Seeing the Light: A Spiritual Discipline

DF9BF7FC-6583-4F1A-A78F-3F5CD0D37117I seldom talk much about the spiritual disciplines that have given me strength. A private retreat — just me and God — in a beautifully isolated hermitage was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life. While there, I also practiced another of my spiritual disciplines — iconography.

Iconography is not merely a visual art, it is Christian sacred art, and has been an integral part of the worship and mystical life of Christians since apostolic times. Referred to in the Eastern Christian tradition as “windows into heaven,” icons have inspired and uplifted millions of the faithful, and have at times been the instruments for demonstrating God’s miraculous intercession in the life of humankind.

29074C09-C2E4-49B3-ACA8-FAED6A6069B8In describing the purpose of icons, the early Christians used the Greek work anagogic, literally meaning “leading one upward.” Photios Kontoglou, a renowned modern iconographer, expressed this perfectly: “Icons raise the soul and mind of the believer who sees the icon to the realm of the spirit, of the incorruptible, of the kingdom of God, as far as this can be achieved with material means.” 

So to appreciate iconography fully, we must approach it as a liturgical art form whose function is essentially spiritual. Since the creation of an icon is itself a sacred activity, the iconographer must be a person of prayer, not merely a technician. If the iconographer’s work is to inspire and illumine others, then it is essential that she leads a life of prayer and fasting that she may be inspired and illumined by the Holy Spirit, that her iconography becomes itself an expression of her spiritual life. Kontoglou writes: “The iconographers painted as they prayed.”

355CF8CB-A1B6-4D08-B5DD-DF59A9618C9AMy love of iconography resulted from the prompting of my dear Aunt Eirene. She was an artist extraordinaire and a gifted iconographer. She studied and practiced to hone her skills and each year, she went to an intensive iconography workshop at a beautiful retreat center. One year, she persuaded me (forced is a more accurate term) to go with her. Of course, I was extremely reticent to try this new art form.

At first, I called on my artistic skills and was doing a barely decent job. But then a lovely nun who sat next to me said words that literally imprinted on my heart. She said, “Your rendering of the Holy Child is beautiful. Look into his eyes. When you see the Light coming from them, you will fall in love with your icon.”

286998AD-4ACD-4E54-BBD6-EDCC0B0D4ED0She was so wise. I began to think more about the Christ Child’s eyes than my own art, and within a day, my iconography transformed from a painting to a prayer. It was worship, meditation and reverence. It touched my soul as I added color to the board, layer upon layer. It was an incredible experience to see the Light. I share with you here some of icons I created, as I remember the experience I had with each of them that opened my soul to the Light.

 

 

 

 

Sitting Open-Handed Before God

71184739-B4D2-4F2F-897E-1EAD2C2A56EAWhat is it like to sit open-handed before God? To abide with a compassionate God who knows the grief we are carrying? To sit in the glowing presence of a God who, not only knows the deep angst of our nation, but who can also transform it?

Yes, many of us are grieving the current state of our nation. We see our nation’s pain, just as we see the pain of the world. Yet, we who are Christ-followers live with great advantage in this pain-filled world. Yes, we grieve the divisions in our nation and lament at the ways we seem to have lost our compass of compassion, mercy and justice. We feed those who already have abundant sources of food. We provide health care to those who can afford their own. We hold open the voting entrances for those who can get there with the proper credentials. But for the people who hunger, the families that are homeless, the elderly, the children incarcerated at our borders, the prisoners, the helpless, the marginalized . . .  well, for them, we offer prayers, if we think of them at all.

So what is our great advantage? It is that our faith can carry us into spiritual realms where hope is large and dreams are possible. It is that we enjoy access to spiritual community with an accessible God. It is the spiritual luxury of quiet contemplation that opens our hearts to the whispers of God. And yes, I did say whispers of God, for it is almost always a quiet voice that beckons us into a world of turmoil. It is a quiet God-Voice that rekindles our compassionate hearts, speaks to us through the noise of discord in our nation, and shows us the good path we must follow.

We need not despair or cry out in anger or disgust. We need not attack those who seem to be wrecking our country. We need not hate those with whom we disagree. We have the great advantage of only this life task: to be silent before God, to sit in God’s presence open-handed, to pray, to listen, to seek, and then to go.

Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, famously known as “the nun on the bus,” offers us a glimpse into one of the ways we can live as people of faith in a fractured nation. 

Finding a way to not vilify or divide into “them” and “us” in today’s federal politics goes against . . . current custom. . . . So my contemplative practice is to attempt to sit open-handed and listen to the “wee small voice” that sometimes whispers ideas and ways forward.

Simone Campbell

Thanks be to God for the quiet whisper that guides us on the path ahead, the God-Voice that ordains us to heal our nation and comfort our world.

Magical

3C204C9C-C33B-4AC8-BE97-D8784E8A5D96

Magical Night: A painting by Teressa Nichole

Tell your story. Shout it. Write it.
Whisper it if you have to.
But tell it.
 ― L.R. Knost

These words of LR. Knost are so very true.

During the weeks of Lent, I helped lead a writing group at my church. What a rich experience it was for me — watching each group member spending quiet moments meditating and contemplating the ripples of his/her life. Then witnessing one person after another begin to write as if they were expecting transformation, telling their stories, writing down the highs and lows. It was almost magical.

It seemed as if I saw the throes of stress leave their spirits. It seemed as if I watched their expressions of pain ease as pen flowed across paper. It seemed at times as if a weight was lifted, an emotion discovered, a community created, a sense of understanding settled in.

I know this: no one left the room with a broken spirit or a weight they could not carry. Instead, they left the room in covenant with one another, knowing that someone cared deeply about their story. They left the room knowing that, in this intimate space, they could spew out whatever they needed to release or they could be silent in a peaceful sanctuary of acceptance.

That Sunday School room in the tall-steepled church at the top of a street in Macon, Georgia known as High Place became a sacred space for just a brief time. It became a place almost magical, a place of rest, a place of comfort, a place where each person could feel that they were not alone and that they would never feel alone again. Truly, that was magical.

I end today’s blog post with these words written by L.R. Knost:

Tell your story. Shout it. Write it.
Whisper it if you have to.
But tell it.
Some won’t understand it.
Some will outright reject it.
But many will
thank you for it.
And then the most
magical thing will happen.
One by one, voices will start
whispering, ‘Me, too.’
And your tribe will gather.
And you will never
feel alone again.

Amen.

Holy Wondering

7CD31664-E73F-4B6B-B168-4291D78B28DBWandering may well be a spiritual discipline. Many years ago, young Annie Morgan sang about it as she wandered in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. . . “I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”*

Wondering while we wander makes wandering a spiritual act. It is not merely aimless meandering. Nor is it rolling on pointlessly as if there is really nowhere to go. It is not wandering around in circles because we are hopelessly lost. It is more like a contemplative journey of discovery. J.R.R. Tolkien observed a truth about wandering. He said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

We wander, most certainly, but might there be a purpose in our wandering? Suppose our wandering becomes a joy to us. Suppose we learn and grow as we wander about. Suppose our wandering leads us to a deeper relationship with God. Suppose in our wandering we do some wondering, looking up into the sky for new light and sparkling new thoughts that change our lives forever.

So I wonder . . . How are the stars set in their places? Apart from the certainties of astronomy, of course.

I wonder . . . Why does the sun rise every day, and then set in a wondrously painted sky at dusk making way for the rising of a luminous moon? Apart from the scientific explanation, of course.

Wondering is not about science at all. It is about discovery of beauty in most unlikely places. Perhaps it is about practicing mindfulness atop a majestic mountaintop, or contemplating life on the edge of the sea, or meditating in a forest filled with all manner of living things. It is about the exploration of the heart to know its deepest desires and longings. It is about looking into the soul, and there finding both the intense pain and the tender healing that completes a life.

A well known Christmas carol, “I Wonder as I Wander”* was first sung by young Annie Morgan, a destitute girl in Appalachian North Carolina. At a Christian fundraising meeting, Annie stepped out on the edge of the platform and stood before a crowd of people. Although she wore rags, unwashed and in shreds, she stood proudly. It is said that she smiled as she sang, “smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song the people had never heard.”

I wonder as I wander out under the sky . . .

I imagine that Annie, a girl living in poverty, wondered about many things as she wandered through the Appalachian mountains. She probably wondered about the stars in the sky, the rising and setting of the sun, the brilliant moon that lit the path before her in the night. I imagine she wondered about God and about the ways God might be present with her. I imagine she wondered about herself and about what would become of her. Like her, we wander through this life, mostly alone.

As this is my very own blog, I can freely change tenses to say with great certainty that, as I have wandered through many years, I have grown by myself, but not alone. For as I wandered, I learned to wonder.

So I highly recommend wandering for the sole purpose of wondering. Our wondering might well reveal the longing in our hearts. Our wondering might lay bare the pain hidden in our souls, but also show us the balm of healing that dwells there. Our wondering might open up a place within us to hold God, all of God, more completely than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to do even more wandering. And on the journey, I will pour myself into some holy wondering. Who knows what I might discover!

 

* “I Wonder as I Wander” is a Christian folk hymn, typically performed as a Christmas carol, written by American folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. The hymn has its origins in a song fragment collected by Niles on July 16, 1933.

While in the town of Murphy in Appalachian North Carolina, Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by group of evangelicals. In his unpublished autobiography, he wrote of hearing the song:

“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform and began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”

The girl, named Annie Morgan, repeated the fragment seven times in exchange for a quarter per performance, and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material. In various accounts of this story, Niles hears between one and three lines of the song.

Based on this fragment, Niles composed the version of “I Wonder as I Wander” that is known today . . . His composition was completed on October 4, 1933. Niles first performed the song on December 19, 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. It was originally published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.

By the Light of the Moon

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Just a few days ago, April 22, the moon was full and so beautiful. It’s comforting to know that you can count on the moon to wax and wane according to schedule. And yet, every common moon is miracle to me, its beauty mesmerizing for me every time I see it.

It’s my job to notice it, to never take it for granted, to see it with eyes that are open to miraculous sights. It is completely my job to sit under its light and to allow it to enlighten my small world. It’s my soul work to allow the moonlight to illumine my contemplation and to inspire me to a better life.

Most of all, it is up to me to thank God for the moon and all creation, given to us to enrich our existence. The Psalmist expresses it best:
To God who made the great lights,
For God’s lovingkindness is everlasting:
The sun to rule by day,
For God’s lovingkindness is everlasting,
The moon and stars to rule by night,
For God’s lovingkindness is everlasting.

Psalm 136:7-9 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

“By the light of the silvery moon,” the title of a song published in 1909, always reminds me of the ethereal color when the full moon lights the sky. Gazing upon it is a special life experience, not to be missed. When I lift up my eyes toward the light of the moon, I always contemplate the astounding handiwork of God and give thanks.