St John the Silent

St John presses on his lip in act of silencing himself. I might practice a bit more meditation and prayer  with this image.

The image of St John depicts a visual state of consciousness or a snapshot of a mystical moment you walk in on unexpectedly. Silence. A fine icon has the potential to shock the viewer into seeing and being seen, moving the viewer  into deeper mystery, prayer and meditation.

Iconographers believe the beauty of humankind and our potential to see the divine in all things will save the world. I will take it a step farther and declare that love of beauty will save the world. Our minds are being battered daily with so much noise which is not of God. Mystical silence, love and beauty are experienced in the realm of a still, quiet mind. Icons like St John the Silent must be painted with a still mind and a quiet atmosphere or you cannot reap the benefit of Christ’s presence within.

The deeper we go into blind silence, the deeper we encounter clear, distilled, invisible love. Meditation enables us to experience detachment from purpose, inviting us to embrace quiet inactivity. The revived interest in icons today is a glimmer of hope for the continued expansion of our awareness of beauty and the divine. These images are windows through which the viewer is beckoned closer and closer, to go deeper into a wider horizon.

If you stand in a large room with a window at a reasonable distance from you, you can see some of the exterior and detect what is outside the building. But, if you walk up to a window and press your face against the glass, then you will see the entire outside world. Icons are like pressing your face to the glass. The individual who pauses to gaze at an icon is invited to contemplate what is not seen. Stillness is the place we work out our own unique relationship between self and world.

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Mary Icons

There are three classic prototypes of Mary.

Her icons point towards a new contemporary kind of trinity. Perhaps the concept of Mary is still undeveloped in our understanding and with more contemplation we will come to realize a deeper mystical message in how we are to behave in the world.

Mary receives the divine gift within, creation, she nurtures that gift through tenderness and she ultimately surrenders that gift to the world, offering her son to the world. Humanity in turn learns to recognize our own divine being within, nurture it and let it go, knowing it was never ours to own but rather to share.

The image of Mary has mutated many times throughout centuries of iconography. From the blessed diva, Mother of God gazing into the unknown to a weeping, anguished mother. The Renaissance painters in the 16th century changed into a more human mother in pain or in joy. Mary’s identity has given rise to many doctrinal wars, decrees and debates but her image is more than cult, idol, mystery or divine. She is a fountain of image, triggering great reflection and contemplation.

Mary defined through history

Theologians of the Middle Ages deliberated in detail the Forever Virgin condition of Mary. They had to answer how it could be that Christ was born to someone as common as one of us? Since Christ is All man and All God, His mother would have to be, in some way, all divine. The Roman Catholic Church fashioned the idea of the Immaculate Conception. The concept of Mary being miraculously conceived was declared doctrine in 1854. It was a theological creation which became dogma at considerable expense to women. Ironically, Mary was lifted to the highest place among men, yet somehow, though she was seemingly divine,she had no voice and no ability to act in any other way but constant surrender.

Nearly 100 years later another detail of her divinity needed clarification. Since Mary was immaculately conceived then where would her divine body go at her death? The Orthodox Church specifically teaches that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon death, and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose at which time her body was taken up into heaven. It was decided Mary did not die but rather “slept”. This statement became an Article of Faith in 1950. The Roman Catholic institution needed an example of undefiled sexuality, perfected womanhood with divine meekness and they found it in the Virgin Mary, from beginning to end.

In the language of iconography, Mary has been held in the highest esteem, I guess for her absolute obedience and silence. We acclaim her to be the vehicle for contemplation through service, surrender and acceptance. The delicate line painted through her neck is there to remind us of her deep humility and constant meditation. Mary being portrayed as the quiet servant and mystical, silent mother has been a hindrance to the development of women and their voice in the Christian church institutions.

I have painted many images of Mary and I believe she has much to tell us. The wisdom women have learned through the years of service and observation has been kept in a soundproof room for too long. It is time for women to speak out and be heard on issues that matter to them. Within our human behavior Mary is the queen of teaching us to love what we have been given, to nurture it and then Give It Away.

I find it ironic that Christian mystics, mostly men, have spoken and expanded spiritual understanding of God for nearly two thousand years and, in doing so, have controlled and shaped our society. Mary has not spoken, making our understanding of her elusive. Mary is a woman who, by her human act, gave birth to the most transcendent truth which is love, a love completed in offering. This is by far the very thing the world needs for its healing. The next three icons illustrate the basis for another kind of trinity: Creator, Lover and Giver. The idea is not only Christian, it teaches a new attitude towards creation: we each create, we each love what we create, and we each have the power to give away to the world what we have created.

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Adam and Eve Story

Bishop William Gregg at St Paul’s Anglican in San Miguel Allende gave another insightful sermon, first week in Lent. The first reading was from Genesis.

The silly story we all know about snakes and trees and perfection. What did Eve and all of humanity get invited to learn from that sneaky snake who suggested eating from the tree of good and evil would change things for the better. This archetypal story illustrates the movements of the human heart and mind in a simple narrative, one often overlooked. However, with a little bit of reflection, you cannot help but question, Why are we left to struggle and sweat for things done and left undone?

There is a clue to the answer; When our eyes have been opened to the idea we have a choice, there is no turning back into innocents. It has been set up and sealed. Ultimately, each and every individual will be held accountable for our own actions.

One the one hand, we think we can see things clearly, from God’s point of view, Yippi! On the other hand, our understanding and love of thinking we are God, can lead us and others away from goodness and into the realm of darkness and fear. Knowing good and evil demands that we see our actions through careful investigation, before and after each and every action. I do not know about you, but sometime I want to go back to sleep, close my eyes.

We all make decisions because we think we have power, and we do. The thing is, our activities are our making and according to the story, God will NOT intervene. God has given us free will, another Yippi!  We get to live with whatever or wherever our focus is… on us and ourselves    OR    on God.

Absolute perfection is built into creation and the question is; How do we come to see God’s perfection in creation and what can we possibly add to it?

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Water is Life, and so is Money

Last Sunday I asked the community at St Paul’s Anglican for money. I had to think about what to say and how I could explain why giving money is important. It occurred to me money is a lot like water it flows in and out of our hands. When we throw a stone into a still pond, the rock makes a wide ripple which goes out in all directions. Money does the same thing. St Paul’s Anglican has no trouble being proud of their continuing support for ministries in and around the community of San Miguel Allende.

 

Water is Life, and so is Money This years budget our came in 15,000 dollars short of our needs. Seems easy enough to fix, however I kept thinking about what is it that stops us from pledging more. I believe the root lies in the way we think of money, you have to let go of the rock to make ripples.

I was walking to church and passed a beautiful house in the midst of not such beautiful houses, I noticed beside the door there was water streaming out, running down the street abundantly. As I came closer to the house there were four Mexicans standing there looking at that precious water running freely into the street. I knocked on the door hoping to get the owners attention but to no avail. The house was closed up and the owners were gone. As I reflected on the situation I thought what a perfect icon of how wealth is wonderful but those so fortunate need to be a better examples, especially when we live in a foreign country and in the desert our behavior is being observed. We the fortunate have enough and at times unknowingly waste.

 

Money is a funny thing.

We think we own it, it is ours, we deserve it, we worked for it, we control it and we always want more. Water is different. We think the water we use is unending and limitless. We take water for granted because we have so much. But, what if we thought of water as precious and borrowed, delighted when we have it to share and confident there will always be more. Water comes from the sky and grows the trees and fills the rivers.

Money is just paper, made from a tree, which received water freely over time making it big and strong.

Meditate on Water this Lenten season.

The compesino farmers of Mexico value water in a specific way. They believe, if the well has water, it will continue to have water. One thing of paramount importance is that the water is used and shared. As they take water out the whole, it slowly and miraculously fills with fresh water. If not, the well water sits for too long and becomes stagnant and putrid. Eventually the water source gets clogged up and the ground water eventually seeks out a new direction to release, leaving the original well dry and useless. We can cut the budget to make ends meet but that would be like restricting the well, saving money/water rather than allowing it to fill freely.

There are many of us who have more than our share, which is fine, like the man who invests his money instead of burying it. However we are also reminded, to whom much is given, much is demanded. Or, as Maya Angelo said, “if you have learned much than teach and if you have been give much, share.”

My father in law is the peanut gallery.

Valentin and I lived next to him for a time when he was 76 years old. We worked as young artists day in and day out, making and designing one of a kind furniture in San Miguel. Periodically, Don Angel would visit and watch us, he used to say we worked too much! I would respond, “it is not work when you love what you do.” One day he said with some exasperation, “why do you two work so hard, you have no children! ”. I said, “but, we love to work” he persisted with “but why?”. Finally one day there he was again commenting and in my brilliant defense, I said, “well, Jesus worked all the time”. He quickly replied “Yes, But He never took any money!”. He was correct, Christ did not have a bank account, investments or land or even a house of his own. If we say we want to live in the image of Christ and emulate his teachings, my father in law could not have made his point more clearly.

 

We live in a society where most of us Water is Life, and so is Moneydo work and we receive money. The thing is, we might ask, how does that wealth happen? By grace we are given a talent, by grace we are given the desire to create or produce, by grace we have mind and commitment to showing up every day, by grace there are so many ways to generate wealth. Ask yourself, where all the talent and desire comes from. With a bit of humility, we cannot help but see that much of it is from an unseen mysterious source. Be not afraid to give back, let it go, there will almost always be more.

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Mary Magdalena Images

Recent work, all images of Mary Magdalena,

egg tempera, soon to be published in our next book               

In Light of Women  

In many countries around the world, the female voice has not spoken or been heard, their voices have not been in iconography. I want to encourage the female hand and heart to create new icons for liturgy and prayer and I pray their iconic messages and insights will foster a more spiritually integrated world for all.

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Painting with Earth Pigments

Hexaemeron, means the period of six days in which God created the world. Icon workshops are usually five days long, painting mornings for 3 hours and the same in the afternoon; the 6th day is rest and refection, everyone takes home an image painted with earth pigments.

Students say, “I’m surprised to be here, or I have no painting experience or this is amazing”. It is a wonderful time out, there is no place to get to, only a chance to gaze into your life with silent satisfaction. Keeping the mind still and focused while we see and listen “is” prayer. It could be someones first icon and could be their last but one thing I am certain of, the experience is unforgettable. I am a rebel icon painter, self taught and un-orthodox but not without tremendous love of icons and an honest desire to share what creating them has taught me.

 

Twenty Five years ago, I was given a large coffee table book on iconography by my spiritual director Father Ray Ormond. He said he had no use for it and as an artist I might like the images. It was simply called ICONS. I remembered books like this from the Boston Museum library, examining those weird buildings and stylized mountains. I had no interest in college for religious imagery or any traditions in the Orthodox Church. Shortly after I received the book, I was invited to an icon painting workshop, using acrylics. I cannot say I liked the painting but the images captivated to me. After the one workshop, I was driven in some strange way to continue icon painting on my own with those crappy plastic acrylics. Six icons later, for Christmas, my friend JJ Jesse gave me my first set of earth pigments. He said, “Here, teach yourself to work in egg tempera.” I laughed and said “you’re not serious, why egg tempera?” he said, “because it’s your turn.” Where to buy.

Image becomes a language.

One icon after another hypnotizes the mind into seeing God in everything around you. I would encourage all the students to learn the step by step process and its symbolic significance because that is the way the icon becomes language for the painter. The curl in the angels hair is eternity, just like spirals form when adding milk to morning coffee. The straight brilliant white highlight in the garment is the bright afternoon sun as it streaks across a a hillside. The small crescent of light in the eye is the same curve of light in your dogs eye or the moon above. Every form and thought I have with an icon repeats in my everyday life like a symphony of Gods involvement, ongoing and everywhere. What is disjointed around us is continually being organized into order, much like in the first ground of the icon called chaos. Iconography is a life style, you paint enough of them and the world along with everyone in it become a beautiful icon.

Icons connect us to a spiritual reality

Iconography is bold and holds back nothing, the process opens and invites us to come and see. See the God who lives in you as you paint and there you begin to see the God who lived in those early iconographers. They gave us the signs and symbols for real presence; their images descend into our hearts and make us yearn for more contact with the divine.

Fledgling iconographers study the “canons” or rubrics of iconography. There are some manuals, guidelines, church council teachings, books on patterns and technique, but I found the most intimate way to approach this practice is to copy an old one. We all begin with one, the first attempt. Ancient images contain enduring mystical teachings, if you copy enough icons, the earth pigments reveal the signature the early iconographers all shared, seen and heard in repeating the shapes, forms, patterns, and colors.

No one can control the history or future of iconography. Generations of icongraphers and saints have anonymously supported the tradition. Their ancient icons transcend time and are honored by those painting new icons today. There are many websites of teachers, classes, galleries and schools popping up around the world to expose more and more people to this fine and magnificent craft. Hopefully, students notice that learning to skillfully paint a beautiful icon is one thing but the message they allow us to experience is quite another.

A student once asked me, “What is the most difficult part of painting an icon”; quickly I replied, “forgiving myself ”.

What took me twenty years to learn; I try and teach in a week. I know well the fragility of our relationship with God, how it shifts and changes. I am always quite humbled imagining I have a responsibility to something grater than myself – to God, the students and other iconographers, past and present.

 

 

Iconography is a tradition without a ceiling. Like all spiritual work, we are silly to imagine its depth can be realized in one lifetime. One workshop is not enough but like all things done in love, it is a beginning.

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Open Studio San Antonio Feb 25 and 26

 

We are back on the map after a year of change and innovation.

Mary Jane Miller #45 on Sagrado Corazon #14 Please don’t miss us this year as you’re out and about. We continually have lively conversation, new work and challenging insights into spiritual silliness. If you want a preview, our door is open. Simply,call first to see we are home.

Suggestion Get off the San Antonio bus on Sagrado Corazon. From our studio, walk back into town, all down hill. We are located one block from the Buen Cafe,(great food and drink) and Al Tirado #42 mixed media, Nikki Atkinson #43, watercolor, Barry Weiss #44 photoshop and photography.

40 Artists open their studios in Col. San Antonio in the city of San Miguel Allende.

Saturday and Sunday February 25 and 26. All these professional artists represent a wide variety of mediums and techniques. The eclectic expression is impressive, diverse image in paint and photo, large and small, abstract and figurative. Our small colonia is packed with art; clay work, sculpture, jewelry and found objects transform our perceptions. From recycled rubberware to ancient egg tempera, you do not want to miss any of the studios. All welcome.

Click Image

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