Monday, March 29, 2010

Alone with

The Crucifixion Rondelle Icon, egg tempera with tooling on wood, 18th century, 14 inches in diameter, Russia.

This icon is one I purchased in the Kapali Carsi in Istanbul while on a trip sponsored by the Episcopal Church to continue conversations between the Anglican and the Eastern Orthodox churches. I went back to it every day for more than a week at the end of every work day. It was in an antique shop and is of Russian Origin. It is a round icon which originally would have fit into an iconostasis- a great wall of icons which separates the Holy of Holy in an orthodox church from the sanctuary. The icon is 17th or 18th century, is wood about two inches thick and covered in a heavy gold leaf, tooled for a celestial texture to imitate the idea of a window into eternity.

I purchased it because I have a deep love of the Gospel of John.

The gospel writers had their misconceptions as they all do, and they confused words like "Jews" when they should have said "lawyers" when discussing the fault of the crucifixion - but we all have our misconceptions don't we. The Gospel of John is stunningly beautiful and celebrates women and love and intimacy unlike any other gospel. It allows Jesus to be as Divine as he is human rather than the other way round. In many holy sites (the Holy Sepulchre and Mount Athos for example) clergy have Bibles which are lacking the Gospel of John. They have ripped them out of their Bibles - not out of shallow loathing but rather out of such a deep love of the Gospel that it is the one they rip from their Bible to give to friends who ask "Why do you love Jesus so much?" or "How do you know God loves us?"

This icon is Johannine (which means "along the lines of John's gospel") because of the way Jesus is portrayed. Jesus is not hanging from the cross. Jesus is layed onto the cross. There is a difference in ideology rather than in form or historical fact. It is true regardless if it is factual. The way his body drapes onto the wood rather than hanging from the nails alludes to a self-offering. Jesus offers himself to the world at noon, while the screams of the butchered sheep can be heard from the Temple compound. And the timing is intentional. "Here, take me if you must but leave the bleeting ones alone! they are scared is all!" Are the bleeting ones sheep? Well, some are.

Jesus had support while he was doing what seemed to be the right thing. Jesus was not alone in that his mother and his best friend and many others did not desert him. And Jesus was not alone in that his prayer and his meditation - that union He enjoyed with God through the hard work of prayer and silence-making meant that He was not alone from God. And yet he was and, in the end, felt - it seems, very much alone. The agony of Gethsemane show a man who felt alone and did not want to do what he was needing to do.

We are all "alone" and yet, also we are "with."

But we are "alone with." Much like Christ, we are loved and even cherished and enjoyed by those we love and whom we love if we work at doing the loving well and with intention. But in the end I think we are still very much alone. We enter the world alone and we leave it alone and we inhabit our body alone. At the crucifixion Jesus is in his body (trapped in it I would say) and is there alone.

It is sad that the Renaissance painters seemed unable to paint a beautiful painting without including a dying Christ in the middle of it. After a few weeks in Florence one can hardly stand to see the crucifixion one more time without a scotch, an advil and a cigarette! But that may be because the image of the crucifixion strips bare the reality that we are alone in our bodies and the desperate attempts we play out to "fix" that infirmity rarely last for long often causing so much harm.

It is amazing what we humans will do and will risk - what we will destroy and whom we will destroy to fix our sadness at being alone.

But the art of being "alone with" seems to make some sense even though it is slow in coming and has its frustrating boundaries. Being "alone with" as Christ is at the cross - alone with Mary (at Jesus' right in blue and dark red), alone with John (at Jesus' left, young and in blue and light red), alone with God (wearing the tooled Gold of eternity stretching out behind them)- this being "alone with' is what makes sense to me and is in high relief at Holy Week.

Being "alone with" is not something I find easy to do. My codependent upbringing can get in the way. But as my spiritual director in Richmond used to say "we are, all of us, in Jesus' little school," learning our lessons by watching his life - trying to live ours in some integrity.

I use to struggle so hard not to be alone. Now, I struggle less with being alone and more with making sure the "with" is well cared for.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Art and Life

Crucifixion, stoneware clay with cone 10 reduction glaze and resist corpus, 25" by 6", 2009, Blackwater Bluff Pottery

Whenever I do a pottery exhibition of artwork, I try to center it around a theme. This show was around a series of sketches I had done at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England where there are some lovely examples of classical and brittish pots. I chose shapes and colors which spoke to the inner landscape of my own experience here at Blackwater Bluff. They had a decidedly asian bent and yet the overall effect was more diverse than simply asian forms.

As I look back on the exhibitions I wonder how my internal life as a Christian and my art are intertwined. I wonder at how God made us so that we would be so in God's image that we too could create - could be generative even if not female. Pottery and hospitality are my generativity. The pots I make with my hands and the friendships I make with my love and my hospitality are the two most important aspects of my life.

I am often stunned at how much our culture produces - how much money and how many services and how many things. But when you look at art and craft, there seems to be so much less of it than when times were slowere and people were less wealthy.

I notice the lives of those I know who have no creative outlet and I want to lean over and whisper "live!" To make things simply for the love of the making is an act of self-offering - risky, hard, scary and rewarding.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


My Dog "Kai" seems always to have a wonderful countenance combination of expectation and presentmomentness. I expect that "presentmomentness" is not a word, but I think it should be. And not a hyphenated word. I mean a real,new word.

When my Dad worked in the aerospace industry as a writer in the 60's he had to write all sorts of articles about things that were just being developed. Often, he would need a word for something for which a word had not been developed. When you look up "fluidics" in a dictionary, you are looking up one of his words - the study of how fluids work and move - since at the time, they were studying that in space. Every time I see my lava lamp (I LOVE my lava lamp!)I think of my dad - partly because of his word and partly because he would find it funny that I have a lava lamp in 2010 as a mid-lifer (at least I hope I am a mid-lifer - one never knows).

Kai's presentmomentness is particularly pronounced when seen up against this painting of a Thai monk. The ability to be peaceful and present and yet at the same hopeful and expectant is a wonderful thing. Some people live only in the expectation of the next thing, thereby missing the present moment. Others are so mired in the present, good or bad, that imagining the hope of the future evades them. But to live in between them is like the rubber band between the balsa wood toy plane body and the propeller. The energy propels. Sometimes into the blue sky and sometimes into a wall! But to fly at all is such a joy!

It seems that the art of living is to find that balance between appreciating the simple pleasures of the moment and risking to wonder what could be that is not. As I look at my friendships, everyone of them exists and is fed by that hope of becoming rather than just the confinement of possession. And when the hope for becoming is gone and the bar has been so lowered on hope that it rests on the ground, it needs to be lovingly and firmly set aside so that presence and hope flourishes in those friendships which give us life.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Baby Back Ribs

Today is my sabbath day and a friend is coming over for dinner and a movie. We are having baby back ribs (recipe below!).

Yesterday I made pork chops for a bit of a crowd. I love to cook on my day off and love even more to cook for my friends. I think it is hysterical when people think they are friends but do not show up physically (unless they live far away!). It takes effort and planning and a decision to say yes to a friend and no to many other possibilities for anevening - and yet showing up is what makes a relationship.

My concern is that there is so much counterfeit "relationship" out there. Looks like it, smells like it, sometimes even feels like it, but unless we are able to physically be with each other, along with the sacrifices that demands, I wonder if it is a relationship or simply a friendly acquaintance. And a friendly acquaintance is not, in any way, a bad thing. But it is not a friendship. And I wonder if divorce rates and adultery would be quite so high if actively and carefully nurturing of friendship happened more consistantly.happened by showing up - by self-offering - by personal sacrifice of "I" to "we."

When I look at our shy, longing God and I look at Jesus' life and death and life - and when I look at the primary design of humans as being made in their "image," all I can see is the importance of self-offering and sacrifice between friends and lovers.

We are such a wordy society - spinning phrases and lines and spewing words by the mile. But it is deeds that seem to show me who is whom and what is what. When my friends show up- physically arrive and spend valuable time, the relationship moves forward and deepens. When they do not, it gets what it gets - which, sadly, is not much. And that is fine. Some fruit needs to die on the vine so that other fruit can live and flourish!

And this is my rib recipe:

Baby Back Ribs

Cut a rack or racks of ribs it into about 5 rib chunks, so that it will fit into a pot. Fill the pot with water with salt, pepper corns, bay leaves and onions and bring it to a boil.
Place the ribs sections into the pot and boil it for 45 minutes.
After the ribs boil for 45 minutes, take them out, drain and dry them and do a dry rub or sauce as you like.
Cover them with tinfoil and refrigerate for several hours. (if you do this part the previous day or morning)
Remove from refrigerator and cook them in the oven on 250°F for 3 hours or 200 for 4 hours, then remove the tinfoil from the top, and broil or hot-grill sear them for 5-10 minutes for a crispy rib. Eat with Cornbread and salad!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Monastery

I made my annual Lenten Retreat at the monastery last week. It was a short visit since my annual retreat in April is soon upon me.

Times of retreat and re-collection are so valuable to the soul and to the body. The Chapel of the monastery (above) is designed by Ralph Adams-Cram to be feminine and womb-like. He intentionally chose glass of blues and oranges and reds while the grey stone and curved walls have a cave-like atmosphere which is meant by the architect to hearken back to the caves of early monks but which, to me, remind me more of the tents I used to create from chairs and blankets as a small child - a way to be "in the room" with my family and yet at the same time hidden away and enjoying some privacy and silence.

One goes to a monastery to "be alone with God" hence the "mono" in Monastery" or "monk." And that, I found over time, did not work for me since I find God most in other people and so being with them is as close to being with God as I can seem to muster most days. But that does not mean that I did not love being at the monastery and did not love the cloister and all that it provided and all that it protected me from. For its time, it was perfect and wonderful and some days I miss it terribly. But I miss a fond memory and not the daily realities, which is just fine and relatively harmless. Life is better with just a pinch of the romanticised.

It is often hard to find the time to go off to a monastery, but finding a day in which one may hide away and think about life is a good practice - essential for clergy and very good for everyone. Calling in sick works - even if the sickness is spiritual. It is a time to check the map, hold a finger up to the winds which blow, and listen for what has just gone and what may be coming.

I know a very few people whose lives are completely unexamined. They frighten me for the damage they can cause. They simply do what feels good and whatever results appear for others is not their problem. These people live compartmentalized lives in which things are walled off from each other so that there is little integrity (wholeness), little conversation and commentary between the parts. They have to live this way because any other way of life would force them to feel what they are doing instead of just doing it - and the feeling would be too painful without change. And change would result in not getting what is want and for them, nothing must be allowed to get in the way of what they want for themselves.

I know this about these people because I could so easily be one of them and have been in the past and without great care could be tomrrow, or the next day. It is hard work not to let that way of being creep back into my life like weeds - and some hours or days I fail. But most days, because of times of re-collection - of collecting the day and the hours and examining them -because of times of recollection in retreats big and small, I can hold my life up to God so that God can show it to me from His point of view and adjustments can be made.

The protection I used to get at the monastery huddled inside the cloister in my habit is now an enclosure I must make for myself. No need to be walled off from everyone as long as I can keep a wary eye on the unexamined lives around me so that when they blow - and they will - I and those I love are not hit by the shrapnel.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


There is a silly irony in the fact that when I was in college I wrote an angry letter to the chaplain saying that pottery had no place on a high alter. Silly boy! How funny that decades later I would be making pottery like this for altars all over the place!

But we grow don't we. We are in a constant state of becoming. And God is in a constant stance of encouraging our becoming.

The vegetable garden is now uncovered from snow and the work has begun to drag off last year's mess so that the soil can be overturned with the hay from the chicken house. I have high hopes for my garden, just as God has high hopes for my becoming. But becoming is slow work.

Slowly I can see the results of my upbringing - good and bad and ugly and lovely. Slowly I am learning what is good for me and what is bad for me. Who is good for me and who is bad for me. Who loves me and who uses me. Who is speaking hard love to me and who is speaking soft lies to me. Or is it "whom?"

The good thing is that every day I get just a little better at living life just like the pottery grows and becomes my vision for it with every turn of the wheel-head. As I spin on the pottery wheel of life, it becomes very important what and whom I let form me. We can so easily think that without God's invitation to our formation we are simply formed more slowly. But I am sure that is not the case. Other things form us in the void. Other people. Other interests. That is why our Lord's Prayer refers to "things left undone" without skipping a beat from the "things done" line of the confession.

As I dig through the garden I can see all thoose dead weeds. I wonder what more my garden could have been last year had I worked harder on the weeds. Things left undone.

This year's garden will be better. Less weeds - more vegetables. This year's relationships will be better. Less weeds there too.

My pottery spins under my fingers. I hope and pray my life spins under God's. And it does, most days. And every year and month and day that passes, I get better at recognizing counterfeit potters trying to touch this clay God is making into something - a vessel I think. A becoming.