Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Spring Surprise


The other day I came across this lovely native plant growing along the edge of the woods. Turns out it has many names: Dutchman's Breeches, Collicweed, Eardrops, Staggerweed, White Hearts, Butterfly Bane, Fly Flower, Soldier Cap and Monk's Head. 

Fly Flower is about eight inches tall, with many waxy-white flowers held up in clusters above thin stems. The underneath leaves are soft and fringed. It was often children investigating field and forest who bestowed names on these native plants. Free association! "I see a soldier's hat," "I see a monk's hood," "I see a lady's earrings," "I see a pair of pants."  Or farmers named them after seeing how the plants (often negatively) effected their cows and sheep. At any rate, the giving of names suggests a time when people lived, worked and played outdoors more often and were thus observers of natural things: plants, animals, rock and land formations, rivers, streams and clouds...

We're losing (or have already lost) this connection and the delight it can bring. There's a moment of wonder when we discover a nature-surprise. We come into the world filled with wonder - crawling around and exploring objects and spaces, learning to identify colors, sounds, textures and tastes. And as we grow, there's a lot going on that can rob us of this sense of wonder. "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot." 

I knew a surgeon who was rushing against time to identify and catalogue the remaining native plants on Long Island. An elderly man, he never mentioned going to church, but his keen sense of wonder was evident. Remember the creation account in Genesis - day three:

And God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind And God saw that it was good. and there was evening and there was morning, a third day. Genesis 1:9-13
It's spring. We might take a walk around the property or down the block or maybe there is some untouched wild space not too far away where we might look down and be surprised. Look long and close - as long as it would take to discern the tiny yellow tips on the bottom of each flower in the photograph above. 

God is all-imagination.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Intercessions ~ Third Sunday After Easter



Pope Francis visits Egypt this weekend/ standing in friendship with persecuted Coptic Christians/ and in dialogue with Muslim leaders./ We pray for his safety,/ asking that his visit would bear the fruit of peace./ We pray to the Lord.

We ask for the brightness of the Risen Christ to shine in dark hearts:/ in the military-industrial complex,/ in politicians and clerics,/ in government,/ the judiciary system and finance industry./ We pray to the Lord.

Twenty million people in Somalia,/ South Sudan,/ Nigeria and Yemen are threatened with starvation/ among them more than a million children./ We pray for them/ and wherever children are orphaned,/ abandoned or in crisis./ We pray to the Lord.

The Risen Christ was recognized in the breaking of the bread./ We ask a blessing on our Eucharistic worship/ and that we would see Christ also in those around us at Mass:/ the children,/ the newcomer and visitor,/ those who are worn down or alone./ We pray for those who stay away from Mass./ We pray to the Lord.

We seem increasingly to see each other no longer as Americans/ but as divided Republicans and Democrats./ We ask for a new national community,/ with a renewed sense of what is best for all - not just some./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for the many in our country held in the tight grip of drug addiction./ We pray for those who produce,/ smuggle and sell drugs./ And for those who mourn the loss of loved ones lost to this dark aspect of life today./ We pray to the Lord.

Finally we pray for any who have died since last Easter./ For deceased soldiers and sailors,/ aid workers and rescuers,/ family and friends./ We pray to the Lord.




Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Divine Mercy Homily



This is the Sunday with many names: Low Sunday, Thomas Sunday, Sunday in the Easter Octave, Sunday ending Bright Week. Pope John Paul II said we might also call the Sunday after Easter Divine Mercy Sunday. What is it about?

The Hebrew word Chesed refers to God's Mercy. Appearing dozens of times in the bible, Chesed declares that God is kind - lovingly kind. Some Christians think "God's Mercy" suggests God is a soft touch, preferring the blow up God who annihilates enemies. 

Having tried everything to win us back to himself, God turned to face us squarely, looking upon our world most tenderly and kindly through the human face of Jesus Christ. We see this especially in the Gospel of St. Mark, where Jesus often takes people by the hand, lifting them up from their sickness and frailty (Mark 1:31, 1:41, 5:41, 8:23, 9:27). In Christ, God, ever so kindly lifts up humanity out of our folly, stupidity and brashness.  

In today's Gospel, Thomas is absent  when the others meet the risen Jesus. Notice Jesus doesn't say, "Well, too bad for you Thomas, you missed it." But Jesus appears a second time when Thomas is present, and invites him to take a closer look. 

On Easter morning, discouraged Peter returned to his former life as a fisherman where Jesus met him on the beach for breakfast (John 21:12). It seems in Christ, God tailors himself to the needs of our inner world.

And we're supposed to learn from this: not only how God is with us, but how we might be with others. 

I received an email the other day from a young man who graduated high school about five years ago. After graduation he became down and out, repeatedly dropping  out of college and eventually losing his funding. He cheated death a number of times in bad living and found himself hungry and almost homeless. Landing a job in a sheet metal factory, he developed asthma from the chemicals.  

One Sunday he stumbled into an Eastern Orthodox church and stayed for the liturgy. Having professed atheism most of his adult life, the visit prompted him to start searching in Catholic churches and even Buddhist temples, while periodically returning to the Orthodox community. 

It was there that the parishioners rallied around him. Even though he knew they had problems of their own, these folks saw to it that he had food and a couple of bucks in his pocket. And when he took a job that required a daily commute, the priest's mother made him lunch and gave him money for the bus everyday.

So he was baptized last week at the Easter Liturgy. It wasn't dogma, great liturgy or a charismatic preacher that won him, but the kindness of the parishioners. 

Mercy, which is loving kindness, whether God's or ours, begins with noticing: Jesus noticing dejected Peter. Jesus noticing Thomas wasn't there. The parishioners noticing the young fellow's dilemma. 

Mercy begins with noticing.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Easter Earthquake ~ The Angel Like Lightning



Painted high on the wall, this is the "White Angel" of the 13th century, Serbian Milesevo Monastery. Were we to visit, we would see the Myrrh-bearing women to the right and the soldiers fallen like dead men beneath the angel's feet. Here is the Gospel account.

On the night after the sabbath, at the hour when dawn broke on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalen and the other Mary came near to contemplate the tomb. And suddenly there was a great trembling of the earth, because an angel of the Lord came to the place, descending from heaven, and rolled away the stone and sat over it; his face shone like lightning, and his garments were white as snow; so that the guards trembled for fear of him, and were like dead men. Matthew 28: 1-4

This translation speaks of a great trembling of the earth while others speak of an earthquake. Remember just a few verses before, at the moment of Jesus' death we read:

And all at once, the veil of the temple was torn this way and that from top to bottom, and the earth shook, and the rocks parted asunder. Matthew 27: 31

God is shaking things up dramatically. The temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. Meaning? Now, in the open heart of Christ, and the open and empty tomb of Christ, everyone has access to God. There are no more barriers or designations required.

But also, do I need a personal Easter-Earthquake? A shaking up of my thinking: my partisan world view, my too-little thinking, my small thoughts of others, my childish thinking, my hard-headed thinking. Maybe my inner world of guilt or pessimism needs to be parted asunder.

And then there is this amazing angel descended from heaven. This is not a mellow, shoulder patting "there, there" angel, but with a face like lightning and a robe, blazing like the sun-reflecting snow.

Then the angel explained things to the women, as another angel explained the plan to Joseph at the start of the Gospel. What a surprise, as the women had gone only to "contemplate the tomb" - to mourn Jesus.  The angel said: "not dead, but alive" and the women get it, and filled with a sense of urgency, they run. 

What does all of this mean? God is glorious! God is awesome! God is attractive and beautiful! God can't contain himself and wants only to share himself with us. 

Let's be attentive to anything in religion that wants to tame God - take the surprise out of God: tame and tepid hymn singing, tame sermons, tame prayers. We live in a silly culture where, if we pay attention to the commercials, the only thing we should run for is a bladder emergency or to be first on the buffet or Black Friday line. But do I ever feel dazzled by God, awed by God, enough to make me run - at least interiorly?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Intercessions ~ Second Sunday After Easter ~ Divine Mercy

Original Divine Mercy Image


Today is Divine Mercy Sunday./ We pray to learn and live God's kindness,/ rediscovering courtesy/ and a generous consideration of others./ We pray to the Lord.

The world is living in great tension these days./ We pray for the calming of passions/ asking for world leaders to use good sense and restraint./ We pray to the Lord.

We join Pope Francis in his Easter prayer/ asking for the conversion of those hearts which spread terror,/ violence and death,/ and those hearts which make and traffic in weapons./ We pray to the Lord.

We ask for Christians,/ Jews and Muslims,/ and all people of good will to be agents of healing,/ reconciliation and fairness./ We pray to the Lord.

May the world's children be welcomed,/ comforted and loved./ Bless parents with the insights and skills needed to raise up their children well./ We pray to the Lord.

In the Easter time we pray for the safety of travelers,/ for the sick and those who care for them,/ for students and teachers,/ family and friends,/ and for those who live without hope or joy./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for those who have died since last Easter/ to see the Risen Jesus face to face./ For mourners,/ the homeless/ and the friendless./ We pray to the Lord.



"I demand from you deeds of mercy, you must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it." Diary of Sister Faustina 742

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Levitan and Newman



Here is an 1890's photograph of Isaak Levitan working on a large painting in his Moscow studio. And below is Cardinal Newman's prayer which invites us to reflect upon the meaning of Levitan's life, but all the more, our own. 

God knows me and calls me by name.....
  God has created me to do Him some definite service;
  He has commited some work to me,
  which he has not committed to another.
  I have my mission - I may never know it in this life,
  but I shall be told it in the next.

Somehow I am necessary for His purpose...
  I have a part in the great work;
  I am a link in a chain, a bond of connnection
  between persons.

He has not created me for naught.

  I shall do good,
  I shall do His work;
  I shall be an angel of peace,

  a preacher of truth in my own place,
  while not intending it,
  if I do but keep His commandments
  and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him.
  Whatever, wherever I am, 
  I can never be thrown away.
  If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;

  if I am in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him;
  if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.
  My sickness or perplexity, or sorrow may be
  necessary causes of some great end,
  which is quite beyond us.

He does nothing in vain; 
  He may prolong my life,
  He may shorten it;
  He knows what He is about.
  He may take away my friends,
  He may throw me among strangers,

  He may make me feel desolate,
  make my spirits sink, hide the future from me -
  still he knows what he is about.....
  I am simply to be used.

March 7, 1848

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter Monday at Levitan's Grave



Easter is so big it can't be celebrated in one day, so it overflows into an eight-day octave. The day after Easter Sunday has many names: Bright Monday, Pasquetta or Renewal Monday. In the Middle Ages it was called Laughing Monday - laughing at Satan who got his comeuppance.

I thought after spending almost fifty days reflecting on the painting-gifts of Isaak Levitan, we could visit his grave in the Novodevichy Cemetery and bless God for all the artist has brought to mind.

To bless God means to joyfully express gratitude to God, to admire God's beauty, wonders, goodness, richness, graciousness. To bless God means to delight in my own personal experience of God. O God,  you are very great!

Bless the Lord my soul and forget not all his benefits. Psalm 103:2
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and bless his name. Psalm 100:4

Bless God!
For sunlight,
lamplight,
firelight,
starlight and 
moonlight in phases.

Bless God!
For riverside,
streams,
trails,
paths and roads,
mountains and hills.

Bless God!
For spring thawing,
summer ferns,
autumn birches and
winter snow.

Bless God!
For twilight of
morning,
twilight of 
evening,
daytime,
nighttime,
fog and mist.

Bless God!
For dandelion and lilac,
cornflower,
grasses,
forget-me-not and moss.

Bless God!
For stormy rain
and pebbled beach,
forest edge, 
and flowering field.

Bless God!
For high water,
low water
watery depths,
shallow shorelines
and cloud reflections.

Bless God!
For meadows and groves,
bridges and boats,
silent churches,
stillness
and prayer.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Flowering Meadow





We open up the computer screen,  greeted by Levitan's Flowering Meadow on Easter Morning. The sparkly field seems to announce, Christ is Risen!

Saint Augustine said, "We are an Easter people." What's that? With gratitude we look for life everywhere, and walking along with the Risen One, we set out to be as fully alive as God has created us each to be. Eternal life starts here. It's the healing gift we make to the Good Friday world in which we live. 

Some weeks ago, reflecting on one of Levitan's Volga River scenes, I found a photograph of high clouds taken on my Russian river trip in 1996. But I also found this picture below taken at Kizhi Island in Lake Onega. This is the place with the wooden churches I'd seen pictures of when I was a boy. 

And along the stone wall at the base of the church with the lovely title: The Intercession of the Virgin, I came across the surprise of this flowery meadow. "Earth is crammed with heaven." Maybe a meadow like this inspired Levitan's painting. 




I had never heard of Isaak Levitan before this Lent, and when my friend Yuri mentioned him one Sunday after Mass, an inside voice whispered, "Check it out." I'm glad I followed the inspiration. These Lenten weeks have been a great pleasure for me. I thank you for coming along and for sharing thoughts and prayers of your own.

Part of being a  Christian - is that we have new eyes for seeing. And this is all the more important as we are exposed to so much seeing that is about destruction, violence, frenzy and buying, buying, buying. Do you know this hymn: Help Us Accept Each Other? Verse 4:

Lord, for today's encounters with all who are in need, who hunger for acceptance, for righteousness and bread, we need new eyes for seeing, new hands for holding on; renew us with your spirit; Lord, free us, make us one!

I feel a great gratitude to Isaak Levitan. He is buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. Perhaps we can visit his cyber grave tomorrow on Easter Monday.

I send a greeting to your homes and a blessing in the Easter time. Christ is Risen! Indeed he is Risen!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Springtime in Italy 1890






In early March of 1890, Levitan went abroad for the first time. For two months he traveled to Berlin, Nice, Menton, Paris, Venice and Florence. How fortunate for us - here he has painted the same vista twice. Remember Pete and Repeat: Can you spot the differences? I'll leave you to it.

Averil King describes these paintings: "...the mountain valley effervescent with the blossoms of fruit trees, while tall snowy peaks loom in the distance." What a good word choice, effervescent, which we might use to describe champagne, soda or spring water. 

Anne Bradstreet was the first female writer in England's North American colonies. Reflecting on winter and spring, she wrote: 

"If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome." 

In the second  image, we might place ourselves along Levitan's life-path to consider our own transitions from personal winter to spring. Sometimes the spring is early; sometimes late. The spring might settle in gradually, with advances and setbacks. I remember my anxiety when, as a young, show-shoveling priest, I saw a robin flying wildly in a  blizzard at night. 

But later I discovered that God's nature-plan provides for that moment: the Hemlocks offer shelter and a hiding place. And when the ground is frozen or covered with snow, the robins resort to sumac until the earth is free and soft again.


Sumac: Emergency Food

Friday, April 14, 2017

Sunny Day 1876



Someone lives in this house; there are chickens in the yard. Imagining relief from the complexities of our own lives, we sometimes romanticize scenes like this. But this house wouldn't have been insulated, you could die from the flu, the food was rough, you wouldn't know how to read or write, the infant mortality rate was high.

Still, Levitan is right, it is a Sunny Day, and that would have mattered a great deal to the strugglers who live here. Struggle is proper to each person, in every place and every time. We hear of people who have the world at their feet who suffer terrible inner pain. We could all do with a sunny day at one time or another. Indeed, doesn't the world need a sunny day? Now we can pray.


In the darkness of lies,
the shadows cast by power,
people hiding in fear,
O God,
we need a sunny day.

In the death-decisions,
the weaponization of hearts,
in the false reports
concealing what really happened,
O God, 
we need a sunny day.

Where desperate people aren't helped,
in the obstruction and delay,
where religion is perverted,
O God,
we need a sunny day.

In the deflecting and defending,
in the threats and extinctions,
in the ramping up and swagger
the big talk and the vanity,
O God,
we need a sunny day. 

In the heaping up of secrets
the resource-rape and greed,
the national pain-killer addiction,
the neglect of children,
O God,
we need a sunny day. 


So instead of just lamenting the news of the day, we can turn it into prayer. We need to read the psalms more than we do. The folks who put the Mass-lectionary together excised all the psalm laments (infidelity, lies, being away from Jerusalem, sickness) leaving us with only the cheery bits. That's unrealistic. Every time the psalmist sounds depressed for all the oppression and suffering the world can dish up, the last verse or two ends with a bright and confident turning to God who secures us in love. It's a good model for our own prayer.

We might add our own verse or two, reflective of what you know or experience personally. But let us  end brightly: O God, we need a sunny day.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Intercessions ~ Easter Sunday




We pray for Pope Francis at Easter/ as he will speak a word of peace and hope to the world in its fragmentation and pain./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for the Easter morning earthquake/ to shake up the Church /to become the true sign of salvation for all./ We pray to the Lord.

We ask that very soon/ the Churches of East and West would celebrate Easter together every year/ as we do today/ giving the world the witness of unity and reconciliation./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for the Christ of Easter morning to enlighten minds lost in ignorance,/ power abuse,/ lies and pride./ We pray as well for those throughout the world who are baptized at Easter,/ and for Christians whose lives are threatened/ We pray to the Lord.

We pray at Easter for the healing of the Holy Land/ and for everyplace where there is poverty,/ hatred,/ bitterness and violence./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for those who live without joy at Easter; / refugees,/ the homeless poor,/ those who are active in addictions/ or who are suffering painful losses./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray blessings at Easter for our families and friends,/ for the sick and the frail./ We pray too for those who have died since last Easter,/ mindful of loved ones deceased and those who are left un-mourned./ We pray to the Lord. 

Tempest Rain 1899



Levitan created this amazing painting in 1899, the year before his death. He had been told by his doctors a few years earlier that his heart would not last much longer. Here, a great tree-bending storm is rolling in over a clearing where men have been stacking firewood. Perhaps they have run for cover as the sky darkens and the wind picks up. Can you feel it?

The Christian might think of the synoptic Gospel accounts of Jesus calming the tempestuous sea. Here is St. Mark's telling:


With the coming of evening that same day, he said to them, 'Let us cross over to the other side.' And leaving the crowd behind they took him, just as he was, in the boat; and there were other boats with him. Then it began to blow a great gale and the waves were breaking into the boat so that it was almost swamped. But he was in the stern, his head on the cushion, asleep. They woke him and said to him, 'Master, do you not care? We are lost!' And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, 'Quiet now! Be calm!' And the wind dropped, and there followed a great calm. Then he said to them, 'Why are you so frightened? Have you still no faith?' They were overcome with awe and said to one another, 'Who can this be? Even the wind and sea obey him.'  Mark 4:35-41

It's dawned on me, we never address the question Jesus raises in this boat: "Why are you so frightened?" We often think Jesus is being stern when asking questions like this. Could he have been smiling or laughing a little at our worrying so much? Maybe the disciples were afraid of losing the fishing boat they needed for their livelihood or afraid the sea monsters would get them and then their wives would have no support and they'd lose the house and, and, and...

"Why are you so frightened?" Maybe we don't allude to the question because it unnerves us.  Fear is one of the four emotions: happy, sad, angry, afraid.  We spend a lot of our life being afraid. Some of the fears are laughably silly; others quite serious. 

I'm afraid of losing my money
afraid I won't have enough for my retirement -
  the TV commercial says I'll need a million dollars
afraid of losing control
  of my temper
  of my teenage kids
afraid of bad weather
  black ice
  heavy snow
  fog
  thunderstorms and
  lightening
afraid of other drivers who might be on drugs
afraid of losing sobriety
afraid of the E.coli in the bag of lettuce
afraid of being ripped off by the contractor
afraid of being lied to
afraid of failing
  or falling
afraid of having to admit a mistake
afraid of the loss of my health
afraid of the loss of a loved one
afraid I'll lose the job
afraid I'll lose my hair
  good looks
  figure
  sex appeal
  eye-sight
  teeth
  strength
afraid of the sun's rays
afraid the surgery won't work
afraid of losing the best parking space
afraid of the people who are supposed to be leading us
afraid of other countries
afraid of terrorists
afraid of war
afraid if the electric goes out I'll lose what's in the freezer
afraid these meds won't work "forever"
afraid of losing my mind

YIKES!

I'm thinking three things: 1) Answering Jesus' question truthfully, I have to admit I am a very earthbound person. My affections and energies are essentially tied up with this life on earth. 2) Jesus must know something I don't know - how a person can live, freed of so much earthbound fear. 3) The AA saying comes to mind: Fear is the darkroom where negatives are developed.

Can I imagine standing out in Levitan's Tempest looking up at the sky with arms outstretched and smiling? Someone might say, "You're nuts." Maybe. But Jesus' question remains.

And if I take Jesus seriously then I have to answer honestly, trying to discover his secret for living in inner freedom. AA also says: "Let go and let God." Anyone who follows the Twelve Steps will likely acknowledge how difficult it can be to live this way. That's why I suggest Jesus was smiling (not frowning) when he asked the disciples "What are you afraid of?" He's understanding, not judging.

Here's a start: the only thing I really need to be afraid of is whatever could take me away from God.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Moonlit Night, A Village 1897



It could be eleven o'clock at night here if it is summertime. And while the top of the painting is filled with soft color, the bottom part is characterized by stripes of dark shadow. 

In Buddhist cultures monks and nuns are so revered, it is even unthinkable to step on their shadow. Remember the scene in The Acts of the Apostles 5:15 where people bring the sick into the streets and lay them on beds, so that Peter's passing shadow might fall on them to heal. In Psalm 36:7 we read

Yahweh, you support both man and beast;
how precious, God, is your faithful love.
So the children of Adam
take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

In psychology shadow is what I refuse to acknowledge about myself and yet is always appearing one way or another. Shadow is something that doesn't feel right about my personality, that I don't seem to be able to control. And if I don't recognize it and attend to it, then it leaks out, impacting on others and poisoning the atmosphere in which I live. 

Addressing one's personal shadow is not the same as "breaking a bad habit" or labeling mortal and venial sins or  practicing virtues. We might meet an alcoholic who hasn't "touched a drop" in years but who is resentful, controlling and arrogant. They are sometimes called dry drunks. This is untreated or un-addressed shadow.

We've all got a shadow side. Often our portrayal of the saints is so full of light and without any indication of their having a shadow side, it becomes difficult to identify with them. We wind up admiring them from a distance while feeling poorly about ourselves. "I'm no saint," some Catholics like to say. That's a conversation stopper as they then seldom reflect more deeply about their own dark side. Many people grow old and have done nothing to address their shadowy aspects and so they become unattractive, full of resentment, hatreds, pettiness, selfishness, vanity. We know the movie character, the man or woman who has become a "miserable old thing." 

What to do? People who practice The Twelve Steps are successful to the extent they really tell on themselves. "You're only as sick as your secrets," they say. A wise nun addressing the seminarians said to us, "Reveal it: darkness can't stay in the presence of light." And if I can't or won't risk that revelation for fear of this, that or the other thing - find someone to work with who does this professionally. Really getting at it is hard work. But then we're free!


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Twilight Moon 1899



I've saved Levitan's Twilight Moon for today as Passover begins tonight - the first full moon of Spring. The moon in its many phases is a powerful archetypal image. That means the moon may appear in the dreams of an American, an Italian, a Tanzanian, a Peruvian. And here, Levitan has shared the full moon with us. Look at how the moon transforms the water and turns the shore grass into gold!

Confucius said: "Ignorance is the night of the mind, a night with no moon by which to see clearly." And Jesus often calls us to wake up out of darkness and ignorance and to stay awake. Indeed, in the Passion Account we'll hear this week, Jesus will enjoin the disciples in the garden to watchfulness: "Could you not stay awake for one hour."  Some people will take that to mean Jesus wants us to do holy hours, maybe on First Friday or Holy Thursday night. Why argue with that? But I'd go further: if I live in God, awake to God, then every hour is a holy hour. 

We're already in the middle of Holy Week. I'd say every week is a holy week. The nuns would require that we be able to name the holy days. I'd say every day is a holy day. I want to wake up to that reality; I want to see it clearly, I want my life to be fully illumined by that awareness. God, right up front, bright, beautiful and full, like Levitan's moon here.

In mythology the moon is called the Shepherd of the Stars - the assembler, the gather-er. But if God has placed the moon to gather the stars, all the more do we need a gatherer, an assembler,  so lost in fragmentation and other-ism.

Before Levitan's Twilight Moon

May we be illumined by the Wounds of Christ.
May we stay awake to the Call of Christ.
May we be watchful for the Nearness of Christ.

May we assemble out of the sad divisions.
May we assemble forsaking the partisan idolatry.
May we assemble for the sake of our God-given planet.

May we gather around the miserable ones.
May we gather to welcome the terrified ones.
May we gather to heal the damaged ones.


Syrian boy pulled from the bomb-rubble

Monday, April 10, 2017

Lake Como 1894



In 1894 Levitan went abroad to Europe for the second time: to Venice, Nice, Paris and Lake Como in Northern Italy, And while he created only a very few pieces on that trip, along the way he worked on several versions of Lake Como. Perhaps he was not feeling well, as later that year he was diagnosed with serious heart disease.

Lake Como is known for its dramatic scenery in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The coastal village on the right gives us an idea of how monumental these mountains are. Low wispy clouds are rolling through a splendid sky. Psalm 121 comes to mind; let us pray it with care.

I lift up my eyes unto the hills;
  from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the Lord,
  the maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot to be moved
  and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel
  shall neither slumber nor sleep;
The Lord himself watches over you;
  the Lord is your shade at your right hand,
So that the sun shall not strike you by day,
  neither the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
  it is he who shall keep you safe.
The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in,
  from this time forth for evermore.




Sunday, April 9, 2017

White Lilacs 1895



Speaking with a Jewish friend about the Sabbath, she said its first purpose is to take a break from the money wheel we ride and to give God what is God's due. It's increasingly difficult (seemingly impossible?) for Americans to take a weekly rest from that money wheel, Sunday now just another day for making and/or spending money. Many of us will remember childhood Sundays when stores were closed and family was strengthened. 

Sabbatical means creative rest. When I was twenty-five years ordained I  arranged for a three month sabbatical to Assisi, Italy. While preparing for the time away I asked my priest-spiritual director what he thought I should do during that time. That I framed the question in terms of do-ing, indicates I was still riding the wheel - if not the money wheel, at least the American busy-wheel. And he said, "Each day find a place to sit: above a valley, in a forest, in a garden, on a mountain, by a stone wall, by a church, near a field...and just sit there...even for hours." 

The idea terrified me because I couldn't see how it would be productive. I get it now, that when we sit, attentive, focused and appreciative of what's before us, something happens inside, and we are somehow changed or evolved. I believe it.

Here, Levitan has placed a bunch of white lilacs in a glazed vase for us to look at and enjoy. Thousands of tiny, fragrant, white flowers, joined together in clusters called panicles. The flowers have become a kind of fountain with some green leaves interspersed. There is nothing else around or behind the vase to distract us.

Was it an American who invented the term, multi-tasking? We're not served well spiritually or humanly living that way. "But when you have your cup of tea," the priest said, "just enjoy your cup of tea."  

We might resist the temptation to glance quickly at these lilacs and then run away to DO something productive. If we're honest, fair and kind to ourselves, we can take a little sabbatical everyday, if even for some minutes.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Water Lilies 1895



While the French Impressionist, Claude Monet, was beginning to paint his bright and atmospheric waterlilies, Isaak Levitan went his own way, depicting them floating above dark but translucent water, with finely detailed leaves and flowers. 

Water Lilies sink their roots into the mud of ponds, along the edges of lakes and in slow moving streams. And while Levitan has set out, so sensitively observant of even subtle leaf variations and decay, I'm wondering about something else he's got going on in this painting.

The pond water in Monet's paintings, while reflective of light, remains opaque. Levitan's pond water is translucent, we can see down into it, enabling us to feel something of the water's dark depths and the other water plants growing and stretching up to catch as much light as possible. It adds a new dimension for our consideration.

So what about these dark waters and light-seeking plants? These are troubling days. One highly regarded senior senator recently called the nation's atmosphere cynical. I wanted to be sure I had a nuanced understanding of cynicism, so I checked the dictionary.  


  • Cynicism is believing that people are motivated by self-interest;    distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.
  • Cynicism disregards appropriate standards in order to achieve one's  own self-interests. 

Stephen Colbert says, "Cynics always say no." Was it Bob Dylan who said, "You can't please a cynic if you try."

Levitan's water plants stretch up towards the light out of the gloom. Perhaps the painting invites us to detect cynicism within ourselves. "Just listen to yourself," the expression goes when we're speaking foolishly. Is there some inner place, an unconscious place, that wants to stretch up out of the dark, muddy shallows and into the light?

A week from today, Catholics all over the world will bump around in dark churches, welcoming the Risen Jesus with lighted candles. And when the great candle is halfway up the aisle, it is as if the flame jumps into the hands of the parishioners. The joy is palpable as the light spreads and intensifies.

I remember one year consciously thinking as I saw the flame passed on one to another, "Where is the darkness going?' It was as if the darkness was being literally pushed out of the building. 

Might those darkness-dispelling candles:


  • We're the people who believe light wins over darkness
  • We're the people who say yes more than no, 
  • We're the people who take pleasure in everything that's good
  • We're the people who hope to be characterized as children of the light.
  • We're the people who want even our unconscious selves - our inner dream world - to be permeated with light.

Click on the lighted candles below and listen to the Unionaires of Union College, sing the hymn: I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light. The lyrics to the three verses are found here as well, so we're sure not to miss any of the hymn's beauty. Take notice of how the choir savors the words, Jesus, God and Father and how the word God is carried in three ascending notes - like Levitan's water plants stretching up and out of the gloom, to light. 

I want to walk as a child of the light,
I want to follow Jesus.
God set the stars to give light to the world,
The star of my life is Jesus.

Refrain:

In him  there is no darkness at all.
The night and the day are both alike.
The Lamb is the light of the city of God.
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

I want to see the brightness of God.
I want to look at Jesus.
Clear sun of righteousness shine on my path,
And show me the way to the Father.

I'm looking for the coming of Christ.
I want to be with Jesus.
When we have run with patience the race,
We shall know the joy of Jesus.






This hymn is based on the following scripture verses: Ephesians 5:8-10, Revelation 21:23, John 12:46, 1 John 1:5, Hebrews 12:1

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Alley 1892-3




Along this Lenten-Way we've considered a number of Levitan's paths, trails and roads. They are symbolic of the life-path we each walk: the lessons life has taught me, the people I've met, the places I've visited, the books I've read, my decisions and choices, the crises I've navigated, the dreams, inspirations, insights and ideas. 

While surveying my life-path there are moments I'll be tempted to label as regrets. But as I've said elsewhere, I think we should use that word sparingly - God can be encountered most wonderfully in the regrets. Peter, all tied up in the sad regret of his having denied knowing Jesus, meets him in the depths of forgiveness and friendship on the Easter morning beach. John 21: 4-17

This gospel scene isn't just about Peter, but as much about myself: God, rushing to me in my ignorance, immaturity, brashness, mistaken haste, reactive fear. 

Maybe The Alley isn't the best translation for the painting's title. Rather, notice that the path here passes through a tunnel of living trees. Perhaps The Tunnel would be a better title.

Tunnels can appear in dreams as a passageway fraught with dangers and fears. A tunnel can be a secret place. Most people have at least one kept secret: a secret fear of rejection, a confidence that's been entrusted, perhaps some serious error I haven't come up for (yet). Our first life-experience is to pass through a tunnel to get born. 

But Levitan's tunnel is green, alive and shaded. It's a wide path,  so I needn't feel claustrophobic. And perhaps best of all, way down at the far end is an opening of blue sky - blue being the color of divinity. 

Someone might say, "Oh, this is the path to heaven." I'd say it's much more than that. All along the life-way I want to keep my inner eye on the divine presence: reassuring, beautiful, inviting, encouraging. In every moment, God is here, like the mother who pulls in her anguished child so close, right up against her. 

Actually, in case we think the divine is to be encountered just at the end of our long life-road, a kind of reward for good behaviour, Levitan has got the blue of divinity bouncing off the bark of the trees inside the tree-tunnel. Nature itself sparkles with divinity. 






Thursday, April 6, 2017

Bonfire c.1895



Levitan is the master of nocturnes: melancholic night landscapes, contemplative spaces which elicit feeling. Here, we are sitting along the river on a moonlit night. There is an interesting cloudy sky and silhouetted trees. And under the trees, (can you see it?), there is a campfire. The soft glow gently pushes away the darkness. Night time invites prayer, awake to the world in its need.


Tonight,
the nation,
devolving into me and mine,
may we rediscover us and our.

Tonight,
in Kenya, Nigeria and South Sudan,
Yemen and Somalia,
millions are starving. 
May they live,
because the advanced
world feels an urgent solidarity.

Tonight, 
may the families of the world experience
rest,
health, 
safety,
recovery and endurance.

Tonight, 
may the designation: world-leader 
also signify: healing peace-maker.

Tonight,
sitting under these moonlit clouds,
along this illumined river,
by this warming fire,
may we find our way
by the light of compassion.

Tonight,
may we be
calmed in our agitation,
agitated in our indifference.

Tonight, 
may my heart take-in every child:
crying,
shaking,
pained,
abandoned.

Tonight,
may those who manufacture,
and those who sell
guns,
bombs,
landmines,
poisons
and every kind of weapon,
find another way.

"Prayer effects nothing," someone might say. The answer to the prayer, if one insists, is that my heart be expanded. Levitan and his hunting friend shot a brightly colored bird in the woods one day. As they held the dead bird in hand, they realized they were idiots, saying, "One less beautiful creature in the world now." I don't want to be an idiot. With every prayer I want my heart to be more compassionate and enlightened. In a world that drops bombs of poison gas on children - that's not for nothing.

Intercessions ~ Palm Sunday




At the start of Holy Week/ we pray for those who will pilgrim to Jerusalem/ asking for this to be a peaceful and prayerful time of year./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for the world where there is great suffering this week:/ the terrorist attacks in London and Russia,/ the deadly mudslide in Mocoa, Colombia,/ the chemical warfare against civilians in Syria./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for a world that does nothing to harm children,/ but which will welcome them,/ love and protect them./ And for all who work for the welfare of children./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray to be enduring and blessed this last week of Lent,/ asking for growth in goodness,/ knowledge and unity./ We pray to the Lord.

Approaching Easter/ we pray for the conversion of those who carry killing in their hearts,/ lies,/ greed,/ injustice and the abuses of power./ We pray to the Lord.

Grant strength and comfort to the sick,/ assistance and care for those who are alone in their struggle./ For those who are filled with grief at the loss of loved ones/ remembering especially those who mourn children./ We pray to the Lord.

And as we hear of so much pain and wrong-doing,/ we pray for ourselves and our families not to succumb to indifference./ We pray to the Lord.




Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Inside the Peter and Paul Church in Plyos 1888



This is the first (and perhaps only) interior scene Levitan painted. It is the little church of Sts. Peter and Paul. We viewed this wooden church, as if from the air, at the start of Lent.

We are standing on the worn, wide-planked floor, looking ahead to the iconostasis, which is not a dividing barrier, but a place of intimacy and encounter. The altar is behind the central Royal Doors through which the priest comes and goes to bless us, to enjoin us to worship and to bring Holy Communion to us. The icons serve as windows, as if heaven is looking out at us in mercy and encouraging love. The heavenly ones, the angels and saints singing, Holy, Holy, Holy!

This small church, likely holding less than one hundred people, reminds me of the chapel at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in Yonkers, NY. My own seminary, a few miles away, had a large gym complex for our use and the seminarians at St. Vladimir's had an open invitation to use that gym and our extensive library. 

Now and again, a group of us would drive over to their place on Saturday night for Vespers in their chapel. Notice in the painting there are no pews: the shoulder-to-shoulder worshippers stand throughout, often for many hours. That's how it was at St. Vladimir's. 

I remember one evening, after the deacon incensed all the icons on the screen, he turned and started to walk down along the wall of the chapel to incense the many icons that were placed there as well. And as he moved along, the entire community stepped to the left. And when he got to the back of the church, everyone stepped forward. And as he moved along the left wall, everyone stepped right. 

This wasn't a prescribed liturgical dance - the folks were just moving aside in courtesy to open a path for him. But it seemed to be more than that - perhaps an unconscious movement that there's no ranking here and that we move together as one. Not to say, we all believe exactly the same thing, that's not the greatest claim, but that shoulder-to-shoulder, we move through this faith-life, en-spirited, created as one and loving each other.

This movement of an entire congregation was quite unconscious, perhaps reflecting a sense of common life and oneness: a great gift the Church could give to our nation, rapidly losing the value of us.