second of perceiving the offer of love from Love Himself.

How does this affect icons? Well, I think movement should be shown more greatly than it is in most icons. The icon does not just show the subject but also the viewer: that's what the border is, it's the world, your soul, embracing the divine. That's why some icons break border: it's to represent the movement of the divine into our world. Icons sometimes show cloaks flapping in an imaginary breeze. That's supposed to represent the breath of the Spirit Himself, Who goes where He wills. Icons are about theophany, the theosis that happens to all peoples and nature. That is not a static reality, just a reality that only needs to utter one Word for all time.

Icons are supposed to show the Kingdom of Heaven. This place is not a static one, but one living in a singular Word who offers a singular sacrifice of Love to the Father. Never changing, ever new, icons depict this reality by breaking borders (thus making the moment present to us) and by showing a wind blowing through to represent the Spirit as it enlivens the offering. These are not pretty pictures to stare at, but a representation of a reality that needs to be encountered, grappled with, and accepted. The Kingdom of Heaven is amongst you: how will you respond to it?

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Icon as an Image of the Trinity

Iconography is a special form of prayer where the iconographer prays by painting. It is a form of sacrifice on the part of the iconographer as he strives to be with God in prayer and produces the icon as his offering to God. It's a special relationship that's hard to describe. By being in contact with the Uncreated Light you attempt to create what you've experienced: Light. I've found, as I've written icons, that each stage relates to a different Person of the Trinity. The Father seems to be involved with the creation of the board and initial color, the Son seems to be involved with the drawing, gold leaf, and inscriptions, and the Spirit is involved with highlighting. While this isn't a perfect analogy (what Trinitarian image is?), I find it makes sense on a practical level.

I find myself thinking of the Father a lot as I actually prepare the board, which comes from birchwood ply that I buy and prep myself. As I gesso, sand, and put the underlying color (either a yellow ochre or a burnt orange) on board after board I've come to realize that the process is a tribute to God the Father. Without the Father reality would not exist and yet He is The Hidden One, the One from Whom the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds. He is the source of all things and yet is the least known of the Trinity. And so the board reminds me of the Father, the One Who made all things and yet His creations have the least idea about.

The drawing reminds me of God the Son; the Word, the Idea, the Logos. Jesus is the One by Whom we know the Father, the One by Whom we come to know the Father by. The drawing gives itself the board something to portray. The analogy breaks down a bit here: the board is pointless without the drawing, and the drawing can survive without the board. It has it's own surface already; the paper it was originally conceived on. But, as I work on transfering the drawing and etching it into the board, I realize that it's not the drawing that's the Word, but the etching upon the board. The board and the etching are of the same substance. The etching is the expression of the board, much as the Logos is the expression of the Father.

Painting is the easiest part of this whole process, relatively speaking. It's the most glamorous, that's for sure, the part that's the most noticeable. The painting enhances and shows the drawing in it's complete light. It's a complete revelation and shows everything in it's own light. But the thing is that paint does not make an icon complete. it only reveals the im/perfections of your drawing and board. And that's what the Holy Spirit does for us: He reveals the Trinity in His perfection  And the paint on the board does the same thing: it reveals everything. Every last divet and imperfection of the board, every poorly done fold, it all comes to light. But the paint also reveals the things I did right. The Spirit enlivens and supports.

When I get done with the icon I hold it up and see the Trinity: the unapproachable Father, the Idea known as the Son, and the Breath that is Spirit, all bonded together. Sure, my icon isn't of a single substance, but it is a single presentation which, while not perfect, does in some way light up the darkness. The icon is one unit now, with differing parts that interrelate to make a single object.  It is, in one sense, it's own Trinity.

And so, as I paint on the board with the inscribed drawing on it, I realize that all the imperfections of my offering will be revealed to everyone who looks at it. I didn't make a perfect image of the Trinity, because not only is the icon not a real analogy to God but it's not even done all that well to begin with. But, as my friend Martinez says, God is immeasurable but man must try to measure anyway. I don't mind that my six month son, Micah, can't stand yet. In fact, I find it adorable that he wants to stand so much that he's willing to fall into my arms over and over again as he fails! I love him all the more for trying. Isn't that even moreso from God, Who isn't limited by a short temper and infestimal point of view?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

What is an Iconographer?

What are icons?

Icons are an essential part of the Christian faith, the pictoral confirmation that Christ did indeed become man and come among us. Icons are an aid in prayer, Church approved safe images to use on the incredibly joyful but difficult path of prayer. Icons are windows into heaven, allowing us to glimpse into the next world, giving us hope that we can get there by showing us just the tiniest glimpse of what awaits us in heaven. Icons are doors to heaven,  they allow prayers to go up to God and miracles to come down to us so we can remember the truth: God is with us!

But to some of us icons are a part of a difficult process where we grapple with something that we cannot understand but can only put in color and line. They are a process of the groaning without words as we try to express to God what is true, good and beautiful. To some of us icons are a process.

Those people are known as iconographers. We see beauty and truth and try to replicate it in our admiration for it. But it's a struggle to do this, since we're all sinners, in need of mercy, and so to produce beauty one must put sin to death.

I try as hard I can to be an iconographer. Let's see where it takes me.