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)