The conundrum

“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”
Leo Tolstoy

“He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.”
Edgar Allen Poe

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(an ancient wall to St Kevin’s Monastery, Glendalough National Park, County Wicklow, Ireland / Julie Cook / 2015)

“We live in dangerous times…”

And yet what individual, throughout the course of humankind, has not waxed the same morose sentiment?
Has not our history on this planet been steeped in danger…albeit it primarily of our own making?

Today is no different than of perilous ages past.

Having read several articles in recent weeks, with the latest being today while perusing the BBC, as well as The Guardian, I have noted with rising alarm the palpable fear amongst many French Jews, most recently of those living in the southern port city of Marseille—France’s 2nd largest city that has the second largest French Jewish population after Paris.

In recent years many of France’s cities have seen a wave of rising violence, with many of the incidents directed toward French Jews. Marseille is the latest city in a long list of cities to witness attacks directed at her Jewish population with the most recent being carried out by a machete wielding 15 year old Kurdish Muslim boy against a male Jewish teacher. The boy, who succeeded in slashing the man’s back and arms, when apprehended lamented his shame in having failed at killing the teacher but was proud of his attempt. A student with good grades and a stable family who had come to France 5 years ago with his family from Turkey proclaimed that he had acted in the name of Allah and IS.

Such recent attacks have prompted French Jewish leaders to issue warnings to those men who choose to wear the traditional kippa, otherwise known as a skullcap. A telltale distinct indication of a more devout Jew.

France lives with the painful memory of the dark days of WWII when a compliant French government agreed to the Nazi “request” of rounding up and deporting her Jewish population–who were to be “interred” at “detention centers” (aka death camps) in Germany and Poland. More than 75,000 Jews were shipped out of France.
Victims of Hitler’s final solution.

It is with both troubled hearts and minds that leading Rabbis are making the request of the hiding of one’s identity as a means of safety and actual survival… as such warnings bring back the traumatic memories of events from those terribly troubling days of the Holocaust.
With insanity seemingly having returned, as once again Jews must hide being jewish.

see the full articles here:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35445025

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/13/teenager-to-appear-in-court-over-marseille-jewish-teacher-attack

I don’t know whether to be mad and angry or simply resigned and sad.

I know that at times, throughout some of my travels within this world of ours, I have found myself dropping the cross that I wear around my neck, never one to take it off, down into my shirt as to discreetly conceal the fact that I am a Christian as the area I may be finding myself is known for being “hostile” towards Christians.

Yet I question myself as to why do I find it necessary to hide the fact that I am a Christian.
Just as the Marseille Jews now believe it is a matter of safety and survival to hide the fact that they are indeed Jews.

Do I want to live in a world where I have to hide those small things of my faith that speak to my devotion…?
Be it a necklace, a head covering, a skullcap, a prayer rope…

I find it a bit ironic that Muslim women, who by French Law have been banned from wearing the burqa, the full head and face covering, are currently being defiant by wearing them anyway.
When in Paris just shortly after this law went into effect, I can remember almost coming unglued passing Muslim women on the street who were defying the law by blatantly wearing the full covering. Being a stickler for the law, I was mad at the blatant show of defiance and disrespect for the law, as well as the country of France, with the thought that if you want to live by Muslim law, live in a Muslim country.
It should be noted that the law is indeed a safety issue as terrorists, even males, have been known to hide underneath the cloak hiding suicide bombs.

In our western society we are accustomed to seeing the faces of those people who we pass on the street, sit alongside on the tram as well as conduct daily business with. Those who hide their entire face could be hiding so much more than simply adhering to strict Muslim law by not being visible in public.
Muslim women may still cover their heads and bodies, all but their faces.
Yet many continue to take a defiant stance to the law, with oddly little to no repercussions.

Muslim defiance verses Jewish and Christian fear….hummmmm

As a Christian I am keenly aware of my historical relationship to the Jewish people.
My Savior just so happens to have been a very devout Jew who some historians even believe to have been of the more Orthodox branch, a Hasidic Jew.
I for one have never blamed Jews, as some throughout history erroneously have, for having been complicit in Jesus’s death. I find that to be a ridiculous thought as such is clearly steeped in ignorance of the history and time period.

I am also very aware of God’s special bond with the Jewish people. The Jews are indeed God’s chosen as is the land of Israel.
I am merely a child by adoption and Grace.

I am also an ardent believer that God has stated that He will show no favor to those who do not honor his children or the land of their ancestors.

All who rage against you
will surely be ashamed and disgraced;
those who oppose you
will be as nothing and perish.
Though you search for your enemies,
you will not find them.
Those who wage war against you
will be as nothing at all.
For I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.

Isaiah 41:11-13

I am therefore torn with this whole idea of being bold in one’s faith as opposed to being safe by hiding any visible signs or identification…
Should not my life be a reflection and witness to that very faith?
Wearing a cross around my neck, small and not large and gaudy as has become sadly the fashion trend in the hiphop culture, but rather a small tangible bond, as well as a symbol, of being marked as Christ’s…

Yet I can understand parents worries as they send their children off to school or simply out in public wondering whether or not they will be targeted for wearing the kippa or a cross? Will they be victimized for praying the rosary or reading a bible?

Here in the States there has been the occasional story of the business or governmental agencies that have banned all employees from wearing any religious symbols…a cross or star of David…
Sadly as this country of mine wrestles with itself over separating itself from any reminder of faith…
Where is the honoring in that I wonder…..

Yes, we are sadly living in troubling times and those of us who wish to profess or save our faith are indeed in a bit of a conundrum….

“The lost enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded.”
C.S. Lewis

Pantocrator

“According to greek mythology, humans were originally created with 4 arms, 4 legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”
Plato

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I don’t know what first drew me to this particular image, or more aptly put, Icon. Oh I’ve written about Icon’s before, quite some time ago, which means I don’t want to rewrite a post (see “What is an Icon” dated 3/1/13) however there is a little background necessary in order for one to fully appreciate the image accompanying this particular post.

An Icon, which translates to “image” is just that, an image. A bit of an artistic photograph if you will. It should be noted that Icons are not considered paintings at all, but rather are referred to as written images– as in the artist is not painting but actually “writing,” what I like to describe as, a love letter.

Now back to this particular image.
No doubt you have seen it at some time or other as it is quite notable as far as Icons are concerned. It is an image of the Christ, or Pantocrator as He is known in Greek/ Παντοκράτωρ—–meaning Divine (translated from the Hebrew El Shaddai). This particular image dates to the 6th century–let’s say 500 years or so after the death of Christ. It is considered to be the oldest known image of Christ or as He is known to many, as the Chirstos.

I don’t want to give an in-depth mini history lesson today regarding icons, or of this particular image, as there is so very much out there in the form of books or on the web for the curious to discover. I simply want to share with you something that is very meaningful to me. I think it is important to share with others the things that significantly impact our own lives as those are the things that make us who we are.

As a person who grew up with Western Christianity, or that of the Roman or Latin branch of Christianity, I was always accustomed, as no doubt you were, to what typically is considered to be images of Jesus. Benevolent images of a young man of fair skin complexion, soft brown hair and beard who most often had blue eyes. But the problem with that stereotypical image is that Jesus was not European. He was a Middle Eastern Jew. Therefore that meant he most likely had a more dark or olive skin tone, with a thicker head of very dark hair. He was an orthodox, meaning devout, Jew, so it is theorized that he most probably wore the hair ringlets as do the modern day Hasidic Jews. His features were not as close to ours in the West but rather he was closer in appearance to those currently living in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, etc.

Knowing all of the geographical information of Jesus, I’ve never gravitated to the images depicted in much of our Western Culture’s art and literature regarding Jesus, as I just didn’t think it a true likeness. I knew he didn’t look like me– as he grew up in an entirely different area of the planet that does not have many light haired, blue eyed folks running about. I wanted to see Jesus for who is was, not some stylized image.

And so it was when I first saw this image—I was truly taken by this image. The question of whether or not I was glancing at the closest image of the man who has had the greatest impact on humankind–let alone my life, resonated in my head.

This particular image is considered to be the benchmark for all other artistic images of Jesus—that is until the expansion of the Christian Church in the West, meaning Europe and eventually the new continent of the Americas.

This Icon is located in St Catherine’s Monastery in the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula. St Catherine’s is located at the foot of the mountain, Mt Horeb, in which it is believed that God spoke to Moses in the form of the burning bush. It is also within these mountains that Moses later received the Ten Commandments. St. Catherine’s has been in existence as a practicing Monastery since the year 564—making St Catherine’s Monastery one of the oldest practicing monasteries known in all of Christendom.

It is troubling, given the current political crisis in Egypt, that St Catherine’s has had to shut its doors to pilgrims most recently as the safety of Christians, particularly in Egypt, is a perilous situation. I’m attaching a short nice informative link to a Youtube clip concerning a brief overview of St. Catherine’s as narrated by the monks:

There is also a most fascinating book based on the travels of two of the first Western woman, sisters from Scotland, who journeyed to St Catherine’s in the mid 1800’s. The Sisters of the Sinai by Jancie Soskice– Theirs was a journey of the discovery of ancient manuscripts. A most interesting true tale.

To the casual observer the life and worship at this most ancient of monasteries is something of another world and time—And so it is—yet it must be understood that the monks at St Catherine’s have been practicing these rituals since the year 500 with little to no change. . . so if anything, it is our worship today that is otherworldly and foreign. It is on my bucket list to one day travel to St. Catherine’s. The original burning bush is purported to be within the walls of the monastery as the bush in question actually does date to the time of Moses. The library is full of ancient texts as well as the largest collection of original ancient Icons all of which are housed within St. Catherine’s fortified walls. It is said that the aired conditions have helped to preserve these ancient and holy relics with many dating to the birth of the Christian faith.

The story goes that a cloth was found just at the inception of the monastery, buried within its walls, which was purported to have been part of the burial cloth of Jesus—not the Shroud but rather the face cloth that was customary of the time to be placed over the face of the deceased before being wrapped in the burial shroud. This cloth, or what the Eastern Church refers to as a napkin, Holy Napkin, is said to have, just as the shroud, held the image of a man—-of what the faithful claim to be that of Jesus. It was shortly after the discovery of this cloth that this particular image of Jesus, the Pantocrator of Sinai was created—making it the first known artistic image in existence based from something that is said to be the original image of Jesus—making this image to be the closest thing Christian followers would have to an exact image of Christ. Some stories even attribute the Icon’s creation to St Luke as he was considered an artist as well as a medical doctor.

But it is the facial features of this particular image that draws me from mere observer to that of one of awe and worshiper. The duality of God rests in this image–the Deity as well as the Human–two separate entities, yet united in one face. If an image of the face from the Shroud of Turin is laid over this image, the two faces are proportionate, lining up equally. If you split in half the face of this Icon’s image you will note that both halves of the face are vastly different, making this image asymmetrical rather than symmetrical– as we consider the human face to be–more equal than different.

One side of the face is that of a tender and loving man–that of pure-hearted love, that of Savior. The other side is a man harsh and stern–that of Judge of Mankind. I am reminded of the verse in Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples that at the time of Judgement He will separate the sheep form the goats. The sheep on the right having done the acts of kindness during their lives of clothing the naked, feeding the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned will all see Glory. On the other hand are the goats, those to His left, who did not do the act of kindness to the strangers throughout their lives—they will be cast away to eternal damnation –the Savior vs Judge–the two compelling actions all within one individual.

I first saw this image, oddly enough, in a store specializing in Icons on a street corner in Rome. In the shadow of the great Latin Roman branch of Christianity, that of St Peter’s, exists an Eastern Orthodox store of Iconography. The irony was not lost on this little pilgrim. The store clerks spoke only Greek and no doubt Italian. There were reproductions of many Icons, but it was the Pantocrator of Sinai which truly spoke to me. It is said that one does not choose an Icon, but that the Icon chooses you. I brought home a copy that I eventually framed–later purchasing a mounted image from St Isaac’s Skete–a wonderful small orthodox Skete located in rural Wisconsin which offers a beautiful selection of mounted Icons as well as commissioned Icons by the trained monks. (http://www.skete.com )

And so it is, as I stand in my kitchen, just on the counter above the sink, sits a small collection of Icons. As I spend countless hours in the kitchen, I am afforded time to ponder these images—pondering the significance they play and have played in my life as well as the cascading significance they have played throughout the existence of humankind. I marvel and stand in awe of the duality of God. I am drawn to the face of both Grace and Judgement. At times I am compelled to look away, as I feel so unworthy, so less than, so dirty by the weight of my sins—and just when I feel defeated and worthless, less than— the face of Love draws me back–

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned

Song of Solomon 8:6-7

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