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.

 

 

 

 

Hidden Away

878930EE-0F89-44EE-B45A-4352E1A8387DShe was like the moon—part of her was always hidden away. 

Dia Reeves, Bleeding Violet

Yesterday, I watched a clip from the 2018 ESPY Awards. I could not help but pause to listen to the athletes tell their stories of years of abuse by U.S Olympic Team doctor, Larry Nassar. I wondered how many years of silence they each endured, holding the horrible secret inside where it had the power to do great harm. That’s the thing about sexual abuse — it’s often a big, bad secret. Victims hold the shame in the place where they pack away their secrets, and the rest of the word hopes never to have to hear about it. So the secret is safe, hidden away, at least for a time.

But not this time! The “sister survivors” of the disgraced sports doctor’s abuse accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2018 ESPYS. Dressed in glittering gowns, holding hands in solidarity, more than 140 women gathered onstage to share the award given to athletes whose bravery “transcends sports,” as the audience rose in a standing ovation.

Sarah Klein, a former gymnast who said she was among Nassar’s earliest victims three decades ago, was the first to address the audience. “Speaking up and speaking out is not easy,” she said. “Telling our stories of abuse, over and over and over again, in graphic detail, is not easy. We’re sacrificing privacy, we’re being judged and scrutinized, and it’s grueling and it’s painful, but it is time. We must start caring about children’s safety more than we care about adults’ reputations.”

Tiffany Thomas Lopez, who in the 1990s played softball at Michigan State University where Nassar practiced, had a message for other victims who might still be silent. “I encourage those suffering to hold tight to your faith, and stand tall when speaking your truth,” she said. “I’m here to tell you, you cannot silence the strong forever.”

Olympic gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman was the last to speak. She was unsparing in her criticism of the adults who she said for years failed to protect the victims, instead opting to silence her and others “in favor of money, medals and reputation. But we persisted, and finally, someone listened and believed us.”

In January, more than 150 women and girls gave victim impact statements at one of Nassar’s three trials. In a Lansing, Michigan courtroom, they spoke of abuse under the guise of medical treatment, which for some began when they were elementary school age. Following their testimony, Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Nassar to up to 175 years behind bars.

When the years of silence ended and the women released their secrets, justice followed, relief followed, inner peace followed. Therein lies a lesson for us all. How many times have women kept silent to protect others? How many times did we guard a secret because revealing it might hurt other people? Did we realize that by hiding away the secret, we were harming ourselves? The words written by Dia Reeves is true of us:

She was like the moon—part of her was always hidden away. 

And so it is with women. There are always parts of us that are hidden away, often for many years. There are parts of our stories that we hold in our souls, secrets we would rather not speak. It seems important, though, for each of us to develop the wisdom of knowing what we should hold in silence and what we should speak. As for the big, bad secrets — well, saying them out loud breaks their power. The chains of our silence fall to the ground, broken! 

And finally, we have freed ourselves! 

The Truth Is

3F006831-75A4-4D11-AABD-DDA91B9AF938The truth is I never expected to have an illness with the ominous descriptor “end stage.” I never saw it coming, but after a very brief, sudden and inexplicable illness, I was diagnosed in 2014 with end stage kidney disease. I was put on dialysis immediately and spent the rest of that year struggling and suffering.

The truth is I lost myself that year. For a time, I lost the ability to walk, think, name my colors, write my name. I lost my ministry and my ability to engage in the work I so loved. I ended up on seven and a half hours of dialysis daily.

The truth is that those many days, most of them spent in the hospital, may well have been sent to me as a call to awaken from my predictable existence. It was as if an inner, divine grace was demanding my spiritual growth. The truth is I was plunged deeply into a state of being filled with questions and voices I did not really want to hear. If all of this was a message from God, it was the message that all of my illusions, realities and identities were about to spill over the sides of my life, forcing me to stand still in the chaos.

The truth is that apart from this level of life upheaval, I would have lived on as usual, comfortable in the life I had built for myself. But in the middle of those long nights in the hospital, I asked God if this was a new summons to me, an urgent summons that called for my transformation.

I have trouble describing that time of my life. I have struggled for the words to express what was going on in me. Then I found a brilliant description written by one of my favorite authors. This is how she described a similar season in her life.

For months I had been lost in a baffling crisis of spirit . . . I had awakened to a growing darkness and cacophony, as if something in my depths were crying out. A whole chorus of voices. Orphaned voices. They seemed to speak for all the unlived parts of me, and they came with a force and dazzle that I couldn’t contain. They seemed to explode the boundaries of my existence. I know now that they were the clamor of a new self struggling to be born.

– From When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions by Sue Monk Kidd

Bingo! Whatever my year of illness was about, I knew it was about “the clamor of a new self struggling to be born.” The truth is that is exactly what occurred in me. The new self was about to show itself. It was on the verge of emerging and morphing so that “who I am” became someone I hardly recognized. My family commented often that I had become very quiet, that I seldom spoke (very unlike the person they knew).

The truth is I really was quiet, even silent at times. But I see now that it was all about this season in my life, my time to listen to God, to listen to my deepest self, to hear those “orphaned voices” that had been silent for a lifetime. Would this be a transformative experience for me?

The truth is I did not want to be so sick. I did not want to feel that bone-deep fatigue. I did not want to be tethered to a dialysis machine for so many hours every single day. I did not want to lose my ministry. I did not want to lose the self I was so comfortable with. I did not want to lose my gregarious personality, becoming quiet, introspective and silent. I did not want to live this season of life.

The truth is I did not want to build a cocoon around my life and wait, wait, and wait, and wait some more for my new life to emerge. And I did not want to give thanks to a God who employed such a severe means of transformation for me.

But the real truth is that I found this tiny scripture passage to be completely and mercifully true.

In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

– 1 Thessalonians 5:18 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Raising Cain

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“The Resurrection of Lazarus.” Oil on canvas painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896 

As someone born and raised in the south, I know a lot about “piddlin’ around.” I do it all the time, and when the day’s light comes to an end, I always wonder if I have done anything at all worthwhile.

Don’t get me wrong. I heartily approve of some piddlin’ around in life. Especially holy piddlin’ like getting quiet and getting in touch with God. Holy piddlin’ like sitting in silent contemplation can bring God close to me. Praying can take me to a special place for sensing God’s touch. Listening to sacred music opens my soul to the whisper of God.

Piddlin’ can be a very life-giving pastime. On the other hand, some of us God followers long to change the world, to face off against oppression, to do justice, to end wars . . . to do something of eternal meaning.

Our problem is that changing the world can be a heavy burden that we simply cannot carry around for long. The secret, I think, is a balance between pensive spiritual moments with God and those once-in-a-while moments of sparkling mission and calling, those moments when we rise courageously above ourselves and almost see miracles. Truth is, it is not a common happening for us to find ourselves raising anyone from the dead or healing someone who is suffering illness.

It seems that the best we can do is to say to God, “I offer you, God, my silent devotion. And I offer you my willingness to follow your highest calling and your most extraordinary mission, wherever it leads and whatever the cost. Here’s my heart. Do with my life as you will.”

I very much enjoy the writing of Annie Dillard, and she has written eloquently on this very subject. Here’s what she writes.

There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end… But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous…more extravagant and bright. We are…raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

– Annie Dillard

I hope that you will find many of those sacred “be still, my soul” moments with God. But I pray also that you will, along the way, have eyes wide open for those bright and extravagant miracle moments when it just might be possible to raise Cain or raise Lazarus.

Reach for the Stars

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We greet this year’s Independence Day still reaching for the stars. We also come to this day with a measure of confusion, disillusionment, and even fear. We have a president who is revered by some Americans and feared by most Americans. We feel concern when the president Tweets divisive messages. We feel concern about the ways he interacts with international leaders. We feel concern about health care. We feel concern about the loss of the freedoms we have enjoyed for centuries. We are concerned for our neighbors who have come to America as immigrants and who now face an uncertain future.

This Fourth of July we remember that eight immigrants signed the Declaration of Independence we celebrate today. We recall the words written on that historical document that was signed on July 4, 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

. . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

We are still the United States of America. We persist in loving our brothers and sisters and in cherishing the unity that goes far beyond our differences. Creating “a more perfect union” remains our sacred calling though we know that mutually pledging our lives to each other requires constancy and dedication. It requires our willingness to accept one another and to honor each other’s differences. It requires offering mutual respect. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the sheer work of human progress, work to which we must commit and recommit.

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable . . . Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

– Martin Luther King, Jr. in Stride Toward Freedom, 1957

On this day that is a celebration of our independence, we know that we we cannot always determine the destiny of our country. We know that our freedom often feels precarious. We know that we cannot always be led by the president we prefer. But we also know that the citizens of this country will always reach for the stars as we labor for our nation’s honor, and in the end, will join hands and rise to meet a brighter future.

More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom and our way of life . . . Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars.

– President Josiah Bartlet, The West Wing

No Words

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Today, I have no words, at least none that seem meaningful. I have learned not to struggle with my writing, but instead to let it be what it is. Today it is nothingness. Expressions won’t come to me. Phrases are forced. So it is time to simply be quiet, to let my spirit speak to me, and to refrain from doing all the talking. So I’ll cross the bridge ahead quietly, silently, embracing the peaceful quiet of the morning sky and the dark ripples of the river that flows below.

I think our deepest love finds its voice when we have run out of words to express it. There is no language that can capture what a lifetime has brought to be, the private journey of a single soul through the twists and turns of time. We are the sum of what we feel when feeling defies reason and runs to places no logic has ever seen. As careful as we are to wear our masks among the crowd, alone we know the untamed extravagance of a spirit that wants to care more than to control. So let us, each one, in silence share our truth, seeing in one another’s eyes the mirror of our own silent story.

Bishop Steven Charleston