As we approach the days of Holy Week, life can get busy for people of faith. For those in leadership roles, you likely don’t have time to read. That’s OK. This is a time for you to use your meditation and prayer time to rest in the presence of God’s Spirit. Palm Sunday, April 10, begins the mad dash of multiple planned worship experiences in most churches, and the week usually gets more complicated by the human conflicts that also arrive during the high holy days when more is expected than than can be accomplished by Easter Sunday.
Some of these disasters will be small, such as the child who goes out to make a violet ink from new irises growing by the back porch and messes up her pretty Easter dress. Others will be actual chaos, involving runaway ex-spouses with the non-custodial child. Yes, the holidays can get crazy for families, ordinary and church families both.
The tradition of the icon says these images are “windows into the heavenly spaces.” I offer seven of my interpretations of these windows: Mandylion, or the Image Not Made By Human Hands, Resurrection of Christ, Christ is Lord, The Good Shepherd, and the Mandylion of the Ecological Christ, who proclaims, “All creation shall be renewed.”
In art class, I taught our group the time honored technique of using a cartoon to transfer an image to another surface. Of course, their first reaction was, “Are we watching Saturday morning cartoons today?”
“No, it’s Friday. We’re going to make our own carbon paper,” I said, as I showed them how artists of old would rub graphite on the back of their drawings and then outline the major lines onto the wall or the canvas to transfer the image. The J. Paul Getty Museum has a great video on YouTube explaining this process.
“You mean we’re going to paint by number?” “Not a chance. You still have to make your own color decisions and shading choices.” Really, by now you’d think they know my opinion on the easy way. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
I didn’t bring any complicated images of the holy icons. I brought only ones with simple outlines. I knew this project wasn’t going to be as easy as people first thought. It’s not as simple as coloring within the lines.
An icon is an image of a holy person, but it isn’t a mere representation of the individual. When we make photographs or even painted portraits, we seek to make “likenesses” of the individual, and capture their outward details and idiosyncrasies. If we can also capture their inner spirit, we take the image to a master level. Icons, however, are more concerned with representing the inner, spiritual nature of the person, rather than their outward nature. After all, we don’t have any images of how the holy ones from the earliest days of faith actually looked. We only have their acts and the symbols connected with them, so in the iconography we can identify them by these qualities. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikōn ‘likeness’ and -graphia ‘writing’, so when we paint, we’re actually “writing a likeness” of the holy image.
In the iconographic tradition, all of the faces are broad across the brow, to represent the holy wisdom of God residing in the saints, just as their elongated figures and extremities accent this holiness. The eyes, windows into the soul, are large compared to a natural face, while the mouth is small. The small mouth indicates the saint has conquered bodily passions. There’s always an ear open on an icon, for the icon needs to “hear our prayers.” Not that the icon is alive, but it’s more like an open window into heaven. Therefore, the saint’s ear is the open window through which our prayers flow into the golden light of the mysterious world beyond this material one in which we dwell both in shadows and light.
The color in icons also plays an important role. Red belongs to martyrs. Blue stands for wisdom. White symbolizes paradise and chastity. Green is the color of the Venerable Fathers. Gold symbolizes sanctity.
The icon painter and teacher of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Svetlana Vasyutina once described an experience before the iconostasis or screen of images of the saints in the church. “A while ago, I was tortured by the question why it is golden. Once I was standing at a church, looking at the iconostasis. Suddenly, they turned off the electric lights, and only candles before the icons were burning. The golden traces were shining, giving back the light. It was as if, not the candles, but the halos, were radiating light. I was amazed; the light seemed not material, not as comes from a candle or a lamp. The golden color shows the person painted in the icon was granted a different kind of light.”
According to St. Paul, glory (doxa) appears where the form and the idea of God, which inhabits it, become one. This is especially true where form becomes a place of theophany (a visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god), where the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit. This glory is represented by the nimbus or halo of the saints. We hear Paul speak of this power in Philippians 3:21—
“He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
The disciples first saw this glory descending upon Christ on the Mount of the Transfiguration, as recorded in Matthew 17:2—
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
To become completely transformed by the Holy Spirit wasn’t only a special gift given only to the saints alone, but it was meant for all believers. As Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (American Standard Version)—
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.”
A famous story in the Eastern Orthodox Monastic tradition follows:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Many of us are barely alight with the fire of Christ, and we wonder why the glory of God doesn’t shine through us. Others of us hide our light under a bushel so we don’t stand out from the crowd. If we wonder why we aren’t going onto Christian Perfection in love of God and neighbor, or being a witness to Jesus Christ for others to follow, then we might need to read Abba Joseph’s recommendation once again: “If you will, you can become all flame.”
When we paint an icon, we participate in a spiritual endeavor in which we are coworkers with the Holy Spirit. We enter into a kairos time, or God’s creating time, and are no longer only working only in human, chronological time. This is a mystery, not to be understood in ordinary terms, even if we begin at 10:15 in the morning and stop to cleanup at 11:45. Like the golden background, time has no meaning while we paint the icon. Our cares and concerns of this world can be given to the icon, and thus to God.
We make our prayer gifts in two ways: we hope to become more conformed to the image of God and we hope our images conform better to the icon before us. We’re going on to perfection, one bit at a time. In faith, we expect to be made perfect in love in this life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, or at the moment of our death, as the classic Wesleyan teaching states. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis, union with God, from which our Methodist teaching of sanctification derives, teaches we can have real union with God, just as Jesus had, being fully human and fully divine. We don’t become gods, but we participate in the full image of God, in which we were first created.
We can contemplate these beautiful words of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (+373), in his treatise On The Incarnation, against the Arian heresy:
‘God became “sacrophore”—bearer of our flesh—so that mankind might become “pneumatophore—bearer of the Holy Spirit.’” (Michael Quenot, THE ICON, p 55)
When we keep our heart set on the image of Christ, we remember his undying love for all creation. Then we learn the meaning of the faith of a loving son or daughter, in comparison to that of an unwilling servant. This is how John Wesley saw his own conversion at Aldersgate:
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Once we realize the law of sin and death no longer holds us in chains, we can freely live in life and love, now and always, if we conform our image to Christ.
When faced with a complicated task, what’s the first thing we need to do? I usually vote to have a cup of coffee and sit down to think about it. Some may call this procrastination, but I call it contemplation. I need to settle my mind, focus my senses, and discern the most important parts of my task. This is necessary, for if I were cutting off a limb from a tree, I’d sure want to get my body placed on the part of the tree that wasn’t going to fall. Keep the most important thing the first thing in mind is always the best practice.
Once our youth group from church went to the Appalachian Mountains for a mission work project. Most of our kids came from poor homes and we arrived in a single church bus, which for some reason the license plate hadn’t got renewed. The group even let me be the navigator. Only by the grace of God did we arrive, for I’m known to be directionally challenged among all my friends.
The other group who attended this session with us came with another truck, complete with all their own tools. Our children were despondent at first, for they felt they couldn’t “compete.” Our adult team leaders reminded them, “We’re here to do the work God has called us to do. This isn’t a contest. Everyone has value and all our work counts toward the greater good.”
That big, well provisioned group got the job of replacing a front porch and a roof. They divided up into a porch and roof team. The porch team finished first, but then they got mad when the roof team had to destroy their work to put the roof on right. They had failed to talk out an overall plan first. If the roofers had started on the porch end, then the porch team could come behind them and work would progress along properly.
This is called team work in groups. Our small group was experienced in talking out the process before we began working, so we knew the consequences of our actions. “If…then” is always an important consideration, especially in our artistic endeavors.
If we’re familiar with the work of Dr. Stephen R. Covey, he talks about putting first things first by organizing and executing around our most important priorities. We live and are driven by the principles we value most, not by the agendas and forces which surround us. Pleasing others isn’t God’s purpose for us, but to do God’s work of loving all and serving the least of God’s people.
When we look at a landscape, we have to select the primary image to emphasize, and relate the other forms around this important image. In the still life, we might drive ourselves crazy trying to paint every single petal, pistil, and leaf of some flowers in a vase, or we could find the most important shapes, which give us enough visual cues to let the viewer say, “Yes, this is a flower painting.” Not every leaf needs to be given the same attention, since our goal is to make a painting, not a rendering of the subject before us.
Some might ask, “Why do we return to this well worn theme from time to time?” The best answer is we continue to learn from our repeated exposure to this theme. For another, our drawing skills improve over time, so we can see our progress. Also, our ability to handle the paint gets better, so we are more comfortable with mixing our colors and planning our composition. Besides, the great artists over the centuries have found this discipline fruitful, so if it benefited them, most likely we’ll get some good from it also. My nanny’s wisdom comes clear here: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”
When faced with so many shapes of leaves, a central stem, and a glass vase with ridges and reflections, our untrained brain wants to explode. We have to catch our breath, inhale, and exhale to cleanse our nerves. This is the point we begin our first simplification. If we note the proportions, the leaves are about the same height as the vase, and we can set the vase on a plane (the table) so it has depth. We can mark these off on the bare canvas with light pencil or a light wash of yellow paint. We’ll paint over it later.
The next step of simplification is to get the basic lines and shapes down. These don’t have to be perfect, but give you an idea of where you’re going to paint. If you do this in a pale wash, you can paint over it with the heavier colors in the more exact form. In sculpture, Michelangelo was known for chipping away from the stone everything that didn’t look like his subject. In painting, we add color, tint, and shade until it looks like our subject.
The final stage of simplification is to get the background in. Here you can paint up close to the individual shapes and “clean up the edges.” You can add highlights in places to bring out the foreground shapes, and add a shadow in the background for variety. By this time, the vase ought to be dry enough to put highlights on it also. Notice the leaves aren’t all the same color and they don’t bend the exact same way. Nothing in nature is perfect, for each part grows according to the amount of sun, shade, and nutrients it receives. As one of my old teachers reminded me, “Nature has no straight lines, so you never have to worry about that.”
To show you how sustained effort and intentional looking over time can helps student’s work improve, I offer the following examples from February, 2019, and September, 2020. One was the spider plants and the other the daffodils. I’m not sure who did these, so I won’t identify them.
I merely throw these in here because Gail and Mike have been working with me for several years. If practice hasn’t yet made perfect, it certainly has made improvements, and that’s all anyone can ask for. After all, we’re not asked to be perfect, but to go on to perfection (in love of God and neighbor).
For history buffs a side note. Wild indigo is in the genus Baptisia, which derives from the Greek word, βάπτω, which means “to dip” or “immerse,” just as our baptism (βαπτίζω) does. North American indigenous peoples and early settlers would extract yellow, brown, and green dyes from the leaves and stems of wild indigo, notably blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) and other species. Indigo dye was extracted from yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), but it proved to be an inferior source compared to the treasured true indigo (Indigofera species).
For years, wild indigo remained an obscure historical relic, its ornamental and ecological contributions undiscovered and under appreciated. Yet, in the springtime, wild indigo produces tall spikes of pea-like flowers that rise above the gray- to blue-green three-lobed leaves to provide nearly a month long display of color. The flowers sustain bumblebees and other winged pollinators, while the leaves feed the larvae of a variety of butterflies that include the wild indigo duskywing, frosted elfin, eastern tailed-blue, silver-spotted skipper, and various sulphurs. If you want to encourage butterflies in your garden, this is a hardy, drought tolerant, and deer resistant plant.
Gail found the plants with their unique seed heads on a hike last week. This subject matter was received with more joy than my suggestion of apples. Evidently, what was good enough for the great master Cezanne is an acquired taste for my students. I might need to bring apple pie to soften them up. I’m not above bribery for a good cause. Besides, pie would be a great still life. Gail got a very detailed drawing of the leaves, the vase, and the grouping’s placement on the table. She sketched in the counterbalanced stick with its mossy growth. This was the quickest I’ve seen her work, for she’s usually very deliberate in her choices.
We had a full house last Friday, so Mike sat at a different table. He had to paint with the added burden of looking over his shoulder periodically to check his work. He began to paint more from emotions than from sight, which isn’t a bad choice. As long as his work carries enough of the vocabulary of the image to speak its message, he’s good with it. It’s the energy, the experience of painting, and using his mind to solve a problem in his own creative way that engages his interest. So if his painting looks “less real” than Gail’s, it doesn’t mean it’s less successful. He began from a different place, so his destination is also different.
A new member of our group, Sally is experimenting with techniques and tools, as well as the paint itself. This week she came with heavy body Liquitex paints, the professional quality paint, which has more pigment than binder. She was so used to the thin bodied paints, however, she watered down these excellent colors. When she asked why they weren’t working like she thought, I pointed out, “You’re supposed to use them straight out of the tube, thick.” This is why we have a group session, so we can learn together. Sally also had a new fan brush, which she used to make brown decorative marks all over her canvas. “I just wanted to try it!” Now that she knows, maybe she’ll plan ahead. I really like the swaying energies of her leaves. They’re happy and full of life. If this were in bright colors, Matisse would be proud.
Lauralei brought an interesting solution to our subject this past week. The clear vase was a little intimidating, so she, like several others, colored it solid. When we first learn to swim, we want the security of water wings or the proximity of the edge of the pool. We all take small steps before we take bigger steps. She got the stick and fringed moss down and the many leaves of the plant.
Making all these decisions takes a lot of energy. Our brains use about 20% of our calories, so if we’re engaged in a new challenge, our blood sugar can dip if we’re not careful. If we aren’t aware of this, we can run out of energy or make careless choices. As someone who has prediabetes, I get low blood sugar easily. Stress and excitement can cause my blood sugar to dip. I always bring a small snack as well as eat a good breakfast with whole grain complex carbohydrates, like old fashioned oats. That snack is important, since I test my blood sugar before I drive home.
I’ve learned the hard way if my blood glucose reading is under 80, it’s falling and my driving skills will be going south too. I usually know I’m having trouble, for I can’t string two thoughts together and I begin to overwork my painting. I can’t make the good decision to stop while I’m ahead. Not everyone has this problem, but learning to recognize when you’re tired or just painting with no purpose in mind, is also an acquired skill. Taking care of our bodies so we can fully enjoy exploring a new adventure is a gift we can give ourselves. We only have one body in which to live out God’s purpose for our lives.
Dusty concentrates well and gets a good shape on his canvas before he sets out to paint. I can’t read his mind, but it seems as he draws, the steps he needs to paint his image come into his mind. This is contemplating at a deep level. It’s not surface thinking, but an inner, deep knowledge that percolates up from within. I mention it’s an icon, for the tablecloth is tipped upward as if it were a background, not a flat plane on which the vase sits. This isn’t something he did by choice, since we haven’t done a lesson on perspective together. In the language of icons, the four cornered shape represents the world and its cardinal directions, or all creation. So we have one plant and all creation, as Paul said to the Romans (8:19-21):
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
We’ll take Friday, February 4, off due to the frozen roads. On February 11, we’ll do paper Valentine collages. Y’all stay warm and safe. Eat hearty soups and enjoy the beauty of the snow.
Joy and peace,
Manet: Chrysanthemums and Clematis in a Crystal Vase, 1882, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
This is a time of year when we look to the night sky for a sign. It’s not for nothing the depths of darkness are the beginnings of hope and our desire for the return of the healing light. People around the world and over the generations of time have celebrations of feasting, family reunions, and honoring their culture’s gods on the darkest day, or the Winter Solstice. The term solstice derives from the Latin word “sōlstitium”, meaning “the Sun stands still”. On the Winter Solstice, the sun reaches its southern-most position, shines directly on the Tropic of Capricorn, and seems to stand still there.
We’re all familiar with Stonehenge, a Neolithic stone monument in England built about 4,500 years ago to track important moments in the solar year. A later custom is the blazing Yule Log, a Norse tradition. The family would drag a huge piece of wood into their house, set it into the main fireplace, and let it burn for several days. It was a type of sympathetic magic to encourage the distant and faint sun to return, reinvigorated. The family often wrote down their desires for the new year as an offering to the gods. These were then burned in the fire. Afterwards, the family scattered ashes from the fire in the corners of every room in the house for good luck.
The Chinese also have a Winter Solstice festival, which once was a new year’s festival. The family gathers to eat traditional foods, and they honor their ancestors, as well as the old ones still living among them. This poem by Ruan Yue, in the late Northern Song Dynasty speaks of this:
罗袜新成，更有何人继后尘。 The socks for elders are newly woven; the custom should be handed down.
A later poet of the Song Dynasty, Fan Chengda, had a more optimistic outlook on the dreary and dark days before the Winter Solstice, or perhaps he was using “positive pep talk to reframe his grumpy mind.”
休把心情关药裹，但逢节序添诗轴。 Don’t be thinking about medicines all the time; write a new poem at the solar term.
I can relate to Fan Chengda, for I find I have difficulty waking up without the sun streaming into my bedroom windows. I’m also more irritable and mopey on these dark days. It’s probably Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a form of depression related to the lack of light in this season. I tend to think dark thoughts, feel more pain, and lose my appetite, except for medicinal chocolate, which I consume under the Tim Allen mantra, “If some is good, more should be better!”
When I get this type of mood on, the commercial Christmas we see on television and in the movies strikes a discordant note in my soul. I think about the ancient text, which reminds us when the parents of Jesus went to Bethlehem to be counted in the census: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)
What most of us glide right over is Joseph had kinfolks galore in this town, but none of them opened their home to Mary, for she was pregnant before he married her. The innkeepers in town weren’t going to risk their reputations for these two either. Only one innkeeper took pity on them and let them stay with the animals in the stable. This marks the birth of the Christ child as an outsider to his whole extended family, the House of David.
The Magi, or Wise Men, came from the East to visit King Herod, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”( Matthew 2:2)
Herod was worried he would be deposed, so he sent the Magi to find this child, then return and report to him. The Magi followed the star until it stopped over the place where the family was staying. They offered their gifts and returned home, without telling Herod where the baby was. Jesus was an outsider to the Roman occupation which propped up the local kings. He was a threat to the way governments rule the world.
Shepherds are the epitome of outsiders in the Bible, for they live outdoors among sheep and goats, neither of which are clean. In fact, anyone who’s gone camping knows how hard staying clean is. Glamping isn’t camping, and neither is RVing. My youthful experiences in Girl Scout camps of pitching tents and digging rain gutters is the closest I’ve ever been to living on the land. Even then, we had outhouses and cold water showers. The biblical city folk who could keep the ritual rules of cleanliness looked down on the shepherds as a lower class group, or outside of society.
Imagine a group of shepherds sitting around a nighttime fire, eating a simple meal, and chatting about their day or their families at home. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified (Luke 2:9). I’d be terrified also, as I imagine you would be too! There’s a good reason the first words out of angels’ mouths are “Do not be afraid!”
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)
If ever the outcasts of the world needed good news, if ever the hopeless needed a savior, if ever the least of all needed one just like them, it was these lowly shepherds, who went to find a newborn child lying in an animal’s feeding stall. No fancy crib for the newborn king, no royal robes or golden crown, just ordinary swaddling clothes. He looked just like any other child, except his birth was proclaimed by angels, honored by Magi from afar, and given a place through the grace of a kind innkeeper.
Those of us who will celebrate Christmas with our families, our extended friends, and our relations in a wild, chaotic buzz of coming and going, feasting and drinking, and perhaps exchanging of gifts, don’t know the quiet and holy night when the light of the world entered “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79)
We keep our homes lit inside and out with megawatts of electric lights, both colored and white. Some of us even cue our lights to blink to seasonal music. Those of us who live beyond the great urban areas, can better see the stars at night, since there’s no light pollution. This is one reason we need to keep our national parks as close to nature as possible, for one day, these may be the only places people can marvel at the bright stars against the dark canopy of the sky above.
Gail brings her love of the outdoors and her experience as a park ranger to her work. Over the trees, a floating band of stars become a pathway across the night sky.
Even if our assignment was stars, that never means “only stars.” After all, the sun is a star, which is very close to us, astronomically speaking. If you’re going to have the sun and stars, you might as well have the moon also. I always say, “Why not?” The Tim Allen rule sometimes applies in art class: “More power!” When you go too far on the Tim Allen scale, that’s when his sidekick Al reminds him, “Sometimes less is more.” Mike certainly captures the energy and joy of the celestial bodies in this painting through the bold colors and strong brush strokes.
Sally had an idea in her mind, but no image to look at. She wanted to show the cosmos in motion, as if God were looking down upon it. In her mind’s eye, she imagined this from memory. As she worked on the small canvas, she’d add more paint into the areas which weren’t quite dry and got somewhat frustrated at the paint not bending to her will. As a matter of technique, painting into a dry area is better than continuing to add color to a wet area, since the wet brush picks up the wet layers below that. Mike and Gail, having many sessions under their belts, have already crossed this particular bridge. She also learned something significant. It’s easier to paint something when you can look at it. I think it’s a good start and it holds promise: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41).
I’m not a fast walker, nor do I get down the road quickly. I’m too busy noting the color of the sky, thinking what colors to mix to get the grey trees of a late December day, or how to paint the towering cumulus clouds of summer. I file these thoughts away in the treasure house of my mind, for one day I’ll need them. I look at the shadows of the leaf clumps on trees, but not at each leaf alone. The tree leaves are communities, not individuals. They exist as groups, so the artist treats them as such.
I’m not sure about others, but many walkers are fixed on their personal best speed, or going a half mile longer. Some people drive to the grocery store and make their list in their head as they go. In the store, they make a new to do list for the home, and once that’s done, they make another list for the next day. The cycle starts all over again. They never once raise their eyes to greet the stars, to note the cycles of the moon, to enjoy the sunset colors, or the sunrise either. They’re probably more productive than I am, but I take time to reflect deeply on the “why of things” rather than repeating the same rhythms over and over. Most people like the familiar rhythms, however, while I question if they still have meaning in today’s world.
In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans thought the stars had a power and energy to determine the fates of human beings. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and stoic philosopher of the 2nd century, wrote in his Meditations: “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” From his privileged location, he could identify with the heroic persons in the astrological figures of mythology.
Some people are “born under a bad sign,” or are unlucky in life. Of course, some say we make our own luck, but people born into harsh circumstances lack the same resources to make choices for good. The deck is stacked against them, from living in trauma filled neighborhoods to a lack of quality foods due to a paucity of grocery stores. As Albert King, the great blues artist once sang, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
The good news is the bright light of the Christmas star points to the new light, which has come into the world. We hear, amidst the cacophony of commercials and piped in musical carols, the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you” (60:1).
Our art class returns Friday, January 4, 2022, at 10 am. I hope to bring pomegranates, if I can still find them in the store. We’ll make a fresh start in the New Year, so if you want to join, you’ll start where you are. We are a “one room schoolhouse,” so there’s no grade levels with us. We’re all learning and improving from where we are at the moment.
When our world is changing “faster than we can say Jack Rabbit,” sometimes life can get overwhelming. My dad often used this quaint phrase when he wanted something in a hot minute, like a bowl of ice cream just before bedtime. Or when he wanted us kids to get a move on and not dilly dally. Usually we were messing around and goofing off when our parents had time constraints, so the tone of his voice sometimes sharpened with the promise of consequences if we weren’t front and center right now. My parents were usually in hurry mode, while we kids never quick unless the destination was the local Dairy Queen. We all screamed for ice cream in my family.
Grownups have a different sense of time than children do. Adults know from experience how short lived is the human existence, for they’ve lived long enough to have loved and lost. Children, who’re generally protected from such harsh realities, live in worlds in which time both stretches into eternity and seems to stand still. I call this variable sense “rubber band” time, since it can both stretch to the moment of breaking, but also snap back to inertia or non movement. For children, especially at year end, Christmas comes on lumbering feet, but for parents, the season is far too brief. The day blows through on a wind from the north, like a polar front charging into the Deep South on a mission to freeze every fragile magnolia blossom before the new year can make an appearance.
Children’s worlds are different from adults, for they still have a sense of wonder and all things are new to them. I remember seeing my first rainbow high up in the sky. I put up such a clamor on the front porch as I called for my mother, she was sure I’d seen a snake or some dangerous animal. She was put out I’d called her away from her household tasks “just to see a rainbow.” To this day, I still think rainbows are wondrous writings in the sky and meant to give us joy for our mundane lives. Seven decades later, the child in me still celebrates rainbows.
Our sense of time changes as we age, for everything a child sees is a first and a best. This is why we can have such deeply imprinted memories from our childhoods. Later on, we’re doing the same things over and over, so unless these events stand out for some different reason, they all tend to blend together. We also tend to think of these as “this is the way life is,” or they become the “model” for our world. This is also known as our cognitive map.
Some people can give good directions to their home, while others wouldn’t be able to get someone to their place even if they lived in a teacup. Those “others” lack good cognitive maps, for they don’t have a good mental image of the landmarks on the way to their home. Today, our cognitive maps are undergoing rapid change. The world we used to know doesn’t exist, mostly because of COVID. Once we had a service economy, but now we don’t do face to face experiences because of the pandemic, so we buy goods. We’re buying so many goods (can we ever buy bads?), we have supply chain problems trying to provide them all. We’re so used to same day or next day delivery from our pre-pandemic lives, we think our world is coming to an end if it’s going to take a week to get our cherished gifts delivered.
That old world existed back in 2005, when Amazon Prime partnered with the US Postal Service for its packages’ last leg of delivery. Today we have on demand groceries ordered through the app for immediate pick up or delivery, as well as restaurant foods for the same. This was unimaginable just a decade ago. It’s still so new, some folks won’t use it, even if they were on their death bed. Their cognitive map won’t let them try a new thing, for these new places and experiences aren’t encoded on their mind maps.
The ancient world maps, dating from the peak of the Middle Ages, take their cartography from both faith and geography. One of the earliest is the Map Psalter, which takes its name from its full-page illustration of a map of the world. It’s design shares close parallels with the famous Mappa Mundi, now housed at Hereford Cathedral. The manuscript was made in London during the latter half of the 13th century but after 1262, as the Psalter’s calendar commemorates on 3rd April the feast day of St Richard of Chichester (d. 1253) who was canonized in 1262.
The image shows Christ holding the orb of the world, flanked by two angels. The map itself is highly detailed. Jerusalem is marked in the center, with Rome appearing slightly below it. Major rivers, such as the Ganges and the Danube, are drawn in blue, and the Red Sea is also included. Representations of the so-called ‘Marvels of the East’ line the right-hand side of the painting. The British Isles are found to the lower left.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi is unique in Britain’s heritage. An outstanding treasure of the medieval world, it records how 13th-century scholars interpreted the world in spiritual as well as geographical terms. The map bears the name of its author, ‘Richard of Haldingham or Lafford’ (Holdingham and Sleaford in Lincolnshire). Recent research suggests a date of about 1300 for the creation of the map. An unknown artist drew the Hereford Mappa Mundi on a single sheet of vellum (calf skin), measuring 64 × 52 inches (1.58 × 1.33 meters), tapering towards the top with a rounded apex.
The geographical material of the map is contained within a circle 52 inches in diameter and reflects the thinking of the medieval Church, which places Jerusalem at the center of the world. Drawings of the history of humankind and the marvels of the natural world are superimposed onto the continents of the world. These 500 or so drawings include around 420 cities and towns; 15 Biblical events; 33 plants, animals, birds, and strange creatures; 32 images of the peoples of the world; and 8 pictures from classical mythology.
We all make maps in our minds, otherwise we’d get lost going from our easy chair to the kitchen to get a snack on a commercial break. This is because our hippocampus is working well. Some of us have a talent for getting lost in a proverbial tea cup, especially when landmarks aren’t visible. When I lived in Colorado, I always knew which way I was headed as long as I could see the mountains. At night, I had no idea, so I could get lost easily.
The ancient western world oriented their maps with east at the top and Jerusalem at the center because the sun rose in the east and faith was primary in their world view. The Chinese, who were the first to invent the compass, often drew maps with South on top because they always thought the compass pointed to South. South was their sacred direction, for in any religious or royal ceremonies the kings faced south. This perception may have come because the northern parts of China were cold and dark.
The Islamic maps of the era also drew the south on top, since the initial Islamic habitations were north of Mecca. Therefore, South-oriented maps would show the followers looking up towards it. Yet, our maps today orient north instead, due to Mercator, the noted mapmaker of the 16th century. By this time, sailors were navigating not only by the North Star, but also with the compass. Their sailing records were complete and detailed. Mercator used these to create the first Mercator Projection map, which was more correct than any map beforehand. After this map, all western maps set North as the top of the map.
Columbus managed to find the Americas in 1492 with the map he had at the time, but he was convinced he’d found islands outlying Japan or Asia because he’d traveled the distance the map had indicated was necessary to find the Asian continent. This is a classic case of cognitive dissonance, for the map Columbus had in his mind and in his hand didn’t correlate with reality. This disconnect can cause us discomfort or cause us to make decisions or conclusions based on a reality that no longer exists or doesn’t fit the facts in hand.
All of us have this problem, to one degree or another. As we grow up, we discover our childhood myths are just stories, and the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Rabbit, and Santa Claus aren’t real, but just our parents acting in secret to bring magic into our childish world. As the oldest child in my family, I recall the Christmas I realized Santa Claus wrote in the same distinctive script for which my father was known. Unlike many doctors, my dad had elegant and legible handwriting. At the tender age of five, I made the choice to keep the secret of Santa Claus safe for my younger brother’s sake. Besides, as long as I believed, I would get presents from both my parents and Santa. Keeping the Santa secret safe had its advantages.
These old maps also remind us how our point of view determines our world view. If we see the world with the eyes of faith, we’ll observe the world through a different lens than the person who looks through a microscope or telescope. A person of faith can look through these tools and see the wonders of God in the smallest or most distant bits of creation, but without faith, these views will be unique, but not inspiring.
In ancient times, while sailors navigated with their eyes fixed on the Northern Star, they also depended on the written records of previous sailors. They depended on the capricious sea gods to protect them and their cargo from harm. Sailing was a dangerous occupation and goods were often lost at sea. The apostle Paul was caught in a storm on the Mediterranean for two weeks, when the crew finally threw the cargo of wheat overboard to lighten the load. Even in the first century, there were supply chain issues in the grocery business (Acts 27). Afterwards, Paul met and healed people on shore and the ship finally got under way with new supplies to replace the old ones.
Today, our settled lives have been upended by a tiny virus that seems to mutate and persist. What we used to know as normal now feels strange. I grew up hand washing dishes at the kitchen sink, but since COVID and the demise of my garbage disposal, I’m back to hand washing them until the plumber can rotorouter my drain and I can put Mr. Dishwasher back to work. I’m not sure my dishes are clean or sanitary. Of course, I obviously made it to a ripe old age without a dishwasher, but the pandemic has changed my worldview. I see germs everywhere now.
“‘Adjusting our expectations to account for unpredictability, uncontrollability, and the fact that our lives may be disrupted on and off, and building that into our expectations, would be good for our mental health,’ said Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “As humans, we don’t have as much control as we think we do. The virus has just made it very clear.” Many of us have a world view that puts us in charge of all things, when in truth we aren’t the captains of our fate.
The first stage of my icon map followed the original map fairly well, but I let it rest next to my easel for a long time. This was a sure sign I wasn’t happy with it. The old map was a world view which belonged to a different age, but not to me. When I thought of my own world view, Jesus still had priority as Lord and Ruler of creation, but the world over which he reigned wasn’t merely the earth, but all of the known universe.
After a vacation, I decided to repaint it. The central swath of color represents the Milky Way in the night sky, as seen from earth. The warm golds and reds are the energies of all the planets and the stars in our universe, as well as the heat of all the life on earth. If we are all one, and Christ is lord of all, we humans have a particular responsibility to care for life in all its forms. As John 10:10 reminds us, Jesus said:
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
“ Good artists copy, great artists steal,” Pablo Picasso once said. If we’re going to learn art, we should learn from the masters, and not from ordinary purveyors of paint. In art school, we often copied the old master paintings and drawings to learn their techniques and develop those traditional styles of execution so we could “break the rules” later on if we so chose.
Learning to paint and draw is a process. In ancient times, young people were apprenticed out to a master. In this workshop, they would learn their trade from the ground up, from cleaning brushes and sweeping the workshop floors, to later mixing colors, and then painting backgrounds. Later on they’d be drawing figures, so when they were competent, they would fill in the lesser people in the painting. By the time they achieved master status and were able to leave and establish a studio of their own, they could paint faces, hands, and the complete figure with appropriately draped clothing. This was about five to ten years of full time work in their master’s workshop and included the journeyman designation by the local guild.
When I taught art in the kindergarten through eighth grades at a private school, I always reminded the high achieving parents, “Your children’s art is an exploratory and experimental exercise. It may not look like a beautiful finished product, although it might have gone through that stage at some point in the process. If it’s a picture of daddy cutting the lawn, but all you see is black circles covering the page, that’s the sound of the lawnmower engine and the smoke it makes as it crisscrossed the yard.” For children that age, the story is more important than the image. For the parents, the image is more important, but parents have to learn where their children are in their development.
We can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can we judge a painting done in a weekly art class the same way we look at a painting in a museum. Still, we look to the better image for our inspiration, rather than to a lesser image, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 reminds us:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” The past two weeks our group has been working with faces and master artists. We looked at Picasso in his multiple styles, along with Matisse and his more decorative style. We also painted portraits from our own photos in the styles of these two masters. Both Picasso and Matisse transitioned through several different styles during their artistic lifetimes, so we weren’t limited in our inspiration.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep,” said Scott Adams, the American cartoonist who created Dilbert. Or as the late Bob Ross would say, “There’re no mistakes, only happy little accidents.” Most of us can’t bring ourselves to make mistakes, however, even though mistakes are how we learn. Falling off the bicycle is part of learning how to find the proper balance to stay upright. We take tests in school to discover what we need to restudy. Tests aren’t a measure of our worth, but a measure of our learning. This desire to “appear faultless” often keeps us from trying something new, for fear we might not be good right out of the gate. Mature people know life isn’t a horse race, but everyone has their own gifts and graces to hone and embellish. If we don’t try, we might always be a diamond in the rough. We’ll never rise to our best if we don’t extend ourselves beyond our safe places.
Mike took a look at an image and went to work on his painting. He worked mostly from memory, adding designs and colors as he felt moved to place them on the canvas. “Likeness” wasn’t his goal, but the joy of playing with color and shape instead.
Matisse’s portrait of his wife caused a scandal at the 1905 Salon Exhibition. Matisse’s studio colleagues asked the painter, “What kind of hat and what kind of dress were they that this woman had been wearing which were so incredibly loud in color?” Matisse, exasperated, answered, “Black, obviously”.
“The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense,” is another Picasso quote. After all, those who always stay within the lines and always color the sky blue won’t be able to imagine sunsets or sunrises. This is why James Whistler said, “An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”
What is vision in the world of art? We’re familiar with visions from God, or the lack thereof in certain times, as when Samuel was called:
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. (1 Samuel 3:1)
In God given visions, the prophet is open to God’s word, hears God’s voice, speaks for God, calls God’s people back to God, and reminds people of the consequences of their actions, both good and bad. Like a prophet, an artist needs to be open to the same move of the Spirit in the natural world, for the light calls and the trees speak, and the waters whisper of the deep mysteries of God’s Providence for God’s creation. Perhaps we need still hearts and quiet minds to receive these messages, but thankfully nature has a way of renewing the life of the human soul.
As we become more our true selves before God, we begin to find our artistic vision. Cezanne called Monet, who was famous for his Waterlilies, “only an eye, but what an eye!” If the eye is the window into the soul, we also reflect outwards what we are inside. We keep working on both our inner selves and our outer talents, with the thought one day the two might intersect. As Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” He could learn all the art techniques in a short time, but to become his true self, without pretense before others, took him a lifetime.
We Methodists should have a good jump on this goal, since we have the spiritual tradition of “going onto perfection.” This is one of our classic grace teachings. Prevenient grace brings us to know the saving grace of God before we’re even aware of God’s working in our lives. Justifying grace is the work that lets us understand Christ’s gift on the cross for our salvation, and Sanctifying grace empowers our works to renew us in the image of God.
If God’s grace is available for our spiritual development, it’s also there for our personal development. Is art a frill, or a necessity? Those of us who make art, find our lives are enriched by our creative endeavors. Neuroaesthethics is the emerging field in the science of how art affects the brain. These scientists define creativity as “the generation of something new,” and art as “the most homogenous form of total creativity.” However, we still have no understanding of how the brain generates new ideas, despite a tidal wave of neuroscientific research. This is why my art classes have always had learning environments with projects with no one right answer, but rather multiple possible solutions. All art comes from a true self, not from a stockpile of manufactured and multiplied standardized reproductions.
Recent thinking suggests art should be regarded as a cognitive process in which artists engage the most perplexing issues in their present experience and try to find a way of symbolizing them visually so they can bring coherence to their experience. As a result, the definition of art is constantly changing. Understanding how we symbolize our experience, how we use symbolic form to organize our thinking processes, and what are the neuroanatomical corollaries to these processes will have obvious implications for future learning. Additional neuroscience research supports the idea of enhancing transfer of learning abilities from the arts to other cognitive domains. More importantly, as Yayoi Kusama, the painter of polka dotted pumpkins says, “I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”
One of the best reasons to pursue art is for our spiritual and mental health, rather than to make salable products. Improvement is a goal in itself, as is persistence. Also, concentrating on creating an object that has no real purpose, but to allow the artist to express their inner emotions and solve the challenges of a three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface. “Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one,” said Stella Adler, the American actress. In the studio, we find our true self, not who others think we are or what we do for a living. We can be children once again and paint because we want to.
In art class we lift up “studio habits of mind” or the skills we teach in painting class. For every painting or project, we always first
Observe—to see with acuity
Envision—to generate mental images and imagine
Express—to find their personal voice
Reflect—to think meta-cognitively about our decisions, make critical and evaluative judgments, and justify them
Engage & persist—to work through frustration
Stretch & explore—to take risks, “muck around,” and profit from mistakes
Develop craft skills and
Understand the history of art.
These are thinking or reasoning skills anyone can apply to any area of their lives, even if they’re improvising or “working in the Spirit.” We all can build resilience for our lives through our experiences in art. For some of my former students I taught in the classroom, art class was the only place they were well behaved, for they didn’t have to come up with one right answer, but had the opportunity to discover their own answer within certain boundaries. Also, they were graded on improvement, as well as their work ethic. “Practice makes perfect, or at least improvement, so keep working.”
Just remember what Salvador Dalí said: “The reason some portraits don’t look true to life is that some people make no effort to resemble their pictures.”
I was an art major before I attended seminary at Perkins, where I had the great privilege to take Philosophy from Dr. Billy Abraham. Of course this privilege was extended to me because I failed my one and only philosophy class in undergraduate school. I had taken it pass fail, but hit a terrible depression after my art teacher died. I had no energy to even hand in a paper with my name on it, even though the professor offered this as an act of grace to pass me.
“I’ve not done the work, I’m in over my head, and I haven’t understood any of these concepts in this class,” I said. “I don’t deserve to pass.”
“It’s a pass fail class. It doesn’t count toward a grade average, but it can count against you. Just turn in the paper,” he pleaded.
It didn’t seem appropriate to me, or honorable to take this option, but that could have been my depression coloring my decision making process. Still, I wasn’t raised to take credit for haphazard efforts, and providence ensured my F didn’t count against me when I transferred to art school the next semester, so that F didn’t affect my ultimate grade average after all.
I speak about this because in seminary, Billy Abraham daily stretched the brains of every one of us first year students. First we heard one Greek philosopher say this was “true and real.” Then the philosopher who was his student came along and directly contradicted his old master, saying, “No, instead, something else is true and real.”
We all were in hair pulling mode, not to mention Dr. Abraham’s favorite description, “getting our underwear tied into knots.” I’ve always heard there’s a Rosetta Stone, which can unlock the meaning of an unknown language for those who have the eyes to see it. Perhaps only the creative ones, those who can see the patterns and the similarities, or what the mathematicians call the “sets” and the biologists call the “modules,” can suddenly see the key in plain sight.
I admit I too was floundering until I had the eye opening realization I already held the key in my hand. I’d met this same question before in my art studio and history classes: “What is beautiful and what is truly art?” This definition had changed over the centuries, so why should the ideas of what is “reality and truth” remain fixed? This is a great example of “transfer of learning,” a well known educational concept, which resulted in my “lightbulb moment.”
As I explained to a fellow student, “Think of these as distinct historical ideas, not as your individual truth. It’s like looking at a fashion show from the ancient times to the present: no one expects those clothes to look like what we wear today. Just memorize what each of these styles look like. You don’t have to wear a toga to know what these Greeks thought. We just have to know how these old ideas influence later trends of thought fashions.” This is teaching by analogy, which is familiar to Bible readers as “parables.”
Most people can get over that intellectual hump. Seminary is designed so persons who aren’t agile thinkers will reconsider their educational choices. Philosophy and theology will winnow those who need to be told what to think, rather that learning how to think and understand deeply. Biblical studies will sort out those who aren’t able to interact with more than one voice of biblical interpretation. Then the internships and clinical pastoral settings will further sort those who don’t play well in groups. Finally the supervisory process we all go through toward our ordination into one of the orders of the annual conference is a long period of discernment, for all concerned.
The good news we can all do ministry, for we’re ordained by our baptism into the priesthood of all believers, not only reflect the Christ who lives in us, but to be the Christ in service to our neighbors. As we read 1 Peter 2:9—
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
This is why it’s important we consider such concepts as truth, beauty, and the good. The Greek adjective kalon only approximates English for “beautiful.” Kalon has more of an ethical tone, but doesn’t mean the same thing as agathon or the “good, ” but rather is a special complement to goodness. At times kalon narrowly means “noble,” or “admirable.”
What was true for Plato were the forms, and everything here on earth were mere reflections or imitations of these ultimate truths. The true beauty and the good existed beyond this world, but everything and everyone could aspire to that ideal. Plato thought art and poetry were the arenas of greatest beauty, as Simonides, the Greek poet, drew an explicit analogy: “Painting is silent poetry and poetry is painting that speaks.”
While some say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” for Plato imitation is found in the appearance of things, rather than in reality (the forms, which exist in an ideal world elsewhere), so judged on its own terms, the product of imitation has an ignoble pedigree (Republic 603b). Therefore, the imitative arts direct a soul toward appearances and away from proper objects of inquiry, which are the forms. While a mirror reflection might prompt you to turn around and look at the thing being reflected, an imitation keeps your eyes on the copy alone. Imitation has a base cause and baser effects.
Plato also believed poets created their works under irrational conditions, with inspiration arriving sometimes spontaneously, as if it were from the gods, a “divine madness,” as it were. Even today, people think creative types are more likely to be mentally ill, but science doesn’t bear out this romantic notion. Illness isn’t a prerequisite for creativity, even though many artists have suffering in their life histories.
Creativity of any kind—making a collage, taking photographs, or publishing in a literary magazine—tends to make individuals more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity. Those who score high in everyday creativity also reported feeling a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to those who engage less in everyday creative behaviors. Creating can also be therapeutic for those who are already suffering. For instance, research shows that expressive writing increases our immune system functioning, and the emerging field of post traumatic growth is evidence we can turn adversity into growth.
Realism was the primary purpose of painting until the 19th century, when the invention of photography took over this task. This freed painters to engage in the higher search for what is beautiful and what is true, rather than to limit a painting to reproducing a likenesses or the mere imitation of nature. Yet many people still judge a work of art by how close it resembles the natural world. Of course, we also say the say the same about the embalmer’s art as we view the deceased in the casket: “My, doesn’t so and so look natural! So lifelike, as if they were asleep.”
For our first lesson back in art class, we worked on seeing the familiar in a fresh way. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’re so used to recognizing faces in the ordinary way, to see them in a different way is a struggle. Take the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s an icon or representative image of the renaissance portrait. No matter what an artist does to it, we still recognize it as the Mona Lisa. Our goal was to take a photo of of someone we know, and push the limits of the facial expression and shapes so it wasn’t like the image we worked from originally.
Mike copied the cover of the Bad Girls of The Bible, and made a good likeness. In between calls from work, he focused on replicating an image he could see. After several years of sincere efforts to paint what he sees, it’s hard to break this habit and paint something beyond his vision.
We’ll take a shot at this again. I a similar lesson early in the group’s existence and I remember it was distressing to them to draw without seeing. We were feeling the objects inside bags, and they didn’t like not looking. Bring out of control was disconcerting.
Gail took her grandchild’s photo and stretched it into another dimension by treating the image as if it were a Night of the Living Dead character or the Scream from the German artist Munch. She had the most success of any of us in terms of breaking the norms of “portrait.”
Sally, new to our group, began a lyrical study of a woman’s head. I confess I never saw the image from which she drew her inspiration. It’s her first try, and we’re glad she got paint on the canvas. We’ll keep working on it together. All art, as is life, a work in progress.
I worked from an icon of Jesus, which I knew would test me to break the form I saw before me. As it turned out, I too couldn’t break it on this first day. When the Platonic Ideal Form exerts its pull on the mind and hand, the artist keeps making the reflection of that form as a work, which exists as an imitation or a window into the true reality where the Holy is found.
After a long summer break with all the Covid isolation a person could stand, I quite forgot how much energy teachers expend in explaining new concepts and in the excitement of the first day back. I noticed about 11 am I was struggling for words and not making good choices with my brush, but I ignored it in the thrill of being back with people. After cleaning up, I always check my blood sugar before I drive home. It was 45. I’d never seen it that low, but I was paying attention to other people, not to my body. I ate the crackers I always carry for just such an emergency.
The Wisdom of Solomon (7:26) speaks about God’s Wisdom personified: “For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.”
In Hebrews (1:3), the writer describes The Christ: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
This long discussion on Plato, the true forms elsewhere and the imitations and reflections here help us to realize how much debt Christian spiritually and art history have to Greek thought. Art isn’t just “I know what I like and that’s all that counts.” We can all experience making art and enjoy it on any level. Having the depth of understanding to see how art connects us across the human community will give us a greater appreciation for our common spirit.
I promise I’ll bring a healthy snack to eat during class next Friday! I’ve learned my lesson on this, if nothing else! We’ll work on faces for two more weeks, then we’ll take a short break and come back in October and decorate cookies one week for Day of the Dead and paint an autumn themed subject for the other week.
Joy and Peace,
Simonides on poetry and painting—Plutarch: The Glory of the Athenians 3.1, 346f-347a.
A cognitive map is a representative expression of an individual’s knowledge about the spatial and environmental relations of geographic space. Everyone has a unique relationship to his or her own environment, so each person’s cognitive map is different. I learned this the hard way back before the advent of GPS. Folks would give me directions to their homes in the days when I would make sales calls or later on when I’d make a pastoral visit. It didn’t help that some gave me landmarks like “go past the barn that used to be green,” or “turn left where the old trailer used to be.” I’d clear my throat and reply, “What color is that barn now and what took the place of the old trailer?” Often they couldn’t say, for their internal map was based on old programming and not the latest update. Some people still use their old flip phones, like Mark Harmon on NCIS, but that’s his quirk. They can get around, but it’s hard to get others to come on board with these old ideas.
Everyone’s map is different, for sure, but for some of us, the landmarks can change, but our memories aren’t replaced. Some people are like me, who get lost in a tea cup, so I’m unsure of where I am at any given time. This may be why I give some the impression I’m a tad “spacey.” Others can steer a sure and certain course at any time of the day or night to make their way home, like a carrier pigeon with an important message for those who await their arrival. Once I was riding with the men from the West Helena Church to the Methodist Camp for a meeting. I always liked the Methodist Men’s meetings, for they had steaks and other real food, not dainty salads like the women’s groups. Night was coming on and rural roads in the Arkansas Delta look much like one another in the gloom. Our driver could tell I was uncomfortable.
“What’s the matter, preacher?” “I’ve only been to the camp in the daytime. This doesn’t feel right to me, somehow.”
“You know we all grew up hunting in these woods and rice fields. We know these places like the back of our hands.” “I know. I also know I always get lost every time I go somewhere by myself.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about getting lost tonight! We’ll get you there and back.” “It’s probably better you’re driving, since we don’t want to miss supper.”
They laughed. They all had a much better cognitive map of their home county than I did, since they had spent their whole lives there and I’d only spent three years. Of course I grew up in my home town and even there I still managed to get confused about places, so I’m not sure my living anywhere longer would have filled out my cognitive map with more details.
Characteristics of Cognitive Maps:
Diverse in nature and purpose. Cognitive mapping is used in a broad range of disciplines for a variety of purposes. Cognitive maps are the most general type of mental-model visualization.
No restrictions on structure or form. Cognitive maps don’t have to adhere to a specific format. Thus, they’re often abstract and have no consistent hierarchy. They’re flexible and can accommodate a wide set of concepts or situations that need to be represented.
I usually get lost in a teacup, and my typical travel technique is to drive in the general direction of my goal and then circle it until I have it surrounded. I once drove to Springfield, Missouri to find the hospital there. Once I saw the blue H sign, I took the highway exit, and drove until I began to see a multitude of fast food shops along with drug stores and medical uniform shops. Once I saw physicians’ offices, I knew I was close. Then the height of the hospital building was unmistakable. I knew it would be located in this area, for my cognitive map of every city told me “this is how a hospital district is arranged.”
I’m not a direct point to point person, a fact which drives most of my friends crazy. They also insist on driving when we go places, so I guess they don’t like my usual scenic route. I’m well aware most people’s minds aren’t like mine, so I design my sermons so they can be understood by the greatest number, most of whom are logical or literal thinkers, who like one point to build upon another. This has always been a growth area for me, much like navigating directly to a destination. Yet I’ve always arrived (to everyone’s amazement) and somehow I’ve also found a sermon that didn’t put everyone to sleep. (Those who stayed out all night at the drag races sometimes gave me a challenge to preach in between their intermittent snores, but I digress.)
For instance, when I used to prepare my sermons, I often put notes on a legal pad throughout the week. Other ideas would percolate up to my consciousness and I would jot those down too. I would write some clarifying remarks out to the side and connect them to an idea already on the page. Sometimes I’d draw a circle around an idea, or enclose it in a box to make sure I’d emphasize it. Later in the week I’d number those ideas as to their prominence or order of presentation. This would go on throughout the week as I blindly drew the cognitive map of my sermon for Sunday from the depths of my heart and mind.
I couldn’t bring it in this form for my congregation, however, so I’d have to sit down to make sense of it. In other words, I needed to produce a map or outline of such clarity, a blind person could find their way to the main point of the sermon with ease. Once I got it in this form, it was a strong enough armament to hang a sermon upon. I could elaborate these points with Bible verses and illustrations from life. Then I’d sometimes chop a few limbs off, just to keep from driving in circles, but this is how I mapped out my sermons every week to get people from point A to point B without getting lost along the way. I never learned this direct method to travel in a car, however.
One of the earliest extant maps is the T and O map, first created by Isidore of Seville in 600 AD. It was an early attempt to envision the world on paper. The T in the circle represents the Mediterranean Sea, which partitioned the 3 continents Asia, Africa and Europe.
Most of us are more familiar with maps of city streets, state highways and byways, as well as world maps. If we visit the museums, or do a Google search, we can find interesting antique maps of how our ancestors viewed the world. The British Library has some of the oldest maps in its collection These images are surrounded by water, since people hadn’t sailed across the ocean yet. This world map comes from a beautifully illuminated copy of Beatus of Liébana’s ‘Commentary on the Apocalypse of St John’, a religious text from the 8th century held in high esteem by medieval Christians. This copy was made at the Spanish Monastery of San Domingo de Silos in 1106, a time when the monastery’s scriptorium was producing some of its finest work.
In this old map, Adam and Eve are shown with the serpent against a dark green background representing the verdant Garden of Eden. It’s a picture of a world centered round the Mediterranean Sea virtually unchanged since the 8th century and reflects an even older world-view inherited from Roman times. Beyond the Red Sea is a hint of an undiscovered fourth continent that some ancient thinkers, such as Pliny, the 1st-century Roman author, had suggested must exist in order to balance the known land masses of Europe, Asia and Africa.
In my mixed media cognitive maps, I’ve kept the primary city streets, but selected only the geographic and architectural details which had meaning for me. I’ve used left over fabrics from the Covid masks I’ve made, old needlepoint seat covers from my parent’s garage, and antique crochet my grandmother made that she never sewed onto a pillowcase. I’ve often said, I’m going to “get around to it” and do something with these souvenirs from my ancestors, but this pandemic might not last that long. Also, I have other more pressing and exciting projects to pursue.
The pandemic has tossed my well conceived notions of how I live my life right out the window. Confined to my home, I longed to travel and to wander the city streets as I did in the days before Covid. While I had the grounds of my condominium property to explore, it wasn’t enough. When I began to look at the Google maps of the sites I’d painted before, I noticed I liked the patterns of the satellite views. Sketching out colors and shapes on the images saved from my iPad, I started making some preliminary works. Then I found some old paintings that no longer pleased me and began to rework them with maps of places which have meaning for me.
Now we’re a year and a half into the Covid emergency, but for some of us, our cognitive maps haven’t yet changed. Goldman Sacs estimates the United States would save $1 trillion in healthcare costs with a nationwide mask mandate, whereas hospitalizations nationwide cost $24 billion. We could save many lives, especially those of our vulnerable, youngest children. We also will need to vaccinate the whole world, for this plague knows no boundaries. Until all are safe, no one is safe.
I don’t have the type of mind that can conceive of a worldview in which I abdicate my responsibilities toward my neighbor. I’m too steeped in the biblical worldview, in which God calls Cain to account for killing his brother Abel, but Cain answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s answer is “Absolutely!” The Hebrew ancestors once trusted in their Temple to protect them, rather than God. When the Babylonians took them into exile, they had to get a new vision, or a new cognitive map, of who they were as God’s people, for they had once tied God to the land of Israel only.
Ezekiel had a vision in which God spoke to him in a desert valley of dried bones:
“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” (37:4-6)
When our world changes, we either have to live in exile and despair or we can live in the power and presence of God. If we have a hope to return to our ancestral home, in our case, “the precovid era,” we have to survive this uncertain time. When this crisis passes, we’ll discover on our return the Temple needs rebuilding, the infrastructure of the city needs repairs, and the houses need care to become homes again. We’ll need communities to care for one another, especially for the weakest and the least of our brothers and sisters who live on the margins of society. Perhaps we shouldn’t go back to how “things used to be,” but use this crisis as an opportunity to create new visions for new maps, the maps which represent a better world for all humanity.
I was cleaning up my condo Sunday afternoon because the Pandemic restrictions have caused my housekeeping to need some intensive care. Between all the various projects I’ve done and my new paintings, plus the seasonal change requiring my closet revamp, I realized I haven’t seen the top of my table in months. Since I’m not receiving visitors, I really don’t have to worry about this, but even I can only live with so much disorder and clutter.
When I was in seminary, my roommate and I would make a pact: no cleaning during exam week and ice cream runs every night. Amazingly, some compacts are easily kept, and studying for finals was less stressful because of our sweet rewards. A little chaos for a short period of time isn’t a problem, but months or years of confusion and neglect can bring about disaster.
I realize chaos is the norm for many people during the holidays, even if we’re not attending parties at work, or visiting with relatives or friends. We still have other rituals to indulge, especially if we have children. One year I stopped to list out all the experiences I remember which make up an ideal Christmas. I never imagined the list would be so long, or that my parents worked so hard to make the season wonderful for us children. As you read this list, feel free to add your own traditions to the list.
Writing Santa a letter
Traveling to Natchitoches to see the Christmas lights
Pizza and Car trip to see the Christmas lights in town
Hanging Christmas lights on the house
Finding the perfect Christmas tree
Decorating the Christmas tree
Making Christmas decorations
Making popcorn and cranberry strings for the tree
Watching the bubble lights
Hanging the Christmas stockings
The brass Angel chimes
Finding a thorn bush for a gumdrop tree
Eating ribbon candy from the jar at my nanny’s home
Candy lifesavers in a book
Special foods, such as Ham and yam, and the green bean thing
Christmas breakfast of biscuits and strawberry jam
Drinking from the Santa mug
Christmas plates and mugs
Making fruitcake cookies and cakes
Wrapping and hiding presents
Dreaming while reading the Sears catalog
Visit to Santa Claus
Gifts from Santa, rather than from the parents
Christmas candlelight service at church
Children’s Christmas pageant and choir concert
Staying up late to assemble toys
Never enough batteries
New red robe or pajamas
Christmas letters from all our friends
A vain hope for snow
Wreath on the door
Wrapping paper everywhere
Handing out presents
Making a Christmas list
Candles in the window to guide the wise men
Advent wreath candles
Caroling from house to house, mostly off key
Christmas clothes and Sox
Garish Christmas sweaters
At this rate, I’d have to accomplish 1.7 per day to get all 50 done in between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Like any big project, no one does it all at once. We always divided it up into smaller, achievable experiences, some of which extended over the whole season, and others we did once a week. How we managed to cram a dozen of these into each one of the four weeks before Christmas is beyond me. These days my work ethic is on furlough and if it ever returns, I’ll probably send it on vacation rather than let it clock back into work. I do lead a simpler life now.
Any month of 30 days can be converted to one of these units:
4 weeks and 2 days or
8.20% of a standard year
These past nine months of COVID, with its quarantines, terrible toilet paper, and bad haircuts have been exacerbated by the illnesses and deaths of friends and family we’ve known and loved. With over 3,000 Americans dying from this disease daily, celebrating a real Christmas as we once did, seems unconscionable. Those of us who’ve lost a loved one look for any light in these dark days. Like Frodo, we might say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring).
When I think of my life of seven decades plus, I remember when I was a child, every one of those two and a half million seconds before Christmas seemed to stretch out to eternity. Just as the three months of summer flew by like an icicle on a hot stovetop, the one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas moved slowly, as if I were watching a stalactite grow imperceptibly across the centuries. Maybe this is why my parents organized this magnificent list of projects to keep us children from whining over and over, “Is it Christmas yet?”
I’ve never understood how they managed to teach us deferred gratification. After all, every single day in the month prior to Christmas had some sort of activity, and some of those projects extended over the whole season. One year mother decided to bead a skirt for the tree. She bought a “Twelve Days of Christmas” kit, which contained the white felt skirt, a green fringe, and multi colored felt squares imprinted with the patterns. As we worked each night, we filled each design with brightly colored sequins. Some of these early days were so heavy they had no fabric showing. As Christmas came closer and our project was as yet unfinished, we began to limit our decorating. We also were running out of colored beads and sequins by this time.
Another year mother made new stockings for us kids, with our names on them. She also sewed a small bell on these so our early arising would wake her up. For the first grandchild, she had more time on her hands. That stocking was fully embroidered and had no warning bell. Of course, it hung at my home, so mother and daddy didn’t have to worry about any early bird interrupting their beauty sleep.
My parents did have a rule that we kids needed to wait until the crack of dawn before we entered the room where the tree was. If we got up earlier, and we almost always did, we took our pillows and covers into the dining room. Our old house had French doors separating the dining room from the living room. We’d pile our bedding down close to these doors and look through the bottom window into the magic darkness of the corner where the Christmas tree stood guard over mysterious packages wrapped in seasonal colors.
“What do you think that big one is?” My brother would whisper. “It’s probably clothes,” I’d reply, “you know those rectangular packages are usually pajamas or pants.” “Gross!” I’d giggle and he’d elbow me in the ribs.
All three of us would strain and crain to see the indistinct shapes back under the lower branches of the fir tree. Until the first light came into the window beside the tree, we could only imagine the treasure hidden there. In our eager efforts and earnest desire to meet the rising sun, we often fell back asleep dreaming of Christmas morning. We’d awaken when our parents began their morning coffee ritual, which usually happened in bed, but on Christmas, they drank their caffeine on the couch and watched our joy, as we unwrapped the presents from Santa Claus.
None of us children were ever hungry on Christmas morning, at least not until we’d discovered the answer to all the questions we’d asked in the dark of night. Once those were revealed and our curiosity satisfied, we could turn our appetites to breakfast. Someone always gave daddy a good jam and biscuit gift in a wooden tub, so it was our go to meal for breakfast. We didn’t eat biscuits often, so they were a treat with huge dripping globs of melting butter. We’d go to one of the grandparents’ homes for lunch soon afterwards, so we didn’t need a big meal.
As I think back on these 1950’s Christmas memories, I was too young to know about the hunger and poverty of others. I do remember the poliovirus and the vaccine in my arm. There was the nuclear threat of the Cold War era and I lived in the time of the McCarthy Hearings and the John Birch Society. This is also the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. My parents may have instituted all these seasonal home grown activities not only for us children, but also for themselves. If they were busy with “Christmas,” then they were focused on a spiritual journey and not on the chaos of the world.
When my daughter was small, I began buying her Christmas in August, because that’s when I got my first paycheck as a schoolteacher. I bought one little thing at a time, and put aside a little more money on a couple of larger gifts in layaway. I wasn’t going to buy anything for myself, but the choir at my church gave me a ham and a little love offering so I could have a bright red blouse for Christmas. I recalled the year after my marriage, my husband gave away some of our wedding gifts as Christmas presents “to keep up appearances.” We shouldn’t have to lie to the ones we love, especially at Christmas, but not everyone can live with the truth. Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give to one another, but about the gift God gave to humankind.
Sometimes it seems like our world has gone mad, and folks can’t tell a truth from a lie. My daddy used to say there were folks who’d say the sun was shining even when it was pitch black outside. I’d shake my head in disbelief, but I hadn’t been out in the world as much as he had. Even if we now live in a world gone crazy, we can take comfort in these true words from the gospel of John (1:1-5)—
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
April showers bring May flowers and Coronavirus containment orders. Everything we once knew about our worlds has been upended by the advent of this novel virus. Once we were proud of our abilities to master our planet and to wrest its unruly ways to our wills. Now we meet an invisible, but infinitely small agent that can weigh lay us from some hidden corner or passing person. I have friends who say they don’t want to go to the grocery store without their spouse or partner, for they don’t feel safe anymore. Then there’s the folks who run pell mell into the jaws of death, daring the virus to take them on.
From my rabbit hole, I wonder if the virus doesn’t affect the nervous system and cause some of us to act more fearful and others to act more foolhardy. I think the stress of looking at our four walls of our various hutches, being cooped up with our rabbit families, and dealing with teaching our bunny children their lessons is getting to us all. Maybe raises for those teachers are due in the next go round, now that we understand what they go through every day. The stress is getting to all of us, and even to this rabbit, who’s used to organizing my own time.
People laughed at me back in my seminary days when I brought my appointment book to school, but I blocked off all my classes, set aside time for study, time for meals, and I only worked a half day on Saturday. Sunday I did church and watched the Cowboys, back when they really were America’s Team. I’m retired now, but I still keep a calendar of projects. Since my two art shows got cancelled, I started making masks for those who’ll be opening up shop again soon. I keep up on my pages, my sci-fi spiritual blog, and I started a new painting series, “Postcards from the Pandemic.” I’m down to working about 30 hours a week now, but I’m almost as old as the dinosaurs. The young rabbits can work the long hours and they’re welcome to them.
This May won’t be like any May we’ve ever had before. Whatever model or image you have of the “merry month of May,” you should toss it out the window and let it smash to smithereens like a precious crystal vase dropped from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We won’t be traveling there any time soon, but if you can find a high up window, your fantasies about May will crash with a resounding clash. Then you can have a good cry about it or a stiff drink, whatever suits your fancy.
Just get your rabbit mind wrapped around this idea: San Antonio has cancelled its Cinco de Mayo celebrations and the Kentucky Derby won’t run on May 4, but has deferred this premier horse race to September 5, 2020. The Indianapolis 500, a Memorial Day tradition for 104 years, has been rescheduled for Sunday, Aug. 23. These events haven’t been cancelled forevermore. They’ve merely been postponed to a future date. We can bury the small grief of our delayed gratification, and look forward to a better time in the future.
NASCAR will be the first major sport to return to television, but without fans in the stands. NASCAR will resume its season without fans starting May 17, at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina with the premier Cup Series racing four times in an 11-day span. The revised schedule for now will only race at tracks within driving distance of the Charlotte-based race teams and in states that have started reopening.
Charlotte Motor Speedway will then host the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 to mark 60 consecutive years of the longest race on the NASCAR schedule being held on Memorial Day weekend. The track in Concord, outside NASCAR’s home base of Charlotte, will then host a Wednesday race three days later. The teams won’t travel far, they won’t practice, they won’t qualify, they’ll wear face masks, practice social distancing, and the rules might be adjusted for pit stops, but when the green flag drops, those drivers will forget about these minor things because they have a race to win. Racing rabbits always go for the trophy, as in “Wreckers or Checkers! Baby, I’m using the chrome horn if you don’t get out of my way!”
Some holidays and celebrations won’t change, and we rabbits can be glad for this. I’ve often listed all the commercial holidays ginned up to advertise some food stuff or group, but not this May. My bunny nose sniffs a different wind in the air. In the interest of not working too hard, I’ve picked five good holidays and celebrations for May:
May 1—May Day—love and hope May 4—Star Wars Day—May the force be with you May 10—Mother’s Day—remember your mama! May 25—Memorial Day—honor those who died serving the USA May 25—Carry a Towel Day—homage to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Our age is seeking a new spring of life. May Day once marked the halfway point between darkness and light. It’s half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In Ireland, the pre-Christian Celtic peoples divided the year into two main seasons: Winter and the beginning of the year, which fell on November 1, and the Midyear/Summer, which began on May 1. These two junctures were thought to be critical periods when the bounds between the human and supernatural worlds were temporarily erased.
Many of us have experienced thin times, when we feel the presence of God’s spirit with us more deeply than on other occasions. For me, this is more often when I’m in nature. The great dome of the sky, the clouds lit with the glow of the sun, and the liquid light overflowing and casting its glow on the land below. I can get lost in these thin moments and forget what I’m doing and where I am. If you meet a rabbit stopped for speeding on the highway, perhaps they were in a thin moment and not really a jerk.
There are also thin places, which are places of energy, or a place where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. A thin place is where one can walk in two worlds—the worlds are fused together, knitted loosely where the differences can be discerned or tightly where the two worlds become one. These are places which have been recognized over the ages as connected with the spiritual world. Often overlaid with the most recent god of the newest inhabitants, the place retains its spiritual energy. Many temples in the ancient world were built on the sites of even more ancient holy places, only to have churches built over them even later still.
In this era of Coronavirus, we might not be using our frequent travelers miles, so we could seek an alternative thin space. The holy icons are perfect for this, for since they’re a “window into heaven,” they’re by definition a “thin place.” They usually are given a designated place in the home, called the Red Corner, for the Russian word for red and beautiful are the same. Of course, we don’t pray to the icon, and the object isn’t worshipped, for that would be idolatry. We pray to the God of the saint represented, or to the Son of God, but not to the icon itself, which is merely an outward and visible reminder of the inward and invisible spirit which connects us all to what is good and holy and communal in our socially distancing world.
On May 4th, we can say, “May the Fourth be with you,” and remember the “Force is always with us,” for every time and place can be a thin place if only we rabbits would become aware the greater power beyond us is also operating within us, for “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
We all have Mothers, who gave birth to us. Some of us also have adopted mothers, mothers who raised us, mothers who formed us in the faith, or mothers who took us under their wing and taught us how to get along in the world. Mothers today don’t have to be women, but they do have to nurture and shelter. The church has been a great mother for centuries, nurturing the poor and the marginalized through the ministries of outreach to the neighborhood and the world. These ministries haven’t stopped just because of the coronavirus, but are increasing because of job losses, homelessness, and hunger. If you have the means to share with your local food pantry, please do. Hungry rabbits depend on us.
Memorial Day weekend was for a long time a pause to honor the nation’s war dead. Then it became a three day weekend for backyard barbecues and sporting events. As the toll from the novel coronavirus pandemic in America marches past the total of Americans killed in the Vietnam War, our holidays may take on a more somber nature. For other rabbits, who have an overripe case of cabin fever, a need to break loose in a wild debacle may override their common sense. I know my rabbit friends have good sense, so even if your state flings the doors wide open to “life as usual,” common sense and expert wisdom will prevail instead. Let others test the waters on this idea, and let them be the guinea pigs to see if the curve has actually flattened.
May 25 is also Carry a Towel Day, so if we have a towel, we won’t panic. As explained in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, towels are “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” A towel has both practical value, since it can be used for warmth, shelter, a weapon, and also strangely to dry one’s body. It also had psychological value, for if a non-Hitchhiker sees you with a towel, they’ll assume you’re fully stocked with other necessities as well. The lesson I take from this is while life is serious, I shouldn’t take myself too seriously. Humor will get a rabbit through the thickets and briars of this world better than struggling against the thorns and weeds. After all, angels fly because they take themselves lightly.
I will see you next month, when the June bugs fly. Until then,
Love, Joy and Peace,
Recipe for CLASSIC MINT JULEP for a delayed Kentucky Derby, best consumed while wearing a fancy hat or elegant jacket. This recipe is adapted from “The 12 Bottle Bar,” a fun, informative cocktail recipe book by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson. To make simple syrup, pour one cup of granulated sugar or Splenda into one cup of water and slowly heat on the stove, stirring until the sugar/Splenda is dissolved. Plus a Handful of fresh mint leaves, 1 oz. simple syrup (2 tablespoons), and 2 oz. bourbon or rye, your choice (1/4 cup or 4 tablespoons).
Put the mint in a cup, preferably one made out of silver or some other metal that will keep things nice and cold, and muddle it by pressing it gently against the sides and bottom of the cup for a few seconds (use that muddler you got as a wedding present or the handle of a wooden spoon). This rabbit would use a spoon.
DO NOT MASH THE MINT. You just need to release the mint’s oils, which does not require a strenuous effort. Over-muddling will result in an overly bitter drink. Add the simple syrup. Fill the cup with crushed ice and add the bourbon. Stir gently for 30 seconds or so, until frost forms on the side of the drink. Add more ice if needed and garnish with another sprig of mint. If you don’t have metal cups, make it in any cup cup you have. The metal is traditional, however.
This is a stay at home beverage, or a split between two persons, since it exceeds the recommended one ounce per day consumption of alcoholic beverages. Enjoy responsibly.
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