Pope Paschal I, Iconoclasm and hospitality

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(detail from the mosaic tiled ceiling in the Church of Santa Prassede, Rome, Italy of Pope Paschal 1)

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(a small detail of the mosaic tiled ceiling of St Cecilia’s Church Trastevere, Rome– of Saints Valerian and Cecilia–a church founded by Pope Paschal I)

February 11th, in the Catholic Church, is noted as the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. Undoubtedly we’ve all heard of Lourdes, that small town in extreme southern France with the mystical healing waters and the grotto dedicated to the Virgin and of her apparitions to the young peasant girl Bernadette. . . even those of us non Catholics and the most jaded among us are familiar with Lourdes. . .but who, I wonder, has heard of Pope, or should I note saint, Paschal I? — even those die hard hagiographers, those who study the lives of the saints, no doubt gloss over this lesser known saint who sits among the giants of the church.

Yet it must be noted that February 11th is also the feast day Pope Paschal 1

Why in the world would a little known pope from the 9th century, who reigned as pope for approximately 8 short years, be of any consequence to us today?
Good question.
Pope Paschal I is but a blip on the historical map of an ancient church whose history spans 2 thousand years. Some of the popes have certainly been anything but virtuous—more along the lines of scoundrels and scalawags which leaves many modern day observers, especially those of us who are not members of the Catholic Church, wondering why in the world these people (Catholics) would ever venerate, let alone consider to be of any significance, many of these unscrupulous, lecherous, self indulgent men.

Now I cannot comment upon the virtuous life of or lack thereof for Pope Paschal I.
Little is known.
He was born in Rome and served as Pope form 817- 824. His pontificacy is laced with a bit of intrigue and questions of complicity to executions, all of which lead church members, at the time of his death, to not allow the burial of his body to take place in St Peters.
Certainly sounds a bit scandalous.

It is however of one particular incident, of rather some significant importance, which has lead me to dig a bit deeper into the history of this man whose feast day the Church celebrates today. It is upon closer study that one learns that Pope Paschal I was head of the Latin Church (the western branch of Christianity) during a period known as the Byzantine Iconoclasm—or simply the time of The Iconoclast.

A dark time in history when many fanatical members of the Eastern branch of Christianity, including Emperor Leo III, decided that any and all images (Icons, statues, paintings, mosaics. . .) of God, Christ, and other Holy and sacred individuals were considered sinful, idolatry, and must be destroyed— along with many of the artists, owners as well as those who venerated such images. A dark time of vast persecution of a people who had loved the sacred images and had used them as part of their very deep personal services. Photographs, as it were, of a Savior for a people who wanted, and continue to want, to put a face with that of the Mysterious. Do we not still yearn for such images today?

It is in these dark times of such fanatical ignorance, which has been laced throughout much of the history of mankind, that I believe is one of man’s greatest faults. As an art educator and humble historian, the destruction of various Cultures and their artifacts, which simply boils down to the pure essence of the identity of a people is, in my humble opinion, catastrophic.

This ancient sort of destructive “out of sight out of mind” feeding frenzy has actually played out throughout much of history with a few of the more notable and infamous being that of the Italian Dominican monk Savonarola and his Bonfire of the Vanities, to more recent times with the book burnings of the Nazi’s during the early 1940’s, to the more recent destruction of the giant ancient carvings in Afghanistan, those known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, by the Taliban in 2001. A warped mindset that if the powerful can simply destroy the “things” and or creations of a certain people, then the people will also cease to exist. History teaches us that perseverance is more than things..

Pope Paschal I was a sympathizer to those members of the Eastern Orthodox church who not only created the sacred art images but to those who continued to want to display such in churches and in homes. He afforded those who fled the persecution in Greece and Turkey a safe haven. He actually encouraged the creation of mosaics and other sacred art by these individuals in many of the churches in Rome. This during a time of great divide between the two Churches.

This little known Pope overlooked the differences of the two bickering arms of a single faith in order to offer hospitality to those victims of persecution. It is because of the very amnesty offered by and of the preservation afford to such treasured pieces of the Christian faith by such individuals as Pope Paschal I and those long forgotten monks who smuggled many of the sacred images to remote monasteries such as St Catherine’s’ in the southern Sinai Peninsula, that those of us today may glance upon images that date to the very inception of our faith.

So on this Tuesday, February 11, may we be reminded of the lesser known names in the annuals of a history, who, such as Pope Paschal I, have helped to preserve important pieces to the puzzle of our past. To those who have demonstrated moments of brave compassion by offering safety to those suffering the persecution of faith.

Hospitality, compassion, benevolence—words to take to heart on this chilly February morning.

Hospitality means we take people into the space that is our lives and our minds and our hearts and our work and our efforts. Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step towards dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.
Sister Joan D. Chittister, O.S.B

Symbolism

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I can remember sitting in my 10th grade English class reading either Main Street by Sinclair Lewis or Our Town by Thornton Wilder—either way, there was a story about some fictionalized small American early 20th century town and our teacher was keen on having us unmask all of the symbolism.

I recall rolling my eyes, once again, wondering why this couldn’t be just some sort of story that simply means what it says and says what it means—does there always have to be “symbolism” behind everything!? Can’t it just be a story for the sake of a story? Why can’t people just write what they mean without having to hide it, leaving the poor reader (in this case me) to not only read something (I) deemed as boring but tasked with, on top of everything else, trying to figure out what on earth the author was trying to say.

To this day I tend to be rather direct in my own thoughts, words and deeds, eschewing hidden meanings…but this is not a story about that. I am also a person who is now very intrigued by symbolism but not necessarily that which involves conspiracy theories, bizarre ancient cults, free masons, or what Leonardo da Vinci was attempting to tell the world in buried secrets throughout his art work …this rather, is a story about The Holy Trinity— The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit and my relationship with this group of Three. Talk about symbolism…

As a Christian, I am here to say that I learn something new each and every day about what it means to be a Christian…from not only the history of our Faith, but to what it means to live one’s life as such, not to mention how much I learn from others who are living examples of this thing we call our Christian Faith…. there is always something new to learn and encounter.

Our Faith is a living Faith—which I think equates to ever growing, ever changing, ever moving. As we live, our Faith lives—it lives through our actions, our words and our deeds—that’s why, when Mother Teresa says for us to “spread the love of God through our lives but only use words when necessary,” she is speaking to the fact that God’s love is present to others through our actions, by our “doing”—the spoken word is merely secondary…as it is our actions, and actions alone, which speak volumes. Unfortunately many of us forget this fact during the living of our oh so busy lives…

To understand my Faith, I need to look at the three components, which makes it so vastly different from all of the other religions of the world and that is the concept of the Trinity—The Father, The Son, and the Holy Ghost/ Spirit. The Three in One. But how can that be? How are three, one? This is an age old question that is asked, and has been asked down through the ages, by many believers as well as non-believers. It is a perplexing mystery and yet so simple.

The omnipotent God and Creator, the Alpha and Omega Son and Savior, the ever-present Spirit and Helper or Paraclete. As I am not versed in theology, I am not here to debate the roles and existence of the Godhead Trinity. I am not here to debate the glitch in the progression of that Trinity which brings contention between western and eastern Christians; I am, however, here to tell you that I marvel in the very existence of the Three in One.

It is in my marveling that leads me to often yearn to have a tangible connection. I yearn to make a connection. A connection with that Godhead of Three. I yearn to explore the beauty of the unity of the Three in One. It is a complex layering of relationships. There is a “connectiveness” which in turn yearns to bring me in to that very connection and bond of the Three.

There are many aspects to me and to my little blog, as the blog is just a bit of an extension as to what makes me, me. I love to cook, I love to travel, I currently have a broken ankle, I am a retired art teacher, I like sharing with others, I feel, that even though I may be a retired educator, I still feel as if I have things to “teach”. I have an aging father who is dealing with a fading memory. I have a son who is working very hard to finish his degree, and he has a fiancée,so that means I have a daughter-n-law to be, I have a husband who works very hard to run his small business, but at the core of all of that is the single fact that I am a Christian. I am a part of an ancient and living Faith.

In my art I have often tried to reach towards the Divine. Not on some grand scale as those bigger than life artists have in the past. Not like some esoteric new age artist. No, I have merely just wanted to make a connection between me, the created, who yearns to know the Creator.

There is a contemporary song that has a line in it that really strikes at a chord within me when I hear it. It is from Love Song for A Savior by Jars of Clay:

Someday He’ll call her and she will come running
And fall in His arms and the tears will fall down and she’ll pray,
“I want to fall in love with You”

(here is a link to a lovely little You Tube video based on the song, it is a song about the loving arms of Jesus, unlike the depiction used in the on-line Christian dating service of the arms being that of a couple—totally wrong use of the song, but I digress http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_wb38KMXLs )

I often feel as if that song is talking to me… I simply don’t quite yet understand, I don’t quite get it… but one day I will and when I do, I will run into those outstretched arms…those arms that will actually be there—tangible arms…. All I want is to run into His arms and finally feel that embrace of unconditional love. To simply rest in that embrace. The embrace that knows all of the junk and crap I carry and doesn’t care. The embrace that is bigger and stronger than any fret or worry, any pain or sorrow I have ever known. The thought of such is overwhelming to me—it brings me to tears. I want that—I somehow think all humans yearn for that—and that is the bond of Father and child.

Many hardened hearts however hear such and call it sentimental gibberish. They scoff at the idea of a “loving” Father, a resurrected Son/Savior, a descending wind left to “Help”— This however is not gibberish, this is all about Grace, pure and simple… but as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, it is a costly Grace. Not all of us wish to take on that type of cost in order to follow. Following does require much from us, it requires our very being—and it is a struggle for Believers each and every day.

So I suppose, when working with my art, I enjoy exploring that “feeling” as well as for the use of symbolism, which makes up much of the Christian Faith. I appreciate the relationship Christianity shares with Judaism. I think a lot of Christians forget that Jesus was not a Christian—he was a very devout and religious Jew. Therefore our Faiths are inextricably linked. I like exploring that eternal link between our two faiths.

And as one who loves history, I like exploring the history of our Faith—from our earliest Roman and Greek roots to our links with the Celts as well as for our bonds with the eastern cultures of the Orthodox Christians—as there is more that binds us rather than divides us—I just wish we could all remember that.

I am also one who deeply and greatly appreciates the depth of the rich Christian traditions—I greatly appreciate those bells and whistles, or bells and scents if you will, of the early church. No modernism for me—there is a mystery that is still retained in our rituals and rites, based on and within the early baby church, which speaks to an ancient chord in my soul. The mystery of what takes place during the service of the Eucharist—the Transubstantiation, the Mystery, the Change, the Trans-Elementation, μεταστοιχείωσις metastoicheiosis, is just that, a mystery—one that I cannot necessarily ever understand as I am the created and not the Creator.

It is not for me to pick apart this Holy Union and attempt putting it under a microscope for definition or worldly explanation of knowledge. God remains a mystery—and so He should. He has broken it down in terms that you and I can understand—there is Love, Action, Compassion, Empathy, Concern, Sacrifice, and a few others words that put this Mystery in a language we can better understand.

I will never totally understand, as it is not for me to do so, but it is for me to wonder, to exalt, to glorify, to love, to share and I hope I do so, in some small tangible way for others…….

This latest piece I completed, which is still waiting to be framed, is about 3ft by 3 ft. It explores visually the connection of The Trinity—tying in aspects of all 3 into one piece.
It is a cutout, layered piece that symbolizes the depth of layers to our relationship with the Godhead Trinity. A picture does not do it justice as the literal depth of the piece is lost.

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These other framed pieces are also large and unfortunately as they are framed it is difficult photographing them due to reflections and glare.

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(all art and Photographs by Julie Cook)