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Archive for February, 2012

Some Lenten Perspective

Maybe you are feeling pretty good about yourself; maybe as the second week of Great Lent (first for the Orthodox) winds down you have succeeded in whatever sacrifice you have undertaken, made real progress.

Lest you succumb to pride, let me share this with you, the traditional rules of fasting from the Orthodox Church in America website (I have highlighted the more humbling passages):

On weekdays in the first week, fasting is particularly severe. According to strict observance, in the course of the five initial days of Lent, only two meals are eaten, one on Wednesday and the other on Friday, in both cases after the Liturgy of the Presanctified. On the other three days, those who have the strength are encouraged to keep an absolute fast; those for whom this proves impracticable may eat on Tuesday and Thursday (but not, if possible, on Monday), in the evening after Vespers, when they may take bread and water, or perhaps tea or fruit-juice, but not a cooked meal. It should be added at once that in practice today these rules are commonly relaxed. At the meals on Wednesday and Friday xerophagy is prescribed. Literally this means ‘dry eating’. Strictly interpreted, it signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt, and also such things as fruit, nuts, bread and honey. In practice, octopus and shell-fish are also allowed on days of xerophagy; likewise vegetable margarine and corn or other vegetable oil, not made from olives. But the following categories of food are definitely excluded:On weekdays (Monday to Friday inclusive) in the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth weeks, one meal a day is permitted…

Holy Week. On the first three days there is one meal each day, with xerophagy; but some try to keep a complete fast on these days, or else they eat only uncooked food, as on the opening days of the first week. On Holy Thursday one meal is eaten, with wine and oil (i.e., olive oil). On Great Friday those who have the strength follow the practice of the early Church and keep a total fast. Those unable to do this may eat bread, with a little water, tea or fruit-juice, but not until sunset, or at any rate not until after the veneration of the [Plashchanitsa] at Vespers. On Holy Saturday  there is in principle no meal, since according to the ancient practice after the end of the Liturgy of St. Basil the faithful remained in church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, and for their sustenance were given a little bread and dried fruit, with a cup of wine. If, as usually happens now, they return home for a meal, they may use wine but not oil; for on this one Saturday, alone among Saturdays of the year, olive oil is not permitted.

This is followed by a reminder that fasting is not legalistic, and advice to use common sense. Indeed, I have a friend, a fellow letter carrier, who attempted a strict fast during Lent one year. They found him on the route, passed out. Still, it is hard for me to conceive of this sort of rigorous fasting, and it helps keep my efforts in perspective.

But perhaps this is not your problem; perhaps you have already succumbed to that sausage pizza or second cup of coffee, or whatever it is you had promised to sacrifice. In that case, remember that it is better to spend Lent eating steak and cake in humility than to take pride in your feats of self denial.

Icon by Matthew Garrett

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Unprecedented

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Walking Home

This morning I took my Saturn to be repaired at a mechanic’s shop about a mile from home. After dropping it off I walked back to the house.

It is always a delight to walk a route one has driven many times, always a surprise to see the details one misses driving by in an auto. This morning I passed a barber shop I had barely noted before, then turned back to look at the front window.

There was a sort of shrine to Cory Endlich, a young Army sergeant from my town who had died in Iraq in 2007. Taped on to the window was a photo of the smiling young man in his crisp uniform. Beside that was an editorial cartoon from the local paper, with a tiger (my football-crazed town’s mascot) shedding tears before a flag at half mast. Above that was a sticker with the caption “Freedom Isn’t Free” and to the left of the display was an Army recruiter’s poster, promising big money for enlistment, help with college, and free medical care for enlistees and their families, all  attractive to a kid from a rust belt town like this.

I wondered if anyone besides me questioned this juxtaposition, if anyone really believed that if Cory Endlich- or any of the other thousands of Americans and tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis- had not died the good people of Massillon Ohio would indeed be living under the tyrannical dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The scenario is in fact wildly improbable. Further, it is pretty unlikely that Iraq would be any worse off than it is right now, almost nine years after the American invasion.

“Freedom isn’t Free” may indeed be a truth, but in this context it is the lie we tell ourselves so we can bear reality. “Corporate Empire isn’t Free” would be unbearable. “Hubris isn’t Free” would make us scream.

Freedom may not be free, but propaganda is. The Big Lie is. We swallow it eagerly, lest we go crazy.

I noted, as I walked away,that the sign said that Cory Endlich was born, appropriately, in 1984.

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I had time to paint on Sunday, and finished the underpainting. Not all iconographers build the color up until it is solid; some prefer mottled effects, and I have done that on occasion.

This is a slow process, and progress is gradual. A lot of work goes into this with very little effect. But from here, where I begin to add highlights, every little thing is pretty dramatic.

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Well, actually it is the only movie ever made by Native Americans about Native Americans.

That would be Smoke Signals, the 1998 Indian-made movie about two young men on a road trip. The film is funny, sad, deeply human, and infused with a singular Indian irony. The two leading characters are 20th century incarnations of the native archetypes of  Warrior and Shaman, and their tale is a classic epic of spiritual growth.

Not least, the movie is delightful because of the soundtrack. There is no genetic explanation for this, as I am pretty homogeneously Anglo-Celtic, but I have always found American native music deeply moving, all high pitched wailing floating above a deep percussive backbeat, and the tunes in this film, both traditional and contemporary, are beautiful. But enough; here is the trailer:

And here is an example of the more contemorary sort of Indian music:

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I love cooking with garlic, and loathe peeling it. Not only is it time consuming but it leaves your hands reeking. And while I don’t consider the odor of garlic to be unpleasant, I am told that those who do not indulge in the Blessed Bulb find it noxious.

Then one day I tuned into NPR and heard a way to peel garlic that sounded preposterous. I had missed the first part of the report and was pretty sure that there was something missing in what I heard, but when I got home I tried the part I had heard, just to be sure.

It goes like this: take a bulb of garlic, give it a karate chop to break it up, then place the cloves in a bowl (the broadcast says a metal bowl, but I have used ceramic and plastic and they work fine). Then place another bowl on top of the first and shake vigorously for a minute or so. Separate the bowls and voila! There, amid the shed paper-like skins, you will find lovely naked bulbs of garlic, ready for chopping.

I know, it sounds impossible, and I am not sure what happens, scientifically, but it works.

And your life will never be the same.

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Icon by Mother Anastasia

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Laying Down Color

After drawing all the lines of the pattern with black paint and a fine brush, I begin  laying down the color for the underpainting. In iconography, as in the spiritual life, we begin with darkness and work toward the light. Many people find this part of the process painstaking or boring, but I find that painting in repeated thin coats of color to be very calming, like coloring within the lines when you were a kid.

Before starting, I pray for guidance with the colors; while many people think that because there are canons for color there is little creativity in icongraphy this is not true. While one is certainly not free to paint the Virgin in robes of black or green, or paint brown halos, within the canonically accepted color range there is a pretty wide variety: do I want the red of her robe to lean toward brown in hue or crimson? Or more toward purple? In this icon, I have chosen a red violet.

Then one must choose color for the background and the framework (there is also an olive green outer border of a little less than a quarter inch, not visible here because the panel I am using is 9″ X 12″ and the scanner is 8 1/2″  X 11″.

I am here about halfway to the sort of color saturation I am seeking before I begin the work of highlighting.

(And do not expect the next image to arrive so quickly; I had time to paint yesterday but tomorrow I return to work, after a two week break, and it may be a week or so before the next step is completed.)

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The Akron Beacon Journal juxtaposed two editorials today, originally printed in The LA Times, that illustrate as well as anything I have seen the hopeless impasse that exists between the dominant political paradigms in this country. As one who does not fit easily into either camp- for I am prolife, prolabor, antiwar, anticapitalist, and a moral traditionalist ( but without the rancor)- I can only shake my head in despair.

The first of these is by Charlotte Allen, whom I sort of  knew in the early 90s, when I lived around Washington. She is a fine writer, one who once wrote for the National Catholic Register, back when that paper was a lively read, before it was bought by the (since disgraced) Legionnaires of Christ. Ms Allen also wrote, incongruously, for DC’s local free paper; you know the kind with the kinky ads in the back.

But like a lot of people I haven’t spoken to in a long time, she seems to have taken leave of  her senses.

Ms Allen’s essay is called “You Can’t Talk to a Liberal”, and by the third paragraph she lets loose this zinger: ” The problem is this: We conservatives think liberals are silly; they think we’re evil. ”

Huh? What planet does she live on? Does she never listen to talk radio? Does that describe the attitude of Rush Limbaugh? Or Quinn and Rose, who make Limbaugh look reasonable? Or ( God help us) the weasel-voiced Mark Levin? Does she get out much?

The rest of the article follows suit: conservatives are reasonable and never conflate the political with the personal, never introduce divisive political topics in social settings. Liberals, on the other hand, are Manicheans who lack social graces, and every conservative to them is evil, a fascist, racist no goodnik.

This screed, the one that makes broad and nasty characterizations about liberals making broad and nasty characterization about conservatives, is presented without a hint of irony.

You can read the whole sorry mess here: http://www.ohio.com/editorial/charlotte-allen-you-can-t-talk-to-a-liberal-1.266529

Below this, The Beacon ran another editorial, cleverly titled “…or to a conservative”, by one Diana Wagman.

She recounts how a casual social gathering with likeable new neighbors went horribly wrong (after imbibing a good bit of Scotch) when one new friend opened his mouth and said, out of the blue, “the tea party is not racist.” After realizing that this was not a joke (and the man had an African American wife, so she may be excused for thinking the comment in jest) the evening devolved into a shouting match. Her account of this, and the subsequent morning after apologies that did not dispel the bad feelings, is as self-justifying and unsympathetic and unimaginative as Charlotte Allen’s ode to self deception. Instead of learning a valuable lesson about drinking with people one does not know well, she decides that this experience confirms every stereotype about the right that she ever held. But see for yourself: http://www.ohio.com/editorial/diana-wagman-you-can-t-talk-to-a-conservative-1.266518

Subsequent comments indicate that Ms Wagman is not so young, which is puzzling, unless (as I suspect) she has rarely ever met a conservative. As for me, however prone I may once have been to falling into fruitless political or religious arguments, somewhere along the line I learned to avoid them at nearly every cost. I limit my controversies to the written word.

Ms Wagman does indicate that she had a better example growing up: “My mother had Republican friends. She was a lifelong Democrat, worked with the Adlai Stevenson for president campaign and was a precinct chairman for Hubert Humphrey. She was ashamed of Richard Nixon and thought Ronald Reagan was misguided. Still, she didn’t hate Republicans. She disagreed with their politics and they with hers, but she believed people, no matter how they vote, are basically all the same.I don’t agree. I don’t want to be friends with someone who is a member of the tea party or is a Newt Gingrich Republican. We are not the same. I equate their political views with thoughtlessness, intolerance and narcissism. I think they are not kind or empathetic.”

This is very sad.

At one time in this country people could disagree- and disgree vehemently- without impugning the good will or right intention of their enemies. Those of us who still find truth here and there on both sides of the divide can sometimes still do this, but to a broad spectrum of the public, there is only the tribalism of partisan politics, only us vs them.

God only knows where this will end.

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An Icon Completed

I have completed my first icon since August. To give some perspective to this, I have averaged two icons a month over the last ten years.

As regular readers know, I began having trouble painting last spring, and it took a while to figure out that I had cataracts, which made hand-eye coordination excruciating.

After cataract surgery, which wonderfully restored my sight, with new detail and even brighter colors, I did not paint much because, at first a lack of time, and then a lack of confidence.

I was out of shape, and trying to complete the Mother of God of the Sign icon that I had been working on since last Lent was daunting. My bride wisely suggested that I do something simpler, so I did an image of the Saviour, one I have assigned to my students in the past.  It was good advice, and I again began to gain skill and confidence. For the first time in a long time, iconography is again calming and refreshing.

 

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