Monday, December 29, 2008

Flight into Egypt

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word;  for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

This is a photo, depicting the flight into Egypt, from our Christmas cards this year, purchased from The Printery House.    It caught my eye because of the colors and I like the artistic style.  The card itself is a photo of a mural created in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at the Conception Abbey in Missouri, painted by Benedictine monks in the late 19th century.  

The symbolic imagery in the mural piqued my curiosity and this is what I learned:  the crumbling idol in the background is based on Thoth, the Egyptian baboon or monkey god of mathematics, writing and wisdom.  The idol is clutching a writing implement as it topples to the ground while the Holy family passes by.

At the base of the cracked column, you can notice the date 1896, which is when the fresco was painted.  A Lilly-of-the-Valley is blooming near the feet of the Theotokos while poisonous mushrooms grow near the base of the column.

On the Conception Abbey website, it is noted that the donkey's feet are not painted in the proper positioning for walking and yet, I hardly think this detracts from such a splendid portrayal.

I tend to think so much of the Nativity as a moment that stopped time, when the shepherds were near, the cows munched their hay and Blessed Mary knelt in the glow, adoring the newborn King.  In my mind, the star of Bethlehem that led the wise men to worship Christ, is forever held there.  It is good to hear the Gospel every Sunday morning, to be reminded of Jesus’ journey after his miraculous think on the perilous trek that Joseph and the Blessed Virgin underwent to keep the Christ-child safe.  To think of the wise men who risked so much...

Glory to the newborn King!  

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Cremation of Sam McGee

I discovered the writings of Robert Service on my ’92 visit to Alaska and am sharing a favorite from the land of the midnight sun:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,

Where the cotton blooms and blows.

Why he left his home in the South to roam

‘Round the Pole, God only knows.

He was always cold, but the land of gold

Seemed to hold him like a spell;

Though he’d often say in his homely way

That he’d “sooner live in hell”.

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way

Over the Dawson trail.

Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold

It stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze

Till sometimes we couldn’t see;

It wasn’t much fun, but the only one

To whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight

In our robes beneath the snow,

And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead

Were dancing heel and toe,

He turned to me, and “Cap” says he,

“I’ll cash in this trip, I guess; 

And if I do, I’m asking that you

Won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no;

Then he says with a sort of moan:

It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold

Till I”m chilled clean through to the bone.

Yet ‘tain’t being dead -- it’s my awful dread

Of the icy grave that pains;

So I want you to swear that, foul or fair,

You’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed,

So I swore I would not fail;

And we started on at the streak of dawn;

But God! he looked ghastly pale.

He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day

Of his home in Tennessee;

And before nightfall a corpse was all

That was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death,

And I hurried, horror-driven,

With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid,

Because of a promise given;

It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:

You may tax your brawn and brains,

But you promised true, and it’s up to you

To cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid,

and the trail has its own stern code.

In the days to come, through my lips were dumb,

In my heart how I cursed that load.

In the long, long night, by the lone firelight,

While the huskies, round in a ring,

Howled out their woes to the homeless snows --

O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay

Seemed to heavy and heavier grow;

And on I went, though the dogs were spent

And the grub was getting low;

The trail was bad, and I felt half mad,

But I swore I would not give in;

And I’d often sing to the hateful thing,

And it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge,

And a derelict there lay;

It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice

It was called the “Alice May”.

And I looked at it, and I thought a bit,

and I looked at my frozen chum;

Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry,

Is my cre-ma-tor-eum.’

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor,

And I lit the boiler fire;

Some coal I found that was lying around,

and I heaped the fuel higher;

The flames just soared, and the furnace roared --

Such a blaze you seldom see;

And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal,

And I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like

To hear him sizzle so;

And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled,

And the wind began to blow.

It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled

Down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;

And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak

Went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow

I wrestled with grisly fear;

But the stars came out and they danced about

Ere again I ventured near;

I was sick with dread, but I bravely said:

I’ll just take a peep inside.

I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked” ; ...

Then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,

In the heart of the furnace roar;

And he wore a smile you could see a mile,

And he said:  “Please close that door.  

It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear

You’ll let in the cold and storm --

Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,

It’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Nollaig Shona Duit!

"Hail to the King, hail to the King!
Blessed is He, blessed is He.

The peace of earth to Him;

The joy of heaven to Him.

The homage of a King be His,
King of all victory;

The welcome of a Lamb be His,
Lamb of all glory:
the Son of glory down from on high.
All hail, let there be joy!"

May you all have a blessed Christmas!

*Prayer from the Northumbria Community

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Poustinia. It’s the Russian word for “desert”, vast areas of sand and sun where the essence of life is reduced to the bare essentials such as finding shelter, water and food in order to survive. Actually, I think it’s better described as a place of liberation; not a reduction of life, but a liberation of life from all the nonessentials.

Poustinia also has a connotation related to the Fathers of the Desert, those first Christian hermits who sought an ascetic life in the harsh climate of the Egyptian deserts during the third century. It means entering a place of contemplation and seeking God in solitude and prayer. And most interesting, it does not have to be a place away from humanity, but may be found in the corner of our homes or driving to work.

Through my Finan* readings for the month of December, this word has become fond and familiar; it has provided a name for a concept I found difficult to describe and define. The poustinia is a place I wish to enter, especially during this time of year when so much is going on around me; I need a place of silence in order to understand the noise. God makes solitude and silence holy. If I don’t stop, if I never take time to be still, if I never actively seek meditation upon His Word, I am missing a vital need. And one that strengthens not only me, but those around me.
"Stand still, and allow the strange, deadly restlessness of our tragic age to fall away like the worn-out dusty cloak that it is -- a cloak that was once considered beautiful. The restlessness was considered the magic carpet to tomorrow, but now in reality we see it for what it is: a running away from oneself, a turning from that journey inward that all men must undertake to meet God dwelling within the depths of their souls."
For me, entering the poustinia, may mean turning off the radio, computer and phone in order to pray and read, or going for a walk and saying prayers. One thing I’ve discovered is that although I feel refreshed and renewed during those first quiet minutes, eventually, I am uncomfortable in the silence. I am uncomfortable when the motives of my heart are laid bare...yet, without discomfort we never grow.

Sometime I would like to extend myself and go away to a little cabin on a snowy mountain that is warm but bare, having no choice of music cd’s or a fat bookshelf, with only water and bread and my bible. I am sure I would enjoy that initial excitement of a new adventure, but it is the stipping away, the liberation of my body from too many comforts, that would be painful ...and blessed.
Stand still, and look deep into the motivations of life. Stand still, and lifting your hearts and hands to God pray that the mighty wind of His holy Spirit may clear all the cobwebs of fears, selfishness, greed, narrow-heartedness away from the soul: that His tongues of flame may descend to give courage to begin again.”
*Finan readings are from Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community.  Quotes are from these readings.
*Photo is from the Madonna House

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A measure of God's grace

About 5 years ago I was walking through a valley so deep I couldn’t see the sunlight or feel its warmth;  I wondered if God had abandoned me.  I never quit praying but couldn’t comprehend why He wasn’t helping me through this desolate place.  It was a very lonely time; I came to know that isolation is the devil's playground.  

I learned some valuable lessons through this darkness however:  that we must rejoice for our trials because they draw us nearer to God and give birth to perseverance and that God, in fact, does NOT ever abandon us.  Sometimes we have to cling to Truth in Holy Scripture (Psalm 94) and forsake our feelings which can lead us astray.

It was during one particular wintry day that I recall feeling forlorn, weeping and telling God how much I needed Him, that I was such a weak vessel and needed some reassurance that all would be well.  I felt guilty even as I prayed it, asking God for a sign of His nearness.  As if my very life was not evident enough of His care!

Brewing a cup of tea, I walked by the kitchen window and glanced out at the familiar wooded landscape.  The sky was gray and atmosphere dismal but for a brilliant glimmer that caught my gaze:  5 male cardinals perched together in our spruce tree.  There they were, just sitting near to one another in about 

an arm span in proximity, all looking down toward my window.  I don’t know how long I stood there watching them... they weren’t eating or flitting about, just being still ...peaceful.  

Typically we see cardinals, bluejays, chick-a-dees, tufted titmice, sparrows, wrens, juncos and doves in our yard, but I’ve rarely seen two male cardinals in the backyard at the same time, let alone five sitting together.  And, whether you will interpret it as  mere coincidence or a blessing from heaven, the effect is the same.  For it was in that moment that I felt God’s presence and peace of mind. ..and thanked Him abundantly for it.  If you aren't familiar with the songs and call of the cardinal, listen here.

I’m frequently drawn to reading about the saints who held close relationships with animals, such as St. Seraphim of Sarov who had such grace given to him as to receive a taste of blessedness on earth; his affinity with wild creatures is well known in the Orthodox Church.  Or St. Columba, whose close bond with a horse caused the creature to bid him farewell before his death.  St. Kevin (pictured right) also comes to mind as his icon represents the black birds and other creatures that blessed his life.   It is from the stories of the saints that I believe God can and does minister to us through creation.  ...even those of us who are not saints but love Him and seek His face.

For me anyway, it seems that cardinals often carry a measure of His grace as this is not the only occasion that I’ve been so touched by the little red birds.   Praise God for all creation, in whose hand is the breath of every living thing...

*Cardinal photo courtesy of my friend, Clayton Spangler.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Gift

My friend, E.B., was just blogging about her best loved Christmas movies and tunes, which prompted me to share one of my favorites of the season, "The Gift", sung by Aselin Debison. The lyrics by Stephanie Davis are posted below. I love the way Aselin carries this song; her small voice is most fitting to illuminate the essence of this beautiful tale.

A poor orphan girl named Maria
Was walking to market one day
She stopped for to rest by the roadside
Where a bird with a broken wing lay
A few moments passed till she saw it
For its feathers were covered with sand
And soon cleaned and wrapped it was traveling
In the warmth of Maria’s small hand
She happily gave her last peso
On a cage made of rushes and twine
She fed it loose corn from the market
And watched it grow stronger with time
Now the gift-giving service was coming
And the church shone with tinsel and light
And all of the townfolk brought presents
To lay by the manger that night
There where diamonds, incense and perfumes
And packages fit for a king
But for one ragged bird in a small cage
Maria had nothing to bring
She waited till just before midnight
So no one would see her go in
And crying she knelt by the manger
For her gift was unworthy of him
Then a voice spoke to her through the darkness
”Maria, what brings you to me?
If the bird in the cage is your offering
Open the door, let me see”
So she trembled, she did as he asked her
And out of the cage the bird flew
Soaring up into the rafters
On a wing that had healed good as new
Just then the midnight bells rang out
And the little bird started to sing
A song that no words could recapture
For its beauty was fit for a king
Now Maria felt blessed just to listen
To that cascade of notes sweet and long
As her offering was lifted to heaven
By the very first nightingale’s song

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Velvet Steel

Because I am frequently asked about my avatar, pictured left, I thought it might be good to blog about.  When asked why I don’t post a picture of myself for my profile, the short answer is:  

I’m not keen on posting my mug on the internet.

The long answer is:

I’ve been using this symbol of the sword and soft cloth, this artwork by Alan Ayers, for about 5 years now on various internet places as it well represents what I’m about or rather, what I’m striving toward.  

Much earlier than this, I was sitting in a small rural Baptist Church one Sunday morning when the pastor gave a moving sermon in which he used a striking metaphor.  He likened our spiritual growth in Christ as “velvet-steel” and this created a vivid mental image for me, one in which the reality of theosis or some might say, sanctification, is clear.

Velvet-Steel simply means to have the words of God inscribed upon my heart so firmly as to be unwavering, unyielding as steel.  And yet, to be enfolded in gentleness, kindness, peace, love and humility so that those I meet may be inclined to know the sword, the Truth.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Treasures on our bookshelf

The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope From Around the World, translated and edited by Louise Carus is a new treasure on our bookshelf. I was looking round Amazon for a children’s book which told the story of the real St. Nicholas, the 4th century Bishop from Myra, when this eye-catching cover snagged my attention.

The Real St. Nicholas is a beautiful book, with colorful and varied illustrations ranging from black and white photographs of St. Nicholas Church as it looks today in Demre (formerly Myra) Turkey, to 15th century paintings, to familiar icons in the Orthodox Church. The fonts, borders and lay-out design are charming and lend itself to easy navigation among the folk tales and legends translated for the English speaking reader.

Reading this book to children is enjoyable since each tale from around the world is distinct and most are accompanied by its own illustration. The editor’s note, which appears with every narrative, gives the reader a sense of context and also the translator’s personal thoughts; these notes were a nice touch.

I’ve not read every tale yet, but my favorite thus far is The Legend of the Healing Myrrh which begins with a quote from John the Deacon’s Life of Nicholas, circa 880 A.D. :

“Then after most blessed Nicholas had departed from this world to the Lord, the tomb in which his venerable corpse was enclosed never ceased to distill an oleaginous liquid, even to this day. To the spot come multitudes of weak, lame, blind withered, deaf and dumb, and ones who are vexed by unclean spirits. When they are anointed with that holy liquor, they are restored to their original state of health.”

Since we celebrated St. Nicholas’ Feast Day on December 6th, our Sunday bulletin showed an icon of St. Nicholas on the front with a few paragraphs about his life on the back. This, too, alluded to the miraculous liquid, also called manna which was used to anoint the faithful and heal many ills. From our bulletin:

“You may find it interesting to note that in 1954, the crypt of St. Nicholas needed renovation and so it became necessary to exhume the saint’s body from the tomb. When it was time to be re-interred, the linen sheet upon which it had rested was found to be soaking wet - saturated from the manna! ..since 1980, it has been customary on the Feast Day of the Translation of the Relics of St Nicholas to Bari from Myra, for the cathedral clergy to collect the manna in an urn for later distribution to the general public.”

The Real St. Nicholas is well researched and generously offers resource pages including a selected bibliography, suggestions for further reading, sources, and a list of illustrations and credits which I particularly appreciate. This book should be a welcome addition to anyone looking for facts and illustrations pertaining to St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, as well as folk tales and legends surrounding his life.

He is a precious saint, one whose life was marked by faith, kindness and acts of charity and one in which modern Christians -sometimes caught up in the materialism of the season - can identify an anchor, that chief virtue that carries all others: humility.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Death, the Great Equalizer

On Wednesday of this week, my 32-year old cousin died in a car wreck. Today, I went to his funeral and cried alongside many other relatives and friends; probably several hundred. It was the most heartbreaking service I’ve ever attended.

It just isn’t natural for parents to bury their children, the cycle of life dictates the opposite and yet, some parents must face the anguish, this pain that seems to take their very breath away.
Matthew, a handsome young man, left behind two small children, a boy and a girl, loved to make music, was an excellent chef and had an infectious smile. I learned some of that only in the last few days because he was somewhat estranged from my family. I knew he had been on some troubled paths in his short life, but I have a clear memory of the last time I saw him.

It was about 5 years ago that I ran into him at a local grocery store. He surprised me by calling my name and it took a few seconds before I realized who was smiling at me. I hadn’t seen Matthew in over 18 years prior to that. What is more, and what I now see as such a blessing, is that Matthew & I probably talked for 20 or more minutes that day just standing in the aisle at the grocery. He was warm and engaging, happily telling me about going to school to become a chef and about his nephew and how he adored him. I absorbed it all, quietly thankful for such a conversation, so unexpected and so genuine. It was a gift these few minutes.

The service was unique, incorporating words from a pastor as well as live music from a string-band that played old time spirituals such as Amazing Grace and Lay Down and Sleep. We were treated to a special recording of a song that Matthew had been working on before he died. I never knew music was such a big part of his life until today. I think the most poignant moment came toward the end of the service when Michael (Matthew’s twin brother) released a white dove with his son.  

As a photographer who looks at life as a documentary much of the time, if I would have captured anything to illustrate the essence of it all, it would have been Michael holding that dove in the middle of the cemetery. The pastor explained to the quiet crowd that the dove was to symbolize Matthew’s spirit being released to God. As Michael lovingly held that bird, he moved it near his son so that he might give it a kiss on the head...and then he paused and sunk to his knees. I wondered if he could let go...

But then a beautiful thing happened and it’s partly why I am committing this to script. I don’t want to forget watching that dove fly away. It was so cold today, with temperatures in the low 30’s, yet thankfully, the winter sun lent a small warmth to a patchy blue sky. I watched the dove soar into the air, making an arc to the right and then circle left as if to allow all the guests view. There was a striking moment when the dove was in front of the sun and clouds and as I watched, two rainbows were evident on either side of the bird. It was that sliver of colors that you often see through the transparency of clouds. They held my gaze for a time and then, turning to see the dove fly east and out of sight I noticed the crowd dispersing and moving toward their cars. I searched for my sister and stole a quick glance at the sky with the patch of colors; now there was only one rainbow to discern.

For anyone reading thus far, thank you. I ask your prayers for my dear Aunt Judy, Matthew’s mother. It breaks my heart to see her so distraught. Hugging her today, I had no words...and she could only groan in anguish. Thankfully, her eldest son seemed to be her greatest strength today, he held her up, physically and emotionally, to greet the vast number of guests. If anything I would like to share with my readers tonight it is this:

Death is the great equalizer, it comes to us all. 

If we lived in such a way as to have sight of this every single day, how may it affect our choices..? When death comes, all our petty arguments and grudges pale. Be reconciled to one another. Don’t make your parting words with a loved one those of anger or accusation. Do your part in making things right in a broken relationship. Forgive, ...even when they don’t ask. Be patient with those you love, quiet and listen. Seek to comfort above being comforted.

And, one more thing that was driven home to me today. We mean so well when we say it, but I am making a conscious effort to stop saying “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you” during times of heartache. Never has anyone taken me up on that. I think it’s far better to figure out something you can do to share peace,  friendship and the love of God and then, DO IT.

Thank you for your prayers; blessings to all of you.

* Photo is from Decorative Wall Crosses

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