Metaphors make the world go round, or at least make it spin with interest. Our conversation would be boring if we stuck with flat, non descriptive words to share our thoughts and feelings. Likewise, our artworks die on the wall without emotional inspiration or contrasts in shape, color, value, or dimension.
This Pandemic has stripped many of us of our support structures and social experiences, so we may have become anxious, either because of loneliness or from fear of contracting COVID 19. Others are essential workers on the front lines, who daily risk their health and lives to care for the rest of us. People have taken on tutoring their children or grandchildren. I can remember working with my daughter years ago on fractions, using the “old math.” It was a traumatic experience for both of us. She could have used a paper bag to breathe into to help her calm down instead of hyperventilating. I’ve been on some rough airplane flights for which the paper bag was a comforter.
I have fond memories of the pre Covid days when I could visit the bakery. Entering the front door was a joy, for the mixed smells of hot coffee, fried dough, and sugared toppings could transport me to a happy place just by inhaling those aromas. My anticipation only increased as I hovered before the glass display case, for I was waiting to hear which sweet treat would call my name. Usually it was both the bear claw and the chocolate éclair, but those were the days when I was indulging in over nutrition.
Now comes the Pandemic, and while we can still get our food in a takeout paper bag, we don’t get the opportunity to smell or see the foods. We also miss the interpersonal contact with the workers and with the friends we used to meet for lunch. That same paper bag takes on different meanings depending on its context.
Our first art class back in person was Friday, 130 days since Arkansas entered the Covid Emergency, which was declared on March 11, 2020. That’s about four months, but it seemed longer. Some of my friends have said one day now seems just like another, just like a white paper bag seems to have nothing to distinguish it from the next bag in the package. I’ve set my own personal schedule so I do something different every day. It gives me a reason to look forward to the day, and I don’t get bored.
I have great memories of long, hot summers as a child when I’d make the grave mistake of telling my mother, “I’m bored.” She’d pause her stirring at the stove, look down at me from her grownup height, and reply. “If you’ve got nothing to do, you could dust those shelves full of knickknacks you collect.” Her suggestions were actually directions, but that was how I was raised. After dusting all morning, I’d be glad to entertain myself for weeks without bothering her. My mother might have been the source of my creativity.
If we only see an object or a person for its outward or most functional use, and never dig deeper to know it better or consider it in another environment, we miss its complexity and its richness. If we paint only the outward visage of a portrait, but miss the inner spirit of the person, we’ve done just half the work. If we need practice in this skill, I recommend lying on your back and watching the clouds in the sky above. As the winds above blow, they’ll change shapes. Notice these shapes, call them to memory, associate these shapes with past experiences or make up new stories.
Each person got their own paper bag, so they could hold it, touch it, crumple it, blow it up, fold it, pose it, or whatever they wanted. Because it’s all white, they could choose to paint it in grays, colors, tints, or a monochromatic value scheme. This bag is also a basic perspective lesson also, depending on the point of view. How each person solves it depends on how it speaks to them. Some of us have our art ears plugged up, for listening to the silence of objects is an acquired skill.
Remembering white comes forward and dark recedes is helpful. Sometimes our eye fools us and we paint the opposite of what we see. We get the shape down, but then don’t look again to see where the values are. We just lay on paint. Then we wonder why our image doesn’t match up with our model. Learning to look, paint, look, paint, look, and paint some more is important. We need to be in a continual conversation with the object and our painting.
Glen used to do mechanical and perspective drawings, so he knows how to do this work, but he hasn’t yet found the hidden key to unlock what he already knows from his career so he can apply it to this new activity. This “transfer of learning” means he has skills, but he needs encouragement to use them. I believe he’ll find the key, which is most likely in plain sight.
Gail crumpled her bag and worked quietly in blues to render the various surfaces. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our paintings, but hers seemed to be either a stormy sea or a rugged mountain. Life in the Pandemic has given all of us new challenges.
After a lifetime of five different careers caring for other people and working sixty plus hours per week, I’m glad for retirement and the slow lane. I enjoy the quiet and isolation, for I feel like I’m on a long term spiritual retreat. This is a time of joy and creative production, so if my paper bag glows with rainbow tones, this is my pandemic experience.
I’ve always told my students, “Each of you are unique. You look at the world through different eyes. You should make your work as special as you are. Don’t copy anybody else. Be your very best. After all, if our fingerprints are unique and our DNA is singular, why wouldn’t our art work be individual also?”
While the pandemic has given us masks and spread us out for the class sessions, it can’t damage our enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to painting flowers next week.
Some people are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer in this germ conscious age of Coronavirus, but we who practice the art life are also stocking up on Liquitex heavy body acrylic paint and canvases plus coffee, so we can make the best of a bad situation. We’re also giving encouragement to all we meet or greet, for we know we’re all in this together. When our local officials call for “social distancing,” some think this means individuals have to take care of their own needs only, but this isn’t so. This “social distance” only refers to the space between us, not to our ignorance of the needs of others.
Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome (2nd CE), wrote in one his Meditations, “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee,” (Book VI, 54). If we don’t work for the good of all, we aren’t doing good for ourselves. I met our condo maintenance man the other day as I was returning from our last art class before spring break. (Our return date is flexible, depending on the coronavirus situation.)
“Did you hear when Walmart runs out of food, they’re going to close it down and not reopen it till all this virus blows over?” “What? That’s crazy. They’ll be selling food till the end of time. Money, honey, they wants it and food, we needs it.”
“That’s what I hear. We’re all gonna starve.” “No, we won’t starve. I have enough dried beans, pasta, canned tuna, and the like to last us a month. It might not be appetizing, but we won’t starve. If you get hungry, you just come to my place and I’ll feed you. Do not worry about food.” “There you go,” he said as he drove away. Maybe he just needed to hear reassurance from someone who wasn’t wearing crazy pants for a change.
Sometimes we get caught up in everyone else’s crazy and forget the words of faith:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:26-27).
Worry is a topic in every age. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd CE, who favored the Stoic philosophy. For a Stoic, the vagaries of life didn’t produce happiness or any other emotional experiences, but virtue alone was the source of true happiness. Stoicism was an ethical way of life, in which order and the good of the community were more important than personal indulgence.
“Does the sun pretend to perform the work of the rain, or Aesculapius that of Ceres? What of the several stars? Are they not different, yet all jointly working for the same end? (Book VI, 43).”
In that ancient age, the Romans thought the sun, moon, and stars were all divine. Asclepius was the son of Apollo, the sun god, and a mortal woman, but he was raised by a centaur, a half horse-half man, who taught him healing powers. Ceres was the goddess of grain and of life itself. Famine, fertility, and the harvest were all under her power. Indeed, for the Romans, the entire cosmos was divine, and was organized in favour of providence. Marcus mentions “the whole cosmos is organised like a city, that is to say, each part is so organized as to serve the good of the whole.”
“Consider frequently the connexion of all things in the Universe, and their relation to each other. All things are in a manner intermingled with one another, and are, therefore, mutually friendly. For one thing comes in due order after another, by virtue of local movements, and of the harmony and unity of the whole (Book VI, 38).”
In the age of coronavirus, we sometimes think if we aren’t at risk, or if the harm is negligible for us or our families, we aren’t obligated to practice the same healthy practices recommended for other risk based groups. We would be thinking wrong, however. If low-risk people don’t socially distance, then the entire containment process is ineffective. Generally, there are fewer high-risk individuals — the sick and the elderly — and they don’t tend to move around as much as lower-risk individuals. Therefore, it’s more likely that a low-risk individual will expose a high-risk individual to the virus.
When we paint a still life of flowers in art class, we have to pay attention to the “harmony and unity of the whole.” Often I show several famous artists’ works before we begin, partly to expose my class to great art, but also to comment on certain design elements that they can incorporate to make their works more interesting. The Cezanne vase of flowers has an off center or asymmetrical subject balanced by the strong linear shapes dividing the background. Sometimes our own lives are off kilter, but we can stay balanced if we make sure to keep the weights on either side of the fulcrum point proportional according to their distance from the balance point. A large mass near the center point will balance out a lesser weight more distant from the pivot point.
We’re talking about the different types of balance in art: symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, and mosaic (or all over) balance. When our lives become unbalanced, we need to institute order. Some of us house clean, others do home repairs or work on our golf games. Others of us cook up a storm and ignore our normal routines. Lately in this age of coronavirus, folks have taken to panic grocery shopping. I went to Sam’s for some usual bulk items and thought we were going to be hit by a freak one two punch of a spring blizzard and hurricane over the weekend. All the bread, chicken, paper goods, and cleaning products were gone. The next day I went to Kroger and saw the same thing, plus all the vegetables and fresh fruits were wiped out.
I paused to chat with a produce clerk. “I guess I picked a bad day to shop. Has it been like this all day?” She paused her straightening of the half dozen shallots remaining in the empty produce display case. Rolling her eyes, she sighed, “It’s been like this since we opened. Forty people were waiting at the door at 7 this morning.”
“Oh no! That’s too early to be out and about!” “Agreed! They’ve cleaned us out. Buying all that toilet paper, like we wouldn’t get a truck tomorrow.” “You get delivery every day?” “Oh, yeah, this is a big store and everything turns over quick. We’ll always get more tomorrow. “
I wished her luck. She looked tired and overwhelmed, but ten hours of an apocalyptic panic filled crowd had to have been unnerving. If we can’t see the danger beyond us, we often do whatever we can to help us feel like we’re taking charge of the situation. In reality, washing our hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. After this, limiting personal interaction or social distancing, is the next good we can do for one another. My old mother had a prescription for trying times: “If you want to feel better during hard times, take care of someone less fortunate than you. Quit worrying about yourself.”
In art class we took some time to share how our lives would be impacted by the closings and postponements of upcoming various events. Some have new babies to celebrate, children to care for when schools close, and I have a 50th college reunion that got cancelled. I have an upcoming art show, which I anticipate will get cancelled also. These things happen, and while I won’t see my girlfriends from long ago, we can possibly make an alternative plan for the art show. If not, there’s next year, and we press on, knowing the year of coronavirus isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but a distraction that will bring out either the best or the worst in us.
Will general conference be postponed or annual conference? We don’t know as yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. While we can want our lives to run on our time and our schedules, there is a time and an order that belongs to God alone. Some people of faith can’t allow their minds to include the natural process of death and disease in the workings of God’s providence, while others see these as God’s just punishment for sin.
If God is at work for good in our illness and death, then it’s because God quickens the human heart to help and give care to others, rather than to lead us to care only for ourselves. If the poor and the vulnerable are most at risk in a pandemic, then the pervasive providence of God’s mercy is poured out for them through the hands of those who love and serve God. As people of faith, we believe “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Fresh flowers are fragile and not long lived. As such, artists choose to paint them in place of human subjects, who also have limited life spans. Flowers have the extra benefit of never complaining, “I’m tired. When can I get up and walk around?” They also don’t fuss if you paint them blue, if their actual color is pink, or say, “Well, I don’t think it looks very much like me.” I vote for flowers any day.
Gail rendered a fine asymmetrical design and paid close attention to the details of the flowers. Mike had an exuberant design with emotional use of color and texture. I asked both of them to try a new technique for mixing colors: pick up several colors on the brush and mix them on the canvas itself, rather than mix up one flat color, as if they were buying a bucket of paint at Lowe’s. I painted over an old canvas from last year. The bright colors of springtime give my spirits a lift, even if I know the skies are gray and drab.
Our art class Tuesday was much diminished by the threat of the coronavirus, but since many of us in the group are older, I’d rather they stay home and stay healthy, so we can meet to paint another day. Many things are changing now, so we need to adjust our minds to the new normal of life in the age of coronavirus. Just as schools are now doing distant teaching via the internet, churches will be live-streaming preaching and using small choral groups or soloists as their musicians. My favorite Starbucks will likely become a drive through, and restaurants will become get and go food distribution sites. Public places, such as movie theaters, museums, and bars will also close their doors. Prepare for the internet to slow down, with everyone streaming entertainment, school lessons, and shopping at home.
Since we don’t know how long this contagion will continue, our art class will not meet together in person until we know we can do no harm to one another by our gatherings. Our usual rule is if the schools are closed, we don’t meet. This more often applies to a weather emergency, but a health emergency is just as dangerous. When we’re cooped up at home for inclement weather, we can keep our spirits up, for we know the days will be temperate or tolerable soon enough. We find a way to keep our hands and minds busy as we mark our time of confinement. It always helps if we keep a sense of calm about us.
The ancient International Wisdom Tradition prized order not only in nature, but also in the community. Those who practiced this way of thinking in the Hebrew world could relate to Ben Sira’s words:
“In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. From morning to evening conditions change; all things move swiftly before the Lord.” (Sirach 18:25-26)
The solid Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Do you dread change? What can come without it? What can be pleasanter or more proper to universal nature? Can you heat your bath unless wood undergoes a change? Can you be fed unless a change is wrought upon your food? Can any useful thing be done without changes? Do you not see, then, that this change also which is working in you is even such as these, and alike necessary to the nature of the Universe? (Book VII, 18)”
Just remember, as an artist, you are a change agent. This is your nature, your being, and your purpose. You bring beauty to the empty canvas, you make sense of a lump of clay or a slab of rock. You can take cast off objects found on the roadside and recreate them into a new object full of meaning. You can change the fears and anxieties of your community by encouraging others to have hope and optimism. If we find the small ounces of courage within us, and share the teaspoons of it with others, we’ll find more courage welling up within us to flow out to others. By being willing to change our own lives, we can change others, and together we change the world.
I will keep you posted with my plans and projects, for I don’t plan to waste this time of seclusion. It’s a great time to catch up on reading, make some new paintings, try new recipes, and maybe even finish some chores about the home place. We won’t lose connection with each other, for if you keep me in mind and I keep you in mind, we will all keep the same mind 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 (Philippians 2:6-8).
Keep one another safe until we meet again. Joy and Peace, Cornelia
As the days grow short, some of us yearn for the light. This week I put up a few Christmas decorations, including my ceramic Christmas tree with the plastic bulbs from the 1960’s and my door wreath with ornaments from the 1950’s. I have a copper and paper manger scene I set before a small lamp, as well as an extremely gaudy, glitter filled candle nightlight to complete the mood. I keep out all year round my mom’s ceramic Holy Family group, since it’s too good to put away.
I remember living in Denver, Colorado, in the cold, dark days of December. They know how to do winter there. I would hang the big, bulging colored bulbs on the upstairs patio of our Victorian duplex, since these had the brightest light. In Louisiana, I used the tiny white lights to discretely outline the entire shape of my little stucco home. They both put out the same amount of light, but some were loud and others were quiet.
Winter Solstice Here at the tail end of the old year, the winter solstice comes on December 21, followed by Hanukkah beginning after sunset on December 22, and Christmas on December 25. All of these events have a focus on light.
The solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on Earth. In 2019, the December solstice comes on December 21 at 10:19 p.m. CST.
That’s on December 22 at 04:19 Universal Time (UTC). It’s when the sun on our sky’s dome reaches its farthest southward point for the year. At this solstice, the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest day and longest night of the year.
The World Heritage Site at Stonehenge, England, built about 5,000 years ago, is a site specifically built to mark the winter and summer solstices. For agricultural societies, this was important. It may also have been a religious site, connecting the living with the spiritual powers for healing and also with those who are dead to this world, but remembered by the living. We don’t know if the Stonehenge people believed in an afterlife, but they did bury in the gravesites important articles the person found useful in this world, such as bone needles and mace heads.
Hanukkah Hanukkah, a celebration to mark the miracle of the unfailing oil in the temple lamps, has taken on greater importance in recent years. It recalls the victory of the Maccabees and their resistance against foreign domination. The word Maccabee is an acronym for the Hebrew words that mean “Who is like You among all powers, G‑d.” The Greek army had defiled the Temple by setting up an image of Zeus and sacrificing a pig upon the altar of God. Those Jews who were fine with this were “sold out” in today’s terms, but not the Maccabees, who were joined by a ragtag group who ran a fifteen year resistance effort against the skilled fighters of the Greek army.
Once the resisters reclaimed the Temple, they rededicated it, set up a new altar, and made a new menorah, for the old one had been taken. They found only enough sacred oil for one day, but the light burned for eight days. The message of Hanukkah is a little bit of light can overcome the darkness of the world, so we should never cower in the face of tyranny, do our part, trust in God, and success is sure to come.
Perhaps this is why we have an enduring fascination with superheroes, characters who overcome challenges in life, such as Harry Potter and the Star Wars pantheon, as well as everyday people who do extraordinary deeds when dire situations present themselves. Those who don’t shirk from the opportunity to do good for others, even at great cost to their own good, are selfless heroes. What doesn’t make sense to us, may be the most sensible and best choice for the greater good. This is the heart of the servant mentality, which is recognized by the central candle of the Hanukkah menorah, which has eight lights, instead of the seven which was used in the Temple.
Christmas Christmas is the time to celebrate the coming of the light into the dark world, and the joy that the darkness cannot overcome the light. Every Christmas Eve, we hear the old story ever new in our hearts again.
When my daughter was about ten years old, she looked over the church bulletin one Christmas Eve and said, “John, John, John, who is this John that has such a big part in tonight’s service?” I whispered, “That’s the gospel of John, and the Mathew and Luke are also gospels in the Bible.”
“Oh, I missed that,” she smiled. I chuckled.
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. ~~ John 1:1-5
Today we know dark energy and dark matter make up 95% of the universe, and all solid matter makes up the other 5%. In the ancient days, people thought God had made them the center of the world, but now science can make us feel small. Yet God still calls us into the dark spaces to shine like lights in the world.
We can look around and see, just as in the time of Christ’s birth, authoritarian leaders oppressing the minority members of their countries, and we see the rich and powerful controlling the economies of the world for their own profit, but not for the health of the planet or its population.
We see some of our leaders in the church unwilling to open their hearts to all of God’s children because the leaders live in fear rather than in the power of God’s love for all persons. We also see people of faith unwilling to take on the claims of a life lived in Christ, and so accept a mere testimony to the offer of the fullest life in Christ. A faith without works is a dead faith, or no faith at all, for there’s no evidence to convince the world we have a living faith. If we have the light of Christ in us, we will make our world a brighter and better place, and shine like stars in the world.
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and God is the one who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ~~ 2 Corinthians 4:6
No matter how you’re celebrating the return of the light this season, may you find at this year’s end more light than darkness and may you shine more brightly in a world which needs so desperately the light of pure and unconditional love willing to risk its own self for the greater good of others. This is the reason Christ came into the world, to serve the Father’s purpose and redeem the fallen and broken world, for all who believed.
MEDITATION ON THE LIGHT Proverbs 20:27 “A person’s soul is the Lord’s lamp, which searches out all the innermost parts.”
Focus the mind on the multiple images of the lamp, the oil, the wick and the different hues of the flame, in order to understand the profound guidance in the divine service of every individual.
Flames demonstrate that while spiritual endeavors such as contemplative prayer and inner personal transformation are important, nonetheless the actual performance of mitzvot (the 613 commandments) is what is most essential. It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body, acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.
Takeaway: It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body—acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.
Questions for the eight candles of Hanukkah:
For You, G‑d, are my Lamp; and G‑d will illuminate my darkness. The first question is: Why is G‑d’s Name invoked twice, seemingly bisecting the verse into two separate statements?
What part do the lighter and darker colors of the flame play in our spiritual lives?
What is the quality of our own light?
Contemplate the divine radiance which fills all worlds, as well as the radiance which surrounds all worlds. Consider how we have both matter and dark matter/energy in our physical world, as a complement to the divine’s dual filling and surrounding of space. (Psalm 145)
As the lights grow brighter in this season of light, is God’s love growing greater in our hearts?
Is God’s love transforming our lives from the inside out, so God’s love can shine through us?
The Hanukkah lamp has eight lights, plus one for the “servant” light. Is the energy of God’s love moving us to shed the light of God abroad in service of the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely?
Where will we shine in the days to come, to be a light to the world and for the sake of God’s name?
What is the most important image of the birthplace of Christ? For some of us, it’s a stable filled with hay and animals, in which the Holy Family fill with divine light. For others, the essence is the Holy Family alone. For others, those who brought various gifts take prominence. The early icons describe a dark cave, similar to the tomb in which Christ was laid after his crucifixion. This shouldn’t surprise us, for his birth made him at-one-with-us, just as his death and resurrection made at-one-ment for us. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the icons are worth a million words, or a whole theological thesis.
The cave, manger, and swaddling clothes are indications of the kenosis (emptying) of the Godhead, His abasement, and the utter humility of Him who, invisible in His nature, became visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, was born in a cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and thus foreshadowed His death and burial, in the sepulcher and the burial clothes.
The icons are a window into the holy spaces, into the heavenly realm, or the spiritual world, whereas western paintings from the renaissance onward are representations of our three dimensional world on a flat surface. Icons have their own vocabulary and forms, so a wonder working icon from the 4th century would be copied over and over again into the present age. Modern icon painters would reinterpret the themes of the ancient icons, but until these images prove themselves to be “spiritual windows,” they’ll be mere paintings, but they won’t be true icons.
In the western world, we’re more likely to consider the narrative in traditional art, so the story details are as important as the design and color elements. Over the centuries the style changes with the artists,, but the main elements tend to stay the same.
With the Renaissance, artists and their patrons were more interested in the humanity of Christ, as well as the human figure itself. The landscape gets rendered in all its glory, and the architecture of the towns calls us to take a walking tour through it. By the baroque period, artists create a full scale Broadway production scene on their canvases. A “cast of thousands” seem to heighten the importance of the event portrayed.
Our class worked these past two weeks on The Nativity. Gail’s memory of her family incubating a premature baby in a dresser drawer became her Jesus in the Manger. While this may sound strange to some folks, my great grandparents also nursed a premie in this same manner in rural Louisiana. Adding layers of color to her ground, as Rothko did in his color field paintings, was her goal. I failed to get another photo. She’s still working on it.
Mike was working on a shed and the sky. This was more exciting to him than anything else. The figures came later. I also failed to photo them.
He had a coworker pass away during this time. If his mind wasn’t in this work completely, I could understand. His vacation painting of the beach chair at sunset was more of what he can do when his mind is free and his heart is at peace.
When I’m sick, I have limited artistic ability. By this, I mean I have no spiritual sensitivity to the world. I can’t feel connected to the shapes, colors, or forms. I’m “dead to this world” as well to the world beyond this one. My hand feels like lead, and my one brain cell which hasn’t gone to Pluto is only working at 20% power. I don’t do sick well, for I take it as a great inconvenience, if not an insult to my nature. I have people to see and paintings to make. I may destroy this little work, but it does have the traditional icon themes of the cave and the swaddling clothes of the birth and death of Christ.
When we go back and sit before an icon, we’re struck by the silent voice of the image. We have a choice: we can dismiss this still, small voice, or we can pause and listen to the voice of God speaking to our heart. I hope we don’t race off to do yet one more of the many “got to do lists” of the Christmas season, but sit for a moment, with a hot cup of our favorite beverage and a little cookie, and mingle with the mystical voices from heaven. We will be choosing the better part, just as Jesus said to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Best source for Icons: Ouspensky & Lossky, The Meaning of Icons
Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin, center panel of the Middleburg (Bladelin) Altarpiece, ca. 1445, oil on panel, 91 x 89 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, inv. no. Nr. 535 (artwork in the public domain)
I awoke Sunday morning to a fog enveloped world. My brain was much the same until I made my morning cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this took longer than I expected, for I had only one tablespoon of grounds and a full bag of beans. I’m glad the electric coffee grinder was standing silent beside the coffee pot, waiting only for its moment to be of service. On any ordinary day, I ignore it completely, just as many of us fail to observe the subtle changing of colors from day to day or how the sunlight of the seasons has a different temperature and feel.
Seeing is a learned skill, but like the ancient, secret, gnostic wisdom known only to a few and passed by word of mouth, seeing is best learned in an art class with one who is an eye already. Cézanne characterized Monet as “only an eye—yet what an eye.” Monet taught students not to think of the tree, the building, or the flowers they painted, but of the colors and shapes they were putting on their canvases. This is a conceptual leap, as if we were translating English into Spanish or Martian (we may need this when we go to Mars).
faced with all the many impressions daily flooding into our consciousness, most
of us have learned to block all these distractions out. We do this to “get our
chores done in record time” and “come home to escape from this rat race.” “Out
of sight and out of mind” is a phrase I often heard growing up. We are often
“unconscious people,” walking about in a fog. My dad grew a mustache and my mother
kissed him every night before bed without realizing he’d changed his facial
appearance. I came home for a visit and said, “When did you grow the Col.
Saunders’s look?” My mother was shocked she hadn’t noticed it.
Our first lessons in art class are drawing the geometric figures, since we can simplify or translate most things in nature to these forms. Bushes are balls, houses are cubes, trees are cones, and so on. Some are multiplications of the forms, such as some tree’s foliage is made up of several ball shapes. You get the idea. This way of looking helps to simplify the details so people don’t get stuck on every single leaf.
Another way to simplify is to leave out some of what you see and focus only on what you think is important. If you were a camera in front of a landscape, your eye would take in everything in front of it. We aren’t cameras, however. We can paint as much or as little of what we see before us as we want. I remember in seminary study groups, we prepared for final exams together. The exam would be 3 hours long and cover a semester’s work, which included all the class notes and 15,000 pages of reading. Some of my pals would write a book length answer to one study question. “Fine, but there’s going to be a dozen other questions, so can you hone this down to an essay?” Keeping it simple is a good motto in art class.
Friday in art class I brought in angel hair spaghetti. If the kids eat it, I’m not worried. Fortunately, my “kids” are grownups, but we like to get our inner child out to play every once in a while. We put paint on the sticks and tossed them down on our canvases wherever luck would have them land. In biblical terms, this is “casting lots.” I had given them some ideas for landscape images or they could do some squares in the style of Paul Klee. They went with trees. Mr. Energy and Exuberance, aka Mike, finished his up with jewel tones. Gail, Thoughtful and Precise, did a hard edge tree with a lightning bolt in the background. I worked on a Klee square piece, but I only got the first layer down. It needs more subtle overpainting.
Learning how to see is a lifetime process. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality, said Aristotle. Art opens us up not only to the outer world, but also to our inner world. As we see more in the world about us, we find more compassion for its brokenness as well as more love for its beauty. Likewise, we realize we too are both broken and beautiful, so we find we can be more compassionate and loving towards our own selves. As forgiven and reconciled people, we can pour God’s love out into the world and into our art as well.
We discover art isn’t just about decorating a surface with pretty colors and shapes, but art is more about the spiritual process of growing in grace, accepting our lack of strength, and learning to depend on the power of the Spirit moving our hands and hearts. The more we try to impose our power upon the work, the less life it has, but the more we “get out of ourselves,” and let our inner witness work, the more life our creation embodies.
the artist within each of us is always creating a new thing, just as God is
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
My newest painting is from a photo I took of a church in downtown Hot Springs on one cloudy spring day. It wasn’t much to look at as a photo, but I was called to stop and snap its image at that moment. I learned long ago in ministry to listen to those promptings of the spirit, for a greater power was working beneath my poor powers of discernment and knowledge. If I listened, I’d show up when people needed me, even when they were unable to contact me. God has a mysterious power to do unlikely works, or things we ordinary folks would call minor miracles.
THE INSPIRED CHURCH
Most of us see our churches as ordinary places, maybe even “our places,” rather than God’s holy place. This is why we say “my church,” but if we were truthful, we’d admit, no church ever belongs to any human being, for the church is the body of Christ. We also aren’t just one congregation either, for all these buildings comprise a greater Body of the greater Church, which is the Body of Christ. Plus, we who look to our membership rolls forget about the ones who are outside our doorsteps: the hungry, lonely, poor, wandering, naked, or the prisoners and infirm who are confined. They too are part of Christ’s body, which yearns to be made whole.
In my painting, this ordinary, grounded church now rises as a golden, ethereal structure striving toward the heavens. As a Inspired Church, it’s “going on to perfection.” While it won’t get there on its on account, God’s energies are there to help it, just as the spirit will help each of our churches to grow in faith and witness to the world. As I consider the pre Easter fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, I think of the cycles of spiritual growth both we and the bodies of Christ undergo. We all have times of growth and lying fallow, and some even seem to have seasons of rot. Yet God’s renewing spirit can make the dead bones live again.
Notre Dame de Paris
A Christian church has been in Paris since the 3rd century of the CE. This site has a history of both blight and renewal. Two ancient churches were destroyed to build the new gothic cathedral. These were built on the site of an old Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The work on the cathedral began in 1163 and was completed 203 years later. In 1789, French revolutionaries caused major damage to the building, especially the statuary. Nearly a half century later, publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831 sparked a campaign to restore the cathedral.
Although Notre Dame de Paris is a Catholic Church, it’s also a historic building. As such, the cathedral belongs to the state, which is responsible for its maintenance. Nevertheless, the day-to-day maintenance of churches and cathedrals in France often falls to cultural and religious associations. And just because the state is responsible for funding large infrastructure projects doesn’t necessarily mean it has the money to do it.
When the world watched the spire fall and the wooden roof collapse, a great sadness fell across people’s hearts. Immediately large financial pledges poured in to rebuild this architectural treasure. One of the blowbacks in the days of grief after the fire and the generous outpouring of pledges to rebuild this cathedral of hope, which is over 850 years old, was the reality of human needs. Soon folks said, “If we can raise this much money for a building, why can’t we raise it for the homeless, the hungry, the war refugees, and all the other human causes of need?”
Yes, these are important, and we should always provide relief for human distress. Great buildings, which have seen over eight centuries upon this earth, are a special case. They carry the hopes, dreams, and memories of each person who has ever entered their doors. With the advent of television and social media, they now carry the memories and dreams of everyone around the world who watched this great sanctuary burn and all their hopes for what it will become in the future.
When we cast a vision for our own churches, most of us aren’t facing a burned down edifice. Instead, we usually find a burned out congregation or a barely burning membership. Not many of us will stay in our appointments long enough to make “cosmic changes,” so we work to improve what we can, with the hope the next pastor will build on our work. In truth, it’s easier to redesign or renovate a building than it is to restore a congregation to health.
Currently architects are designing their best proposals for this spiritual heart of Paris and France. Some will “go big or go home,” while others will bring a more simple vision. Paris firm Vincent Callebaut Architectures’ vision for the cathedral is an innovative and eco-friendly design that supports the local population and produces more energy than it uses. Its vision of the rebuilt Notre Dame features a futuristic glass design, solar power, and an urban farm to support vulnerable and homeless Parisians.
Proposal for Interior of Notre Dame de Paris
Four years ago, an art historian used lasers to digitally map Notre Dame Cathedral. His work now could help save it. The Vincent Callebaut project is titled “Palingenesis,” a Greek concept of rebirth or recreation. The firm proposes a new roof made of glass, oak and carbon fiber, which connects “in one single curved stroke of pencil” to the sloping spire. The rooster which topped the original spire and retrieved from the rubble after the fire, will resume its watch from the new glass design, while the cathedral’s choir will be bathed in natural light.
Vincent Callebaut Architectures
Beneath the spire, the roof will host a fruit and vegetable farm run by charities and volunteers, in order to produce free food for vulnerable local people. “Up to 21 tons of fruits and vegetables could be harvested and directly redistributed for free each year,” the firm said in a press release. “To that end, a farmers’ market would be held every week on the forecourt of Notre Dame.”
Notre Dame de Paris
Vincent Callebaut Architectures
The roof and spire will also produce electricity, heat and ventilation for the cathedral: an “organic active layer” within the glass will provide solar power, while the roof’s diamond-shaped “scales” will open to offer natural ventilation — a design inspired by termite mounds. The spire will act as a “thermal buffer space” in which hot air accumulates in winter.
The cathedral could host an urban farm which produces food for local people. Credit: Vincent Callebaut Architectures
“How can we write the contemporary history of our country, but also that of science, art and spirituality together?” the firm said in a press release. “We seek to present a transcendent project, a symbol of a resilient and ecological future.”
If the Vincent Callebaut design is selected, the firm said, the reborn Notre Dame will define “the new face of the Church in the 21st century,” presenting “a fairer symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.”
This is so amazing, yet I wonder if the religious community will feel elbowed out of their worship space. I know one of the difficult challenges in church leadership is adopting new ideas because “we’ve never done it that way before.” On the other hand, helping this 14th century gothic cathedral rise from the ashes to a new birth is the perfect moment to claim an extraordinary vision for a forward looking future, not only for the church, but also for Paris, the French, and even the people of the world.
When we think about a new vision for our own church, are we willing to destroy the pagan temple and the god of its age?
When we build a church for an earlier time, do we have the faith to tear it down and build it anew for the age in which we live?
Do we hold on to an old form of church until it burns down and we need to create a new one from the ashes?
Will we have the courage to reconfigure our “idea of church” so it’s not a separation from the world, but an incorporation of the world, as in the Wedding Banquet parable?
Are we ready to entertain new visions and dream new dreams for our churches and our ministries?
I carry my phone when I walk, so I always have a camera for the scenes of beauty which catch my eye. Since light is ephemeral and these moments are fleeting, catching them as they occur is important. When I come home, I often photoshop the image on my computer or in Instagram to get the emotions, which I experienced when I took the photo.
Winter Lake Reflections
Several winters ago, I took this photo. By the time I painted it this year, I was feeling more optimistic. Back then, I didn’t know if my daughter was alive or dead. I lived in hope, but I also was holding onto some fear, for I knew her drug addiction was going to be difficult to overcome.
The Cloud Rising
This is my most recent landscape. The cloud always reminds me of God’s appearance! Then I think of this verse in Job 38:34, when God asks Job, who’s been questioning God’s intentions and reasons—
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?”
Poor Job, he’s not God. And neither are any of us. We’d like to make sense of the senseless, right all the wrongs, put order to all the chaos, and make things the way they should be. Of course, if we were in charge, the world would have gone to hell in a hand basket much sooner than it has already.
Maybe we should reread Job 42:3—
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
In our world today, many changes are happening. Some of us want things to be “the way they used to be.” This would make us feel better and be more comfortable with a known world, but God is always recreating God’s new world–
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
If we are people of faith, we can trust in our God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If Christ is the same, then God is the same, and so is the Holy Spirit. Does this mean our understanding of the Holy Trinity never changes? No, this means God’s love and mercy for us never changes! We think we can fall outside the bounds of God’s love, but this is only because we have short arms and can’t include all others within our embrace. Just as the water reflects the sky and earth above it, so we’re to reflect the attributes of the holy image in which we’re created and demonstrate the qualities of the heart and the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
Job, who was well respected and honored in his community, was enamored of his ability to assist others with their needs. He was a big man who used the blessings from God for good purposes. When he lost this status, he was upset. Once he met God face to face, he realized he’d been giving lip service to God, but didn’t actually know God. Many of us today know about God, but haven’t had an encounter or experience with the living God. We can’t reflect a love which we’ve never received, and we can’t share a forgiveness we’ve not known. Perhaps our first work is to seek God’s generosity for our own lives, so we can reflect it outward in the world toward others.
My latest icon of the face of Christ is based on the Napkin of Christ or The Image Not Made by Human Hands. The tradition tells us the Lord washed his face on a cloth and the image of his face transferred directly to it. King Abgar took the image bearing cloth to Edessa and hung it above the city’s entrance, where the people venerated it.
For many years afterwards, the inhabitants kept a pious custom to bow down before the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands, when they went forth from the gates. When one of the great-grandsons of Abgar, who later ruled Edessa, fell into idolatry, he decided to take down the icon from the city wall. In a vision the Lord ordered the Bishop of Edessa to hide His icon. The bishop, coming by night with his clergy, lit a lamp before it and walled it up with a board and with bricks.
Years later, when the city was under siege, the Virgin Mary appeared to the presiding bishop with the instruction to reveal the old icon. Not only was it found, but also the lamp, and a copy etched into the wall itself! This miracle saved the city.
We know “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” (Romans 8:21), for Christ came not to save only humankind, but to redeem all creation. Sometimes when hurricanes, floods, fires, and other natural disasters make the news, we might think nature is disordered, dysfunctional, and we can despair for any harmonious sensitivity to the only planet we can call our home.
For some people of faith, because their “citizenship is not of this world,” they see no reason to care for our world, yet God created this place for us and our children and their children. We don’t own it, we merely care for it, as good stewards for the generations to come and as servants of our creator. If our world is to be lush and green, as well as clean and blue, we must love it as if it were the body of Christ, even though the world isn’t divine.
God is still going to “make a new heaven and a new earth,” but we don’t have to destroy the one we already have just to get God to prove God’s powers over our stupidity. We could choose to participate in the recreation of the new earth and let God finish the task at the right time. Then we’d enjoy the fruits of this better world and share it with all our neighbors around the earth.
As Paul reminds us, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:22-24)
If we do the same thing over and over again, we’ll get the same results. Most of us will take the same road to our favorite restaurant, choose the same menu items, and call it a night at about the same hour. We are that predictable. A certain structure in our lives is necessary to keep us on an even keel. Mass marketing depends on people like us, since we have reliable and time tested tastes. Great art is different from the decorative arts, however, and it’s unlike the mass produced pieces which are good for covering a section of a wall in an office or residence.
Likewise, if we want to break through from the ordinary to the better, or if we want to improve upon our former work, we have to break our old habits and train ourselves in new habits. Why do world champion golfers reconstruct their swings in the middle of their careers? Their bodies are aging and changing. They can no longer swing with the abandon of younger and more limber persons. To continue playing at a high level, they must learn anew. This learning, forgetting and learning again is related to John 12:24–“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
DIANA—Painting with a Bell Pepper
In art classes, we’re always unlearning our yesterdays and starting over with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit in the morning. The day we start repeating ourselves, we’ve decided we’re good enough. We’ve settled, rather than continuing to push on to see how far we can go. Some of us will do this because we’re finally making a living. No one can fault this. Taking care of our families is important.
GAIL—Painting wit an Okra Pod
Yet if we fail to care for the artist within us, if we aren’t reaching deep within to wrestle with the challenge to risk trembling on the edges of beauty and chaos, we won’t be happy coloring canvases to satisfy the needs of those who see our art as an appendage to their furnishings rather than an object in its own right.
MIKE—Trees Painted with a Sweet Potato
The art class was somewhat nonplussed when I suggested we use sweet potato slices to print or paint with, as well as the big pretzel rods. Gail brought some large okra from her garden too, so we added this to the equation. If we always draw with the pencil and fill in with the paint brush, we get paintings which resemble coloring books. Then they came up with some original solutions. I knew they had it in them!
DUSTIN—Bowling Pins shaped like Sweet Potatoes
Mike used the actual potato as a paint tool, while Diana used the cut okras as textures and patterns. Dustin took the shape for bowling pins, and Gail doubled up sweet potatoes for mountains. I discovered the woven surface I was using wasn’t really conducive to the printing process, whereas the flat papers the class used worked fine. I got enough paint on it to get started and finished it at home.
CORNELIA—(Sweet Potato) Cloud on the Horizon
In Richard Rhor’s book, Immortal Diamond, he says, “Your True Self is that part of you that knows who you are and whose you are, although largely unconsciously. Your False Self is just who you think you are—but thinking doesn’t make it so.”
In art, we practice over and over again, until we can drop all the artifices of the False Self (the constructs which the world rewards) and work freely for the rewards which are pleasing to God. To do this, we need to allow ourselves to be freely loved by God and let ourselves freely love God’s entire creation. If nothing is outside God’s love and providence, then we too are called to love and care for God’s creation. This attitude will show in our art and heart.
In faith and art, we’re always dying to our old self and rising to our new self. Therefore we won’t be imitators of others, but we’ll be conformed instead to the image of God.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
In art, beginners can get so caught up with drawing the forms and representing reality, they lose sight of the emotions and meaning of their work. Small children, on the other hand, will take an idea such as a snowman in a snowstorm, and completely obliterate their surface with white swirls until all sight of the ground, the snowman, the house and the children who built it are covered up. Their work is more about the experience of the falling, swirling snow than it is about the distinctive parts. We hang this on our refrigerators and exclaimed with amazement when they tell us the story.
In a year, they’ll be interested in the separate objects and have a well defined ground and sky, even if their objects aren’t in realistic proportions. The proportions are sized according to the child’s interest, and by age 12 most children want to create drawings with realistic perspective and images. Sometimes as they age, they begin to lose their sense of magic and mystery, and need their imagination primed more, but this isn’t impossible.
Adults often have difficulty using their imaginations, for they’ve had too many years of completing to do lists, getting things done, and unfortunately, much work is mind numbing. Some of them also are products of schools that taught to the test and to the “right answer,” rather than teaching thinking or logic skills or creativity.
The disciples asked, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
For us as artists or as people of faith, to enter into the humility of a child is a counter cultural act, both today and in ancient times. We don’t find self help gurus preaching simplicity or poverty, but we do find plenty selling the siren call of prosperity and power. Jesus always speaks of the least of all as being the most of all, which is why the smallest child has more honor and greatness in the kingdom of heaven than the most important citizens of this world.
Some of us hear this text as a call to never question the faith we learned as a child. Unfortunately when we hit the stumbling blocks of adulthood, we find our simple faith’s pillars of belief are on shaky foundations. We can either crash and burn, or we can ask the questions of trusted and learned guides who have gone on the path before. Then we can shore up our foundations with mature understandings, or remodel our understanding so we can live with joy anew.
In art, we can either repeat the same forms over and over, or we can critique our work. In the school I attended, we had a routine—the first three comments had to be positive, then the next had to be those which needed improvement. Since we never called anything “bad” or “wrong,” the person on the hot seat never felt diminished. “You could have darkened the background more, so your foreground objects would have been more prominent.” This is better than saying, “You didn’t make the objects in front stand out,” since it doesn’t offer a solution.
It’s humbling to receive criticism, even positive feedback, because we want to be accepted just as we are, especially in faith. Yet Jesus didn’t die on the cross to leave us just as we are (justifying grace), but rose from the dead to perfect us and make us holy, just as he is (sanctifying grace). In faith, we come as humble children to grow in grace before God and to come to full perfection of love of God and neighbor that is entire sanctification. In art, we work each day to join our hand, our hearts, and our vision into one spiritually inspired whole. The more we know ourselves and can connect with the spirit of the creating God, the better we’ll make art with an inner life.
Sometimes in art, we decide to repeat a certain set of forms because we get approval from others for our work. We do this to the danger of our very lives. While we may continue to sell our work and earn the acclaim of critics, if we aren’t pushing the boundaries of artistic creativity, we are stagnating and not growing. The greatest artists–Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Michaelagelo–never quit growing. In faith, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).