Monday, February 17, 2020

Why Is That Man Wearing A Dress?

Meandering down the aisles of the local Costco with my dad and my three children yesterday, I caught the attention of one little girl. She and her parents were going in the opposite direction we were, and so every aisle, we would encounter her again, and every time, she would ask her parents why I was wearing a dress. Not wanting to intrude on their shopping trip, I simply smiled to myself at the question.

It's a good question that I even ask myself sometimes. Setting aside the historical development of clerical garb, why do I wear a dress? I know there are many clergy who don't wear a cassock when they go out on anything but church business. I have no interest in arguing whether they are right or wrong in doing so. But I almost always wear my cassock and cross outside the house, and my reasons have little to do with whether it is right or wrong to do so.

One might think that I do it because I like to draw attention to myself. As an extreme introvert, I can tell you that is definitely not the reason. Every time that someone looks me up and down trying to figure out why I might be wearing such a ridiculous get-up, I feel like shrinking down into a crack in the floor and running away. If I did it because I "love greetings in the marketplace and being called Rabbi, Rabbi" I wouldn't be getting what I was after anyway.

I dress this way because sometimes people will ask for prayers, sometimes people want to talk, or they want to know something about my church. It's a chance for serving others. I recently had an encounter on the streets of Brooklyn. I was walking from a friend's house to the place where I was staying and a man was intrigued by my outfit and asked me what it meant. We talked as we walked along about why I became a priest. He was a special education teacher, a job which is also a vocation that depends on love and service. He described himself as a rabid atheist, but we still had a nice conversation that unfortunately ended too soon. Dressing this way is a reminder that there are still people who believe, still people who pray, still people who will listen -- not all of them dress the way I do, but I can remind people, or rather my clothing can remind people, that they are there.

I would be lying if I said that this is why I walk down the aisles of Costco in a dress, however. I do it because I am a prodigal. Every year when I read the gospel on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, I am struck by the things the father gives his son upon his return. Since my own return from a far off land, I too have been given a robe, a ring, and shoes on my feet. In my prodigal times I was not only away from the Church, but also very lonely. Since returning, since committing to live as a hired servant, God has blessed me with a wonderful wife. My wedding ring is a reminder of my return as are the shoes on my feet (my wife has always insisted on me wearing better shoes than I would normally buy myself). The robes I have been given to wear as a priest are a constant reminder me of how far I departed, how miserable that life was, and how much forgiveness I have received.

If I'm honest with myself, I'm a little afraid that if I take off my robe I will be found without a festal robe at the wedding banquet. I need that reminder every day of the great gift I have been given. I need the stares and occasional derision to remind me that I don't belong to this world and that I need to live for the Kingdom which is to come. I am glad when it gives me the opportunity to share something about my faith with others, or to serve as a reminder that the Church still exists, because we are all prodigals who need to remember our father's house, who need to be reminded that we need not be in want when His hired servants have it better, and to be prompted to return home and find forgiveness.

That, for my little friend at the Costco, is why that man was wearing a dress.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Restoring an Image

In the 9th Century, the Church instituted a yearly remembrance for this, the first Sunday of Great Lent. That celebration is known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy and commemorates the restoration of the holy icons to the Church after two periods of iconoclasm.

We might wonder why this event is remembered as the Triumph of Orthodoxy when the Church has seen and known countless Saints and miracles throughout its history. But perhaps it should not surprise us given that from the very beginning, the concept of image has been central to our human existence.

In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. He created all the plants and animals which fill our world, but He did not bestow His image and likeness on any of those things. Upon man alone, God bestowed His image, making man the first icon of God. Man, by his sin, distorted this image. The Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete that we celebrated over the first four days of this past week describes the image of God as buried like the lost coin in one of Jesus’ parables. In other places he refers to this image as being darkened, neglected, or even lost. But he is quick to ask the Lord to rescue him from his unfortunate state. “I have buried with passions the beauty of the original image, O Saviour. But seek and find it, like the lost coin.”

So what does it take to restore an image? The more beautiful the image, the more important it is that the image be restored with care, with attention, and with skill. We must first assess what damage has taken place, and we must carefully consider what must be done to remedy the damage. A restorer must have all the skills of the original artist, knowing the materials, the techniques, and the style of the artist, in addition to knowing all the techniques and materials to deal with the many forms of damage there are to the image. Someone who is lacking in any of these areas might at best be able to improve on the current state of the image, or even bring it close to what it originally was, but they will never be able to make the image like new. At worst, they might even further disfigure the image.

We know from the culture around us how we can disfigure this image. We see that even when people are well-intentioned, they seek self-help remedies and empty spiritual practices in the attempt to be better people. They don’t even acknowledge the image of God within themselves, but seek to craft an image of goodness on their own. Worse, yet, we might make idols of our own selves, worshiping only our own lusts and sinful pleasures. In these we will only find condemnation.

On the contrary, we see in the Old Testament  many examples of those who valued the image of God within themselves, who sought after God, who loved Him with all their hearts, and with God’s help improved the tarnished state of this image within themselves. In this morning’s epistle, we get a summary of some of those people: “Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.” These are examples of how we can follow God, how we can obey his commandments even to the point of suffering for His sake in doing so. While all are made in the image of God, such examples show more of the likeness to God which is so often lost, buried, and disfigured.

And yet despite their love of God, despite their labors and pains for Him, Saint Paul says that “all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” They were not perfected in this image for the image was still marred in a way that no man could repair on his own.

And so, in the fullness of time, Our Lord, the fashioner of this image came to restore the image Himself. No one else could restore this image to its former glory but God Himself. And so God became man and perfected this image. It was not sufficient that God should send prophets or great men to restore the image. And so to maintain as the heretics did that Christ was not fully God would be to say that the image of God in man has not been restored or perfected because the Creator, the great artist has remained distant from His work. Likewise, we cannot agree that Christ was not fully man; as without entering into His work, how could He refashion and restore it? By becoming man, our Lord sanctified all creation, but in particular, He took on His own image and perfected it, making it shine with a glory that it hadn’t even possessed in the garden of Eden.

But He did not stop with assuming our flesh. After ascending into the Heavens and being enthroned as both God and man at the right hand of God the Father, He sent forth the Holy Spirit to come and abide in us to transform and restore each of us to the former glory of  that lost image. But this restoration does not come easy to us. With the help of God, we must identify the damage that has been done within ourselves. We must turn those things, as well as the defects that only God knows, over to Him for Him to repair. This is why things like the examination of our conscience, the confession of our sins, the prayer of Saint Ephraim and services like the Great Penitential Canon are so important to our spiritual lives. They are the  means by which we identify where we are in need of restoration so that we can ask God to take away the damaged areas of our life and ask Him to fill those worn away places with His glorious image.

We must also cooperate with the repairs through participation in the Holy Mysteries, through repentance from our sins, through prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. All of these things are the materials, the tools, and the techniques of the Restorer of the Divine image within us. As Saint Andrew says “emulate the righteous and avoid following sinners, and regain Christ’s grace by prayers, fasts, purity and reverence.

The icon of Christ is a silent witness, a testimony to the truth that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ and dwelt among us. That He made human flesh capable of bearing the Divine within itself, that by the harmony of His Divine and Human wills we might likewise be able to align our will with God’s. The icons of the saints witness to the truth that the Holy Spirit given to us in our Baptism and Chrismation works within us, and that if we work with God, He will transform us and return us to the image of God. The icons are important not because they are pretty but because they show us the gospel, and they remind us of the goal of the Christian life – to be transfigured as Christ was transfigured, that the light of Christ may shine through us and show the image and likeness of God to the world that all may desire to come to receive this light for themselves.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Prolonged Absence

It's been a very long time since I posted anything here. At first it was because life was busy, I had just been ordained as a deacon and had a child on the way.  Then I didn't post because I couldn't remember my login information. I would periodically sit down to think about writing something only to be called away and forget to ever go back to it. 

Well a lot has happened since my last post. My son Ioan was born a little over a month after my last post. We named him after Saint John of San Francisco whose intercession we sought throughout the time that my wife was pregnant with him. I anointed her with oil from the vigil lamp at his tomb each day. His icon has a small vial of rose water with which they washed Saint John's relics before re-vesting him, a gift from our priest who was there for this occasion. Ioan has grown into such a wonderful young boy and a terrific big brother. 

Then a couple years later his brother Theodore was born. He is named after Saint Theodore the Studite, the great defender of icons during iconoclasm. Teddy is probably the most like me of any of the kids, he is always doing things that I remember doing as a child (even the bad things). It is amazing to me how children can act as mirrors of our selves. He is a very sweet boy and is very smart and clever for his age.

A few years later, our daughter Maria Joy was born. She was a bit of a surprise. I gave a talk at a Pastoral Conference about the icon of The Joy of All Who Sorrow. When in the process of preparing a homily on the subject the next year, my wife didn't want to tell me that she suspected that she was pregnant until after I had given the homily. I told her that if the baby was a girl she would have to be named after the Joy of All Who Sorrow, and sure enough that's what happened. She is now 17 months old, she's walking and babbling up a storm. She adores both of her big brothers.

These three children have been such a blessing to my wife and me. None of them have been "easy" children, they don't believe in sleep or rest or any such thing. We are constantly on our toes. But they have brought joy, consolation, and a sense of God's love and providence to us.

I have continued teaching workshops on iconography and lecturing from time to time. We have been blessed to travel with the children and have made life-long friends with many of the amazing students we have encountered. This past year I completed the Pastoral School of the Diocese of Chicago and the Midwest (ROCOR) It was a two year program that took me roughly five years to complete. I finished a well-recieved thesis on the subject of iconography which helped me to re-examine much of what I thought I knew about iconography. It has helped me in my teaching and in my own understanding of what icons mean for myself and for the Church.

On November 13, 2018, seven years to the day after my ordination to the diaconate, I was ordained to the priesthood at Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Seattle for continued service at my parish in Boise. I am greatly blessed to be able to serve alongside Father David Moser at Saint Seraphim's Orthodox Church as his assistant. I also have the great joy of having my son, Ioan, as an altar server with me.

I felt that it was important to post here again for a number of reasons. The first being that I still get the occasional email about the loss that my wife and I suffered so many years ago. It has been a part of my life since, and am glad to know that others can sympathize with our loss. But I also want to encourage others that life does continue. Sometimes with the blessing of other children. Sometimes with other blessings. My wife and I responded to our loss by throwing ourselves into the life of the Church. This has born plentiful fruit in our lives. It does not take away the loss but can transform and transfigure grief into something beautiful. It can turn sorrow into joy if you will.

I also know that I have more to say about icons, about theology, about the Saints. Some of this comes from my studies, some of it from my work as an iconographer, and some of it from homilies that I am giving at my parish. I can't claim great wisdom or insight, but a desire to share what I have learned with others.

Friday, February 3, 2012

It has been nearly a year since I posted anything substantive on this blog. It has been hard to collect my thoughts and to put much into writing. The loss of our baby last February changed a lot in both my wife and me. It brought us tremendous sorrow, more than either of us could have imagined. But it also brought with it God's grace. In losing our child, we grew closer to each other and closer to God. We learned so much about each other, and helped each other in our weakest moments. With almost a year since then, we can thank God for the little bit of time we had with our Benjamin, we can thank God for bringing us together and giving us strength through one another, and we can thank God for taking care of our baby in His heavenly kingdom. We even ask that if he has found favor in God's sight that our son may pray for us.

We also ask that he pray for his baby brother who is just a few weeks from being born. It was difficult to risk putting our hearts on the chopping block again, but we knew that the desire to bring a new life into our lives had not gone away. He has been such a blessing to us. At our first ultrasound, we went into the doctor's office hoping that we would not be heartbroken when we left. What we saw was a baby full of life and anxious to set his parents' hearts at ease. Like St. John the Forerunner, he leapt in his mother's womb. We have so loved going through the various stages of pregnancy and marveling at this little life forming. Our priest gave us a vial of oil from St. John the Wonderworker with which I anoint my wife and my baby every day. We ask for his intercession for our son and thank God for each moment we have with him.

We have been blessed by God both in adversity and in joy over the past year. Through both we have learned the value of serving and loving others. We learned this first through serving and loving each other in our loss. In this past year, we were also given an opportunity to serve and love others in an even greater capacity. On November 13, I was ordained to the Diaconate by His Eminence Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco. I am so happy to be able to minister to my parish as a Deacon, and to be able to serve others as I have been served by others. Our priest was so helpful in our loss, and I learned how important it is to have the prayers, understanding, and compassion of others. I only hope that I can help give that to others.

My wife and I have been so pleased with the additional Liturgies we had in the forty days after my ordination. To be partaking of the Eucharist more often, to be exposing our son to the music and chanting and the grace in our Liturgy as he is being formed in the womb has been so comforting. We are thankful to all those who prayed for us and continue to pray for us. We are thankful for the intercessions of St. John the Wonderworker, St. Seraphim of Sarov (whose parish I serve)and all the Saints. We are thankful that God has blessed us with this new life, and a new ministry. We are thankful for each other and for the love and support of family and friends.

Friday, July 8, 2011

New Book On Icons

So after months of work, and the last week of constant work, the new edition of my blurb book is done. Please check out the preview and order one (or several if you are so inclined) or forward the information to anyone you think might be interested.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Memory Eternal

Just over three weeks ago, Saturday February 12, the weather in Boise was beautiful. It was unseasonably warm and the sun was shining. My wife and I were one day away from celebrating the two year anniversary of having met in person. But it was the ugliest day of my life. We were losing our baby.

About a month earlier, we had learned that we were going to have a baby. We were excited, anxious, nervous, and terrified, but most of all we were thankful to God for such a wonderful blessing in our lives. We started to prepare ourselves in earnest for the arrival of our child. Unable to keep such great news to ourselves, we called friends and family members. I refrained from yelling it from the rooftops, but only just barely.

In one of the many books about pregnancy, we read that the baby was about the size of a grain of rice. We started to refer to our child as "Uncle Ben." After about a week or two of calling the baby by that nickname, we had decided that we really liked the name Benjamin for a boy (we had settled on Juliana for a girl since that was the saint of the day when we first went to the church after finding out that we were expecting).

We fell in love with our baby. Our life became one of preparation. It became baby-centric. And on that warm February morning, the center of that baby-centric life left us.

There was a time in my life when I thought that a miscarriage was not a big deal. I always assumed that you didn't really fall in love with your baby until you saw your baby or held him in your arms. Without that new-baby smell, the cute little fingers and toes, the adorable little sound they make, what is there to love except fatigue, discomfort or morning sickness? I know now that a child who has not been born yet is one of infinite possibilities. My wife and I lost our son and our daughter. We lost a child who had the best qualities of both of us and none of the bad qualities of either of us. Our baby was beautiful, smart, funny, caring, loving, godly, and yet humble. Our child was all these things because they are a child of potential. As foolish as it may seem, you start living your child's life in your imagination, you anticipate all the wonderful moments. There is a reason why we like to think about our child's wedding day, and not their first car crash or head wound. We want all the best for our children.

I miss my child. I miss talking to Uncle Ben, even though he couldn't hear me yet. I have cried more for the loss of my baby than for any other loss I have suffered in my life. I have learned that the grief associated with miscarriage is profound, but seldom understood by others. Several people have since told me that they lost a child to miscarriage. In most cases, I never knew about their loss. I can't help but think it is because so many people don't want to hear about it. People tell you that it happens all the time and is no big deal. They tell you to try again or move on, and eventually you don't want to tell people because it is easier to suffer in silence. But I don't want to pretend like my baby never existed.

My wife and I named our baby Benjamin. We don't know whether our child was a boy or a girl, but we wanted to name our baby so that we could pray for him and remember him as a person. I painted the icon of the Holy Patriarch Benjamin at the top of this post to keep in our icon corner as a remembrance of our first baby. Though the baby's name started as a bit of a joke, I find it such a fitting name. The Patriarch Jacob had two favorite sons, Joseph and Benjamin, the sons of his beloved wife Rachel. When Joseph was sold into slavery, Benjamin remained. Jacob's love for his son Benjamin was so strong, that he couldn't bear the thought of parting with him even if it was necessary to save his people. And yet he had no choice but to let Benjamin go. In doing so, they were saved. I pray that this loss will be for my salvation and for the salvation of my wife, but I will forever remember my beloved child, and cherish the few memories that we have.

Monday, December 27, 2010

From a Name Synonymous With Christian Iconography

What makes an icon holy? Surely it can't be the iconographer. Speaking for myself, I often fail in my spiritual life. At times I really try, and at other times I struggle to make even a small effort to live a life of holiness. From my conversations with other iconographers, I know that this is a common problem, which should not be surprising since most of us live our lives this way.

So if the work of the iconographer doesn't impart holiness to the icon, what then makes it holy? Surely it must be the image itself. The image reflects the prototype, and gives us a glimpse of the holiness of the person depicted. Most of us have many icons that are mounted prints. This is permissible because the image still reflects the prototype. It needs no iconographer to recreate the image because the iconographer imparts no actual holiness to the image anyway. Sure you need a few iconographers to create the images to be reproduced, but a photographic print is just as holy, just as real as a hand-painted icon. And since so many of us can't afford the cost of hand-painted icons, we are very fortunate that the mounted print is just as holy.

But what if you could have a hand-painted icon for the same cost as a mounted print? This morning I got an email from Shiva International based out of India. As you can no doubt guess from their name, they are in the business of selling icons... or at least they hope to be. They sent me several pictures of hand painted icons they have produced and would like to sell in the US, Greece, and a few other countries. They all look similar to icons, but just enough different that they look slightly off. There was no indication what the prices would be, but let's hope that they are cheap! With a little work, I'm sure they can get to the point that they look very much like the real thing. So if the iconographer is not what matters, and the image looks like the prototype, it must be holy, right? Or is there more to it than that?

I think that what is missing is that icons should be the work of the Church. We all know that if the priest doesn't pray or fast as well as he should that the sacraments are still holy. We all know that if the priest gets a few things out of order or misreads a word that the sacraments are still holy. They are the work of the Church with Christ as its head. So too icons must be the work of the Church. Whether hand-painted or mounted prints, icons should come from the Church. Those doing the work should be people striving to live a good life and in good standing within the Church. But we recognize that they too are fallen and in need of constant forgiveness. Our work in making them should be an offering to God and a service to our fellow man, and not a work of pure commercialism. We as members of the Church should support those whose ministry it is to create these icons for our Church. People in India need to make a living too, but where will we be if we support businesses before ministries?

My wife and I have been trying to eat more local foods, ones that have been sustainably raised, in a responsible and ethical manner. What if we were to do something similar with icons, prayer ropes, incense, candles, vestments, and other goods for our Churches and homes. A local producer may not live next door to you, but shouldn't they at least share your faith? Shouldn't they be a part of your Church in some way? Shouldn't the creation of these items be something that is passed on from generation to generation, one that gives back to the Church and its faithful people rather than just taking from them? Shouldn't we support those people who make quality products, who are familiar with the theology they are passing on, and who use their work to minister and not just make money? Of course the answer is yes to all of these questions. But when we look for icons, are we looking at the bottom line of price, or are we choosing to make our Churches healthier and our ministries stronger? I hope so.