Cattle Drive, Fort Worth Stockyards, April 2010

Monday, April 19, 2010

Back from Vacation

Well, it was a wonderful time. Last week I was able to get back to Texas and visit family and well-visited places: the Botanic Gardens, the Japanese Gardens, the Fort Worth Zoo, the Kimbell Museum… It was wonderful. (And yes, I had bar-b-que brisket, Tex-Mex and all of my “ethnic food.”) I especially loved the Gardens and the Kimbell Museum.
   I can’t begin to say how much I missed the Kimbell. I used to visit it at least once every two or three weeks for years. Many of the pieces in the permanent collection are like old friends to me. How enriching it is to view masterworks of art. The latest acquisition by the Kimbell Museum is the first panel painting of Michaelangelo, The Torment of St. Anthony.
    Michaelangelo painted this at the age of 12, using materials given to him by a friend. At this time Michaelangelo had not even entered a studio to begin his formal education as an artist. It is not a large panel, 18-1/2 x 13-1/4 in, but it is powerfully painted in tempera and oil on a wooden panel. The precision of draughtsmanship is meticulous and exacting. The color is enchanting. I spent some time looking at this work and admiring the artistic skill of the young master. I was also struck by the incredible difference between the young Michaelangelo and those who believe that they are master artists these days. Craftsmanship is the absolutely necessary foundation of any attempt at art. Having been a painting/drawing major originally, I can personally attest to the fact that most of the time in art schools students are now encouraged to be “expressive,” and “creative.” How absurd. An artist cannot be creative until he has mastered his craft. Consider that Michaelangelo--after this work, which is superlative--then entered into years of formal study.
    Does this have any value for us today? I think so. The entire system of education has also fallen into the same lack of discipline as has the art schools. Those of us who are older can remember having to learn how to spell accurately (okay, I admit that I have an inordinate number of typos, but believe me, I can spell though I can't type!). I have seen papers written by high school students and college students and have been dumbfounded at the lack of such essential fundamentals. Their grasp of history and the facts and figures that provide the historian his data for historical interpretation is appalling. And yet, these same students are asked to speak intelligently. How can they possibly do so?
    One of my daughter’s friends was assigned in a journalism class to interview people whom she thought was heroic and making a difference in our world. She decided to interview Mary because Mary is entering the U.S. Navy this summer. The list of questions revealed the orientation of the professor. They were all incredibly liberally biased. When my daughter disagreed with the basic premise of the professor and gave solid, well-thought out responses to the questions, her friend was told that Mary was not an appropriate person to interview. Hmmm. Why? Was it because Mary said she tries to base her life on the Church’s life? Was it because she strongly opposed abortion? Was it because she gave some rather pointed and well-supported rebuttals to liberal political philosophy? I was under the impression that a “liberal” education was one in which one is deliberately exposed to a large breadth of views. Isn't education supposed to be to teach the student the basic craft of critical thinking, rather than indoctrinating them into a particular world view that is emotionally driven?
    Michaelangelo’s first painting reveals so much to us. His skill, the subject of Saint Anthony’s spiritual torment (which is expressed in this physical and visual means) are easy to see. But the very fact of his early skill added to the fact that he then went on to study is perhaps are critical reminder for us today. If we want to have real artists, real scholars, real creativity, we must get back to teaching and encouraging discipline in basic skills. Craftsmanship must be valued. A craftsman may not be “a genius,” but he is infinitely more worthy than the “genius’s” who have no craftsmanship whom we proclaim these days. Imagine how incredible our gifted would be if they were taught the basics.
    It was a nice vacation. It gave me a chance to think some things out. I love taking time to mull things over and look at them from various sides to better grasp their true shape. For me a vacation can never be simply about entertainment. I needs to include a chance for the mind to plow a new field, or to plow an old one a little more deeply. Many thanks to Michaelangelo for giving me only one of the several points I had this last week to do so.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Christ is Risen!

It has been a wonderful Holy Week here at Saint George’s. The general attendance was much better this year than it has been in the last several years that I have been here. It was only on Monday and Tuesday evening that we had less than 100 people present (86 and 38 respectively). By the time we came to Holy Wednesday we were pretty well full every night from that point on with no fewer than 150 or so. The Vesperal Liturgy on Saturday morning was lovely (and again, quite full).
   I served every morning at Saint Nicholas Church from Monday through Thursday in addition to all of the services at Saint George. I'm pooped and I find that I'm getting a little older every year. Imagine!
   One might be tempted to say that “it’s finally over!” But what a loss that would be. Yes, the fast is over. Yes, the intensity of the Lenten Services and Holy Week is over. But, in reality, we have now finally come to the beginning. Now it starts! Now everything is new! Now this dying world comes face to face with Life himself, risen from the tomb!
   This is what all of our preparation has been about: the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection from the dead. This is why we sing the Paschal troparion before and at the end of every service and blessing throughout Paschaltide: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” The words are powerful and touch the deepest part of our existence. They reach the core of our nightmares.
    The hymn begins in the tomb, the graveyard. Graveyards have come to been seen as spooky and dark places in our modern culture. They are the stuff of horror movies, all dark and foreboding. But surely this is not the historic understanding of a Christian graveyard. Burial practices are tremendously interesting.
    In many places in the Middle East (so I'm told by a former parishioner who came from the Damascus area) and in Greece the places for burial are very small. The faithful are usually buried within the day of death and are unembalmed. It is a very common custom to bury the departed in the grave for very brief time (perhaps only six months to two years) until they have lost their flesh. The bones are then uncovered and placed carefully and reverently in ossuaries. The skulls are often labeled with the person’s name. All of the skulls are placed together, all of the ribs, the femurs, and so forth. There is deep love and reverence for the departed’s remains. It is also interesting to note that this is one of the reason that the incorrupted remains of the faithful have been found in those parts of the world. One wonders how many have we never found due to our practice of embalming and burial customs?
    In the country of my ancestors, the graves are dug in the lawn around the parish church. To get into the church, one walks through the cemetery. It is well known that there was in Medieval England a very strong notion of death. Figures of skulls and skeletons can be seen in carvings inside the church. The black death scarred the soul and psyche of the English (and all the world) in ways that we can scarcely grasp.
    One of the most interesting scenes that was commonly painted on the walls was called the story of the three Princes. It usually featured three young, handsome princes on a hunting party. In the woods they come upon three corpses in varying degrees of decomposition. Scrolls come from the mouths of the departed to bring the punch to the scene. The first says, "What ye are now, we once were.” The second said, “What we are now, ye shall become.” Pretty sobering thought. There is a long tradition of the remembrance of our death as being necessary for our salvation. Without knowing that we shall only have a brief time of this earth to set our souls for eternity, we should probably never repent and live a righteous and holy life.
    But this is not the sense of the “church yard,” as those cemeteries are called. Church yards were places of respect, solemnity and a secret joy. Joy? Absolutely! This is a common Christian notion that has been understood by the Orthodox since the beginning. In Russia, the custom on Pascha (Easter) is to go to the cemeteries, light candles at the graves of their ancestors and have a family feast! Christian cemeteries are not dark places, but they are places of anticipation. They are places that, if we could see them with the eyes of faith, are beginning to shine forth with the light of Christ even now. Isn’t it interesting that it was not until the “Age of Enlightenment” that cemeteries became the places of trepidation? Perhaps, secular “enlightenment” or scientific knowledge (vs. the Church’s “illumination”) knows that the grave remains unanswered and undefeated in their lives.
    Christ’s resurrection has ended that ancient triad of sin, evil and death. Death has been annihilated! The grave has been mocked! We now go into the graves as those who are united to Life himself. We are joined to Life and so we enter the grave “making our funeral dirge the song, alleluia, alleluia alleluia!” (from our funeral service)
    This does not negate the necessity of us continuing to repent our sins throughout our life, for if we sin, we voluntarily join ourselves to death again. If we sin, we brake the love of Christ and lose Life inside our veins. We need to be realistic, because the moral and ascetical struggle are absolutely essential in this life lest we die and are raised unto “the resurrection of condemnation.” The three Princes stand out clearly here… and they should.
    Yet we need to know that because of the Resurrection, Light has dawned and dispelled the darkness which once reigned. Now, because the Lord is Risen, we have the power of Light and Life. We are raised with him, because we are joined to him in our baptisms. Our failures and falls do not necessarily lead to death. The necessity is ended. We now have the possibility of repentance and life. We can now experience forgiveness and restoration.
    Now it begins! Now we can find hope, even when there seems to be none around the corner. It is no surprise that I am gravely concerned and worried about the state of our current politics and financial lives in the US, but it is not to the degree of being depressed or desperate. And the reason is that Christ is Risen, and Life truly reigns! Let us all then celebrate the Feast of feasts, and Season of seasons, the Resurrection of Christ for the full forty days of the season. Don’t lose that joy because it has defeated this world and death.