St Stephens Day

You desire that which exceeds my humble powers,
but I trust in the compassion and mercy of the All-powerful God.

Saint Stephen


(portion of the Demidoff Altarpiece 1476 / The National Gallery / London, England)

In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke praises St. Stephen as
“a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” who
“did great wonders and signs among the people”
during the earliest days of the Church.

Luke’s history of the period also includes the moving scene of Stephen’s death –
witnessed by St. Paul before his conversion –
at the hands of those who refused to accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

Stephen himself was a Jew who most likely came to believe in Jesus
during the Lord’s ministry on earth. He may have been among the 70 disciples
whom Christ sent out as missionaries, who preached the coming of God’s kingdom while traveling with almost no possessions.

This spirit of detachment from material things continued in the early Church,
in which St. Luke says believers “had all things in common”
and “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all,
as any had need.”

But such radical charity ran up against the cultural conflict between
Jews and Gentiles, when a group of Greek widows felt neglected
in their needs as compared to those of a Jewish background.

Stephen’s reputation for holiness led the Apostles to choose him,
along with six other men,
to assist them in an official and unique way as this dispute arose.
Through the sacramental power given to them by Christ,
the Apostles ordained the seven men as deacons,
and set them to work helping the widows.

As a deacon, Stephen also preached about Christ as the fulfillment of the
Old Testament law and prophets. Unable to refute his message,
some members of local synagogues brought him before their religious authorities,
charging him with seeking to destroy their traditions.

Stephen responded with a discourse recorded in the seventh chapter of the Acts
of the Apostles.
He described Israel’s resistance to God’s grace in the past,
and accused the present religious authorities of “opposing the Holy Spirit”
and rejecting the Messiah.

Before he was put to death, Stephen had a vision of Christ in glory.
“Look,” he told the court,
“I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

The council, however, dragged the deacon away and stoned him to death.

“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’”
records St. Luke in Acts 7.
“Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice,
‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’
When he had said this, he died.”

The first Christian martyrdom was overseen by a Pharisee named Saul –
later Paul, and still later St. Paul –
whose own experience of Christ would transform him into a believer,
and later a martyr himself.

—Catholic News Agency

what is Grace

“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices,
so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow,
just in order to become a child again and begin anew.
I had to experience despair,
I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide,
in order to experience grace.”

Hermann Hesse


(even the weeds provide sustenance to the bees / Julie Cook / 2017)

I do believe in a personal God, because I too have had revelations,
answers to my questions, to my prayers, and if the answer fails to come,
which is usually the case because God wants us to work out our own salvation,
I have that assurance God gave Saint Paul and he passed on to us,
“My Grace is sufficient for you.”

And what is grace?
Participation in the divine life.

Dorothy Day

Heady times

“God is over all things,
under all things; outside all;
within but not enclosed; without but not exclude;
above but not raised up; below but not depressed;
wholly above, presiding;
wholly beneath, sustaining;
wholly within, filling”

Hildebert of Lavardin

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(Timoleague Friary, County Cork, Ireland / Julie Cook / 2015)

There had been a whirlwind of emotion
Exuberance road wildly as if on the back of a bronking bull…
Holding on for dear life…
Yet madly giddy within the rush and exhilaration of the ride.
Major changes raced across the winds…

Soaring endlessly upward, words and feelings rapidly flowed downward…
as if caught in a raging torrent…
There was so much that needed to be shared, expressed, re-lived.
Time was the enemy, this much we knew…
If put on hold or held back, it might all be too late…
or so we reasoned…

The depth of feeling was so raw yet so very real.
Clarity had been granted, but for how long was anyone’s guess.
There was a sense of power beyond self…
As if one was being guided and willed onward from some other different place and time.
This was bigger than all of us combined and it had to be shared…
It was truly a race between life and death…

All consuming is the best way to describe it.
Mad we were labeled…the activity deemed by the State…nefarious.
Hope and death mingled dangerously together…yet at the same time there existed a calm which surpassed understanding.
We had seen the results of being caught, accused, condemned….
Yet a resolute feeling of determination prevailed…we knew that all would be well…
With this feeling of hopefulness spurring on the momentum…
It was a heady time…

It was a time of grave danger with imminent death if discovered.
Yet there was no turning back…the die had been cast
Three years had laid the foundation, three days cemented our fate
A lifetime would be our legacy as thousands more would follow suit.

As it turned out, time would not be the deterrent…
We would weather the centuries of both denial and persecution…
We would work together across the oceans of the world, hand in hand…
allowing our words, our deeds, our actions to tell the story…
There were times when voices were silenced and many lives were lost…
But transformation had been found
Renewal had become a reality
Power was indeed found in the weak
The blind had seen and the lame had walked
As Salvation blanketed the land…

Yet now we wonder…
Where has the urgency gone?
Where has the importance of this story gone?
Has the truth been lost in complacency?
Where is the momentum…?
Do lives still not hang in the balance?
Is Hope not still viable…?

Miracles have not ceased…
Hearts are still turned…
Life has indeed conquered Death
Yet the headiness,
the acuteness,
the gravity…
seem all but lackluster…

The importance
The need
The urgency
are still very much necessary…
Yet those of us who have been left to further the cause, spread the word,
live the story…
have fallen into lethargy, compliance with the world and sadly indifference…

May we once again find the strength, the need, the urgency to continue to fight the good fight…
For it is Time who is no longer on our side….or so we have been warned.
The winds have shifted, the signs are real and the headiness of exuberance, need and necessity is all but waiting…for our time has come….
are we still willing to be the voice behind the story….
If not us, then who….


Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—
his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:1-9

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
1 Corinthians 4:14-17

Who has whom? A tale of the Spirit

“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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(The window of the Holy Spirit designed by Lorenzo Bernini , 1660 / St Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican, Rome, Italy / Julie Cook / 2007)

My 91 year old godmother called me yesterday.
She is actually my godmother by adoption as she and her husband, my godfather, were not my “official” godparents when I was baptized (Christened as we like to say in the Anglican realm of my world) at the ripe old age of 6 months. I was “adopted” by them when I was about 15 years old—which was a key moment in my life of which I will one day share. And it only seems fitting that as an adopted child, I should have adopted godparents, as even my godfather was adopted. . .but as I say, adoption is for another day.

For 91 years of age, my godmother may appear physically broken of body, but never of spirit.
She is a formidable warrior in the battle of all things Spiritual despite her now stooping and markedly bent frame.

As with anybody who lives on this earth, she too has known her fair share of frustration, hardships, agonies of the heart– as only a mother can, having felt both discouragement as well as despair. Just because one is considered a mighty spiritual warrior or committed to ones faith never exempts that individual from pain, sorrow or suffering. I often believe the exact opposite to be true. That those who are more inclined to the Spiritual find a greater assault of the hard, the negative and the difficult.

Her stories usually follow a convoluted journey with the point sometimes being remembered, sometimes not. Either way, I learn something new every time. Yesterday was certainly no exception as she held true to form throughout our conversation, weaving and wobbling on one trail of thought to another.
I’m not certain how we got on the subject, as is often the case with her.
I merely ask a simple question such as “how are you?” An hour or so later, as we weave our way from present to past and back again, I am often taken to task, reminded of what really matters, humbled or feel as if I’ve been, as Paul on his road to Damascus, knocked from my place only to be put in my place.

Somehow she got on the subject of a man that she and her husband, my godfather, had once known and worked with.
I had often heard my godfather reference this man in his later sermons, sermons near the end of his tenure as the dean of the Cathedral.
The man’s name is David du Plessis. Or maybe I should say was as he died in 1987.
David du Plessis was a South African Pentecostal minister who was eventually made a naturalized citizen of the United States. His story is steeped in a great and abiding trust in a God which would certainly lead him on a very long yet marvelous journey.
I encourage you to read about Rev. du Plessis, as I have now begun to do so. However it would be too lengthy for me to jump on that tangent today.

At some point, I think in the late 1970’s, an ecumenical group in Atlanta consisting of Catholics, Episcopalians and other various protestant members, had asked Rev. du Plessis to come address an important conference. The conference happened to be held at the Cathedral of St Philip, the church where my godfather was the dean.

Not attending the meeting himself but feeling obliged as the head rector of the hosting church, my godfather made his way to find Rev du Plessis before the meeting began, to personally welcome him to the church as well as to introduce himself as the hosting rector.
My godfather was already aware that Rev du Plessis was very active in the Renewal movement that was currently taking place in both the Catholic and Episcopal churches as he was proving to be a key component. Rev du Plessis had actually been invited by the Vatican in 1975 to address an ecumenical council held at St Peter’s in Rome of both Catholic and Anglican renewal groups.

As my godfather introduced himself, he wanted to make certain that Rev du Plessis realized that he, my godfather, was very familiar with the work of the Holy Spirit–going to great lengths to explain that he had been prayed to receive the Spirit as a baby when he was baptized, later when he was confirmed in the church, and still again later when he was ordained as a priest. As most ministers want fellow ministers to understand that they too “get it,” my godfather certainly wanted Rev du Plessis to understand that he too knew all about the Holy Spirit.

Rev du Plessis listened politely then warmly smiled telling my godfather that he had no doubts that my godfather had indeed been prayed over to receive the Holy Spirit into his heart and life but the question was not whether my godfather had the Spirit, but rather did the Spirit have my godfather.
This was the “ah ha” moment for my godfather and a pivotal changing point in not only his role as a priest but most importantly in his life.
A moment that left him speechless, troubled and found him quickly changing the subject.

His assumption had always been that as one who had been prayed for to receive the Spirit of God, the Spirit therefore had entered. . .had He not?

And so I was left yesterday, at the end of the story also wondering–not so much about my godfather as I knew he had eventually gone on to be a leading figure in the Renewal movement in both the Anglican and Catholic communities, not only in Atlanta but worldwide as he too traveled to Rome in 1980 to address a conference under the direction of Pope John Paul II.

But I wondered. . .what about my own dealings with the Spirit?
Did I have the Spirit or did the Spirit have me?
As that is now the nagging question. . .

Standing out in a crowd vs being lost in the crowd

“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!”
― Oscar Wilde

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There are 15 small sparrows along with 1 yellow finch jumbled together in this picture. 16 small birds all vying for some scattered seeds in the straw. There were many more of these small birds pecking about under the tree but I focused in on the most concentrated group. They are difficult to distinguish from the straw as their coloring allows them to blend in so nicely, hopefully camouflaging them form the hawks that often circle above.

One might imagine that the yellow finch may seem a tad out of place as he is different. He is the lone member of his clan mixing it up in the midst of an entirely different family—and yet, he seems not to even take notice that he is yellow and they are brown. He’s a bit smaller than the larger sparrows and yet they don’t seem to mind having this yellow interloper joining their luncheon. No one getting lost in this small lunch crowd.

Today the calendar reminds us that it is the feast day of a little known obscure 1st century saint. Saint Prisca, or more commonly referred to as Pricilla, who along side her husband, Acilius or Aquila, are said to have worked closely with Saint Paul–having allowed Paul to live in the their home for almost 2 years.

At a time when woman were not considered necessarily as equal partners and would have always deferred to their husbands, Prisca / Pricilla, along with Aquila, are referenced 6 different times in the new testament, often with her name being written before that of her husband’s name–unheard of during that time period. Some scholars even attribute the anonymously written Book of Hebrews to Prisca / Pricilla. It is thought that perhaps Prisca / Pricilla was a teacher, as this was in part the reason for her prominence and referral by Paul throughout the New Testament. Such a dangerous route for anyone during this time in history, but more so given that she was a jewish woman now following that crucified rebel rouser known simply to her heart at the Messiah.

This couple was, what we would consider, 1st century missionaries who worked extensively with Saint Paul to help spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ–all this despite having been exiled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius who had called for all Jews to be banished from Rome. History teaches us that Prisca / Pricilla, just like so many of the undeterred members of this young new religion, was eventually martyred for her faith. The date for her death, that of beheading in Rome, is noted as today January 18th.

Prisca / Pricilla knew of the dangers her teaching and faith would cause but she was not deterred. She chose the moment, choosing not to run and hide, but to continue sharing the life-changing importance of Jesus Christ–daring to swim against the tide of mainstream thought and belief. She made the decision, chose the moment, and never looked back.

Here is an example of a woman working alongside the men, making the ultimate sacrifice, working besides St Paul–oddly there is none of the sexism that St Paul is always so doggedly accused of here, no admonishment due to the fact that she was a woman–she chose her moment, she dared to take a stand, eventually paying the ultimate price with her life. Beheading. A gruesome death for anyone, let alone a woman. Prisca / Priscilla is now remembered, rather notably, throughout Rome as there is a church, as well as a set of Catacombs bearing her name.

May we all be more willing to go, when time dictates, against the proverbial stream in the name of Righteousness and Truth, choosing to seize the moment despite the fact that the way of the World may be in the opposite direction or because of our age, sex, learning. . . May we choose to be the one who stands out in the crowd rather than the one who remains lost, all for the sake of Righteousness and Truth. May we choose to be bold and brave–when the World would tell us to be quiet. Are you ready? Prisca / Pricilla didn’t think twice.

My secret German love

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Call it Feng Shui, Chi, Balance, harmony or simply symmetry–
however you wish to view it or to name it, it is me and I am it.
I don’t know if I came preprogrammed this way or not,
but I am a very symmetrically oriented person.
Equally weighted and equally balanced.
None of this asymmetrical business for me.

And so it goes when I work on my own art.

I have always loved working with watercolors…
I like working with people, birds, nests, eggs, and you name it.
However, all my life I have felt that I have really wanted / needed to create
some type of opus, some sort of monumental tribute to God.

Why is that you ask?

Well, I think people who have talents and gifts—
well, they just don’t plop out of the sky.
A gift is just that—a gift…and it is something someone has given to someone else.
God has given me much, so what little I can give back…
well I’ve wanted to do it with a visual piece of art.

I’ve spent a lifetime looking at the Italian Renaissance masters,
passing later on to the Northern Renaissance…
with then the Germans and Dutch masters.
Powerful artists, who not only mastered body and mass,
but captured the epitome of emotion.
I can find myself in tears, full of emotion, while staring at various pieces.
I love the works of the Italian Caravaggio (see post What is an Icon).
Caravaggio’s Conversion of St Paul, or as it is actually known,
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus… is but one such piece.

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The space is tight; the figures juxtaposed with precarious lines of placement
and the use of light, crucial light—
oh Caravaggio’s use of light…
Critics argue about the use of space with the horse,
Paul /Saul, the groomsman, too many legs, not enough focus on Paul, etc.
I must disagree with the “critics” as I find it powerful.
Very powerful!

It is my belief that because this is a tremendous moment in time and
that it is somewhat crammed into a tight space as the horse seems to precariously
control his mighty weight so as to not step on Paul…
who is splayed out on the ground beneath him,
as a sword is dropped to the ground, just as the stricken figure of Paul/ Saul
lies now defenseless having been struck blind…
It is because of all of this and more that seems to make this big moment even bigger.
It’s a millimoment in time that is captured… and it works—or at least works for me.
It makes me feel overwhelmed and leads me to believe that I am witnessing something that is
shattering time.
Oh those Italians——always masters of emotion——
the wonderful excess of such.

However as far as an artist who captures raw emotion with such vivid use,
there is none more so, to me, than the German Matthias Grünwald.
Who you ask?
A German, not an Italian?
All I ever talk about is my love affair with all things Italian and here I am suddenly
coming out with a secret German love?!
Yes.
I confess, a secret German love.

Unfortunately there is not much to the history books regarding Matthias.
He is a bit of an enigma.
His last name is really not his real last name.
As it seems a 17th century biographer inadvertently added Grünwald.
It is believed his name was actually Matthias Gothardt Neithardt.
He was born in Würzburg in 1480 but even that comes under question.
Who he studied under, who studied under him, all remains but a mystery.

The one thing that is not a mystery is Grünwald’s use of emotion.
We must remember that the artists of Grünwald’s time operated in a time even before
the printed word.
Images were everything;
they spoke volumes to the viewer—–their works, their paintings,
were the You Tubes of the day.
And yes, I like art that evokes emotion, passion and feelings–
why stare at something that speaks of nothing?

It is Grünwald’s Isenheim Altarpiece that, for me, evokes that tremendous emotion.
(again see the post “What is an Icon” as I’m taking from that post a tad)

crucifixion

This is one of my most favorite images of the crucifixion,
as it shows not a languid image of an intact pretty European body of Christ seemingly
floating against a cross, but rather in contrast,
it shows in graphic, vivid detail the results of a deadly beating,
a body nailed, pierced, abused, now dead body in full rigor mortis—-
the altarpiece was commissioned for a hospital in Colmar (now France but originally in Germany)
for patients with various skin afflictions (most likely plague and leprosy and St Elmo’s fire).
Hope in suffering—
resurrection form death…
Glory and victory over sin.

It is believed that Matthias may have been a plague victim and perhaps he had seen the
Black Death up close and very personally…
leading to his apparent visual knowledge of the human body in the midst of the mystery
known as death.
It is also his vision of what transpires after that death which is also worthy of attention.

It is from my appreciation of Matthias, and other artists,
who can so realistically capture the emotional dramas of human life and death,
as well as the mystical beauty often found in illuminated manuscripts,
that has lead me on my own journey of exploration of such mysterious moments
in time through my use of the visual arts.

I started working on my “spiritual” pieces about 12 years ago.
They began with the idea of the cross, ancient medieval texts,
the use of biblical languages such as Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and Aramaic,
as well as the use of mysterious mystical images as teaching tools.

The latest piece is a Triptych—
hence my love and need for balance and the symbolism as captured most
respectfully in this piece for the blessed Trinity.
It is not complete.
This whole “retirement” issue threw me for a bit of a loop and the groove of my diligent
quest has been slightly sidetracked.
There is a monastery in Hulbert, Oklahoma, Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey that I wish to
eventually donate the piece to—
they are a group of Benedictine monks,
originating out of Notre-Dame de Fontgombault,
a French Abbey, which belongs to the Solesmes Congregation.
I will write a later post about St. Benedict and the Rule of Benedict—–
a wonderful standard in which to conduct ones life.
I will also showcase the monks of Clear Creek Abbey.
http://clearcreekmonks.org/

I thought that during Holy Week,
it would be fitting that I share my love of God’s idea of symmetry
(Trinity/ Triptych/tri/three) with you, my viewing friends.

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