Archive for May, 2013

CPE Journal #3: May 25th

I was sick for much of this week and so yesterday was my only day of visits. I saw a bunch of people but only really has conversations with four of them. One of them was the patient from my last entry, who was in much better spirits this time around, and smiled a little, but still had an aura of sadness. It’s not surprising, considering the nature of the surgery – it was a major life change. I also had the great honour of being asked to speak to some medical students from Kwantlen about what the Pastoral Care Services team did. They were just great and had wonderful questions. I was fascinated by the demographics – out of about eight there was only one man and one Caucasian (they were not the same person, heh heh).

I am uncertain sometimes about how I am to be with people, at least in a care situation. Sometimes I defer and go back to my broad liberal expansiveness, using my non-committal Crisis Line demeanour. I think I need to be more than this but hold onto the non-judgemental and promiscuously loving atmosphere! With the first person I saw, I felt like I had become a priest, but I also felt like I acted inappropriately at times by being too direct or intrusive. I worry about looking patronizing in my verbatim, and yet the patient seemed to respond positively.

I can’t help but wonder if my desire was just the inner authority/majesty of God shining through. I went in expecting to meet Jesus, and I did. But maybe the patient did too! Why in my mind is it “okay” for me to see Jesus in the patient’s countenance, but somehow not okay to consider the possibility that this person might have seen Jesus in mine?


CPE Journal #2: May 17th

I had my first walk through the unit and met with my mentor today. All of that was about as expected – my mentor is wonderful, a perfect Romanian mystic.

Then I was done and headed downstairs, wondering what to do with myself, so I started scrolling through the patient list on my unit when my first referral came in. I checked the patient list and then went on up to find someone waiting for me to give me the run-down. The patient had just undergone some major and rather traumatic surgery and was in some distress. This patient had some conditions that required me to wear a gown. I asked about gloves, and they said it was up to me. I told them I thought I should like to touch the patient, so they told me to do so. I put those on and went in. It was a little weird to do that.

Being with this person reminded me a lot of being on the Crisis Line, but it was far more beautiful than that. Instead of a voice on the other end of the line, there was a living breathing person there in front me – and in this case weeping. My hands were held, squeezed, and kissed.

This patient had to be the strongest, most faithful person I had ever met. Although the weeping and yelling were almost constant, this person’s faith never wavered – the only desire was to be closer to God. We prayed together – “More prayers, please, more prayers,” was a refrain – and we sang songs together.

It was such a great gift.


CPE Journal #1: May 16th

My first week is almost over and I’ve already been to one viewing. It was odd how at the time it didn’t have a huge effect but I became aware and weird about it later. On my way to Christ Church Cathedral that night I found myself listening to “My Boy Builds Coffins” on repeat, unable to shake the face from my mind, or the feeling you get in a morgue – the heaviness of those bodies like cinderblocks on your brain. I wondered briefly what the damn point was, and how we are all dust.

The next morning, as I sat on the bus, I noticed a little girl, maybe 9 or 10, and an older man – maybe in his late 40s. She had a paper fortune teller in her hand, and he was pointing to the folds he wanted her to open. She played with it with one hand, because she was holding his other hand.

I thanked God for that sight, as she leaned against him clearly feeling perfectly safe. I must have written God’s answer to my earlier sadness in three different places in my book: LOVE IS THE ANSWER.”

“Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be quick to love, and make haste to be kind.” -Henri-Frederic Amiel


CPE: The First Week

PHEW! This week has been a doozy and it’s not even over yet!

It was my first week of CPE this week, and tomorrow is my first day on my unit. I’m so excited but a little nervous as well! It’s going to be a bit chaotic – one of my learning goals is to develop a non-anxious presence – but I’m sure I’m in good hands. I’m really excited to meet my mentor, a Romanian Orthodox priest who has like twenty of his own gorgeous paintings festooned all over his office.

This week was long and intensive, but helpful. We actually witnessed a viewing on Tuesday, and were taught how to prepare a body for a viewing. Being in a morgue is a very strange thing. The shapes under the sheets are recognizably human, but they are so very still. My brain ended up playing weird tricks on me, because it wasn’t used to seeing such human forms being so still. I knew on a primal level that they were more than objects or dolls – somehow the brain understood that they were people, but they were all wrong somehow. It was like having cinderblocks on my brain – I could turn my head but feel their presence there behind me or beside me – heavy and sombre.

Preparing a body for a hospital viewing is also a bizarre experience. Although, again, it was clearly a person, I actually had no problem seeing the face. Somehow it was so much more horrible to see the bag being unzipped and that quick flash of yellow, loose skin. Once the face was visible, it wasn’t that bad. It was only the second body I had ever seen. Some time ago I had played at an open casket funeral, but it was obviously quite different. That person had been made-up, dressed in nice clothes, and surrounded by flowers. She looked like a doll, maybe even like she was just sleeping. The mortician had done a good job. Here in the morgue, of course, there was no glamour, no softness, no pretending death was anything but inevitable. We had no makeup, no flowers, no nice clothes. Our supervisor draped a blanket over the body, propped the head up with a towel or two, and gave the hair a quick comb. He tried to close the mouth, which hung open – the person was elderly and had no teeth left. It wouldn’t work, which was unfortunate – the person really didn’t look as peaceful as we would have liked. There was nothing to do about it, though.

Once the body was prepared, the sheet was draped over the face and the cart rolled into the viewing room. We went up to meet the spouse, who was with a couple of social workers. We all went down to the viewing room together, and our supervisor gently pulled the sheet back.

As the spouse wept, everything suddenly changed. It was no longer a body, but a person – a beloved, a spouse, a child. We all got quite teary-eyed. It was incredibly moving. Even now I get teary-eyed thinking about it, whereas when I was writing about the preparation, once again I found myself simply recording what I saw. Every minute was very holy – the preparation included.

So before I write about my first time on the unit, I’ll let you know one of my learning goals, which is self-reflection. To do this, I’ll be keeping a journal, and I decided to share some of what I write on this blog. I will likely not share everything I write, and all personal information about my classmates and the people I visit or minister to will be kept to a minimum with no identifying information given. If names are included, they are changed. The journal is more for tracking my own growth.

So if you’re interested in taking CPE, read through any of the marked entries and see if it’s right for you, or give me a buzz! I fully expect it to be one of the most profound experiences of my life and education.


“Love’s Divine” (Sermon – Easter 6, 2012)

I haven’t posted any of my other sermons here yet! This is actually from last year’s Easter 6, but it’s still about the Farewell Discourse so it kind of works, even though we read from Chapter 17 today, not 15.


Director James Cameron, during an interview with National Geographic, described his journey to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean in the following words: “So here I am in the most remote place on planet earth, that’s taken all this time and energy and technology to reach, and I feel like the most solitary human being on the planet: completely cut off from humanity, no chance of rescue, in a place that no human eyes have ever seen. And my wife calls me. Which of course was very sweet, but let that be a lesson to all men: you think you can get away, but you cannot.”

This sounds funny to us, but let’s maybe take a moment to ponder this. Down, down, down, into the abyss we dive – an abyss that is likely familiar to many of us, an abyss with many names. The depths are no longer blue but black. The pressure is excruciating. There is no light or warmth – nothing that can sustain us but metaphorical “marine snow” that drifts down with agonizing slowness, long dead by the time it reaches us. In these depths there is little life. It’s barren sand as far as you can see – not that you can see. It’s silent. It might as well be nothing.

But still, you hear a voice. It’s a voice you know so well that your heart flashes briefly, like the last few seconds in the life of a lightbulb. The voice calls you by name. You think you can get away, but you cannot.

This is the nature of God’s love. If it frightens you, you’re doing it right. For us Cascadians, it might help to picture a mother Grizzly bear. This is a terrifying love – terrifying in its ferocity not against us, but against whatever seeks to limit or enslave life and light.

Now when we think of love in church, we might think of 1 Corinthians 13 (so popular at weddings), or “Jesus loves me.” Like last week’s sheep, it appears warm and fuzzy at first glance. And who’s to say that sometimes it isn’t? Check out those Hallmark Christmas cards with a pink-cheeked baby Jesus snuggled up in the hay, or blonde Jesus on the meadow with us, his fluffy white sheep. We’ve all felt that, I’m sure. But friends, it is so much more.

Chapter 15 of John, which we read from today, gives us a taste of this. Although we are in Eastertide now, this reading rewinds us a little bit. Chapter 15 is part of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” to his disciples – whom we learn today are no longer servants but friends, or “those who are loved.” This speech is spread out over several chapters, and its structure is like a sandwich, with Chapters 14 and 16 echoing each other to really highlight the importance – the meat – of Chapter 15. There are three very important issues at play in this chapter that I would like to draw attention to.

The first is that verses 9-17, which we read today, occur immediately after “I am the vine.” The community is given a metaphor which they should emulate. They are to be branches of the vine, bearing fruit for the vine-grower. Jesus gives them a clear idea of how they should look as a community after he is gone and what their relationship with him and God should be.

Second, Chapter 15 gives the disciples fairly clear instructions on how they will act once Jesus has returned to the Father. They are given a new commandment: to love one another, as Jesus has loved them. They are even told what the greatest love looks like: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This is the new “Prime Directive” of the community.

Third, perhaps most important, is that this entire discourse, in a masterful piece of storytelling that lovers of John will recognize, happens at night. Ring your bells. And what’s more, Judas is not present at this point in the discourse. He is, at that moment, betraying Jesus to the religious authorities. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

This is a love that is beyond all fear. This is a love that the Rev’d Dr. Ellen Clark-King once referred to as “promiscuous.” I would push further and say this is a love that might even be a little reckless. It’s the love that the Sufi mystic Rabi’a spoke of as she walked the streets with a torch in one hand and a pail of water in the other in hopes of “put[ting] fire to paradise and pour[ing] water over hell so that these two veils disappear and it becomes plain who venerates God for love and not for fear of hell or hope for paradise.”  This love is impossible to escape. The darkness has no power in the inferno of this love. We know this because even at what we might dare to call God’s darkest hour, the light is shining – and speaking love.

Now, for many of us that call ourselves Christians today, these are good tidings. They might not be good news though. After all, if we’re here together now singing these songs and wishing each other peace and sharing this food, this isn’t news to us: we likely know at least something of this love. We might explain to a curious friend that it is out of this love that we are here today. But today, in a less than churchy world, we all know being church is about more than showing up on Sunday to this beautiful building and hugging our beautiful friends. I don’t know about you, but that makes me think, “Oh boy! There’s more?” There’s more than we can ask or imagine!

But what is it? How do we even respond to a love that lays down its life for its friends, or a love that shines in the darkness and is not overcome, a love that obeys the commandments of the beloved for joy instead of fear, a love that has done marvelous things, a love that will not withhold the water of baptism? Again – if this frightens you, or simply casts the great shadow of awe over you, you’re doing it right.

What will our response be? One person’s experience of God is as riotously different and individual as the call. Some hear a gentle “Follow me” and simply leave their fishing nets behind, walking without any fear into a radically new life. Some are met unexpectedly with joy – “I saw you under the fig tree!” Parishes too have different experiences and expressions of the Beloved. However we meet the Beloved on the road, remember: all of us will see greater things even than these. We will witness a love that breaks like the dawn, and we will be called – and empowered – to do the same. Again: how? If I may paraphrase our beloved: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” Ring your bells for ‘abide.’ It’s a word that signifies the presence of the luminous Beloved – Jesus “abides” with his friends for two days, just as Peter abides with the newly baptized, and the love of God abides with John’s community and with us. The commandments are to love one another as Jesus loves us. Of course that’s a tall order! But remember Jesus promises us the Holy Spirit to give us a hand. We don’t have to do it alone – and thank God for that, for if we did, we might burst into flame.

Now, we need to be honest with John for a moment. Writing in a time of great struggle for identity, the love he spoke of was in his mind to be proclaimed and lived only among the Johannine community. In the lectionary we skip the moments in the Farewell Discourse where Jesus tells the disciples they need to love each other because the world will hate them. It’s an attitude that, taken to extremes, can mire us in close-minded Fundamentalism. We are absolutely welcome and encouraged to remember that the first people we told about the Resurrection were our brothers and sisters in Christ – the disciples. I think today it’s more important than ever to remind each other that Jesus is risen – the light is shining and the darkness has not overcome it, even as we run out of money or don’t get along or quarrel over doctrine or properties. We need to remember to love each other as Jesus loved us. But this love is much too big to remain in these walls. Love sinks into the abyss and rises into space. But if we remember how quiet the voice can be in the abyss, then we are bound to spread the news of this rather scary love. The most beautiful part of this whole concept for me is that we never learn why we are loved! All we learn is that Jesus chose us – the world – to be loved. It is in this love that we have life.

For, if my favourite singer-songwriter Seal and you will permit me: “I need love. Love’s divine. Please forgive me now; I see that I’ve been blind. I need love – love is what I need to help me know my name.”



Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Lana Del Rey. I’m really not sure how I feel about her. I mean – I am sure about the feelings I get when listening to her music, but I’m not sure about how I feel about them!

I was trying to explain to my husband the other day what happens to me when I listen to music that affects me emotionally. Since I was a little girl I would create landscapes and atmospheres in my mind based on what I was listening to. The first time I remember doing it, I could have been as young as four or five. Mum and I were listening to the absolutely stunning score for the movie The Mission. I think it’s still my favourite movie score ever. I can remember crafting an entire narrative with unicorns, evil serpents, something like a Roc – all taking place in a backdrop which, when I watched the film years later, was not entirely dissimilar. That was not particularly shocking – there were indigenous musical patterns and drums underlying the whole thing – although I did find that years later, the first time I heard Bjork’s “Joga,” the landscape I saw in my head was almost exactly what I saw the first time I saw the accompanying music video, which was a bit shocking!

Since then I’ve continued to have these flights of fancy when I listened to certain songs. I’m sure I’m not at all alone in this. This is part of why when I discover a new song I often listen to it over and over again. I love exploring a new country in my mind, and getting to know every part of it.

Although there are too many songs over the years to remember which ones really affected me, some of them do stand out, either single pieces or whole albums. The first pop song to do it was probably Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.” I can’t exactly remember what I first saw, but when I listen now I can see a lighthouse, almost lost in billowing white mist and a grey sea. Later song-countries I can remember quite vividly are the green sky and crashing ocean of Celine Dion’s “Miles to Go,” dark blue moonlit and shadowy forest in Sarah Mclachlan’s “Elsewhere,” the early Romantic-era garden in Loreena McKennit’s “Courtyard Lullabye,” the dark bedroom in Jann Arden’s “In Your Keeping,” and the grey shifting shadows and painfully white bathroom in Live’s “Lakini’s Juice.”

Today, I’ve noticed a trend in the music of young female singer-songwriters like Florence Welch and Lana Del Rey. I feel that they are tapping into something that similar artists from  years past tried before, but are adding more layers – either with reverb, orchestral scoring, or electronic, driving drum beats – creating vast cathedral-like spaces. I could spend hours wandering in these spaces. I never get tired of Florence’s music in particular, especially on her album Ceremonials. I loved Between Two Lungs, especially for “Cosmic Love,” which transported me to similarly dark forests, laid over with red and orange and twinkling lights. I find her music videos are similar to what I see – they’re both fanciful and dark. Ceremonials, though, was an entirely different experience. “Only if for a Night” was amazing – nighttime outside a place that looked quite similar to Ely Cathedral, only lit up from inside by something unseen. Like Florence’s narrator I danced on the green grass outside under the stars. My favourite track off that album, though, is “Never Let Me Go.” I lay beneath a great blue ocean, all alone on a sandy bottom, watching knives of moonlight cutting through to paint my face. I also listen to “Over the Love” on a loop, seeing a long dark room in a mansion at night, lit only by the light coming in from outside, some of which is white but a tiny portion of which is green, of course. (It’s off the Great Gatsby soundtrack).

Shortly after Ceremonials came out, I was visiting my friend and she showed me the video for “Blue Jeans.” I thought it was one of the most gorgeous videos I’d ever seen (I adore music videos) and although I briefly forgot about it, I re-discovered Lana Del Rey after hearing her sing “Cola.” I started exploring her a bit more, and found that her Hollywood influences – what makes her music sound so expansive – affected me in a similar way to Florence. The first song that really took me somewhere was “Gods and Monsters,” which I listened to over and over. I see a vast red and black landscape of treacherous peaks, kind of like Utah or New Mexico, unfolding before me. There’s nothing there – it’s barren but somehow beautiful and tempting. And now I’ve discovered “Young and Beautiful,” which has yet to carve a place in my head.

All of this is by way of saying that my feelings for Lana Del Rey are odd, mostly because I love her music so damn much and yet I’m not sure how I feel about her lyrics, which are often a bit weird and unsettling to me. I really am not the kind of person who can just ignore lyrics or something that bothers me about music. I’m picky that way – there are some bands or singers whose tunes I love but whose lyrics are just awful, and I actually feel a sort of guilt listening to them. I also feel guilt sometimes when I listen to an artist who I think is personally odious or a jackass. I don’t find Lana to be odious, but I do find her personally to be vacuous and pretentious. I know part of it comes from a persona she is cultivating, but it doesn’t seem to really work. It’s definitely not as meticulously crafted as other artists’ personae.

I’ve been playing with the idea that for me perhaps Lana represents the sort of thoughts that all of us court but may not always allow to the surface. In her song “Young and Beautiful,” for example, she asks, “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” This bugs me – do we ever become unbeautiful when we become old? My inner feminist shrieks, “No! And anyone who says you’re not should be thrown out on his ear.” And yet I’m not naive enough to pretend people don’t worry about it sometimes, or indeed that I don’t! We all wonder about that day when we look in the mirror and don’t know who we are anymore. To be fair to Lana as well, she follows it up with “I know you will.”

Likewise, in “Gods and Monsters,” she sings from the point of view of someone who seems incredibly reckless, wanting to be saved by a man and shot full of drugs, wanting “innocence lost.” Again – a bit of an odious message for me…and yet I can’t pretend honestly that I’ve never sought out that part that wanted that last veil ripped away roughly. I think it’s part of our psyche.

Maybe, then, Lana sings to “the darker part.” I gotta have someone singing to it.


PS Although Florence’s music has definitely brought me close to God at times, I find the one composer that makes me see God without fail is Lauridsen – particularly his “O Magnum Mysterium” and “O Nata Lux,” both of which I listen to at Christmastime to reflect on the Incarnation. -C

Graduates = Seeds for the Spirit

935585_496583683729304_1122958984_nA whole pile of my friends graduated last night, and it was a great pleasure to be there…even though at one point, I thought, “I should be sitting over there.”

It was right when the inimitable Rev. Dr. Pat Dutcher-Walls was reading from Genesis 1 in Hebrew. I was already messed up from the absolutely amazing experience of playing “Testify to Love” and the whole church getting up and clapping and singing along with us. Hearing what I heard on my first ever day at VST as a shy and nervous first-year was too much – especially when Pat choked up just briefly at the end! But of course, I was glad too, because I’m not quite ready to leave yet – not emotionally. I couldn’t have done the work that needed to be done for me to graduate this year – I wasn’t willing to take three summer courses last year (I was kind of getting married) OR five courses in one of my previous two semesters. I also need to know more about what’s going to happen to me. I’m not sure about how much longer my discernment group has to decide about me, but I can’t imagine it will be later than August. Then I’ll know if I’m going on to Examining Chaplains and the Executive Archdeacon. I know I won’t be going to ACPO until at least this time next year – with some of my friends! It’ll be awesome if I make it through.

As I listened to Archbishop John Privett’s awesome address about seeds, I reflected on the song I wrote at the beginning of this year, which was also called “Seeds.” I often forget about it and haven’t played it in a very long time. That should probably change.

As we rose to applaud and thank Wendy for a wonderful six years of leadership, I also thought about her amazing hospitality in letting me come in and sit down to talk with her the other week in her office, when all I meant to do was say hello. Her presence this year has been such a balm to me, especially during the Tuesday Eucharists. There would usually only be three or four of us at those services, and as she preached to us, she would take care to look everyone in the eye – and not just a glance, but a full on look that would last several seconds. There was only one day when I couldn’t look back at her, and that was one of those days where the whole world was grey and I was stuck at the foot of the Cross, wondering how it could be possible to talk about Easter morning. Of course, she always preached the good news, but good news never comes without a price.

It’s ours to pay, but I’m glad to pay it – because in God through Christ the price is transformed. Our lonely burden of pain becomes a shared burden. God carried hatred, betrayal, pain, and death in God’s own tender flesh.

The first real song I intentionally wrote about God reflects this: in a wood that is decimated by fire, new shoots grow out of the ash. It is only through the fire’s cleansing that they can grow so rapidly. “Out of death, into life.” God knows the feel of the flame, and in Pentecost, which is approaching, we are given some of that new fire. Somehow we are given back the sweet pain that God experienced as we struggle to bring the world the truth of the kin(g)dom: that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had become old are being made new. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

So con-grad-ulations (ugh, sorry!) to all of my friends who graduated. I’m pullin’ for ya. And I’ll be up there next year – and next year it’ll be in an Anglican Church, likely my own.



The Face of the Word: The Christ-Icon Yesterday and Today

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Hundreds of years ago, a face was painted on a board. It is highly unlikely that the artist could have guessed I would be contemplating it as a young woman in the twenty-first century not once, but twice, in the hopes of copying it as a novice iconographer. My first attempt, done during a very stressful period of my life, was both beautiful and heartbreaking. The icon itself, though it has stayed the same year after year, has changed so much in my own eyes.

The icon is the Holy Mandylion. Christ’s dark face stares up from a circle of gold. My first time was done in acrylic on a very simple canvas, layered over with clear varnish. It was consecrated on Palm Sunday, 2008. The process had been amazing for me, and so during the summer of 2011 I undertook an icon class to paint the beloved face again. Before we actually laid our natural pigments to the board, however, we participated in a group meditation on our blank boards. What came to me was so profound I sought to look deeper.

This paper seeks to understand the significance of the meditation I had on the blank board, using both the tools of my own mind, and those provided to me by a study of iconography and its history.

I began with the injunction to pray for those who had upset me and forgive them. The professor also encouraged us to keep in mind creation, and the beautiful stories of Genesis. The meditation came to me very quickly, and I have transcribed it as best I could here.

I feel immediately connected. I am filled with light, and everyone who has ever angered me is lifted up. I embrace them.

I come to the board but it is not Genesis. It is John’s Prologue: In the beginning was the Word. The tiny bumps on the board are like stars in a clear sky. It is the darkness which cannot be overcome. He is my light. I pour life into this board: blood of light. I bleed life into the board: God tears at my heart and dances me into kenosis.

The board seems to move. I find I want to close my eyes. I’m not a very visual person when I pray…but I want to be. I am always overstimulated by images – they have so much power over me. If I can meet God with eyes open and not be burned away I may understand that…I don’t know. How can white become gold? How can light be more than light? Light is light but it is infused.

At this point in the meditation I tried to turn my focus onto the print we were given of the Holy Face. After the pure whiteness of the board, however, the darkness, richness and deep colours of the Face were almost unbearable. I was reminded of Moses and his veil as he came down from the mountain. I decided to put the board over parts of the Face to help me focus better.

I put the board over his lower face. Now I can only see his eyes. One looks into me, the other elsewhere. One is human, the other is more, yet both are both. His eye meeting mine is the eye of God that shone from one human face to another, and the eye that looks up is a human eye that knows fullness of being – the human as God intended, the human in perfect union.

I move the board to the right side of his face. His eye looks into me. There is only a tiny pinpoint of light in it. His human eye looks like the beginning of all things. His eye knows the all, and everything in me.

His left eye looks upward with less softness. There is determination, as though listening. It is commanding. From down here where I sit on the floor, he looks up at some of my classmates. He is looking at The Other, the one he served and the one I must serve. There is no choice. This way is the way of God. Not necessarily “Christianity” per se, but God’s whole way of being: service. This way is the only way to union. We can’t meet him halfway if we want to be true followers. This is amazing, because his human eye looks into me and knows my faults, knows my humanity. We will always be struggling between the two: who we are and what we need to become. He who was both is here to guide…and he understands. Something else I see that is truly beautiful arises. Just as his human eye has that tiny spark of divinity in it, the “God side” of his face has lips that are full and red. These lips seem ready to offer me a kiss of peace: Peace be with you.

Thank you, Lord. I believe.

My Own Interpretation

Despite the fact that I ruled out Genesis in the meditation, on further reflection I do find pieces of it here. The sky was dark and full of stars but ultimately still empty, devoid of moon or any reflection. It is a pregnant sky, waiting to burst from its potential.

The questions about light becoming gold and how light can be more than light seem very primal to me. The real question seems to be, “How can nothing become everything?” It also reminded me of the Incarnation: how can the pure light of one human life – Mary – suddenly become infused with gold, the holiness of God? How does this one beautiful creature suddenly become what the Orthodox call Theotokos?

Not being able to look at the Face after the whiteness of the board was very significant for me. It really did feel like staring into the Transfiguration, or trying to look into the upper clouds on Sinai. It also reminded me of Genesis, that humans were the last creatures to lay eyes on God.

I had heard from an unremembered source that the somewhat mismatched eyes of Christ in many icons are done deliberately, precisely to illustrate his dual nature. My mind clearly fixed on that and contemplated the presence of the Word in a human life. In fact, the word I focussed on during the course of the meditation was “Word”, although sometimes in my mind I settled on the gorgeous Logos.

This meditation for me was incredibly full, and on its own it helped me greatly, since there was an imperative within it – that of service. I was curious, however, in the fact that I had begun to focus on John’s Prologue. The passage’s connection to the icon did not seem immediately apparent at first, and so I decided to consult some other sources to see what I could learn from other, more adept and educated minds than my own.

Further Study

Seeking God through the created image is something that has walked alongside Christianity for a very long time. We can never be entirely sure how long, though, since although we are aware of Christians producing art by the 3rd century, it is difficult to recognize art that could be called “Christian” before then.[1] It’s also uncertain as to whether or not the early Christian church was supportive of Christian art. Bursts of iconoclasm occurred in the eighth and ninth centuries, as well as attempts to ban images altogether. Despite the uncertainty, we know that Christian art began to emerge, and early in its inception it was much like contemporary Roman art.[2] The main difference is that Christian art, while keeping the forms of Roman art, began to develop biblical subject matter in a way that had not been seen before. Robert Cormack observes that, “[T]he discussion about early Christian art has been one about the ways in which art can change its meanings more easily than its forms.”[3]

Examples of the medium in which icons first came into being – panels painted in tempera on a textile with gesso as a base – can be found at Fayyum in Egypt in Roman cemeteries. The paintings, some of them triptychs with gods or goddesses surrounding a face, were thought to be portraits of the dead that had been mummified.[4] The close proximity of these paintings to the monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai suggests to Cormack that “in developing art in the service of the new faith, Christians had in their sights an effective medium already in religious use.”[5]


Source: Wikipedia

In Christoph Schonborn’s God’s Human Face: The Christ-Icon, Schonborn observes in the Fayyum paintings “a change influenced…by the Jewish-Christian view of man.”[6] Looking at a third century mummy portrait as provided by the book, I am struck by the similarities to the Holy Face. This face seems lit from within by a deep rosy glow, and the eyes are very large and full of life. The nose is long and thin, the lips full and potent but the mouth small in relation to the rest of the face. These large eyes are a way to demonstrate a deep spirituality – an “inner seeing”[7] – while the small mouth demonstrates that the deeply enlightened have no need for dialogue. Remembering the writing of my first icon, I was attentive to the points of light around the face and noticed they were similar if not the same to where they had been on the Holy Face: several around the eyes and a few at the bridge and the tip of the nose. This contributes to the realistic aspects of the portrait, but also hints at an almost chakra­-esque view of the human facial form. Points of light become points of energy concentrated inward and yet radiating outward.

The use of these contemporary commonplace mediums to communicate the message of the divine in human form seemed to me to echo many of the basic elements in the early Christian community. The most obvious one would be the theme of the ordinary being transformed. An ordinary home is consecrated during the agape meal. An undesirable such as a leper is welcomed into a loving community. A form of painting becomes a “window looking out upon eternity.”[8] None of these things are completely turned into new things. The house remains a house, the leper remains a leper, and the painting remains a painting. They are deeply changed within, however. The action and intention of those who perform the change infuses these ordinary things with light. These early icons were still religious paintings of those who had died or gone into the next world, but they were not simply a record to help the dead find themselves again. Instead they were kept and treasured as links to those they represented, kissed and wept over, loved and cherished. Intriguingly, Cormack also notes that “The reliance of the people on icons as a window to heaven was gradually seen as a subversive threat to the authority and control of the state.”[9] Here transformation becomes infused with the light of empowerment.

The exploration of the icon’s origins provided me with a fascinating window into the history of the Face as it looked to me during my meditation. The transformation of the simple panel paintings into something that helped believers into a new way of seeing seemed to call out to me to continue to transform my own life through faith. However, I still did not understand exactly why the Face affected me quite the way it did. I still wanted to know how the painting of our Lord’s Face as it was presented could bring me closer to God. To answer this question, I turned to Schonborn again and explored his summary of the Christological arguments that helped to develop a new way of looking at personhood, which had implications both for faith and for human interaction.

Schonborn presented through Gregory of Nyssa a great answer for why I could not fully look at the Face. While explaining Gregory’s exposition on the nature and essence of the divine persons, Schonborn finds a template for the development of a theology of the icon:

“[T]he contemplation of the countenance of the Son imprints in our heart the seal of the Person of the Father. Because he is the Son of the Father, the Father becomes visible in him.”[10]

Gregory of Nyssa uses the image of a mirror to explain how we might understand the Son’s relationship to the Father: that the image in a mirror is the same as the original and yet is not the original. Since the image is the same it can be honoured but not worshipped per se – a way of describing how many use icons in worship.

I was endlessly curious as to why I turned from an immediate Genesis interpretation to a Johannine one. I found that John’s Prologue was an oft-cited source for many of these early Christological arguments, and reflected on the choice of the writer of John to refer to the Word (Logos) becoming flesh (sarx) rather than man (anthropos). The writer of John speaks rhapsodically of the whole universe being alight with Logos/Christ. This to me affirms a tenet of iconography which states that everything has been created by God, and that it therefore must be viewed as good by the believer/writer, that it participates in goodness.[11] Iconographer Matthia Langone notes that the icon “points to the reality of the Incarnation, the goodness of creation and the dignity of the human person.”[12] The church father Irenaeus spoke of creation revealing the one who formed it. For Cyril of Alexandria, “the flesh [was] not an ‘extrinsic cover’ but belongs to the very identity of the Logos.”[13] In defending the use of icons during what Schonborn refers to as “the gathering iconoclastic storm”, the eighth century saint Patriarch Germanus also refers to John:

“Of the invisible deity we make neither a likeness nor any other form. For even the supreme choirs of the holy angels do not fully know or fathom God. But then the only-begotten Son, who dwells in the bosom of the Father (cf. Jn 1:18), desiring to free his own creature from the sentence of death, mercifully deigned…to become man. … For this reason we depict his human likeness in an image, the way he looked as man and in the flesh, and not as he is in his ineffable and invisible divinity.”[14]

For Schonborn, all iconophilic arguments could be summed up as such: “[T]he Incarnation means that the Eternal Word has assumed a visible likeness.”[15]

I was delighted in the soul-resonance I felt with these early church fathers and the use of John. Christological arguments aside, I found another excellent source for reflection in Henri Nouwen’s soul-stirring Behold the Beauty of the Lord. Deeply moved by his experiences praying with Russian icons, Nouwen reaches zeniths of beauty in prayer that speak to my heart. His meditation on the Saviour of Zvenigorod struck chords in my mind:

“The eyes…are the eyes of the Son of Man and Son of God described in the Book of Revelation…He is the light of the first day when God spoke the light, divided it from the darkness, and saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:3) He is also the light of the new day shining in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower. (Jn. 1:5)”[16]

For Nouwen, this was a deep celebration of the Incarnation: “We can see God and live! As we try to fix our eyes on the eyes of Jesus we know that we are seeing the eyes of God.”[17]


After further exploration I have come back to my own little room, in which one candle burns for Christ all day and all night. I suppose, though, that one thing has changed: this icon now hangs within. As Nouwen observes, “Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.”[18] As iconographer Matthia Langone observes in an interview, “[T]he icon…is like a door one leaves behind as one crosses the threshold into another dimension of reality.”[19]

Exploration of the theology of icons has brought me into a beautifully close relationship with the divine, for I feel that I have not missed out, by virtue of being born two thousand years too late, in seeing the face of the Lord. Because he came among us, he will forever be one of us, and he will forever be before us should we choose to look. In John’s Prologue we are gifted with the beauty of his primacy, and with John’s faith and comfort in knowing that his Lord’s life was lived with complete intentionality from start to finish. Indeed, when I looked into that face, I could not believe anything otherwise! There from one face burn the two perfect eyes of my Beloved: the one that looks into me and sees me for what I am, and the one that looks beyond me and sees all of us for what we could be if we only follow. This is the nature of God: to be known by us, and to call us to honour our creation (all creation), and to strive for our intimacy with the one who made us, who came among us, and who burns within us.

Amen. I believe…and I see.




Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons, Henri J.M. Nouwen

Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana. 1987/2007 (revised edition)


God’s Human Face: The Christ-Icon, Christoph Schonborn

Ignatius Press, San Francisco. 1994

From the German translation, Die Christus-Ikone. Eine theologische Hinfuhrung

(Novalis Verlag, Schaffhausen, Germany, 1984)

Originally published as L’Icone du Christ. Fondements theologiques elabores entre le Ier et le IIer Concile de Nicee (325-787 AD)

(Editions Universitaires, 2nd ed. Fribourg, 1976, 1978)


Painting the Soul : Icons, Death masks, and Shrouds, Robert Cormack

Reaktion Books Ltd., London, UK. 1997

[1] Painting the Soul, (Robert Cormack), 64

[2] Ibid., 65

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 67

[5] Ibid., 65

[6] God’s Human Face, 24

[7] “The Way of the Icon” classroom notes, July 11th/2011

[8] Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri Nouwen, 24

[9] Painting the Soul, 19

[10] God’s Human Face, 31 (italics orig.)

[11] “The Way of the Icon” classroom notes, July 11/2011

[12] “The Way of the Icon”, 2, interview with Matthia Langone conducted by Karen Walker, June 2004 (article reprinted with permission from the Thomas Aquinas College Alumni Newsletter)

[13] God’s Human Face, 81

[14] Ibid., 181

[15] Ibid., 185

[16] Behold the Beauty of the Lord, 81

[17] Ibid., 80

[18] Ibid., 23

[19] “The Way of the Icon”, Walker/Langone, 7