Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Golden Autumn 1895

How much Levitan was influenced by the French Impressionists is still debated, but it is clear that despite that influence, Levitan always went his own way. I like that. "You don't keep a seagull in a cage," Mother Placid would say. 

Not only did Levitan go his own stylistic way, but he also painted Russia, which had its own unique landscapes full of spiritual energies. 

"He closed his eyes to the gladness and glory of the world, selecting in preference the sternest and most melancholy aspects of Russian scenery: grey days, autumn moods, rain-washed skies, all seen with a deeply poetic vision and painted with a breadth and boldness that aroused the hostile criticism of old-fashioned critics who spoke of his pictures as "unfinished sketches" or accused them of being pasty." The Russian Arts, Rosa Newmarch 1917

Here, the white-bark birch trees are like flame. Late blooming plants tumble down the incline to the stream and even a couple of branched plants reach out over the edge of the water. Maybe they are Michaelmas Asters which bloom in late September for the Archangel's feast day.

Fall-blooming Michaelmas Asters

There is an opening in the trees beyond which we see a farmer's field that has already been plowed  for the winter rest. The stream twists, but we don't know if it has come around the bend from left of right. This is how my science-consultant friend describes Levitan's clouds:
These are Cumulus clouds, specifically Cumulus Humilis. The are found in separate puffy piles and indicate fair weather, usually developing in moderate tempertures. In this case, they get the name humilis because they are relatively small and non thretening cumulus type clouds. Other forms of cumulus, with more vertical development, indicate possible thunder storms.
Four years before Golden Autumn was painted, art critic Alexander Benois wrote about a large exhibition he'd gone to see which featured some of Levitan paintings.  Levitan was thirty-one at the time. Benois wrote in the Tretyakov Magazine:
"It felt as if windows were un-shuttered and flung wide open, and a stream of fresh, sweet smelling air rushed into the stuffy exhibition room filled with the stench of too many sheepskins and oiled boots."
"A stream of fresh, sweet-smelling air" - can you sense it?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Evening at Volga 1888

Levitan spent a lot of time along Russia's greatest river, The Volga, painting it from different angles and at different times of the day. I like this one specially because its colors are said to be opalescent. I wasn't absolutely sure what opalescent meant, so I looked it up: iridescent, rainbow-like, lustrous, many-hued, sparkling, shimmering. Look at the water with its great reflective power, and the sky - which could be even close to ten at night, if it's June. 

There is an opening between the trees on left and right that seem to invite us to enter a contemplative place. I'd suggest that the title itself: Evening at Volga is vague enough that I might ask: Whose evening is it? Just Levitan's? My own?

It's perfectly right that we should ask that question, as Levitan loved new ideas, especially ideas that grew out of his insights about archetypal images: light, darkness, fog, colors, water, desert, wilderness, fire and ice, thresholds. Archetypal images are those ideas that every human person can identify with from a deeply personal place. That's what we've been doing these Lenten weeks.

Notice how horizontal lines play an important part in this painting, but lines which don't serve as barriers but invitations to venture even further: in the middle of the water there is a bright horizontal line, then the line of deep blue reflective water, then the line of the mountains the base of which shelters a town along the thin line of beach,  then finally the line of soft sky and clouds. 

I took a trip up the Volga River in 1996, traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg. In the middle of July, the sky remained bright well after ten at night.  So I went back to look at the pictures I took along the way and found this one below. I remember the feeling of awe when I saw this scene, and here I am twenty one years later discovering Levitans' painting so much like it.

Then I thought of the lovely hymn, Shall We Gather At The River? written by Robert Lowry in 1864 - the river of the Book of Revelation 22:1-2.

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of  God?

Yes, we'll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will talk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.

Ere we reach the shining river,
lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.

At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior's face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
lift their songs of saving grace.

Soon we'll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

Intercessions ~ Fifth Sunday in Lent

At the start of April,/ we pray for all who celebrate birthdays,/ anniversaries/ and other days of remembrance,/ asking for them/ blessings of safety, /peace and good health./ We pray to the Lord.

Martha and Mary intercede for their brother,/ Lazarus,/ who has died./ We pray for our own families and friends/ mindful of any who are in difficulty or trouble./ For gifts of healing./ We pray to the Lord.

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday./ We pray for peace in the world as Holy Week begins./ And as the Church - East and West - / celebrates Easter together this year,/ we ask that we would love each other well./ We pray to the Lord.

Heal the nation of indifference,/ ranquor and suspicion./ Restore the good we risk losing/ and give us new hearts./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for the world's children and adolescents,/ for workers,/ prisoners and their families./ We pray for Iraqi civilians who are trapped in terrible war-violence,/ and for all who are suffering or in need./ We pray to the Lord.

Friday is World Health Day./ We pray for the sick,/ the handicapped and the frail./ We intercede for those who have no access to health care,/ who have no insurance,/ who live in poisoned,/ diseased or dangeorus places./ We pray to the Lord. 

We pray for the Jewish people as they prepare to celebrate Passover next week./ We ask for healing there is disunity,/ bigotry,/ anti-semitism./ And that we would experience our own passover from darkness to light./ We pray to the Lord.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Evening, The Golden Plyos 1889

In the Summer of 1889, Levitan worked on this painting which is near the riverside town of Plyos. He has sitting above the Volga River on a hillside. Houses and churches go right up to the edge of the water. We're standing in a clearing of tree stumps; some wooded areas still surround the village.

An artist-friend told me recently that for a painting to be great, the colors are not as important as the artist knowing how to create light and shadow. This painting of a summertime afternoon is filled with a wonderful light. There is a mist or fog over the river that is so dense it veils the river's opposite bank.

For all we have,
and yet we remain

For all we can do,
and yet we remain

For all we have achieved,
and yet we remain

Easter Jesus,
lift the fog
that keeps us
from seeing 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Wild Lilac and Forget-me-nots 1890

Sometimes we see flowers placed in extravagant vases. Here, Levitan has casually placed May-blooming white lilacs and blue forget-me-nots in a clay vase with a matte glaze. He didn't buy these stems in the florist but would have found them walking along the road or in a field nearby. They are modest, unpretentious flowers in an unpretentious vase.

There's an old German legend that says, God had finished naming all the plants and flowers when a tiny un-named one called out: "Forget-me-not, O God." And God replied, "So that shall be your name."  

And while Catholics have largely negative attitudes towards the Free Masons, they were the ones who in 1926, wore forget-me-nots on their lapels as a symbol for the government not to forget the poor and the desperate. We could do with some of that today.

Any parochial school Catholic who grew up in the 1940's, 50's or 60's will remember the May-Mary shrines we decorated with lilacs brought to school wrapped in aluminum foil. But for all their delicacy and heady fragrance, bizarre as it may seem, in folklore it was considered unlucky to bring lilacs, especially of the white variety, into the home. And they must never be taken to a hospital. 

Fortunate for us, Levitan didn't know about any of that or simply didn't care. I suspect he was too genuinely spiritual a man to allow superstitions to distract him. He has simply found these flowers and put them together in their simplicity. Let us enjoy them.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Mediterranean Sea Coast 1890

Levitan completed this painting of the Mediterranean Sea Coast in 1890 while traveling in the South of France. He takes delight in the sea's ranks of color and the wet beach covered with pebbles and shells. For his association with Levitan's work, the great Russian opera basso wrote:

"It has brought me to the realization that the most important thing in art is this feeling, this spirit, this prophetic word that sets people's hearts on fire and this prophetic word can be expressed not only in speech and gesture but also in line and color."  Fyodor Shalyapin (1873-1938)

Shalyapin is bold in twice using the phrase prophetic word, which is a reference to God's active presence: standing before these paintings we might experience something of God.

The word "sea" appears for the first time in Genesis 1:9,10. It is day three of creation. 

And now God said, Let the waters below the vault collect into one place, to make dry land appear. And so it was done; the dry land God called Earth, and the water where it had collected, he called the Sea.

On day five, almost as a kind of creative after-thought, God filled the sea with living things. The original Greek has the birds, like the fish, being created out of the sea itself.

But it isn't long before the whole thing seems to have taken a wrong turn and the sea becomes a place of terror where, like the desert, monsters are encountered. By the end of the bible we see this negative "take" fully expressed:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, the first heaven and the first earth had disappeared now, and there was no longer any sea. Revelation 21:1

Here, the word sea is no longer a geographical place but is now symbolic of all the chaotic energies and forces set against God. In the end, that sea of chaotic, anti-God energies will be no more. Jesus knows. Maybe he didn't use the word sea so to stress that evil isn't somewhere out there, but up close and personal:

"Can't you see that nothing that goes into someone from outside can make that person unclean, because it goes not into he heart but into the stomach and passes into the sewer." And he went on "It is what comes out of someone that makes that person unclean. For it is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a person unclean." Mark 7:21-23

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Ferns in Forest 1895

This forest floor is so alive, Levitan might have titled his magical painting: Ferns and Moss in Forest. 

These light-collecting ferns, long passed their un-coiling, have spread their wings as if ready to take off. Ferns develop their spores (seeds) under the surface of the leaves, usually spreading them only after the leaves have dried. Other ferns spread by shallow, horizontal roots called runners

Perhaps it's this feature of winter-surviving, shallow roots that causes ferns to be seen as symbols of endurance. The word endurance seems to have derived from Latin, Greek, Irish and Lithuanian sources, all of which mean solid, strong, hardened, resilient - even oak - a particularly hard wood.

Everyone has a story of endurance: Hang in there an American might say. Carry on, a British subject would say. I had a parishioner who told of joining the fire brigade during the London Blitz, when she and her girlfriends would climb buildings dragging heavy canvas hoses, dousing roof fires caused by Nazi incendiary bombs. A twenty year old "girl" standing up to Hitler - that's endurance.

But of course endurance needn't be as dramatic as all that. 

  • caring for an elderly loved-one
  • years of study to become a doctor.
  • a difficult pregnancy
  • raising a family
  • slogging out long transportation to a unrewarding job 
  • fighting an addiction

Levitan's forest ferns might remind us of some personal time requiring endurance and gratitude for the inner "stuff" that enabled us to lean in and stay standing.

But then there's the moss beneath the ferns! Moss symbolizes the soft covering of maternal love. These two bible verses might come to mind. The psalmist likens God to a desert bird protecting her chicks from the withering sun with  umbrella-like wings, Psalm 91:3,4.
He rescues you from the snare of the fowler set on destruction; he covers you with his pinions, you will find shelter under his wings. His constancy is shield and protection.  
But we might give credit where credit is due: it's a mother-bird (she) who stands over the chicks with cooling wings.

And then Jesus, (who St. Juliana of Norwich called Mother), lamenting over Jerusalem.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refuse!" Matthew23:37

Consider the rich depth of Levitan's forest floor: the endurance of ferns; the maternal love of moss.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Dandelions 1889

The Philadelphia Flower Show was in full bloom this past week. And here, in the most strong contrast to that show's sumptuous displays, is Isaak Levitan's Dandelions. The stems have been casually placed in a half-glazed clay vase. Wouldn't they look silly in silver or crystal?

Americans spend huge money getting rid of dandelions in their quest for the perfectly manicured, weed-free lawn. Many of us will remember as children picking dandelions as a gift for mother. In my childhood home, they were put in a jelly jar or juice glass. Dandelions are a sure sign of Springs arrival.

Dandelion flowers are short-lived. Indeed, Levitan shows some of them drooping and others gone to seed. That transition can happen overnight: the flowers fade, then turn into a ball of fluffy seeds that fly away in a breeze or when we blow on them. Dandelions are the most un-obtrusive of native flowers and for their short shelf-life, reminders of how fleeting we are.

Levitan might understand this better than most, his parents having died within two years of each other when he was a teenager. Doesn't it seem the older we grow the more aware we are of how quickly time flies. The sand streaming through the hour glass seems to move most quickly as times up draws near. 

"Well now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow, we are off to this or that town; we are going to spend a year there, trading, and making some money.' You never know what will happen tomorrow; you are no more than a mist that appears for a little while and then disappears!" James 4:13,14

Someone might say, "I don't need to be reminded of that." I'm not so sure - I'd suggest we do need to be reminded because we're dragged or pushed along speedily with countless obligations and distractions that can leave us exhausted functionaries. The Psalmist knows to ask:

"Let me know how fleeting my life is, so I may learn wisdom of heart." Psalm 39:4

Notice the verse says, "so I may learn wisdom of heart" not wisdom of mind. There's a difference. Wisdom of mind could mean that I would learn intellectual things well. But of heart means that I would learn compassion: Let me remember that my life is fleeting so I might learn compassion.

Compassion is the ability to feel with living beings wherever they suffer. Compassion wishes for all to enjoy happiness, it feels concern for others and cherishes their well-being. 

Levitan, who knew poverty and sickness, and who died just a few days short of his fortieth birthday, and left more than a thousand paintings and sketches in his studio, seems to have known that we don't have forever. I'd stretch that thought a bit: We don't have forever to learn compassion and loving kindness.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Haystacks, Twilight 1899

This is one of a large number of Levitan twilight paintings: haystacks in a field at dusk. The sky is described as mauve-blue. There is an evening mist. It makes for a painting with a very deep mood or atmosphere: Shhh, stop, admire, consider. 

Levitan painted this scene the year before his death. Perhaps it reflects his awareness that we're here only a short time. Notice the descending sun has cast a kind of spotlight in the middle of the painting. Twilight is said to be a magic hour: the coming and going of the two lights - sun and moon.

Mother Placid was a French nun who I knew for some years. She was born in a tiny village on the Atlantic coast in Basque country. She told me that when she was a young girl at around this twilight time of day, a man with a long pole would walk through the streets lighting the gas lamps. And as he moved carefully from street light to street light, he'd sing a hymn-like song thanking God for the blessings of the day and inviting a restful peace upon each home. When he died, no one took his place. 

Twilight is full of spiritual invitation. Lasting only a few minutes each day, we're impoverished if we miss it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Gully 1898

The strange name for this painting, The Gully, leaves me wondering if it's just a poor translation of the Russian title. A gully is a water-worn ravine, a canyon or gorge. This is a view of lake and sky seen through an opening in the trees. 

Levitan was about 38 years old when he painted this scene. And while his health was deteriorating his palette became increasingly bright. Levitan always instructed his students not to put on the palette any color that was not going to be used in the painting. So here we have shades of green and blue. 

The high grass just in front of us is put down simply as an impression so that we don't linger there, but go beyond. The trees to left and right form a kind of frame for the two layers of blue: water and sky separated or demarcated by a horizontal band of  tilled fields or beach.

We say, "A picture's worth a thousand words." When I first started exploring Isaak Levitan's paintings for the Lenten blog, this painting jumped out, immediately taking me back to the early autumn of 1976 when I was a third theologian in seminary. 

This seminary was situated on the north shore of Long Island bordering on Lloyd Harbor. The seminary itself was a large building which could house over two hundred men, a church-sized chapel, library, classrooms and dining hall. But beyond the seminary itself there was a deep woods with a long, wide path leading down to the water. That forest-y place was a silent refuge where I went often, even in hard rain and deep snow.

This Levitan painting took me back to those truly awesome moments of silent standstill and secret hope. I hadn't formulated the thought at the time, but I often sensed we weren't being formed as holy men, but problem solving, well-informed tradesmen. 

I wasn't unhappy in seminary, I never dreaded or hated the place, but I wish it had been so much more. Blue is the color of divinity. Here, Levitan shows us the trees pulled back like a curtain, revealing that divinity beyond, much as I had wished for seminary to reveal something of God to me. 

"You know, you can see God; you can touch God," my priest spiritual director told me many decades later. I wish I had heard that as a seminarian, because it would have rallied me, healed me, excited me, delighted me and set me on a new course. This isn't a lament, because while that encounter didn't occur inside the building, it surely happened outside, in the kind of moment Levitan has captured here. 

Intercessions ~ Fourth Sunday in Lent

The man born blind in today's gospel has no name;/ he is each of us./ We pray to realize how we are somehow blind/ asking for the desire and willingness to see./ We pray to the Lord.

The gospel account opens with the blind man being judged by the religious leaders./ Grant us spiritual maturity,/ freed of that ignorance and prejudice which assesses everyone else./ And for our own salvation./  We pray to the Lord. 

Pope Francis will visit Egypt in April./ We ask for hi
s safety in a world of violence and troubles./  Protect Egypt's Coptic Christians who are often impoverished and persecuted./ We pray to the Lord.

We join people of good will all around the world/ praying for those who died or were injured by a terrorist attack in London this week./ Again we pray for those who plan and do evil./ For the turning of hearts and minds./ We pray to the Lord.

Those who lead and govern need our prayer./ Grant that they would be unifiers,/ honest,/ decent and genuine servants of the people they represent./ We pray to the Lord.

In South Sudan over a million children are facing starvation and death brought on by civil war./ We pray for our world where it is in crisis,/ where resources are hoarded,/ where there is deep poverty and economic inequality./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for our families/ and all those we know and love who are sick,/ frail,/ unsettled,/ angry or burdened with worries./ For their strengthening and peace./ We pray to the Lord.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

October ~ Autumn 1891


Someone might think it's strange to be reflecting on a painting titled: October ~ Autumn, while we're awaiting signs of Spring. But the seasons have a message for us always.

October, the tenth month of the year, is synonymous with Autumn and the harvest time. We speak of the October Harvest Moon. Apples are in season and late-season grapes are finally ready for harvesting.

October is a season for seed-sowing. The wildflowers have formed their seeds which will drop or be blown away to hunker into the ground through the winter. Notice the farmer's fallow field on the far right. Perhaps he will plant a green-crop to hold the soil in place through the winter to be turned under in the Spring for fertilizer.

October is the month for planting bulbs: tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and crocuses. October is a good time to transplant a tree, giving it some weeks to settle in before the frost takes hold. Calves, fawns and cubs conceived in the autumn will be born in the spring.

October also holds great spiritual energies, culminating in All Hallow's Eve. It is the month when the world's history changed: on October 31, 1571, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg, challenging the Church to purify itself of abuses and to re-discover the Word of God. Martin Luther said, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God." 

I was pastor to a church which was built just a few yards away from an inlet. One early October morning, as I walked from the rectory to the church for Mass, a flock of honking geese in V formation flew so low over my head I could hear the whirring of their wings. 

October ~ Autumn is a season of nature-activity and possibilities:
  • the setting of buds,
  • decaying leaves nourishing the ground,
  • the planting of seeds and bulbs,
  • the conceiving of animals,
  • the harvesting of fruit and late-season vegetables,
  • a single priest retrieving the Word of God ~ inviting the    Church to reflection and honesty.
October is talking to us - inviting us! Levitan understands.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Birch Grove 1885-1890

It took five long years to complete this painting (1885-1890). But these were busy years which took Levitan out of his studio: sketching trips to Crimea, a couple of trips to the Volga River, creating exhibitions when returning to Moscow. In 1889 he was sick with typhoid. Following his recovery he took trips to Berlin, Paris, Nice, Venice and Florence. 

But here we are 127 years later, standing at the edge of the Birch Grove, pondering its invitation to enter. Spring is underway. The trees are fully leaved, the grass is getting high and colorful field flowers grow around our feet. 

Leo Tolstoy wrote: "The basis of human happiness is the possibility to be together with nature, to see it and to talk to it."  Talk to it! Maybe this is one reason there are so many unhappy people in this land of shopping, eating and destruction. Joni Mitchell sang in the 1970's: "We've paved paradise and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot." 

The Prophet Isaiah knew how to be one with nature and even to talk to it:
"Shout for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done it! Shout joyfully, you lower parts of the earth; break forth into a shout of joy, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it; for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, in Israel He shows forth His glory." Isaiah 44:23

The style of Levitan's work is called mood landscape.  This doesn't mean, "Oh watch out, Isaak might be in a bad moon." Nor does mood or moody mean dark and depressing. Moody means the image has the power to call forth an emotion or deep feeling. Moody means that nature has an inner life of its own which can elicit a personal response as we stand before it.  We might stand in the Birch Grove and see what happens - inside.

Notice that Levitan has titled the painting, Birch Grove, not just Birch Trees. That's because groves of trees have religious significance for polytheists - religions which worship more than one god. But we shouldn't dismiss it then by saying, "Oh that's pagan," because Christians have their own grove of trees where a profound God-encounter took place.
Then Jesus came with them to a plot of land called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Stay here while I go over there to pray." Matthew 26:36
In my bible there's a footnote after the word Gethsemane: The name means; 'oilpress'. It lies in the Kidron valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives. 

Jesus has a profound experience of prayer in that olive grove. He is interior-ly crushed as he sees the world in all of its destruction, blood-hate and greed. A sweat like great drops of blood is pressed out of him. And in the middle of his suffering there is this moment of consolation:
Then an angel appeared to him, coming from heaven to give him strength. Luke 22: 41
In Levitan's Birch Grove the bark of the trees seems to shine from inside, and there is dappled light coming through the leaves and onto the grass. We can pray in this Birch Grove.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Meadow on the Edge of the Forest 1898

The word edge got my attention when I discovered this Levitan painting: Meadow on the Edge of the Forest. Edge means the farthest point from the center, the outer limits of a place or object. Depending on which side we're standing, it's either the edge of the forest or the edge of the meadow. The two edges come together in this painting.

But edge can also be a verb: to creep or inch along, to move gradually, to move carefully in a direction. Levitan has painted this meadow scene two years before his death. He knows his heart is weak; that he does not have much more time. He is edging towards the end of his life. 

Maybe this is why parts of the painting seem to have been painted quickly. The trees are moving in a breeze, there is a kind of blank sky without detailed clouds full of good or bad weather. And while the painting is basically green and white, it is filled with light. Indeed, the closer Levitan edged towards death, the brighter his palette. 

What does this say about him? That he wasn't afraid? That he believed light would be the victor over darkness? That there is life on the other side? That he had come to a place of inner acceptance?

He is standing in the meadow. A few more feet and he will have stepped into the forest. In the language of poems and myths, the forest is rich in symbolic meaning:

  • the forest is the place outside our control
  • the forest is the perilous place of the unconscious - where terrors lurk
  • the forest is the place of hiding
  • the forest is the home of supernatural spirits
  • the forest is our pristine home: unspoiled, clean and fresh

Throughout his short but very productive career, Levitan believed that a painting should convey emotion, feeling and something of the spiritual world. As he stands at the edge of the meadow, perhaps he is telling us that for all its troubles and suffering, the world is still a beautiful place and that he expects when it's time to step over to the other side, he will discover meaning, consolation, resolution, the taming of our inner monsters and the healing of our dread.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Path 1877

Levitan likes to paint paths, trails and roads. He knows they are symbolic of life, the life adventure or life as a pilgrimage.

"Your Word is a lamp for my feet and a light upon my path." Psalm 119:105

I'd suggest an indicator of this knowledge is that Levitan's path here is bordered with shades of green. Indeed, the bush on the left is like a fountain of life. Though he also knows that the life-path is not always easily traveled - this is a rough, rutted road; a bumpy road.

Levitan rarely places human figures in his paintings, though he is aware of people: there may be footprints in the snow, or an unseen person has chopped and stacked wood, or a group of local folks will have cut down the hay. But here, there is a woman on the road. She is dressed in black. Does that suggest she is a widow? Maybe Levitan is telling us that while we travel the life road, though we may have lots of family, friends and contacts, we are all essentially alone along the way. 

We are viewing the painting from the bottom of the path, where it begins to rise. This rising alone is symbolic: our rising up to consciousness, our rising up to knowledge. St. Paul writes in his letters: 
"But earnestly desire the higher things. And I will show you a still more excellent way." 1 Corinthians 12:31

This path provides a number of options. I can go up a little ways and then take the branch off to the right which leads to the house on the rise. Or I can take the hairpin turn on the left which  leads down to the marshes and the horizon far off. Or again, I could continue on and into the curve at the top of the hill. We don't know what's around that curve: danger or delight, an even rougher road, inhospitable villagers, wonderful shade trees, a dead end. I could even decide to turn around and go back the way I came.

While my life-path includes the basics: where I grew up, what schools I attended, my job history - all the more it includes the people I have met (for good or ill), the experiences I have had that have helped to form the kind of person I have become. The life-path includes: 

  • the advances and setbacks
  • highs and lows,
  • joys and sorrows,
  • twists and turns,
  • ups and downs,
  • successes and failures,
  • coping and managing,
  • gains and losses,
  • and sometimes stories of survival.

But along the life-path some people carry a deep sense of regret.  I think we ought to use that word sparingly, because there's often so much to learn as we go through the downside. Hmm, maybe that downside is symbolized by the hairpin turn descending to the marshes in Levitan's painting.

At age 18 (1969) I joined a small community of Franciscan brothers in Western Ohio who ran some large residential schools for boys who were losing their way. But attached to these schools were working farms which allowed the schools to be self-sufficient. That was my interest: give me the tractor keys, a pitchfork, even a bucket and mop, and I'd be useful and happy.

But when I arrived at the Covington, Kentucky airport, the brother who met me said, "Well, you start school tomorrow." And I thought, "Good God - school! - I hate school." In a sweat-breaking panic (and looking up to the sky to see if the plane had left) I said in a choked voice. "Brother, I've joined the order to work the farm." And he said, "Oh, we're phasing all of that out; we want all of our brothers to be teachers." TEACHERS!?

Anyway, I stayed a year (1969 was an awful time to enter religious life) and then returned home. I got a job washing dishes at Friendly Ice Cream, thinking I'd do this for the rest of my life. But my mother pressed hard, telling me I had to go back to school. I dreaded the thought but started night classes at a two year college, later transferring to a four year college and securing a Bachelors in Education. I immediately got my first job teaching in a Manhattan Catholic school where my father had gone as a boy in 1913! The years which followed were productive and happy! 

"Well, you start school tomorrow!" You never know what's around the bend - maybe a life-changing, even life-saving encounter. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Bird Cherry Tree 1885

Here Levitan has painted a Bird Cherry Tree (Prunus padus)growing in someone's front yard behind a picket fence. Some Bird Cherry research yielded the following: Bird Cherry may also be called Hackberry or Hagberry and grows below the Arctic Circle in Northern Europe: the British Isles, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Seven to forty feet tall, Bird Cherry's highly fragrant flowers bloom May through June. Its shiny-black, bitter fruit, while edible, would more likely be eaten by birds than people. We'd be apt to find it growing along the edges of streams, in water thickets and at the margins of the forest. Isn't it wonderful to know something about a tree, rather than just seeing it and walking by?

Levitan really wants us to notice and appreciate the tree itself, so he has left the background indistinct, more like an atmosphere, sense or impression. I expect he'd be glad for us to join him, inhaling deeply as we approach the tree. We remember Moses being awestruck by the burning bush which was not consumed. And here we would be in awe of the Bird Cherry's perfume. Of course, the tree is fragrant to entice pollinating insects, but it draws us as well, who have the soul-power of appreciating flower-fragrance for its own sake. 

On day three of creation: " The Lord God made all kinds of trees to grow out of the ground - trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food." Genesis 2:9. Pleasing to the nose too. And "good for food" may mean food for animals not just people. We share this planet with millions, billions, of other living things. We're imperiled when we forget or ignore that. 

I want my powers of perception and appreciation to expand and deepen. That's a big part of what makes someone truly human - to acknowledge and delight in all that God has made.

Friday, March 17, 2017

High Waters (Flooding) 1895

Levitan often painted flood waters and high waters. This watery scene has the primeval feel we've seen before, where we're taken back to what seems to be the beginning of history, to the first days of God's creating.

Water is particularly important for Christians. We spend the first nine months of our lives in water. We pass through water to get born and then return to the water to be born from above in Baptism. In Baptism, we're flooded with Christ.

But while water gives life, it can also take life. We think of the terrible loss of life caused by the Japanese tsunami in 2016. For the Christian, water signifies the death of what is old in me: selfishness, resentment, indifference, pride...

Spring Flood Waters also calls to mind Psalm 69:1 - "Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck." Another translation says, "For the waters are come in unto my soul." 

We can name those up-to-my-neck flood waters:
  • Up to my neck in debt.
  • Up to my neck in family troubles.
  • Up to my neck in health concerns.
  • Up to my neck in anxieties and doubts.

But then God says through the Prophet Isaiah 43:2 - "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you." That's consoling. Levitan seems to share that verse in picture form: notice the dark clouds are moving out swiftly, with a brighter sky behind. And there is a  wonderful play of light off the waters that have flooded the grassy inland.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Day In June 1895

Look at how Levitan loves the Russian countryside, capturing miles of blue sky with a few wispy clouds. We don't see the sun but it's casting warm light everywhere: on the farmers field to the left, the birch tree's white bark, the forest beyond and the wonderful field of multi-colored flowers.

We might remember Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The story of a terribly dysfunctional southern family comprised of Big Daddy, Big Mama, brothers Brick and Gooper and their respective wives, Maggie and Mae. At one point, with the dysfunction in full flood, Big Mama says to Maggie:

You know honey...we was never a very happy family. There wasn't much joy in this house. You know how some homes are happy. I thought coming home from the clinic today, 'Now we'll be happy here.' You and Brick will live with us and have your children here. And we'll help each other be happy.

Levitan's painting, A Day in June tells me: Stephen, look at all the trouble God has gone to, to help us be happy.

There's the secret of course: happiness and helpfulness go hand in hand. I think that might just be God's first  creation-message to us. And isn't that what family is supposed to be: helping each other to be happy? And isn't that what Church should be: helping each other to be happy? And isn't that what living in the United States of America should be: helping each other to be happy? 

One of the more sensitive displays of this I've ever seen was while sitting in the dental hygienist's chair one morning. And all the while she was cleaning and polishing, others from the team kept sticking their heads into the room and asking their colleague, "Can I get you anything?" "Is there anything I can do for  you?"  "Is there something you need?"  

Intercessions ~ Third Sunday in Lent

Winter Aconite

Spring officially begins tomorrow./ We pray to witness in ourselves and in the Church/ evidence of the season's characteristics:/ new life,/ thawing,/ warming/ and the greening of faith,/ prayer and community./ We pray to the Lord.

This past week much of the country was under snow./ We pray for those who suffered injury,/ damage or costly losses./ Prayers of gratitude for all who helped to keep others safe and well./ We pray to the Lord.

Often our treatment of other people is ferocious:/ strangers,/ children,/ refugees,/ those perceived to be the enemy or simply different./ May our minds be tamed and our hearts opened./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for our planet and those who shamelessly exploit it:/ the resources,/ the plants and animals,/ the air and the water./ Grant us a new reverence for the paradise-gift we have been given./ We pray to the Lord.

During Lent there are people who are preparing for Baptism at Easter./ We pray for them/ and ask for some new insight into the meaning of our own Baptism./ And for any who have abandoned their Baptism call./ We pray to the Lord.

Grant strength,/ hope and healing to the sick,/ blessings for all whose work is the care of others in hospitals,/nursing homes,/ hospices and clinics./ And for the healing and conversion of prisoners./ We pray to the Lord.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Evening Bells 1892

Yesterday we viewed Levitan's painting, Quiet Abode ~ The Silent Monastery, which he painted in 1890. Now, two years later, he has returned to the monastery on the river, pondering and painting from a different vantage point. Instead of the wooden bridge connecting the opposite shorelines, here we see a small boat carrying pilgrims over to the monastery. Perhaps they are going to attend Vespers (Evening Prayer). We see the little dock from which they set out and two additional small boats. A boatman waits for another group. 

Notice the path right in front of us, growing out of the field flowers along the lower edge of the painting. And then, how wonderful is this, the same path picks up across the river on the other side where two monks stand looking to welcome us. That's how much Levitan wants us to go with him.

The calm waters reflect the monastery complex. And for all the beauty of what we're seeing, of course, the dimension missing is that of hearing the bells. But we can imagine. 

It is said before the 1917 Revolution, church bells rang from one end of Russia to the other. When Josef Stalin came to power in the early 1920's, his first mandate was to silence the bells, either removing them or having them destroyed on the spot. The churches, convents and monasteries that were not bulldozed or blown up were put to secular use: turned into stables, storage houses, movie theatres, office space, prisons, insane asylums and skating rinks. The Krivooserski monastery was submerged and lost when the Gorky dam was built and the reservoir filled in the 1950's.

But here we have Levitan's work of deep respect before us - still inviting us to hear the bells of invitation, to cross over and enter. The Dali Lama has said:

"In a sense a religious practitioner, whether man or woman, is like a soldier engaged in combat. Who is the enemy? Ignorance, anger, attachment, and pride are the ultimate enemies; they are not outside, but  within, and must be fought with the weapons of wisdom and meditative concentration."  

There are Christians who conceive of the combat as a war with the culture and a fight to preserve religious freedoms. But those battles are not an inner spiritual way and leave us un-transformed. One Catholic mission institute is offering a six day spring program of renewal titled: Whatever happened to Jesus? I'd suggest this is the problem, and it is a serious one: the loss of the Christ-Center. The Dali Lama suggests meditative concentration. For the Christian disciple that means an immersion into the four Gospels and daily study of the same. 

Want to take the little boat across the river to the evening monastery? Be spiritually kind to yourself and get a copy of Daniel Durken's New Collegeville Bible Commentary of the New Testament (copyright 2009). It is available through Liturgical Press. My copy cost less than $25.00, which if I used it daily for a year comes to about 6 or 7 cents a day. A large pizza with drinks and a tip might cost more, no?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Quiet Abode ~ The Silent Monastery

This is the Krivooserski Monastery near Yuryevets, Russia. Levitan spent the summer of 1890 here, painting and sketching. He knows the forest and the river are holy places too, not just the monastic buildings. 

A wooden footbridge (needing repairs) connects us to the far side. It is quiet and still here, even the river is calm, so calm, water lilies grow in the bottom left corner. The monastery's reflection is very beautiful, isn't it? What we're looking at is so important, we get to see it twice.

There are four cupolas on the far right church, (though one is hidden from view) symbolizing the Four Evangelists gathered around Christ. They also signify lighted candles - the monastic community's prayer ignited by faith. 

We might wonder how this painting would be received today? Would it be rejected because the theme is so overtly religious: "I'm spiritual, not religious," people say. 

One website says about this painting, "The bridge links the monastery to the outer world." That's correct of course, but only on a very practical level. Rather, the monastery on the other side of the river calls us to traverse the river, walking over the unsure bridge, to our own inner monastery, our own interior silent place. We remember the invitation of Jesus:
"And now the apostles came together again in the presence of Jesus, and told him of all they had done, and all the teaching they had given. And he said to them, Come away into a quiet place by yourselves, and rest a little. For there were many coming and going, and they scarcely had leisure even to eat.  So they took ship, and went to a lonely place by themselves." Mark 6:30-32
This invitation echoes another Gospel verse from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches us about prayer:
"But when you are praying, go into your inner room and shut the door upon yourself, and so pray to your Father in secret; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Matthew 6:6
Of course Jesus is talking about an inner room. Most people don't have a private physical space to call their own. I remember when I was a young teacher in the early 1970's and on the deafening subway going up to Harlem every weekday morning - I'd see African-American women sitting peacefully with small open bibles on their laps. They would understand this painting.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Church in Plyos 1888

In the the Spring of 1888, Levitan stayed in Plyos, a 12th century town on the right bank of the Volga River. Here in this scene it is mid-morning, the sun is high and pushing through low-lying clouds, the air is warming. We have left the village and are climbing (perhaps a little out of breath) to the crest of the hill where we find the little Church of the Resurrection built in 1699.

But the 200 year old church is weathered and worn. The fence is falling down; the gate is gone (only the stone posts remain). Are those holes in the sagging roof?

We go up to visit the church. I'm thinking of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, and Jesus going up the mount to deliver his Sermon in Matthew 5,6,7 and then again, Jesus going up to Jerusalem where he will carry the cross up Mount Calvary. 

Biblically, going up a mountain or hill suggests there is going to be a divine encounter, an experience of God. There are lots of people who keep religious laws and observances but who have never had an experience of God. That's too bad. By no means must that experience occur in church. St. Paul, on his way to menace Christians, experienced the Risen Christ while traveling the road to Damascus. 

Levitan's church is forlorn, perhaps suggesting the experience of God is not likely to happen there. We shouldn't think that meant Levitan was anti-church. But we can expect he knew that late 19th century Russian Orthodoxy was not experiencing what we would call a golden age: the Church had failed the people morally, the clergy spiritually weak, church life and worship were on auto-pilot. We needn't wonder why so many people angrily rejected the church 29 years later in the Russian Revolution. The same thing happened 100 years previous in the French Revolution when a weakened Catholic Church was thrown overboard.

The door to this wooden church is hardly visible; there are no windows. Not very accessible. But look, there is this wonderful sky - traditionally symbolic of God's dwelling and presence. Atop the church there is also a single cupola (onion dome) which is a stylized candle, symbolizing the little flame of faith still burning, however fragile. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read:
"The Word of God is living and effective, discerning reflections and thoughts of the heart." Hebrews 4:12
God knows what's going on in the intimacy of our hearts: our longings, intentions, hopes, joys and sorrows. So what does my heart carry as I climb the hill?

When I was a boy discovering a church, I always approached, hoping to find the place would be open. What a disappointment when the doors would be locked. But even if this Church of the Resurrection is shut up tight, emptied of its altar, lights and icons, the people gone away - I can still stand and pray, reaching out to touch this most alive and reassuring sky.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

May: First Green 1883

Here is Levitan's painting, titled: May: The First Green. Actually, it's not finished but a sketch, like a story-teller who roughs out the draft beforehand. Levitan has captured a perfectly lovely day - all light and green. The painting is dated 1883, when he was just 23 years old.

To appreciate what we're looking at, it's important to know something of the artist's story. Isaak Levitan was born in 1860, in what we would today call Lithuania. His Jewish parents were cultured people who instilled in their children a love of music, art and literature. The mother died when Isaak was 15 and the father soon afterwards became so seriously ill he was unable to work. Without the safety nets of  Social Security Disability or Medicaid, the family fell into a desperate poverty such that the boys were often unsure of when they'd eat next.

When Isaak was 13, he and his brother were enrolled in the Moscow School of Painting, but upon the father's death of typhoid fever four years later, unable to pay the tuiton, he was forced to drop out. Good friends and patrons saw to it that the fees were paid, and Isaak was able to return.

While studying there he met three transformative teachers who were also personal mentors and friends. Vasily Perov, who helped Isaak to discover within himself what it means to respect the subject being painted and also a conviction that art should express a sensitive regard for the poverty in which many lived in 19th century Russia. Of course, Isaak already knew what poverty felt like. This revered teacher died when Levitan was 22 years old. 

His new teacher, Vasily Polenov, had just returned from travels in Greece and Egypt, bringing back fresh insights as to the painting of southern light. Levitan painted May: The First Green one year after meeting Vasily PolenovAleksei Savrasov taught Isaak how to know nature first hand by working outside. When the snow started to fall, everyone went out to paint in the woods.When the snow started to melt, all his students went out into the countryside.  Isaak learned how to paint rocks, streams, pools of water, rivers, fields, meadows and forests. 

Do we see the thin young saplings behind the fence? There is also a grass patch inside the circular earth path. We go around and around in our lives and along the way, there are gates, openings to possibility: the people we meet, the places and experiences which form us. Perov, Savrasov and Polenov were just what young Isaak Levitan needed after so much disappointment and loss - teachers who were also friends, who honed his skills but also led him into an interior life of awareness, respect and sensitivity.

Could I suggest staying with this painting for a bit to consider a time in my life I might call a personal springtime - bright green with new energies, new direction, new interests, going through the gates which present encounters by which I evolve and succeed. And while we see the fence and the young trees, beyond, there is a hill or mountain which suggests the invitation, "Come through and into this living land and then up, up, up...!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Istra River 1886

Levitan painted this landscape of the Istra River when he was 26 years old. How calming: the winding river moving along slowly. Perhaps it is late spring or early summer,  the snow and the shadows are gone, the earth is alive and all-green. Seeing the river from a distance, we seem to be standing on a rise some distance away.

The Istra River is a 70 mile tributary that flows into the Moscova River. Even the choice of this secondary river as a painting subject tells us something about Levitan's curiosity and powers of observation and respect. This spot where he's standing is no tourist trap where souvenirs, food and cruises are peddled. Indeed, as is usual in Levitan's paintings, there are no people in sight. But you are there, and that's all that matters.

I want to discover the loveliness of out-of-the-way places, where perhaps no person has ever stood before. This spot feels quiet - I might say, eternally quiet, inviting me to have my un-censured thoughts. It's said that Russian rivers are slow and meandering. Maybe the river with its reflective edges and soft sky above is saying, "For heaven's sake, slow down."

But I'm also thinking that regulations have been recently rolled back that protect our own nation's rivers and streams. It's no longer required to safeguard the water from coal mine runoff and coal waste dumping. What's wrong with us? We've discovered with alarm that the water of Flint, Michigan is poisoning the little children causing birth defects and sickness. The care of rivers and streams is a pro-life issue!

The three boys in the Book of the Prophet Daniel who sang their canticle from the fiery furnace teach us: Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas and streams. We've lost our spiritual vision when we neglect the care of water - which is essentially what we're made of and was used for our baptism. I'd add, that to leave the streams, rivers, seas and oceans so vulnerable, is to insult God who gave them to us as life-source. A God-insult is called blasphemy. I don't even like the sound of that word.