Sunday, February 21, 2010

Writing an Icon for the Second Time: The Good Shepherd

Once again I was privileged to take a retreat workshop with iconographer Teresa Harrison,
This time the subject was the Good Shepherd. You may see the photos here: Please click on the set with the same name as this blog entry.

That I took this class is amazing. For the past few months, there was an urging to email Teresa to find out when the next class was. My daily alloted computer time would come and go and I would every day forget to email her. Then the urging became ever more urgent and I finally remembered to email her on Wed, Feb 10, 2010 to learn the next day that the next retreat was starting on Mon, Feb 15!

The next issue was one of money and how much could I pay and would my parish priest and rector, Fr. Michael Russell, feel like he wanted to pay the rest. He told his wife, Kathleen, in my presence that I have a gift he believes is worth investing in. Frankly I am astounded by the degree of support and encouragement he offers. Growing up in my family, or later with the dysfunctional people I sought as friends, I am entirely unaccustomed to praise and encouragement. It takes some getting used to. Much of my prayers lately have been "Lord, what is going on here with this icon thing? Are You seriously proposing that I become an iconographer?" Evidently He intends this.

I managed to get a $50 discount on the class by offering to bring all of my own supplies which meant that I used a clay board instead of one of Teresa's prepared wooden boards. I think this was a mistake as I learned I preferred to us the wood. That's one lesson learned.

The second lesson was my realization how significantly less anxious I was about this second class. God had used me once to write an icon and I approached this class confident that our faithful Lord would again use me as His instrument.

The third lesson was to realize how obnoxiously I had behaved in the first class as a result of my inability to contain and control my anxiety. Although I have made quite the fuss about switching psychologists due to changes in Medi-Cal and as distressed I have been about having a man as my therapist, I must give Dr. Hodges his due. He is teaching me a lot and already I could see differences in my approach to these total strangers. Not all of them were. There were 3 other students who had been in my first class. And even though I believed I acted like a brat in that first class, Teresa welcomed me graciously and commented that she knew I love this work as much as she. We all have to learn humility somehow and God will make every effort to teach us.

An experience I prized from the first retreat was the sense of sinking into the work, losing sense of self to feel as if I was elsewhere while Someone Else moved my hands. I don't know if the English language really has the words, but I know several times as I worked on the Good Shepherd I was somewhere else and some unknown something would recall me to attention and I would see what my hands had done without my conscious awareness of it.

This sense of being elsewhere was sharpened by an event that occurred around 10AM on Wed morning. I don't want to go all drama queen on you, but I believe I died that morning and God brought me back to life through the intense fervor of the prayers of my classmates and teacher.

Here's what happened. Every morning after an 8:30AM Eucharist (and what a deep delight it is to receive every day) we met for a time to discuss how the time was going and to share any significant insights. At the end of this time, we would prayer the iconographer's prayer, stop in the kitchen for the beverage of choice (tea for me, please) and return to the classroom to work. I realized that I had left my folder with my template in the kitchen and quietly left the classroom to get it. While in the kitchen, I took a small piece of blueberry muffin, chewed and swallowed and swallowed and swallowed until I realized it was stuck and I could not breath. Dashing into the classroom as fast as my handicapped body would move, I terrified Teresa by putting my hands against my throat to pantomime choking and below my breasts to pantomime that I needed the Heimlich maneuver. Rick attempted to do it but could not and as I sank to the floor with death approaching, I said to Jesus "Ok, Lord. Take me if it's time but please send someone to care for my mother." Mom is 85, not in good health and I am her sole care giver.

What happened next is indescribable. All care, concern and fear left me. I was cradled in warmth and love all around me and even within me. It was wonderful. I guess that was the state of bliss and although I was not particular aware any longer of self, it was that which I have wanted more than anything in my life and it took being dead to get it. All my life I have not been too worried about being dead because I knew that would be wonderful but the means of getting dead are more than a little intimidating. The reality of being dead was more wonderful than I ever imagined.

Very gradually I became aware of an annoyance distracting me in an unwelcome manner from the warmth and light. It was a paramedic asking me my name. I don't remember this next bit, but my classmates relished telling me this over and over and over and over. I am told I told the paramedic my name is Gloriamarie and he said "Ok, Gloria" and I said "No, it's Gloriamarie." While I was senseless of saying such, I could feel relief whoosh through the room like a mighty wind. It was my classmates' realization that I was going to be all right. It seemed to me to take forever before I was fully aware of where I was. But throughout it, I felt warmth and love cradling me and eventually I realized that Rick was holding me and ever so gently rubbing my back in a circular manner. I knew that at some point it had been Jesus and not Rick, or maybe Jesus used Rick's body for a bit.

It took the rest of the day for me to fully recover. I continued with the class, working on the icon. I have no idea what part I was working on or what notes I took during demonstrations. I really felt half way between there and here and except for worries that my mother would be left all alone, I would have happily gone back to where I had been.

At noon that day we went to the church for the Ash Wednesday service. My legs weren't working really well and I sat in the last pew and Fr Edward (Teresa's husband and priest/rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Coronado, CA) had to come to me to give me ashes. Nothing can be more poignant than receiving ashes with the reminder that we are from dust and to dust we shall return on the day one has died and been brought back to life through prayer. The dust seems a lot closer than ever before.

When I awoke the next morning, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that God meant me to live, to care for my mother and to write icons. So many disparate parts of my life are coming together to form a whole... the fact that art was my first major in college, that I have messed about with paints, colored pencils, crayons since forever, been drawn to and delighted in icons and religious art whenever they crossed my path, my vocation to the religious life... all these form a whole, a purpose, an identity, a calling. I had been so scared of my life losing all purpose when mom passes away but that fear is relieved and the solution offered.

During the coffee hour this morning, Fr Mike sat down for a long look at the icon. He talked about his plans to photograph the icons, reproduce them onto masonite and sell them as one of the ways our church raises money to care for the 1900 AIDS orphans in Nairobi, the Mother's Union who are taught ways to become self-sufficient, the children in Tijuana, Mexico and the Peninsula Shepherd Center, an outreach to the elderly and housebound of the Point Loma neighborhood where is our parish. He spoke of special equipment he needed. We talked about which icons to write next and how St. Francis Day was approaching.

Then I very tentatively mentioned the Pecos School of Iconography
which I had just discovered yesterday. The tuition fee is $2100 and on top there is transportation costs from San Diego to Albuquerque and from Albuquerque to Santa Fe and from Santa Fe to the Abbey. I am none too good in math, so please forgive me if my estimate is way off, but I shouldn't wonder if the entire cost would end up around $3000, what with also having a bit of spending money for an unforeseen needs that might arise. To me, such an amount of money is about as possible to find as would be expecting to get the moon if I asked for it.

Already my mind is full of the work God has in store for me. Fr Mike is giving me an office in the church office building to use as a studio, the church is paying for paints, supplies everything. All I need to do is show up and work. I beseech your prayers. The doors could not open any wider or any faster. God is calling and my response is "Here I am, Lord. Let it be done to me according to Your will."

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Have Faith in Love

February 8, 2010
Have Faith in Love
Beverly Hills, Calif.

THE election, two months ago, of the Rev. Mary Glasspool, a priest who has been in a committed relationship with another woman for more than 20 years, as a suffragan (assistant) bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, has brought added turmoil to the Episcopal Church in the United States and to the worldwide Anglican Communion. There has been sporadic schism since the regular ordination of women as priests in 1977 and especially since the election of the Rev. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. He is the first openly gay bishop in the history of those Christian bishops — Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Greek and Russian Orthodox among them — who trace their succession back to the apostles.

In protest, several dozen parishes have aligned themselves with conservative Anglican bishops in Africa, and the Roman Catholic Church has offered to take in disaffected Episcopalians. In 2008, the leadership of the Anglican Communion, to which the American church belongs, tried to keep things together by urging the Americans not to elect other openly gay people as bishops until the Communion could establish more common ground. The Los Angeles electors’ choice of a gay woman as bishop has pushed the denominational envelope to the point of tearing.

The Glasspool election and its ensuing uproar make me realize how much has changed since 1976, when my father, who came to the Los Angeles diocese as a priest in 1947, died. About the biggest controversy within the church during most of his ministry was over proposed revisions to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

At that time, marriage was strictly Adam and Eve. Gays were closeted, whether they were in the congregation or the male-only priesthood. Until 1971, when women were first ordained as deacons, the highest post a woman could attain was member of the vestry, the elected group that manages parish business. But even that was uncommon; usually the highest ranking woman in the parish was the leader of the altar guild, which arranges the flowers in the church, sets up the Eucharistic vessels and washes and irons the linens used in the service. Women could not be priests because — according to the reasoning that had held for two millenniums — none of the apostles was a woman. This made as much sense as saying that, as none of the apostles was a scholar, scholars could not be priests, or that because all the apostles were Jews, only Jews could be ordained.

In 1977, I interviewed one of the controversial new priests, the Rev. Carol Anderson, for an Esquire article, and thought she was simply marvelous. Twelve years later, as either coincidence or a wave of the hand of God, she arrived as the new rector of my now nominal parish, All Saints’ in Beverly Hills, and we have become great friends. Oh, and now the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori.

These changes did not come until I was in my 30s. I had always been deeply devout, an altar boy from age 6, a regular at church camp and then on its summer staff, and the vice president and then the president of our diocese’s Episcopal Young Churchmen. I attended Hobart College, in Geneva, N.Y., which is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, my tuition paid in part by a clergy scholarship. Until well into my 20s, I gave regular consideration to becoming a priest myself.

I had a good model in my father, a man of immense humor who understood the frailties of humanity and who annually challenged his faith by reading agnostics from Thomas Huxley to George Bernard Shaw. He was a solid defender of Anglican orthodoxy and the guidance of the New Testament, but he also believed that every bit of Christian teaching could be summed up in three words: God is love. “The miracles,” he once told me, “are window dressing.”

Love. Treat others as you would have them treat you. If you feel you are a child of God, then honor your common and equal status with others as children of God. Except (and there are always exceptions with sibling rivalry) if they are women and therefore not qualified to perform the holiest sacraments of the church. Except if two members of the same sex engage in long, committed and faithful love; God may be love, but this love is ungodly.
Just look, some vigilant Christians say, at the “clear teaching” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (“Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”); in 1 Timothy 1:9-11 (“The law is laid down ... for the unholy and profane ... for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God.”); and especially in Romans 1:26b-27 (“Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”)

I know that this will offend some Christians, but the notion that Scripture is perfectly clear is wishful thinking, as a recent white paper prepared by the All Saints’ clergy demonstrates. The writers of the four Gospels don’t agree on even so simple a thing as which people were present at Christ’s empty tomb. Considering that, over the centuries, the Bible has been translated into and out of multiple languages, it only makes sense to consider the context of what’s written rather than believe that every word is literal divine revelation. In rebuttal to the notion of a clear teaching of Scripture, the evangelical author and speaker Tony Campolo has said that “sodomites” is a word of dubious translation. “Nobody knows what the word means,” he said. “Interestingly enough, up until the 14th century it was translated as masturbation.”

Timothy’s reference to sodomites, for its part, is in the context of boys who were castrated to maintain their feminine and childlike characteristics and then exploited for sex — a far cry from two consenting adults of the same sex consummating their committed love.

Today, there is much reference to the supposed Christian teaching that marriage is a sacrament between one man and one woman, but it was not until the 12th century that marriage became a sacrament in the Western church.
Sex, though, has always been a particularly Christian problem. Orthodox Jews are commanded to marry, but the early Christians found celibacy a high calling. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7 that he wished all Christians could stay single and celibate, as he had. He knew, however, that not everyone could and so he adds, “But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

Less quoted than Paul’s advice that it is better to marry than to be engulfed by desire is what he says earlier in the passage: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” One having one kind of gift and another a different kind is a pretty good definition of humanity in all our variety, and to me this passage expands the heart of what it means when two people, gay or straight, commit themselves to each other in the sight of a God who understands human differences.

A central tenet of Christianity is that all of us are born into sin. Then, as we grow older, we decide that some of our equals sin more than others, and in far worse ways than we do ourselves. We divine the word of God to mean that the acts we don’t like of others — what they eat, how they pray, whom they fall in love with — are an abomination in his sight, as if we can presume to decide in our own way what pleases God, and therefore what acts should be excluded and whom we can judge and damn in his name.

Exclusion always seems to become part of some people’s faith, though often over time what was excluded becomes accepted, only to be replaced by another ban: People of one denomination can’t marry those in another; people of one color cannot marry those of another.

Among my father’s parishioners in the 1950s were two men in their late 40s who came every Sunday to the 7:30 a.m. communion service and who shared a house. My parents referred to them as “confirmed bachelors,” code words for the love that dare not speak its name. They were kind and gentle men, who to even a 10-year-old obviously had some sort of special and personal bond. I am certain that they were in a loving and committed relationship that the church would then not recognize or bless, but as long as the fiction of their just being two people who happened to live together was maintained, they would continue to be accepted and valued members of the congregation. Which, of course, was well meaning but also hypocritical. Now, a multitude of parishes across the country would openly welcome the couple.

My own faith has eroded over the years, though my father’s belief in the supremacy of love still guides me. And so I can’t help but wonder, how can Christians not recognize and honor love that binds two people, any two people, together unto themselves? And if a priest has fulfilled her sacred duties with the distinction that persuades those to whom she would minister to elect her their bishop, and has led an open life of committed love that honors the essence of their God, why should her choice of a partner matter?

Eric Lax is the author of the forthcoming “Faith, Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey.”

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