Sunday, June 25, 2017

Discerning Icons: Good and Bad

Icon of Saint Seraphim of Sarov

The purpose of an icon is to take us into the realm of the Spirit, where we can experience the transforming power of divine grace (John Baggley, Doors of Perception).
In response to my post Icons as Resistance, one of the readers in these Woodlands asked for some guidance as to how - or rather, from where - one can find icons to acquire if one wishes to get a few for the home. In other words, which are good icons to get? And from which should one stay miles away?

I admit, this is a hot topic in this day and age of non-discrimination. It holds most true if one does not have thousands of dollars to shell out to acquire various icons written by known and reputable masters - or to settle a lawsuit alleging discrimination by having dared to prefer in public, in writing, some iconographers over others, without sufficient and documented 'empirical evidence.' But since it has always been my fortune - or misfortune? - to not be tongue-tied regardless of the hat worn at whatever point in time, I will answer the reader's question as best I can.

Choosing an Icon - A Brief Guide

Icon of Our Lady

The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful, we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful to the Good in itself (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy).
First, when considering an acquisition, bear in mind that an icon is not just made for prayer, but has been made because of prayer. This is a vital factor in any choices to be made. So would you get an icon "Made in China/Vietnam/Taiwan/wherever," or one written by an independent iconographer who tries to follow the life of the Faith?

Ask around for the latter. You might be pleasantly surprised by the terms some 'small' or lesser-known iconographers might give you, in particular if they are creating icons for love of God (as they should be), rather than just being out to make money no matter what. Do not be shy to use that time-honored tradition known in more popular parlance as haggling. Iconographers being craftspeople, for the most part, in the old school mindset understand it very well. That said, please bear in mind that holy icons of the portable variety take about 45 hours to write and that does not include the time spent waiting for them to dry and varnishing them with olifa when ready (larger icons obviously take longer).

Second, do not restrict yourself to your locality, region or nation, when looking for an affordable icon. Prices differ hugely between independent iconographers in the West and their counterparts in Eastern Europe or Russia. For example, I have managed to get icons from the latter group of iconographers for about one-fifth of the price often quoted by iconographers in the US.

The icon of the Mandylion in Icons, the Church and the People of God and the icon of the Theotokos of Kazan in Icons as Resistance came from 'unknown' iconographers in Ukraine and Russia respectively. The Mandylion icon was written by an old female iconographer known only in her own village; the Kazan icon was written by an advanced iconography student in Moscow. But both icons are very beautiful and they cost less than $200 each, including shipping-with-tracking charges. These icons were both laboriously handwritten from prayer and all the materials used were natural. Meanwhile, the first icon shown above of Saint Seraphim of Sarov only cost $50 excluding shipping and yes, it is a genuine icon, not a piece of paper or cardboard glued to wood. It too was written by a iconography student in the same manner, this time in Bulgaria.

But how can one find these kinds of icons - icons that should have been (and have been) written, rather than just produced - without having a trained eye or just plain, good old-fashioned knowing people?

Third, look at the face. I cannot stress this enough. Look at the face. The face and its expression in an icon are a dead giveaway as to whether that icon has been written or not as a result of prayer. What does that face do for you? What do you experience when you look at that face, that expression? Do you feel stricken in your soul? "Wounded by love," as Benedict XVI said? Or do you feel repulsed? Do you feel peace, calmness, quietude - joy, even - when looking at that icon? Or do you feel fear or that "something's not quite right;" unease? This is the key to discerning proper icons from diabolical ones. Yes, the latter do exist.

An icon is a handwritten image that is often the result of direct or indirect revelation to the heart of the soul - the nous - of the iconographer before and during the writing process itself. And that image bears upon it the 'imprint' of the Icon of God through the divine energeia as discussed in an earlier post. But so does your soul if you are in a state of grace! The icon and your soul, therefore, should be 'speaking' to each other in an analogous (albeit not similar) manner to when Christ 'spoke' to John in utero and John 'recognized' Him, through the Holy Spirit, when Mary and Elizabeth met while pregnant (Lk 1:41). If the icon does not somehow 'speak' to you when gazing upon it, what, in that icon, is missing? Is it just an apparent lack of technical skill (something easily attained with further practice) or is it something else altogether?

If, on the one hand, the iconographer is pursuing holiness, that pursuit is going to be seen and felt, one way or another, in the icon regardless of skill level, because one of the effects of genuine iconography on the painter is the opening up wide of one's heart and, at times, the nous by the grace of God. So this is going to come through even in icons written in the crudest way. The aforementioned process occurs because it is the Holy Spirit who is, in reality, the divine iconographer and genuine icons (for lack of better terminology) are intimately related to the various stages and processes of both theosis and deification.

If, on the other hand, an iconographer is painting an icon under the influence of false light, there is going to be a closing, not opening, of the heart and that closure is going to be transmitted to the final product. This becomes most evident in the depicted face and its expression, since it is precisely there that defacement - destruction or eradication of the image, iconoclasm of the imprint within an icon itself - first occurs and with the greatest intensity possible. In other words, what is present in the depths of the heart and soul of the iconographer is going to come out without fail in the icon, and if you are in a state of grace when gazing upon it, you should be able to easily discern its underlying origin.

Fourth, given all of the above, you can reach some conclusions as to what or what not to acquire and from where. If you see an icon of the 'cardstock variety' that is beautiful and it really 'speaks' to you, and you also see a handwritten icon that you feel pushes you away, it is the former that you should acquire despite its materiality, not the latter. That for reasons now obvious.

Enjoy your journey with icons.

© Marcelle Bartolo-Abela, aka Bald Eagle.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

L'Abandon de Dieu

A simple comment for the creatures of the Woodlands about the short below: This is reality in relation to the state of Eucharistic Adoration in the Catholic Church. Plain, stark reality less than two weeks ago. So we documented it.

(by the Bald Eagle).

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Some Relics of Our Lady

Ex capillis, ex velo, ex veste,
ex selpulchro Beata Virgine Mariae

The miracles which derive from the holy relics witness to the fact that their pious veneration by the people is pleasing to God (Saint Justin Popovich).
Even after death they act as if alive, healing the sick, expelling demons, and by the power of the Lord rejecting every evil influence of the demons. This is because the miraculous grace of the Holy Spirit is always present in the holy relics (Saint Ephraim the Syrian).  
Here (above, below) for your edification are four precious relics of the Virgin Mary in a hand-carved and gilded sealed reliquary and a fifth relic in a common theca. The four relics of Our Lady presented in the above reliquary, with official documentation of their authenticity, consist of:
  1. A short strand of her hair,
  2. A small piece of her silk veil; 
  3. A small piece of her colored robe; and 
  4. A stone from her tomb in Jerusalem.
The locks of the Virgin Mary's hair, her robe and her veil were originally kept by the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, to whom they had been given by the Apostles (Cannuli & Bartolo-Abela, 2016; Relics of the Saints: January-February). Then the Patriarch-Saint Juvenal gave them to the Empress-Saint Pulcheria, who gifted them to the city of Constantinople. Some locks from the Virgin’s hair, which had been cut off for remembrance by some of the Apostles upon her dormition, can now be found in the Great Reliquary at the Duomo di Messina, Sicily, and at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, Italy.

Ex capillis

Ex velo

Above is a small piece of the Virgin's veil that she was reportedly wearing when she gave birth to Christ. This veil was in the possession of the Emperor Charlemagne, who had received it as a gift from the Byzantine Empress Irene of Constantinople. It was gifted by Charles II, the grandson of Charlemagne, in 876 to the Cathedral of Notre-Dames de Chartres in France. Other portions of the veil can be found in churches across Italy, in Cologne and Mainz, Germany; and in Prague, Czech Republic among others.

Ex veste

Ex sepulchro

Above is a small stone from the tomb of Our Lady that can be found in the crypt of the Church of the Assumption in Kidron Valley (Valley of Josaphat; Joel 3:2, 12), Jerusalem, Israel. According to the tradition of the Dormition, the body of the Virgin Mary spent three days in this tomb before her Assumption into heaven. Her three days in the tomb mirrored those spent by her Divine Son in the Holy Sepulchre, also in Jerusalem.

Official documentation of the authenticity of the relics and their provenance comes on parchment from Aloysius, Cardinal Amat (eventual Head of the College of Cardinals), dated 1829. The four relics above were re-authenticated on the same document in 1884:

Certfication by Aloysius, Cardinal Amat

Here is a fifth precious relic of Our Lady's, this time a small piece of her girdle (belt), which she had given to the Apostle Thomas. Large portions of this girdle, reported to have been made of camel hair, can now be found at Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, Greece; the Monastery of Trier, Germany; the Cathedral in Prato, Italy; and at the Church of the Holy Belt in Homs, Syria.

Ex fascia Beata Virgine Mariae

I will not enter here into how these relics ended up in my possession, but there is a whole story behind them. Maybe one day I shall decide to narrate it. In any event, I hope you enjoy them.

© Marcelle Bartolo-Abela, aka Bald Eagle

New Ecumenical Liturgy at Francis' Skunk Works?

The "Skunk Works" is the unofficial name for the U.S. top-secret aircraft development program. Veritas Vincit reports that rumor has it that Francis is developing a top-secret ecumenical liturgy that will be acceptable to Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans. (The obvious joke: "But we already have one!")

Is Francis the kind of guy that would have his own top-secret theological Skunk Works?

You can read the story there, but the key difficulty is the consecration. The Bear will let his intelligent readers work that one out on their own.

One proposed solution is to have each celebrant silently pray his or her own formula.

The Bear stresses this is a rumor reported by an Italian journalist who says his sources are "usually good." As to the truth of that rumor, the Bear cannot offer an informed opinion.The Bear does not usually go in for rumors and seers and the like, preferring to stick to hard evidence and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom.

This might easily be a hoax. In the absence of evidence there is no real reason to suspect otherwise. The Bear is not passing it along for the purpose of the truth of the matter asserted, as the old courtroom hearsay exception goes.

There is something here, however, that is worth considering.

As ridiculous as this sounds, the Bear's reaction was not shocked surprise. In fact, the ecumenical trend lines in the Church are leading to something like this sooner or later. Francis is the perfect man to make it happen. The only thing that makes the Bear tend to doubt it is that no provision is made for Evangelicals.

What is worth considering is this:

Intelligent, well-informed Catholics cannot dismiss such a rumor out of hand. We are at a time in Church history when we can imagine that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass might mean sacrificing the sacrifice in the name of the illusion of communion with non-Catholic sects.

Our position is similar to that of a husband who hears a rumor that his wife is having an affair. Depending on the wife, he would instantly dismiss it as ridiculous or entertain the truth of the rumor - at least for a moment.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Debate Between Bear & Jesuit Top Dog Fr. Abascal

Equal Time for Response of Top Jesuit Fr. Abascal

Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal begins, in the best Jesuit tradition, by smiling indulgently at the Bear's simple reading of the text of the First Epistle of John, Chapter 2, verses 18 - 26 in the previous article.

"Ah, si, Oso, the Johannine Epistles. Of course the best scholarship recognizes they were written much later than claimed, by a school that associated itself with the apostle. Their author was not really the apostle, as you would know if you were a genuine scholar. Even the early Church did not know quite what to make of the epistles and Revelation attributed to him. It is doubtful that he was an historical person in the first place.

"Even so, Oso, the words are relative and one must understand the audience and purpose of any passage left to us by ancient editors. Then, if you insist on applying it to real-world situations - which is a bad idea - it must be done with great discernment which the laity lack. 

"The truth is much less dramatic than you have imagined. The authors of this epistle were addressing local churches that had been divided by a different understanding of the new faith, most likely Gnostics of some sort. In fact, this epistle is not even relevant to Catholics today.

"For example, we have a much broader understanding of who comprise the People of God on this great human pilgrimage. 

"Your simple-minded reading of the text out of context would eliminate our Muslim brothers and sisters in their own valid faith-experience of one of the three Great Abrahamic Religions. Such an exclusivist view of the Christian Faith was buried with Father Feeney. [Laughs.] 

"The requirement is not any sort of intellectual acceptance of some first-century Christ-figure, whose myths were collected around a possibly historical rabbi, or at any rate movement of universal love. Christianity is one of many simple expressions of mercy in today's world, a world that is much larger and more diverse than any imagined by the third-century editors of the Johannine school. 

"The Church is evolving into a reinterpretation of the Christ-figure that leads it to accompany everyone without exception, but especially those on the peripheries: the poor, the refugees and the migrants. Indeed, we must learn to do without the facile certainties of old labels like 'Catholic,' and even 'Christian.' Labels divide. We must never smugly formulate our brothers and sisters with a word. Only triumphalists do this.

"The existence of the crisis of Global Warming proves to us that we are all just humans being, facing the same threats, the same questions, and finding answers suited to our experience, heritage and language. The answers are unimportant. What is important is the image of each of us touching one another in mute loving ways and finding reciprocal acceptance beyond all ancient arguments, modern borders. or outdated arbitrary cultural constructs such as morality and gender.

"Your implication that Pope Francis may be an antichrist, besides being shockingly non-Catholic and uncharitable, shows a naive, even childish proof-texting that is the result of wrenching the text from its context. Catholics can hardly insist on the biblical texts as some sort of 'divine oracle.' That is superstition, and one that the Catholic Church has always condemned. They did not have tape recorders in those days, you know. But I am sure you have not considered that essential fact in your petty bourgeoisie piety. 

"It is not only futile, then, but dangerous to rely on... [laughs again] your quaint reading of your Bible. Read it for inspiration, if you must, but leave the interpretation of it to scholars who have spent years in training. You are, after all, merely a Bear."

The Bear's Counter-Argument: 2 Kings 2:24

(Several minutes later, after wiping his muzzle carefully with a napkin and brushing his fangs.) "Nothing tastes worse than antichrist," says the Bear with a toothpick in his jaws, "but what's a Bear supposed to do?"

Probably the most brilliant bit of satire from the vast collection
of the funniest Bear-related humor from the Bear's friends at
Bearmageddeon News.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Who is the Antichrist? First Epistle of John Test

The Word of God, Served Up Fresh and Piping Hot From Bear HQ

Normandy,1944. "Who goes there? 'Flash.'" / "Uh, 'mercy?'"
The Bear is not calling Pope Francis the Antichrist.
Possibly just a bit sloppy with his language?
Right from the USCCB website from their own Bible translation is the last word on everything we are usually talking about here in the woodlands.

Just ask yourself one simple question to know who is with us and who is against us as Christians. Ready?

Who moved?

That is the simple answer to everything. The First Epistle of the Apostle John is an interesting, largely overlooked, epistle. It is a short, but difficult read, due to its lack of logical organization and what may seem on first sight to be contradictions. It repays careful study, however. (The Bear is a silly and simple-minded creature who believes in and loves Holy Scripture.)

The Bear thinks of it like a sentry, issuing a series of challenges to test those claiming to be of the Christian family. It as an excellent examination of conscience.

During D-Day, sentries challenged an approaching man with the word "flash." If the response was not correct - "thunder" - he would be treated as an enemy.

In 1 John, there is first the Sin Challenge, then the Love Challenge, followed by the World Challenge.

Then there is the subject of this important message from Bear HQ:

The Antichrist Challenge 

Yes. The Antichrist Challenge. There are antichrists operating in the world today. There have been since the time of Christ. As long as we are in these Last Days (the period between the Incarnation and the Second Coming) there will be Antichrists.

How are we to recognize them? We would expect them to be smooth and subtle, like the father of lies. We would expect their status to be mutually promoted by their co-conspirators who have risen to the heights of power in a perverse and wicked generation. Since Christ promised us only a cross and persecution in this world, we would expect them to speak a world-pleasing message that would gain them personal popularity, especially as they are contrasted with "outmoded" and even "harsh" previous ideas.

Read this carefully, please. Are you prepared to take the God-breathed words of Holy Scripture seriously? Or chuck it into the doublespeak trash can like the new top Jesuit Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal from Venezuela? (The words of the Randy Newman song "Political Science" keep coming to mind: South America stole our name so... What is up with South American churchmen, anyway?) The Bear will give Fr. Abascal equal time in the very next piece, never fear.

Bears are fair. They just have so many advantages it seems like they're not.

But now the Bear must put aside his bicycle, clasp his great paws before his breast sincerely, fix you with his terrifying gaze and be deadly serious.

His performance is simply quoting scripture. He invites you to read it in context in your favorite Bible so you know he is not tricking you in any way. Let it speak to you, and listen closely, for it has more than one warning for our times.

The First Epistle of the Holy Apostle John Chapter 2 verses 18 through 26 

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. Thus we know this is the last hour.
They went out from us, but they were not really of our number; if they had been, they would have remained with us. Their desertion shows that none of them was of our number.
But you have the anointing that comes from the holy one, and you all have knowledge.
I write to you not because you do not know the truth but because you do, and because every lie is alien to the truth.
Who is the liar? Whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist.
No one who denies the Son has the Father, but whoever confesses the Son has the Father as well.
Let what you heard from the beginning remain in you. If what you heard from the beginning remains in you, then you will remain in the Son and in the Father.
And this is the promise that he made us: eternal life.
I write you these things about those who would deceive you.

The Apostle John had things pretty simple. Christians knew the truth. Anyone who tried to change what they knew to be the truth had gone out from among them. Of course, that is far too simple for today. Right?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Icons as Resistance

"Please, help my man!"

In our time it is the icon that struggles for the Church (Leonid Ouspensky).

In times past, but not remote, icons were a strong part of the resistance in the Church against the iconoclasm and oppression du jour. They can still be used very effectively in this way.

The people would buy an icon (or more) from a master-iconographer or the advanced students in the master's workshop, have it blessed in the appropriate manner and set it up with ceremony in their home. Those unable to afford an original icon would make sacrifices to buy one - that is how vital the icon was considered to be in regard to one's relationship with God, one's faith and the Christian spiritual journey. They would never dream of buying something plastic when this started to exist. Others would trade some of the tools they used in everyday life - for example, farmer's tools - for a real icon until they could pay for it. Yet others would take lessons over a period of time in order to learn how to write an icon or two for themselves, which was cheaper in the long run than buying a single icon outright - in particular if one then managed to get set up writing icons for the whole neighborhood. These kinds of icons are known as "popular icons" due to their lack of sufficient finesse in comparison to those written by the masters. They tended to be very prevalent in Ukraine.

Other people would learn to write icons by studying several older icons in depth, with the icons per se being the real teachers. Many Russian master-iconographers started out this way, in fact, because they were often so poor that they could not afford to take lessons. Some others, including priests and the laity, would defend the icon against usurpers and potential usurpers with their own lives - and in return, God would reward the people for their faith with nothing less than spectacular shows of His divine intervention. These shows often paralleled those of the Old Testament era with regard to their largesse and physical impossibility by natural means. And the fact remains that God still acts in such a manner, to this day, where icons are concerned.

Icons - Hidden, but Triumphant

The Theotokos of Kazan

You deigned to reveal Your face to me like a formless sun (Symeon the New Theologian).

According to Saint Pavel Florensky, icons should be the product of revelation, not mass production. Benedict XVI said the same thing. Some original icons have relics embedded in them. Others do not. Some are covered in part with precious stones and/or riza - a 'robe' or covering made of precious metal/s. Some are enshrined in a kiot, which is a beautifully hand-carved wooden frame that, not infrequently, costs as much as the icon due to its intricate work. Other icons are placed on a shelf in a prayer corner or hung on the wall. Some icons are adorned with a rushnyk - a hand-woven colored 'towel' with a distinctive pattern and that is used to handle the icon so as not to dirty it with oily fingerprints. Other icons are adorned with flowers. All icons, however, are the focus of veneration, fostering and facilitating prayer of the heart. They are also made to be kissed with love, the kisses given being transferred to the prototype.

"I love you, Mama"

In the home, the original icon is placed in the main room where the family gathers and which, preferably, faces east. This icon takes the place of what has become known these days as "your television." A pure beeswax candle made from the combs of hives is kept lit in front of the icon for the following reasons, according to Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite:

  1. To glorify God Who is both Light and Who has brought forth the Light of the world;
  2. As an offering to the depicted prototype;
  3. To denote that the light of Christ has dispelled all the darkness;
  4. To honor the martyrs for the Faith;
  5. To manifest the inner joy that may be present in our souls;
  6. To symbolize any good works we may have done; and 
  7. As a reminder that if we turn to God, our sins and the sins of those for whom we pray shall be forgiven and burned away.

All the colors in an icon have meaning; none of them are arbitrary. Here are some meanings of the most frequent colors that can be found in an original icon (Irina Yazykova):

  1. Red is the color of the earth, blood, sacrifice and royalty; 
  2. Blue denotes the divinity, the heavens, purity and having been chosen; 
  3. Green is the color of the Holy Spirit, eternal life and blossoming in God;
  4. White denotes the transfiguration, purity and the robes of those who do justice;
  5. Purple denotes royalty; whereas
  6. Black is the color of darkness, the grave and the abyss.
Darker shades of the above tend to indicate the impeccable brilliance of the Divine Light that has often been perceived by humanity as blinding darkness (i.e., the apophatic darkness). The gold or silver halo around the head of the depicted prototype also denote the Light and indicate that the person is a saint, angel or divine Person. Any persons portrayed without halos in icons have either not yet become saints or pertain to evil. 

A Brief Theology of Pure Beeswax Candles

"We venerate You, O God"

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God (Mt 5:8).

One hundred percent pure beeswax candles are used, to be lit in front of the icon - not 51% 'pure' as per the latest USCCB guidelines or something made out of paraffin that you buy at the Dollar Store. The main reasons for this are as follows, with some of the reasons coming from Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki:
  1. God the Father is the Provider. Everything that is offered to Him in an original icon written in accordance with traditional practice comes from the earth and its animals. No man-made materials are used. Even the brushes employed for painting the icon come from the tails of animals. The offering returned to God, therefore, when the icon is installed comes from His own provision to humankind. That is why only natural, primary materials should be employed. In a parallel manner, the candles used to light up the icon should come directly from the bees He created, not from secondary materials. Using candles of pure beeswax thus indicates one's faith that the Father will, indeed, provide during times of hardship for His people, the family or the person concerned, as He did without fail for the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt;
  2. The purity of the beeswax symbolizes the purity that should be in our hearts and souls. God is pure; He is Immaculate. As such He cannot live where the darkness of sin resides, even though He has never stopped intensely desiring to come and live not just with us, but in us - namely, in the very heart of our souls as He had lived in Adam and Eve during the first days of creation (albeit not in an identical manner), and as He has lived in a handful of human persons since then who have resided fully in the Divine Will;
  3. Beeswax candles give off a sweet, delicate scent. This scent is considered to symbolize the sweet aroma that should emanate from our souls as a result of divine grace;
  4. Candles made out of pure beeswax are supple, regardless of whether they are thick or thin. This quality thus symbolizes the flexibility that should characterize our hearts and souls until they have been made firm by the Gospel; and
  5. As the pure candles feed the flame while they burn, they symbolize our struggle on the Christian journey with the necessary, but beautiful, processes of purification, illumination and deification.
© Marcelle Bartolo-Abela, aka Bald Eagle.

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