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PRAYER: Listening to an Icon

Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.

Christ Overcomes the World

The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.

Golden Christ

Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.

Mary Macaroni

Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!

When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.

Crucifixion

If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.

Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.

Christ Blessing the World

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ICONS: A Moment of Mystery

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Making Found Object Icons is an art project that evolved out of the Great Macaroni Multimedia Traveling Artandicon Show. In seminary during Art Week our fellow students were horrified we were making sacred images out of edible products, such as macaroni, lentils, peas, and beans.

Jesus is the Bread of Life

“That’s sacrilegious!”

“Jesus is the bread of life, and macaroni is just another form of wheat,” we replied.

“But it’s so ordinary!”

“Clay is ordinary, and so is stone. Can an object only be worthy of God if it’s made of expensive materials?”

“Well….”

“The value of all the chemicals in a human body is about $5.18, but we’re worth far more than that in the eyes of God. Some say God doesn’t make junk, yet too many people of faith despise and debase the body. I’ve always wondered why this was so, since the Son of God came to earth in human form, and as the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV) says—

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

Jeweled Cross

When we meet Christ at Christmas, we can get all warm and fuzzy because who doesn’t like a warm, cuddly baby? Maybe I have a soft spot for babies, but I really don’t trust people who don’t get a little ga-ga when the little ones coo and smile. I can understand folks getting squeamish at Good Friday and the cross. Most of us avoid as much pain as possible. Humility and obedience to God are not high priorities these days for many people. 

Flight into Egypt

Many tend to ignore this wonderful call to the Christ-like life, preferring instead the cop out of “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” (Mark 14:38, NRSV). “Forgive us,” we say, but we hold others up to high standards. 
We make a distinction between our dual natures of the flesh and the spirit, a concept inherited from the Greco-Roman culture. It’s notable that the often quoted verse, “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit,” is found in Galatians 6:8 (NRSV), for this was a Roman province. 
The ancient Mediterranean area had a knowledge/mystery tradition. The Greeks had their cult of Bacchus, the Egyptians the cult of Isis, and the Jewish had their mystical Kabbalah. The Romans had their dying and rising god cult of Mithras, the bull. Entry into all of these groups was by word of mouth only, given to a special few, and all had secret rites known to the members only.  Most promised salvation through secret knowledge, and the true world for them was spiritual rather than the physical world in which we live today. Ecstatic worship separated the believer from the body and the ordinary world. 
You might recognize these traits in your own church or worship community today, except for the ecstatic and enthusiastic worship brought about by mood altering substances. That’s not my church anyway! How do we come close to God? Across the centuries, the tradition has discovered contemplative prayer, singing, searching the scriptures, serving the poor, attending the sacraments, and creating art for God or the Holy Icons.
Making an object for the glory of God, to enhance the worship experience, and to honor God is a gift of the artist’s time and talent. No artist is ever paid what their training and talent is worth, for it’s a treasure from God to begin with—it can’t be valued. Artists have learned over the centuries to live simply, accept fame if it comes, and put a fair price on their work. 

Gail’s Cross

They get value in the spiritual real from the work they do, for the icon opens a window into heaven. As they arrange the jewels and found objects, and move them to a better position, the icon comes alive under their hands and begins to breathe. Only the person, who will be still long enough to hear the silence from beyond the open window, can hear the voice of God in this world. For this person, the icon is a treasure, and a place of holy focus, no matter how small or how simple the materials. 
This is the reason the artist makes an icon—to have a moment of mystery, a time of intersection, and a communion with the holy. In today’s hurried world, each of us wants a place in which we can experience for a moment the timelessness of heaven. 
When we return in the New Year, we’ll begin painting our own holy icons. The process is a spiritual journey, more than a destination or the attempt to reach perfection. We only need to “go toward perfection” each day!

Weaving Images

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“Aye, workman, make me a dream”

By Stephen Crane

Aye, workman, make me a dream,

A dream for my love.

Cunningly weave sunlight,

Breezes, and flowers.

Let it be of the cloth of meadows.

And—good workman—

And let there be a man walking thereon.

In 2013, I made a painting of flowers in a meadow. It wasn’t a bad painting, but it never called anyone’s name. Yes, it was part of my unsold inventory, as we artists call our orphan works, those which have yet to find another home. 

“What the heck! I’m cutting this up, weaving it into another form, and I’ll see if it speaks in a different voice to me.” This is artist speak for “I’ve had it with my life, my world, my existence, and my progress at the easel.” In truth, my hand has felt dead due to illness: my blood pressure was too low, so I lacked energy. It’s hard to paint without energy. Depression also robbed me of my creativity, since I lacked the will to pursue a challenge. Thankfully my doctors are healers and I’m on the right track now. I just had to find the key to unlock the door to the path ahead. 

I cut the old canvas up into mostly even strips and wove it in a simple basket weave. Once I rewove this 8″ x 10″ canvas, I sat meditating upon the colors and shapes. I began to see faces of Christ appearing and arms and bodies, as if he were hanging upon the cross, one image superimposed upon another. The checkerboard colors were a garden of flowers wildly blooming in a riotous exuberance of the joy that was set before him, even though he was enduring the shame of the cross (Hebrews 12:2). I took some cerulean blue and pyrrole red to make a dark violet to sketch in the outer shapes of the figures. These colors make up the ground, along with some white for highlights. I used Payne’s grey to darken other parts of the ground. The halos are cadmium yellow deep. 

Why are the faces of Christ not detailed? We often want to fixate on who the person of Jesus is physically, but this ties him to his human body only. We forget he is also the Son of God, a being who can’t be imagined or represented except in the form of Jesus, the incarnate one (the embodied one). Cultures across the world represent Christ as one of their own people as a result, rather than tie him to a first century middle eastern individual. 

Then too, if Christ takes the sins of all the world upon himself on the cross, one could say he also takes the pain of all the people of the world into himself. If this is so, we would no longer see the “face of Christ,” but we would see the “face of every person for whom Christ’s suffering was redemptive.” This is a mystical understanding, of course, but it gets to the heart of the meaning of ATONEMENT. This has always meant sacrifice in the past, but today some of us are understanding it to be AT ONE MENT. This is when we and Christ are at one in suffering and redemption, in death and in the hope of new life, and when the “cloth of meadows” is indeed where we walk in new ways. 
Joy and peace for the Easter season. Cornelia 

Triple Christ icon, $50, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 8″ x 10″ 

CHRISTMAS TREE ICON

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Not everyone has an icon of a Christmas tree. I made this “holy image, worthy of reverence and honor, a window into heaven,” while appointed to a church which venerated its symbols of Christmas more than the Christ who brought the day into being. Of course, they didn’t see it this way. When they elevated the giant chrismond  tree and blocked the view of the large cross, they only thought of staging the tree in its best glory. These were the same folks who wondered if we would have a “come and go communion service” on Christmas Eve instead of candlelight, carols, and communion. It would fit their busy schedules so much better, after all. 

Sometimes we need to remember Christmas isn’t about us, the tree, or the gifts. I made these icon trees as a reminder to myself more than anything. PEACE is the greatest gift our world needs today. We need not only peace among nations, but also among peoples, and within our own hearts. If we aren’t at peace, we won’t find it wrapped in a package. The bill will arrive in January, and then we’ll really need peace!

I no longer have this bejeweled icon. Once it was a satire, a comedic take on a tree more holy than the God whose birth it celebrated. Then it transformed, taking on its own holy purpose when I gave it away to a young family. They’d had a rough spell that year. Dad was working part time at the storage units where I keep the things that don’t fit into my condo. 
They didn’t have money for a Christmas tree. I took them some of my extra decor along with some encouragement. The latter may have done more good, but the tree of peace, funky as it is, was an outward and visible reminder of god’s love and care of his hurting children. If we can’t be the Incarnation of Love come down at Christmas, will we be the embodied Christ of Love for the world on any other day of the year?
Be present for the world, rather than looking for presents under a tree.