The Altar and the Portico: Gallery Art and Icons

The Annunciation. By Aidan Hart. 2012.

The Annunciation. By Aidan Hart. 2012.

Just read an amazing (but very long) article in The Orthodox Arts Journal:

“The Altar and The Portico (pt. 2): Gallery Art” by Aidan Hart. Subtitles tell more: THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR… The Relationship of Orthodox Iconography and Gallery Art.

Hart was a secular artist before becoming Orthodox and pursuing iconography. He worked as a sculptor within the Anglican/Episcopal church. Here’s a bit about what was driving him:

As a Christian I wanted this spirituality to embrace the material world, not to be a flight from it. I felt that this incarnational approach was all the more important in a secular age which worshipped matter and where one could not assume any prior knowledge of Christianity.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. By Modigliani, 1919.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. By Modigliani, 1919.

Hart’s move towards iconography mirrors some of my own interests, although his was on a professional level:

To abstract means literally to “draw out”, and in its original meaning it denotes the discovery and manifestation of the essence of the subject, and not departure from reality as it tends to be understood today.

The art most influential for me at this stage was Egyptian and African work. Although perhaps too disembodied, too extreme in their abstraction, these sculptures helped me to reach some conclusions about how to indicate the spiritual. Most notably I learned the importance of a strong vertical axis or elongation; stillness rather than agitated movement; and emphasis on the eyes. Constantine Brancusi and Modigliani were also influences.

I’ve always been a fan of abstract art. I’ve never thought about why I like Modigliani so much, but I also liked his work before I studied iconography. Hart eventually visited some Orthodox monks in New Zealand—one of who was an iconographer—and found what he had been searching for. He became Orthodox in 1983 and began writing icons. And then he began to wonder how spiritual art could find a place in galleries:

For me personally there are two types of artwork that do this: that which depicts suffering but with compassion, and that which suggests the world transfigured by light…. So first, compassionate art. Such works can help us see the divine image beneath suffering, and even behind ignorant acts. They show us that what makes us capable of suffering is also what makes us human.

Then he writes about the world transfigured by light:

Another form of threshold art is the art of illumination. Ascetic writers both East and West describe three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination and union… Icons indicate this luminous grace symbolically by such things as gold lines on trees, furniture and garments, and of course also haloes and golden backgrounds.

I’ve only touched on the treasures in this article, so I hope that if you’re interested in art and/or spirituality, you’ll give it a read. There are also lots of terrific illustrations of Hart’s work in the article. Enjoy!

Faith on Friday: (God’s) Family Matters

Icon of Saints Joachim and Anna at St. John Orthodox Church, Memphis

Icon of Saints Joachim and Anna at St. John Orthodox Church, Memphis

In the Orthodox Church, today is the feast day of Jesus’ grandparents, Saints Joachim and Anna. Being a grandmother (of four little girls, ages one, four, six, and seven) is one of my greatest joys. Although I live over a thousand miles from my granddaughters, I think about them every day. I pray for them. I smile as I look at their pictures all around my office each day and on the refrigerator. I send them letters and gifts. I look forward to Face Time with each of them, and I often wonder what they will be when they grow up. And yes, I imagine spending time with them more often if we retire to Denver in a few years, picking them up from school and taking them to soccer or dance or art classes, having them for sleepovers, taking them shopping, to bookstores and the theater.

Since I couldn’t have biological children, my husband and I adopted our three wonderful “kids” who are now in their thirties. We waited seven years after we got married before an adoption agency would grant us our first child. At the time, those seven years felt like an eternity to me. All our friends were having children, and my empty womb cast a sad shadow over many of those early days of our marriage. And then God’s blessings began to come to us as He gave us Jonathan, Jason, and then Beth. I was only 34 when we adopted our third child, but we had been married fifteen years by then, and I remember feeling a bit old. Couples were getting married and starting families younger back then.

Imagine how Anna must have felt. She and Joachim had been married for fifty years and were barren. They were often ridiculed by the community—many even said it was their sinfulness that caused Anna’s fruitless womb. (I know that feeling.) Joachim was a faithful Jew who went to the temple and offered sacrifices regularly, giving a third of their income to the poor, a third to the temple, and only keeping a third to live on. Finally God blessed them with a child in their old age. And not just any child—their daughter was Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Saints Joachim and Anna with their daughter, Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Saints Joachim and Anna with their daughter, Mary, the Mother of Jesus

The Orthodox Church (and the Catholic Church) venerates Mary, the Theotokos (the “God-bearer”) very highly, as it should. But it also holds her parents in high esteem. At the end of every divine liturgy, we hear the priest say these words:

“May the risen Christ, our true God, with the prayers of his pure and holy Mother, the power of the precious and life-giving Cross, the protection of the spiritual powers of Heaven… the holy and righteous ancestors of God Joachim and Anna, and all the saints whose memory we celebrate have mercy on us and save us.”

As blessed as Joachim and Anna must have felt by this amazing gift, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for them to let Anna go and live in the temple at a young age, where she would remain pure, preparing herself to become the mother of Jesus. They gave up the joys most parents experience in having their children live at home with them. And they both died before experiencing the miraculous joy and incredulous pain they would have known watching their grandson grow up and become the Christ, who would eventually suffer crucifixion before his miraculous resurrection and ascension to Heaven. Their mission as His grandparents was over early, but will forever be a cornerstone in the Church’s history. And so we sing to them on this day:

“As we celebrate the remembrance of thy righteous grand-parents, through them we beseech thee, O Lord, to save our souls.”

Faith on Friday: Icons and Street Art

Saint Charitine by Fikos

Saint Charitine by Fikos

This wonderful article in the Orthodox Arts Journal, “Contemporary Byzantine Painting: Street Art and the Icon in Convergence,” introduces the reader to the Greek artist, Fikos. Fikos started painting as a child— comic book strips, landscapes and, yes, icons. At age 13 he was studied under the renowned contemporary iconographer George Kordis. His work is beautiful, but it’s his approach to art—both street art and liturgical art—that drew my interest.

‘I was born to love, not to hate,’ by Fikos, 2013. Acrylics on wall, 12×5 m. Kolonos, Athens.

‘I was born to love, not to hate,’ by Fikos, 2013. Acrylics on wall, 12×5 m. Kolonos, Athens.

Street art and liturgical art have something in common? But isn’t graffiti historically a youthful act of rebellion? And what does the graffiti writer and the icon writer possibly have in common? In this interview with Fr. Silouan Justiniano, we learn more about this:

Can graffiti possibly bring us to remembrance of our common humanity, meant to aspire towards a higher life of blessedness? Perhaps… If so even graffiti, or at least some of its more positive strains as found in recent Neo-muralism, can be seen as an attempt to imaginatively transform our bleak post-industrial environments ̶ to offer an alternative vision ̶ by infusing them with images suggestive of a far richer, living and higher reality, imbued with beauty, lyricism, joy, rhythm and hope. So similarities with the icon in fact begin to arise…

That’s what Mare tries to do, in my novel, Cherry Bomb. Along with the street artists she meets in Atlanta, who are protesting poverty and corrupt landlords and the ugliness of the lifeless buildings in the 1980s, Mare throws up images of the darkness she has lived through in her young life. And when she discovers icons and eventually visits churches and monasteries, she embraces the liturgical art of iconography in a way that both surprises and saves her.
Fikos’ work is beautiful—both his icons and his street art. The article is definitely worth a read if you are interested in either of these art forms.

Have a great weekend!

Faith on Friday: Axios!

On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have appointed watchmen; All day and all night they will never keep silent. You who remind the LORD, take no rest for yourselves—Isaiah 62:6

"Axios! He is worthy!" Father John Troy is ordained by Bishop Antoun in March of 1987.

“Axios! He is worthy!” Father John Troy is ordained by Bishop Antoun in March of 1987.

This weekend is a significant milestone in the life of our church—Saint John Orthodox in Memphis. Our pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn, is retiring, and our young Assistant Pastor, Father Philip Rogers, becomes our Pastor, bringing along his wonderful wife Kathryn. (And—icing on the cake—Father Alex Mackoul joined us this summer as Assistant Pastor, with his wife Amanda.) An ordinary passing of the baton, right? In many churches this happens every few years, or at least every decade or two. But not in most Orthodox churches. And not at St. John in Memphis.



St. John started in living rooms in the early 1970s and eventually moved to the Barth House (Episcopal Student Center) on the campus of the University of Memphis, before finally purchasing its current property in midtown in 1990. Father John Troy was there from the beginning. And he was still there in 1987 when the clergy were ordained and the people were Chrismated and the group became an official Orthodox mission, and later a parish. A few years later he retired from his secular job to become our full time pastor, which he has been now for over twenty years. I’m not checking the dates as I write this, but I believe he has been serving this group of people for about forty five years.

Troy Mashburn and Bill Cushman at a Sigma Chi formal at Ole Miss in 1969

Troy Mashburn and Bill Cushman at a Sigma Chi formal at Ole Miss in 1969

My husband, Father Basil Cushman, has served as Associate Pastor here since 1988, but our friendship with Father John Troy started way back in college, where the two of them were fraternity brothers at Ole Miss, and Father Troy’s wife, Pamela, and I were sorority sisters. Then in June of 1970, Father John Troy was a groomsman in our wedding. As we continued our journey to Orthodoxy in Jackson, Mississippi, the Mashburns were on a similar path here in Memphis. It seemed almost inevitable that we would end up together again.



The little group of less than forty people who were the original members of St. John Orthodox Church in 1987 has grown to over 350 members today. Our beautiful old (1920s vintage) building has gradually been transformed, especially the nave and sanctuary (altar area) with its wonderful iconography and recently installed hardwood floors. And this fall we begin construction on a new building next door, which will house our new parish hall and kitchen. (We’ll start by tearing down the duplex that stands there now, which the church owns.) Our growing congregation is full of young families and lots of children—a wonderful blessing to us all.


So now I’d like to wish Father John Troy “many years!” (an Orthodox blessing for many occasions) and say thank you for all you have done to help build this wonderful parish. I would love to know how many people you have baptized, Chrismated, churched and married over the years (I’m sure the accountant in you knows those numbers) and I’m sure many will join me in wishing you and Pamela many blessings as you enter this next stage of your life. I won’t go into all the ways you have helped me personally, but you know them. And even through our disagreements, I have always loved you.

Holy Week 2016

Holy Week 2016

And to Father Philip and Father Alex, our new pastors, “Axios!” (He is worthy!)

Kathryn and Father Philip Rogers, our new Pastor and his wonderful wife!

Kathryn and Father Philip Rogers, our new Pastor and his wonderful wife!

Father Alex and Amanda Mackoul

Father Alex and Amanda Mackoul, our new Assistant Pastor and his lovely wife

Faith on Friday: (Our Nation is) Yearning for Mother-Love

Part of my icon studio, six years ago

Part of my icon studio, six years ago

I miss writing icons. Yesterday I found this link to a wonderful video that demonstrates the process of writing an icon, and I found myself enthralled as I watched. (The iconographers are Anton and Ekaterina Daineko, a married couple from Minsk, Belarus, who are teaching workshops in the U.S. this summer.) I even got a little teary-eyed. And while I feel strongly that I will never return to this liturgical art form, I will always be thankful for the time I spent learning, practicing and teaching it, because of the greater understanding and appreciation of iconography those years gave me. (If you missed my post about five years ago on why I retired from writing icons, it’s here.) 

And so this morning when I went to our icon corner to do my morning prayers, I smiled as I read about the saints who are commemorated in the Orthodox Church today. And especially about this event, which is also commemorated: “The Appearance of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God.” In 1579 in Kazan, Russia, a terrible fire destroyed part of the city, but spared a nine-year-old girl named Matrona, although her house was burned. The Mother of God appeared to Matrona and directed her where to find a miracle-working icon, buried under a stove, covered in ashes, but wrapped in cloth for protection. The icon was taken to the Annunciation cathedral, where it became known for healing the blind and curing eye diseases. A church was built on the site where it was found, but sadly it was later destroyed by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.

I found this wonderful poem in the book, Mother of God, Similar to Fire (given to me by friends a few years ago), which contains beautiful icons paired with poems—a form of ekphrastic writing that I enjoy immensely. The icons are written by William Hart McNichols and the poetry is by Mirabai Starr. I don’t have permission to publish her poem in its entirely, so I’ll quote a part of it here:

KazanOur Lady of Kazan

You lived a fully, deeply human life,

And this humanity is what helps us feel connected to you.

This world is yearning for your Mother-Love.

Show our leaders how to guide us

With respect for our dignity and well-being.

Teach us to love one another

With boundless patience

And unbridled joy.


I found these words—and the beautiful icon (which I’ve only shared a detail of here) comforting to offer as a prayer as our nation mourns the loss of more lives to violence on our streets and in our homes.

Faith on Friday: The Feast of Fire

Pentecost1-e1353429682597One of the largest icons at our parish, Saint John Orthodox in Memphis, is of the Feast of Pentecost (at left), which we will celebrate this coming Sunday. Art, poetry, and music are all important aspects of the spiritual world for me, so I’m going to share a bit of art and poetry with you today in anticipation of the feast on Sunday.

Whatever your spiritual tradition, I hope that these images and words will bring peace and joy, which are fruits of the Holy Spirit—the One we celebrate at Pentecost. (To see a slide show of all the icons in the nave at Saint John, click here.)

Note the first poem mentions a “maid,” which refers to the Mother of God. I’ve included an icon of Pentecost in which she is seated with the apostles.

pentecost-eastern-iconThe Icon of Pentecost

At the Church’s birth,
Licked clean by flames of Spirit
Maid and Apostles in horseshoe
Make sweet maternal crib
In whose dark cave
The World, that Old King,
Waits with a swaddling cloth.

 Frances Hall Ford



Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.

Malcolm Guite (Learn more about Guite here. Read more about this poem and listen to him read it here.) 

Saint Mary of Egypt: Turning Lead Into Gold

 An article in yesterday’s Orthodox Arts Journal reveals a new icon of Saint Mary of Egypt—my patron saint—who is commemorated in the Orthodox Christian Church on April 1 and the 5th Sunday of Great Lent (this coming Sunday). The article was written by Father Silouan Justiniano, who also wrote the icon. He goes into a lot of depth about the symbolism and style he used, so for my readers with an interest in iconography, Orthodoxy, or art, it’s well worth the read. For my purposes in this blog post I’ll only share a short excerpt, which focuses on the symbolism in the figure of Saint Mary:

Saints Zosimas and Mary by Father Silouan Justiniano

Saints Zosimas and Mary by Father Silouan Justiniano


St. Mary’s transfigured state, beyond the limitations of corporeality, is suggested not only by the fact that she walks on water, as the Lord Himself once did, but also by her luminescent yellow-green garment. Like precious gold, the yellow of the Sun of Righteousness glows within her, while green overshadows the glow as a symbol of the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, the “Giver of life.” Moreover, by standing on water St. Mary shows her overcoming of the turbidity and murkiness of the watery passions. Her mercuric state has been stabilized, lead has been turned into gold. In dispassion she becomes one with the One in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, her sins like drops of muddy water fall into the Abyss of mercy beyond being, causing a ripple without disturbance, dissolving without a trace, while her true self remains and arises undissolved. Solve et coagula…Through the furnace of repentance she has become an angel in the flesh.

I wept as I read those words on Thursday morning. The previous evening (Wednesday) I had been to a Lenten service at my parish, Saint John Orthodox in Memphis, where the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete was chanted, and the life of Saint Mary of Egypt was read. Throughout the service—while the chanting was going on—parishioners had the opportunity to make their confessions with one of the two priests standing before the icons on the solea. I found myself there following the first half of the reading of Saint Mary’s life, moved to much-needed repentance, and receiving grace and healing from the sacrament. I felt, as the priest prayed the prayers of absolution with his stole covering my head, my true self remaining and arising undissolved. I left the service with a renewed desire to be like her, “a symbol of the purified desiring aspect of the soul”:

She roamed in the desert naked feeling no shame for she regained the garment of her primordial beauty. In her former life she had an “insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth,”[ix] but she is now a symbol of the purified desiring aspect of the soul, the realization of true eros, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good…who satisfies your desire with good things” (Psalm 34:8; 103:5).

Faith on Friday: Flannery O’Connor and the Mother of God

This past December I did a post about Flannery O’Connor that included this quote from A Prayer Journal (published after she died):

I want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even. If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me.

cat-sees-her-lion-reflection1Writers—and maybe musicians and artists and even people in other walks of life—must have a measure of self-confidence in order to attempt a book, or even an essay or a short story or a poem. It takes courage to put your creative efforts out there for all the world to judge. It would be so much easier to work in a field where your daily assignments are black and white. Balance these books. Add these numbers. Repair this engine. But… make up a story from scratch? Or brazenly tell a true one?

O’Connor acknowledges God’s part in her creative work, and yet she surely must have had some degree of “self” confidence to keep on keeping on, in the face of numerous rejections and other discouraging aspects of the writing life. So how does a Christian balance this self-confidence with faith?

Mother Melania, an Orthodox nun who lives in the community of Holy Assumption Monastery in California, says this:

Self-confidence is a much valued trait in our culture…. What is a Christian to make of this? After all, we would be very hard pressed to find any saints in the Church who ever bemoaned their own lack of self-confidence or tried to increase it in their spiritual children. That’s not to say that the saints were not confident people.

And then she goes on to give examples of saints whose courage and faith inspired generations. And then she says:

The different between their confidence and our self-confidence has to do with at least two things—the purpose of this confidence and the person in whom it is placed. The saints had confidence in the goodness and power of God…. We, on the other hand, have a multitude of purposes for our self-confidence—an easier life, more money, increased status… even to do good for our fellows. But if the purpose is not to love God and neighbor, what possible sense does it make to place that confidence in myself?

0793a0fae18b6d8b626bd5f3fb5ddecbToday is the feast day of the Annunciation in the Orthodox Church. We commemorate the event described in Holy Scriptures when the Archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would become the Mother of God. I can’t even imagine the confidence it took for this humble young girl to respond with “be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:28). She was facing public humiliation and scorn and disbelief on the part of many. Her life was about to change in ways she could barely imagine. Any plans she had for her future were immediately set aside. Was it “only faith” that allowed her to respond so obediently? I think she also had a measure of confidence—in self and in God. Again, from Mother Melania:

The root word in ‘confidence’ is fides…. ‘faith, trust, confidence; belief, credence; loyalty; honestly; allegiance; promise; security; protection.’… to place our confidence/fides lovingly and humbly in the Lord of the Universe Who willingly died that we might share in His life is an unspeakable privilege, a great adventure, and unimaginable joy. Grant this, O Lord!

I love this video, “Be Done Unto Me.” May it inspire you on this Feast of Annunciation!

Faith on Friday: Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God

MOGfornaveOn Fridays at noon we pray what is known in the Orthodox Church as Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God. I haven’t been to these in a while, but today I was anxious to entreat her on behalf of those for whom I have special concerns.

First I met a friend for coffee at Café Eclectic, which is only a few blocks from St. John Orthodox Church. It was nurturing to catch up with this friend, and we talked about our children, icons, and spiritual things, as well as our common love of art. I had a couple of hours of errands to run afterwards, but really wanted to go to the Paraclesis prayers first, and I’m so glad I did.

The priest sets an icon of the Mother of God “Directress” (because her hands are directing us towards her Son) on a stand in the middle of the solea, in front of the iconostasis. Several times during the prayers he censes the icon as we chant various hymns. The hymns are really prayers. Some are penitential in nature, and some are supplicatory. Some people had turned in the names of people they specifically wanted to pray for. I just prayed for “my people” silently in my heart as the names were called.

I believe the Mother of God hears our prayers and intercedes with her Son on behalf of those who pray to her, and for those for whom we are asking help. My busy afternoon of errands was filled with peace. Tomorrow is my mother’s 88th birthday. She is one of the people for whom I prayed today, and I know my prayers were heard.

Faith on Friday: Just Do It!

Icon Corner_edited-1I have read dozens of books about prayer—including my favorites from the Orthodox spiritual tradition, like Beginning to Pray, Courage to Pray, and Living Prayer, by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. In recent years I’ve enjoyed books on prayer from more diverse sources, like Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow and Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal.

As an Orthodox Christian, I have a “prayer rule.” My spiritual father helped me set it up about twenty-five years ago. It includes a number of “set” prayers in the Orthodox tradition, and also a time for repentance, and for supplication for others. For several years when I was more attentive to my prayer life, I stood before my icons and prayed these prayers every morning and night. And I made efforts at practicing what is known as “The Jesus Prayer” during the day.  And then I went through a dark period, spiritually, during which I didn’t pray very much.

After my car wreck in July of 2013, I began to pray again. For several months I could only pray lying in a hospital bed in my office at home. It took a while before I had the strength to pray standing before my icons again. And now—since I’m “recovered” to what I call my “new normal,”—I have the strength to stand and pray, but I find myself following this practice only in the mornings. Somehow by evening the day has worn me down and the bed (or sometimes the TV or a good book) calls to me more strongly than the prayer corner. And I’m not making much effort with spontaneous prayer throughout the day.

Recently I had an experience that reminded me of the power of prayer. Especially the power of having a mindset of awareness of God’s presence. I was dealing with a frustrating situation in my writing life (which still isn’t resolved) and I found myself so anxious about it that I lay in bed one night this week thinking about the issues involved until I realized that I had not prayed about it. At all. And so I turned my thoughts towards God and told Him all about the situation (as though He doesn’t know) and how anxious I am. And then I began to pray for the other people involved—for their minds to be open and their hearts to be soft as we continue working through the situation. And finally I asked God to please give me peace within the situation.

An amazing thing happened. I felt less anxious. I slept peacefully and have continued to deal with the situation in the following days with a still heart and more clarity of mind.

PapawRunningWhy are we always surprised when we do the right thing and it brings good results? My husband (and my father, who died in 1998) is the kind of person who just does the right thing, almost intuitively. He’s very disciplined, as was my father, who ran marathons into his late sixties. Mom and Dad owned Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1982-1997. Initially they had an exclusive contract with Nike (before Nike broke the contract and began to sell their shoes in discount stores) and I remember that my Dad loved Nike’s slogan: “Just Do It!” It was while I was working for Mom and Dad, running the aerobic dance studio at their store, that I learned to put that slogan into practice and lost weight and got into good physical shape for the first time in my life. Here I am twenty-five years later trying to get my 64-year-old body back into shape by eating less and exercising more. As I work out on my elliptical machine in my office at home, I find myself looking at the large watercolor picture on the wall in front of me for inspiration. It’s a picture of my father running in a marathon. When I’m tired of exercising and want to quit, I listen for his voice. There it is: “Just do it!”

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