In my post on Monday about the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, I mentioned Lee Gutkind’s remarks about the sacrifices a writer often makes for his work. He spoke candidly about “the things you miss.” And how great the cost might be—in his case, the loss of a marriage. For the author, Jessica Handler, it meant the loss of friends who don’t give you a wide enough berth for your labors.
Lee and Jessica’s words resonated strongly with me, especially because they were spoken on Sunday morning. It was May 5. To most of the hundred or so people at the conference, May 5 was just an ordinary Sunday. But for the millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide, it was the highest Holy day of the year. It was Pascha. It was our Easter. (See some beautiful photographs of Orthodox Christians celebrating Pascha in many countries here.)
When Neil, Kathy and I began planning the conference, the date was set for March. But there were no rooms at the Inn. The Inn at Ole Miss is the only on-campus housing, and many of our conference-goers would be flying in from around the country and wouldn’t have a car to get from a hotel room to the campus each day. So we began moving the conference a week or so later. And later. Until we found a weekend that worked for the faculty we had invited and also a weekend when there would be plenty of rooms at the Inn. The only date available was May 5.
My heart sank when I realized it was Pascha. I had missed Pascha last year, because I was in Denver where my daughter was having a baby and I didn’t want to drive alone in the middle of the night to and from the service. It was inconceivable that I would miss Pascha two years in a row, but I did.
MISSING PASCHA is a big deal. Having been through 40 days of Great Lent, and having begun the journey towards Pascha with the services of Holy Week the previous Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings (Bridegroom Matins), I made the decision to skip Holy Unction on Wednesday night. I would be leaving for Oxford on Thursday morning, and it didn’t feel right to participate in the sacrament designed to prepare one for communion at the most holy of all feasts if one wasn’t going to even be present at the table.
As I picked up Julie Schoerke from the Memphis airport and drove her down to Oxford (she was on our faculty) we chatted about our families and our careers, but not about religion. Not about church.
As the conference began and as I got caught up in the events of the weekend, I didn’t think about what I was missing. Well, except every night when I crawled into bed and allowed my thoughts to wander away from the microcosm of the literary world of Oxford and the wonderful writers and agents and editors and publishers who were gathered there. In bed at night, I would imagine what my brothers and sisters at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis had done that day.
I pictured them on Holy Thursday, (and I missed making Greek Easter Soup and dying eggs red!) as they partook of the Body and Blood of Christ in remembrance of the Last Supper. I watched them in my mind’s eye as they processed around the church with the priest holding the cross with the image of Christ crucified, and as they read the Passion Gospels. I found myself singing the Lamentations with them as they decorated the bier with flowers and walked through Christ’s death and burial together on Holy Friday:
Every generation to Thy tomb comes bearing their praise…
And then when a friend from church posted this picture of my husband, Father Basil Cushman,(AKA Dr. William Cushman for those who don’t know his other identity) joyously tossing bay leaves and rose petals into the air during the Holy Saturday service, my heart began to break. And all the people sang out:
“The dead shall arise!”
At the sight of that photograph the cost—the sacrifice of missing Pascha for this writing conference—began to feel like a huge loss.
In the Orthodox Church we have our Paschal service late on Saturday night. It usually begins around 11:30 p.m. so that it will be after midnight when the priest knocks on the front doors of the church (with the entire congregation behind him, having followed him in a procession outside) and cries out with a loud voice:
“Open your gates you princes, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors, that the King of Glory may come in!”
And the people listen quietly for the voice that replies from inside the church:
“Who is the King of Glory?”
Everyone tries to guess the identity of “the voice” each year—usually one of our deacons. And then the priest replies:
“The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war!”
Once inside the church, more triumphant hymns are sung—including many versions of “Christ is Risen From the Dead”—and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. The solea is filled with large baskets of food, decorated with fresh flowers. These will be blessed by the priest at the end of the service and then taken downstairs to be shared by all into the wee hours of the morning as the celebration continues. What was I doing while this was going on?
I was at one of the “after parties” held in the room adjoining mine at The Inn at Ole Miss. Sharing stories and laughter with fellow writers from other places. But the reality of what I was missing had grabbed my heart and would not let go.
On Sunday morning I drove Dinty Moore and Deborah Grosvenor from Oxford to the airport in Memphis to catch their flights home. The conversation was about publishing and writing, and yes, bits about our personal lives. And what a treat it was to have that time with these professionals in the industry.
But as soon as I dropped them off I raced to the home of my ten-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, for the annual Pascha brunch her parents host. I embraced my husband and friends and enjoyed mimosas and good food and conversation. The Memphis Grizzlies’ playoff game was on the television and some folks were watching and cheering them on. Others were out on the patio by the swimming pool, soaking up the sunshine after many days of rain. I kept my sunglasses on, even inside the house. Everyone seemed to be bathed in a light that I had missed. I wasn’t glowing.
At 3 p.m. I drove to the church for Agape Vespers—the final service of Pascha. The Gospel is read in as many languages as we have parishioners who can speak them—this year it was eleven, I think. The floor is still covered in bay leaves and rose petals and the doors to the altar are flung open, and will remain so during all of Bright Week. At the end of the service, as people were filing out to head downstairs for the Easter egg hunt and the barbeque (catered by Corky’s) the choir sang several joyous Paschal hymns. I stood by the front pew, singing along with them and weeping with joy, but also with sadness for what I had missed.
As they were finishing up, I stepped up to Margaret Elliott, our wonderful choir director, and I said, “Are you taking requests?” The choir members who heard me smiled and exchanged looks with me and each other. Before she could answer I continued, “I missed Pascha and I really want to hear “The Angel Cried.” And so they sang it once again and I sang along and wept harder. (Listen to this amazing hymn here.)
Every time I hear “The Angel Cried,” I think of Mary Allison Callaway, my precious Goddaughter who was killed by a drunk driver when she was only twenty, back in 1998. The words of this hymn are on her grave just outside of Jackson, Mississippi. Every time I visit (which is fairly often, as she is buried only a few feet away from my father and my brother) I stand by her grave and sing this song at the top of my lungs. I’m headed down to Jackson tomorrow to visit my mother and to attend a baby shower for my niece. But first thing, as I drive into town, I will stop at the cemetery and celebrate Christ’s resurrection at the tombs of these three people I love and miss. Although I’ve been in a bit of a spiritual crisis for the past three years or so (and continue in the struggle), I think the angels will join me as I sing at the cemetery tomorrow. It will be my own little Pascha.
I’m in Oxford co-directing the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference through Sunday, which is a joy, but which also means I’m missing The services of Holy Week leading up to Pascha, and Pascha itself.
Here’s my post about Holy Friday from five years ago:
Have a great weekend, and check back next week for more on the conference!
The Lord goes to His voluntary Passion. We must accompany Him. This is the duty of anyone who confesses that he has become who he is now by the power of Christ’s Passion.—St. Theophan the Recluse
Today is Holy Monday—the first day of Holy Week for Orthodox Christians. As we join Christ in His Passion—his suffering and death—through the services of Holy Week, we also join His Mother in her suffering. Mary was told, even before her Son was born, that “a sword shall pierce your heart.” Whenever mothers suffer the pain their sons must endure in their lives on earth, the Mother of God understands, and gives comfort when we ask her. One of my favorite hymns of the Church is this one:
To thee, the Champion Leader, we thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos: but as thou art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do thou deliver us, that we may cry to thee: Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!
Every mother has known some level of suffering for her children’s pain. Today I remember the sufferings of my youngest son, Jason, whose Name Day we commemorate today. St. Jason was one of the seventy apostles who went forth to preach the Gospel of Christ in the first century.
Our oldest son, Jonathan, is at the VA Hospital today, where he will have surgery for appendicitis. He went to the emergency room around 2:30 this morning with severe abdominal pain. His father is already there and I’m headed up there to be with him soon.
Today is Holy (or Good) Friday for Catholic and Protestant Christians. And yet it will be five more weeks until Orthodox Christians reach this point in our journey to Holy Pascha (Easter). It saddens me that the world’s largest religion is divided in this most important of all religious holidays. (Read more about the Gregorian and Julian calendars and the reason for the two dates for Easter.) But no matter which calendar you follow, please take a few minutes to consider Saint Paul’s words to the church at Corinth.
“For the message of the cross is to them that are perishing foolishness; but to those who are being saved it is the power of God…. We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”—I Corinthians 1:18 and 2:7-8
Today I join with my Catholic and Protestant friends as they commemorate Christ’s crucifixion and burial. This morning I was blessed to spend a few minutes watching Beliefnet’s “Bitter Journey: The Way of the Cross.” As I watched, I thought about one of the hymns we will sing on Holy Friday in the Orthodox Church, five weeks from today:
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.
I will try to keep the Cross foremost in my mind as I join my fellow parishioners at St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis to pray the Akathist to the Mother of God tonight. I can’t imagine her suffering as she saw her Son on the Cross. Surely she knows how to comfort all who are suffering in this life. Listen to this beautiful hymn, To Thee the Champion Leader, which is Kontakion I (Hymn I) of the Akathist we will sing tonight:
To thee, the Champion Leader, we thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos: but as thou art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do thou deliver us, that we may cry to thee: Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride!
TITLES (and *Agents, sneaky, right?)
When I started writing Cherry Bomb, I Googled the title to be sure there wasn’t a recent novel by the same name. I found another book, published in 2008: Cherry Bomb: The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Better Flirt, a Tougher Chick, and a Hotter Girlfriend–and to Living Life Like a Rock Star. While this book has nothing in common with mine, I thought I could not (legally) use the same title, so I added a subtitle to mine: Cherry Bomb: A Novel. I didn’t know it wasn’t necessary until yesterday.
Yesterday I discovered that Jill McCorkle and Kate Atkinson are both releasing novels with the same title, Life After Life, in April. And for the first time, independent booksellers have declared a tie for their No. 1 Indie Next Pick, selecting BOTH Life After Life novels for April. No legal issues, and a surprising marketing boost for both authors.
So maybe I won’t need to add “:A Novel” at the end of my book title. Hopefully an *agent will guide me concerning this. I’ve now queried 65 agents for my novel, Cherry Bomb, and have 25 rejections. Several are still reading partials or fulls. I take encouragement, not only from fellow Jackson, Mississippi, native, Katherine Stockett, whose best-selling novel, The Help, was rejected by over 100 agents, but also by my friend Joshilyn Jackson, (another Southerner) who reminded me recently that she queried 160 agents for her first novel, gods in Alabama. Only one agent responded, and he has now sold five best-selling novels for Joshilyn. If you want to read an extremely entertaining blog, check out “Faster Than Kudzu.”
One of the three protags in my novel is based on Elaine de Kooning, an Abstract Expressionist painter who died in 1989. At first I changed her name to Emily Kaiser in the book, thinking I couldn’t use a real person’s name in a novel if I was going to fictionalize her life so much. But I spoke with an intellectual right attorney who said it would be fine, and using her real name would make the book more interesting to art lovers. Fast forward a year and a half, and one of the rejections I received from a literary agent recently included this comment:
I am uncomfortable with using Ms. de Kooning’s real name in the novel.
I guess my novel doesn’t clearly fit into the historical fiction genre. I don’t know where it fits exactly… but again, I’m hoping an *agent will help me with that.
My friend, Karissa Knox Sorrell, a precious young Nashville writer whom I met at the Southern Festival of Books this past October, has a terrific blog. She’s almost finished drafting a memoir, and her post yesterday was all about how to organize the story–chronologically or thematically? We’re both converts to the Orthodox Church, and I can’t wait to read her memoir, which is about her spiritual journey. Check out her post if you’re interested in how a book comes together. I’m sure we’ll be seeing it in print one day.
So, after my post on Monday–in which I whined a bit about no one ever calling me–a friend and fellow Memphis writer who read the post emailed me with an encouraging inspirational quote, and then invited me to lunch today. I really wasn’t trying to drum up sympathy, but I’m looking forward to spending time with this wonderful woman. Emma and I both lived in Jackson, Mississippi, for 37 years, but not the same years. We met a few years ago when she took one of my icon workshops. Since then, we’ve been together at several writing workshops, and I’ve dropped in on the dream work group she leads at St. John Episcopal Church here in Memphis. Last fall, Emma invited me to give a reading from Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, for her Sunday School class at St. John, and a brief talk on writing essays and memoir. My spirits are already lifted this morning, just thinking about having lunch with Emma. (The picture is from an evening two years ago when Emma and I had dinner with Nashville author, River Jordan, following River’s reading at Davis-Kidd Books.)
While Western Christians are less than two weeks away from celebrating Easter, Orthodox Christians all over the world are just beginning their Lenten journey today—on Clean Monday. I made it to Forgiveness Vespers last year, but not last night. It’s complicated. But my reluctance to jump into Great Lent wholeheartedly has something to do with longing for a life that isn’t so… heavy. That may surprise those of you who know me well enough to know that I’m all about intensity and embracing the dark side of life. But when it comes to God and Orthodox spirituality, I struggle with the heaviness of the season, at least the way it often comes across in parts of the Orthodox world.
If you’re tired of reading my rants about fasting, you can just skip the rest of today’s post, because I’m going to do it again. But don’t worry, it’s going to be a much lighter rant than in the past.
With excerpts from a surprising (and completely secular) source: the April issue of Reader’s Digest. Joe Kita has a piece in the “Our Lives” column called, “The Lighter Side of Sin.” He breaks down the seven deadly sins—wrath, greed, envy, sloth, pride, gluttony and lust—giving each of them a slightly scientific spin and revealing their lighter sides.
Here’s a taste: (Some are quoted, others are paraphrased.)
Wrath—The chronic suppression of anger can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and sleep disorders, studies show. … If you’re married, a little bit of wrath might even save your life. A report from the University of Michigan determined that couples who regularly got problems off their chests lived longer than those who internalized them.
Greed—Materialistic greed can have positive effects. Research shows that when you’re pursuing and acquiring what you desire, you feel great. This has the potential to benefit not only you personally, in the form of happiness and health, but also those around you, including family, friends, and depending on your business, shareholders and society…. It’s basic human nature to feel greed. Whether it’s a sin depends on the limits we place on it.
Envy—Dutch researchers recently determined that benign envy, which lacks the venom of its poisonous big sister, (malicious envy) motivates us to improve.
Sloth—Richard Wiseman, a British psychologist who measures pedestrian walking speeds around the world, says the human race has sped up ten percent since the 1990s. But where is all this hurrying getting us? Taking it slow may have benefits, like weight loss. Adults sleeping five or fewer hours per night have a 55 percent greater chance of being obese.
Pride—Although pride is regarded by some as the original deadly sin, achievement-oriented pride creates feelings of optimism and worthiness. It is motivational, resulting in greater perseverance and personal development. It can even change physical appearance, prompting more smiles and better posture.
Gluttony—Thirty-six percent of American adults are obese, so it seems there could be no upside to gluttony. But scientists at Tel Aviv University discovered that adding a little dessert to an otherwise balanced breakfast facilitates weight loss. A cookie at breakfast or an occasional cheat meal can keep you from going elbow-deep into a bag of chips before bedtime. (He explains this better in the article, but I do think this was the weakest of his 7 arguments.)
Lust—Research at the University of Amsterdam (why does the location not surprise me?) shows that lust helped study subjects focus better on the present and its details. Kita admits that lust for sex can certainly be destructive, but a lust for life is virtuous. Like all the Seven Sins, what determines whether it’s deadly is a simple matter of whether we control it or it controls us.
I think Kita nailed it on the head with that final sentence. The Lenten Fast (and all of the spiritual lifestyle promoted by the Orthodox faith) aims at control—our control over our flesh, rather than the other way around. I do get that. It’s not the goal I take issue with—it’s the method. The rules and regulations just don’t help me draw closer to God. I know some Orthodox Christians who are greatly helped by the same regimen that undoes me, so my thoughts are just that—mine.
And the results of Kita’s lighter approach to the seven deadly sins might not even be things that you consider “good” goals for Christians—longer life, health, happiness, improved marriage, weight loss, perseverance, good posture, personal development, material success—but I appreciated his thoughts.
What I do like about the Orthodox approach to Lent is how fasting is only one third of a three-pronged “stool” that, as our pastor said yesterday, won’t hold up without all three legs. I embrace (anonymous) almsgiving and I try to pray (in secret) but it’s the fasting that keeps tripping me up.
If you’re in the throes of a serious ascetic struggle, please don’t take offense at the lighter approach I’ve introduced here. But if, like me, you struggle with the heavy cross of self denial in the seemingly legalistic form of which foods not to eat on which days (and the endless “fake foods” and recipes to make fasting taste good) I hope you can take this post in the spirit in which it’s shared, and find the lighter side of Lent. And please forgive me.
My dear friend (and Goddaughter) Sue lost her mother on Tuesday. She lived out her final years in a nursing home. Sue visited her almost daily for most of those years. She was a devoted and loving daughter, and she misses her mother greatly. Yesterday we had lunch together, and I found myself more comforted by Sue’s words than by my own meager efforts at comforting her. Sue is a woman of faith.
I thought about Sue and her mother as I read an article by Father Josiah Trenham, pastor of St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, California, in the December 2012 issue of The Word magazine. The article, “Getting Old in a Spiritual Way: Embracing God’s Will in Aging,” was Fr. Josiah’s second lecture in a series in which he examines this phrase which Orthodox Christians pray routinely, asking God for “a Christian ending to our lives.” There’s much good to be gleaned from the article (and the entire series) but in the light of Sue’s mother’s death, I was most struck by his words in the section on “Caring for the Sick and Dying”:
A significant part of aging is mourning well and sending off your loved ones ahead of you to the kingdom! Looking to the future with hope. Grieving in prayer with God. Nourishing friendship to the end. It is an eternal investment. Love is stronger than death…. It is an honor to co-labor with them in the last and great work of their life, and to fight alongside them in the final battle of the great war which their life has been, a battle that surely leads to final and everlasting victory in Christ.
Surely. Fr. Josiah writes with much certainty. Like Sue, he is a person of faith. I wish I had their certainty. People who express a strong faith seem to walk through life with lighter steps. They leave a softer footprint. I seem to always be stomping on the earth with my whining and fussing, like a spoiled, chubby child trying to get his way at the candy counter. Oh, sure, I have seasons of faith—times of contentment, maybe even joy. But it seems that the dark nights of the soul outnumber those times in my life. Searching for answers—or maybe just for a glimmer of hope—I ran across these words from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware:
Almost as traumatic as the death of a friend or partner can be, for many believers, the death of faith—the loss of our root certainties (or seeming certainties) about God and the meaning of existence. But this too is a life-death experience through which we pass if our faith is to become mature. True faith is a constant dialogue with doubt, for God is incomparably greater than all our preconceptions about Him; our mental concepts are idols that need to be shattered. So as to be fully alive, our faith needs continually to die. (The Inner Kingdom, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000)
I want to believe that God is, as Metropolitan Kallistos says, “incomparably greater than all our preconceptions about Him.” I am contemplating his statement that “our mental concepts are idols that need to be shattered.” There is so much about my spiritual journey that I am questioning at this point in my life. But if I understand Metropolitan Kallistos correctly, it’s okay if my faith dies. It’s even a necessity, if I am going to be “fully alive.”
Returning to Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow, I read her final chapter this morning. It’s called, “Amen.” I love what she says about us—the people who are praying and saying, “Amen” at the end of our prayers:
It is us, the damaged, hopeless people, lifting up our hope, hate, gratitude, fear, and shame, saying, Boy, do we hope we are right about this God stuff.
I love that she says we not only lift up our hope and gratitude to God, but also our hate, fear and shame. And I would add to that list, doubt. And anger. Today I lift up my doubt and anger to God, along with my hope and gratitude. And I will try to pray more. Not just because Great Lent begins next Monday (for Orthodox Christians) but also because, as Lamott says (of prayer):
It brings me back to my heart, from the treacherous swamp of my mind…. So it is, when we do the best we can, and we leave the results in God’s good hands. Amen
I think maybe prayer can help shatter those idols. I am going to try.
Last night I did a “late” Faith on Friday post about the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Part of the post contained some strong words criticizing my church, or at least my experience at church yesterday morning. Later last night I deleted the post, although my subscribers received it by email. This morning I woke up pondering what it was that made me delete the post. And then I read the next chapter in Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, and it hit me—I was feeling shame about what I wrote. (My earlier posts about Daring Greatly are here and here.) Or more about how people might respond to what I wrote, since shame is integrally connected to anxiety about how others perceive you.
Chapter 3 of Brown’s book, which I read this morning, is titled, “Understanding and Combating Shame.” There way too much to “review” in a short blog post, so I’ll just hit a couple of highlights, and encourage everyone to get this book and read it!
“Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.”
I could go on and on about how shame affects relationships with other people—spouses, children, friends, co-workers—but for this post I’m going to focus on my relationship with God. As a Christian, fear of disconnection with God is as real as fear of disconnection with other people. Every religion, every church, has its own way of dealing with our failures. The Orthodox Church offers the sacraments of confession and communion as healing for those failures. I get that. But sometimes—like yesterday—the message can come across a little tangled.
Guilt and shame, according to Brown, aren’t the same thing. I am guilty of sin, that’s for sure. And when I sin and own that failure, I should have guilt. I should acknowledge that I did something bad. But shame, again according to Brown, tells me that I am bad. There’s a huge difference. Guilt can have a positive influence in changing behavior, but shame “corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying…. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness.”
That’s what I was feeling when I went to church yesterday morning, for the first time since January. I was desperate for worthiness. I was also exhausted, having just spent several days hostessing my daughter and ten-month-old granddaughter, who were visiting from Denver for a funeral. It was a stressful time for my daughter, and I was able to find the strength to help in her time of need. After they flew back to Denver on Saturday, I crashed and slept for hours. Then I got up on Sunday morning, hungry for a connection to God. I wasn’t feeling guilt or shame. I was just tired and hungry. I needed some warmth and encouragement. So now I’ll share part of that post I deleted last night, tweaked slightly.
Yesterday was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in the Orthodox Church. It’s the first of three Sundays leading up to the beginning of Great Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Calendar. Kind of a warm-up for serious repenting and aesthetic struggle. I say “warm-up” because our faith can get cold when we aren’t actively massaging it, and it’s a shock to suddenly jump into Lent without some preparation… like muscles that we don’t use for a long time and then suddenly we try to run a marathon.
But here’s the thing—the preparation didn’t feel helpful to me yesterday morning. I knew what Sunday it was, and I tried to prepare my heart to enter into the service—to let the music, the prayers, the sacraments warm my faith. Somehow it didn’t happen.
The theme for this Sunday is repentance, and that’s pretty much the only message I heard yesterday morning. I felt like a child who had been away and upon arriving back home, gets fussed at. My heart was already sad because of a death in our family. I had been working hard and doing good deeds and I was exhausted, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I had been away from Church for several weeks, and I needed the Church to be the father in the Prodigal Son story. You know, the one who ran out to welcome his son when he returned? The way I understand it, the son had already repented—that’s why he returned home, right?
We have a large print of Rembrandt’s beautiful painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” in our home. I love this painting. My favorite part is that the father is bathed in light—he is the warmth, the love, the life of the event pictured. The emphasis seems to be on welcoming. It’s a fairly dark painting, except for the father, who is full of light and love. And his light pours out on the son.
I’d like to see the Church—and especially its leaders—welcome all comers with open arms and words that will warm their faith. Not with constant reminders to repent. I’m sure that many people reading this (especially if any pastors are reading it) will take issue with my words. The Orthodox Church calendar sets the agenda for each Sunday. The priests don’t have a choice about what scriptures to read. The choir director can’t decide to have us sing something other than the hymns prescribed for the day. The Gospel reading is set. The homily will be preached on that Gospel reading. What else would I expect?
To have a healthy reaction to my experience at church yesterday morning, I need to learn what Brown calls “shame resilience—the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy-the real antidote to shame.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that definition, but for my purposes in this post, I’ll just say that it was shame that caused me to delete my blog post last night, and resilience that enabled me to repost part of it here this morning. I’ll share more about this chapter on shame in a future post, but I’ll stop for now and let this much sink in. I’m still processing it myself.
And Church? I’ll probably keep showing up. But as we enter Great Lent, I will draw on what I’m learning about shame resilience. I hope it will help me sort out what is and isn’t mine to own. I hope it will help me draw closer to God—to the loving Father who runs out to greet me with open arms.
I was so excited yesterday when my friend, Sheila Vamplin, sent me a link to this article in First Things about graffiti artists painting icons in the dome of a church in Spain. So intrigued that I clicked through to this expanded article in The World, “Spanish Priest Commissions Graffiti for Church.” And then I found this video, showing the artists at work. (Wish I understood Spanish so I could hear what the priest and the graf writers are saying.)
This makes me happy on so many levels.
As an Orthodox Christian and (retired) iconographer, I was taught to respect the rules that my faith sets down for liturgical art, including icons, music, and architecture. Without those guidelines, these ancient, traditional forms would gradually morph into something entirely different. Eastern (Byzantine) traditions would become “Americanized” over time. There was a time when I thought that was a bad thing. I no longer feel that way. After all, I live in America. I am an American. Its culture is my culture. It’s been very difficult to assimilate the culture of the Middle East into my religious experience as a convert to Orthodoxy.
When I was writing icons, I had a discussion with Mother Gabriella, a Romanian abbess at Holy Dormition (Orthodox) Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. I was struggling with the strictness of both the styles and techniques taught by the Russian iconographers at the classes hosted by the monastery. I had also studied under Greek, Romanian, Ukrainian and American instructors, and it seemed that each “school” of iconography had its own set of rules. Mother Gabriella encouraged me to just “pray and paint” and let the style develop organically. She didn’t believe there was anything more spiritual about one technique than another. Or that one medium is more spiritual than another. Some iconographers believe egg tempera is the only true spiritual medium for icons, looking down on those who paint with acrylics. I found great relief in the large berth she gave to liturgical art.
So when a Catholic priest in Spain reached out to two graffiti writers he found online (“Rudi” and “House”) and asked them to paint the iconographic images for the dome of his church last year, he incorporated yet another element of his culture—graf writers are counter-culture. (See “God’s Own Banksy.”) And they would be painting the icons with the only tool of their craft—spray paint. (Interesting note: both graffiti artists and iconographers use the term “write” when talking about painting graffiti or icons.)
L’Hospitalet’s Santa Eulalia church is neo-Romanesque in design, with a Catalan twist. Father Ramon Borr has this to say about his choice of “iconographers” for the dome of his church:
“Even though the press is scandalized by graffiti artists, for me graffiti is just another artistic technique.”
I would love to meet Father Ramon and thank him for this bold move on his part. And to see these icons in person. I’m amazed by the skill the graf writers showed in the precision of the lines they achieved with spray paint. Since I researched graffiti for my novel, Cherry Bomb, I learned just enough to respect how difficult it is to achieve such precision. The article in The World says:
One of the two ‘graffiteros’ was Raul Sanchez, who’s tag, or signature for street art, is House. House said that when Father Borr hired him he was surprised, and nervous, and thrilled.
“Only a graffiti artist can tell we used aerosol cans to do the work,” he said by telephone from Alicante. “We tried to conceal that. In the Roman period spray paint obviously didn’t exist.”
Just like acrylics didn’t exist during the Byzantine era. The graf writers studied the Romanesque style in Barcelona before they began painting in the church. They respected the liturgical guidelines, but they brought their own creativity to the work.
My favorite “style” of iconography is that used by the Coptics. The simple, primitive figures and the bold colors have a spiritual element that reaches my soul in a different way from the Byzantine icons. A few years ago I took a workshop at an Episcopal Church in Memphis during which we learned to do “reverse painting” on glass. We transferred Coptic images to the glass by tracing the outlines with Sharpie pens and then filled in the colors—from back to front—with acrylic paint. I gave my icon away as a gift, and I’m sorry that I don’t have any pictures of it.
But my Goddaughter, Sophie, and I had fun doing some Ethiopian folk art painting together on her birthday three years ago. (She’ll be ten on February 25!) We used gouache—opaque water colors—on canvas, with pleasing results. Sophie was only seven at the time. This painting isn’t an icon, but you can see the primitive style of the symbolic images that also appear in Ethiopian icons.
I hope you enjoyed my peek into the diverse cultures of iconography and graffiti. I’ve only got a few days left here at my writing “retreat” on the beach. Can’t wait to see what the women in The Secret Book Club are reading next! Have a great weekend, and please come back on Monday for my mental health post.
On New Year’s Day, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of Saint Basil the Great. (January 1 is his Feast Day.) Since he’s my husband’s patron saint, we’ve always tried to participate in this feast every year, both at our parish—Saint John in Memphis—and in our home. One way we do that is by baking “vasilopita”—or Saint Basil bread. (pronounced vah-see-LO-pee-tah)
This age old tradition commenced in the fourth century, when Saint Basil the Great, who was a bishop, wanted to distribute money to the poor in his Diocese. He commissioned some women to bake sweetened bread, in which he arranged to place gold coins. Thus the families in cutting the bread to nourish themselves, were pleasantly surprised to find the coins.
In some parishes the priest will bless the St. Basil bread (like in this video) during the Liturgy for the Feast. The families who bring the bread can take it home and enjoy it, or share it during the “coffee hour” after the Liturgy. Whoever finds the coin in their piece of the bread will have good luck for the new year. Here’s another video, this one of Greek children singing Saint Basil’s Carol, and more about the tradition of the vasilopita.
Father Basil will be leading Great Vespers for the Feast of Saint Basil tonight at St. John at 6 p.m., and we’ll have a “finger food potluck” after the liturgy. A couple of us will be making vasilopita and it will be fun to see who gets the piece with the coin inside. (sorry, no gold coin… usually a silver dollar or maybe even a quarter) And hopefully we’ll have enough voices to make a joyful noise caroling in the New Year.
Saint Basil’s Carol
At the Beginning of the brand new year,
Into the church to pray we all processed;
Holding high aloft the fragrant stalks of basil,
May our New Year’s Day be blessed.
We sing of Basil, the holy saint,
His liturgy we still perform to this date,
Theologian, write and monastic founder
Truly he is Basil the Great!
So come and sit with us and eat and drink.
Come share our love and joy and holiday cheer;
Let our hearts be glad, and let us toast St. Basil,
May he pray for us in the New Year!
Let our hearts be glad, and let us toast St. Basil,
May he pray for us in the New Year!