Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

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.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Last Rays of the Sun: Aspen Forest

This painting shows the sunlight disappearing behind a grove of young aspen trees.  We seem to be standing at the edge of the forest but looking out from the inside, through the trees to a clearing. Then, there is more forest on the other side of the open space. It is 1897 and Levitan is not well. Perhaps he feels he in between here and there. Even the title of the painting: The Last Rays of Sun, suggests he is aware this may be the last active summer of his life. He died in 1900, a few days before his 40th birthday.

Levitan's love for the forest is so profound, he has even taken care in depicting the forest floor where some low growing plants are blooming. The cluster of trees on the left reflects the light of a setting sun.

One kind of aspen is called populus tremula - trembling. In the fall when the leaves begin to dry out, the tree trembles with the wind. The legends about why this happens are unhelpful. One story says the aspen trembles because it was used to fashion the cross of Jesus. Dozens of trees claim that distinction.

Another story says the aspen shakes as a condemnation for its pride in not bowing down to Jesus as he passed by. Taking one of nature's most beautiful moments and turning it into a story about sin? Nah! I'd say rather: how about God being God - the divine imagination, creatively, generously giving us reason for delight each year.

I caught this, one sunny, autumn afternoon: the wind blowing through the top of a very tall and solitary aspen tree. The stop-in your-tracks sound of the leaves rustling was magic, and for minutes, the whole tree quivering, hundreds, maybe thousands of long-stemmed leaves, flashing like bits of silver foil!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

By the Wall of Church 1885

Levitan has stopped for a moment in the cemetery of this old church. The wooden grave marker in the shade is weathered; the stone church needs to be painted. Maybe Levitan didn't go inside because he was Jewish. Or maybe he simply felt no need to enter the church, pleased to stand outside, listening to the summer sounds of birds and whirring insects.

This isn't a well-manicured church with a gold-lettered sign out front, clipped hedges and a tidy weed-free lawn. This church is way out in a rustic area, likely attached to a small village. Has the place been abandoned? The priest and the people gone away? There is a scene of loss.

  • To live on this planet is to know loss:
  • The loss of a pregnancy. 
  • A marriage ends in divorce. 
  • Declining health. 
  • The losses that come with aging. 
  • A damaged soldier. 
  • The losses brought on by addictions.  
  • Lose the job; lose the house. 
  • The loss of a child to bad influences. 
  • The losses people suffer around the world: the children of Sudan  dying of famine and thirst. The bombing of Syria's cities. 

Levitan stands in this churchyard of beauty but also of loss. There is no resolution. Maybe the parishioners did the best they could to hold onto their church and couldn't do anything more. Sometimes things just have to be suffered or endured. We can become bitter, sour, angry victims, or, because we know the sorrow and pain of loss personally, we can stand in a heart-solidarity with the world in its own awful losses. Maybe God is most near then - God, so understanding of loss for having lived with us in Christ.

Does the painting suggest this? Look! it's not a gloomy day, the sun is shining brightly, intensified by the reflective-white of the building. Standing near this church wall we might squint or shield our eyes with our hands - like Peter, James and John before the brilliant Transfigured Jesus. Can you feel it?

Intercessions ~ Second Sunday in Lent

It is the Lenten Sunday of the Transfiguration./ We ask for the Christ of Light to shine on our life-path,/ to keep us from stumbling,/ and to lead us to where we will see him face to face./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for world leaders not to confound the people/ but to serve them,/ escorting the nations to peace and all that is life-giving and good./ We pray to the Lord.

International Women's Day was this past week./ We pray for girls who are left un-educated,/ for women who are paid unfairly,/ women who live in desperation for their children,/ women abused or trafficked./ We pray to the Lord.

We pray for the religions of the world:/  where religion is compromised,/ where it has lost the Holy Spirit,/ where it has become self-serving,/ distracted or unloving./ We pray to the Lord.

Free us from wearying fears./ Heal the nation of its many hatreds./ Restore families where there is violence and stress./ Preserve us in joy where we are tempted to cynicism and darkness./ We pray to the Lord.

For the sick and the injured,/ for prisoners,/ soldiers and refugees./ Always we pray for the world's children,/ the many who suffer indignities and fear./ We pray to the Lord.

For the safety and well-being of our friends and neighbors,/ for the elderly and the un-insured,/ the un-employed and the insecure./ We pray to the Lord.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Last Snow 1895

This painting by Isaak Levitan is called a study: a painting in the getting-ready stage. While doing a study, the artist is essentially planning the work and addressing the problems and challenges the subject presents, perhaps especially the challenge of capturing light.

I'm told that a study can make more of an impact than an elaborately completed work, because the study contains the fresh insights the artist gains while exploring the subject. We might feel the artist's sense of vitality and the excitement of discovery that may be somewhat dulled in a more finished painting. Sometimes studies are accompanied by handwritten notes which clue us into the artist's thought processes while the work is in its earlier stages. 

So here is Levitan's study: The Last Snow.  Do we sense he is using a lighter palette? It has been suggested Levitan may have allowed himself to be influenced a bit by the new Impressionist movement developed in the 19th century. 

If that's so, then Levitan possessed the virtue of docility, which means, teach me. A humble person lets himself be taught. A docile person doesn't assume she/he knows it all or has perfected it all, but is open to new insights and possibilities. Admirable!

The rugged Russian winter made it nearly impossible to paint out doors. We might imagine Levitan then, carefully watching the landscape, anticipating the first signs of spring. 

Here we see the snow-melt is well underway; it has receded along the stream which has been freed up of ice and is flowing again. Though the riverbank is thawed and muddy, the water itself is pure and rippling gently. Look how beautifully transparent it is.

The ground is uncovered and last year's grass, dead, flattened and brown has been exposed. Soon green will appear. In the distance we see the conifers on the left and the deciduous trees on the right. 

Levitan hopes we'll join the celebration - life is returning! But seeing the landscape freed of its frozen encasement, I might reflect: Is there something inside of me that needs to be, like the stream, set free or released? I've met a number of people this past year who in their 50's, 60's, 70's, have picked up paint brushes and are creating wonderful watercolor and oil landscapes of their own. A friend in his 70's is setting out to start keeping bees.

There's so much that presses down - old voices inside that say: "No you can't," "That's impossible," "You won't succeed." Maybe Levitan's Last Snow, with its flowing stream, wants to give us a push: Get free!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

March 1895

We say spring begins March 21, but Levitan wants us to pay attention to the new season a good while before the birds return and the buds open. 

Russian winters can last up to six months! Six frozen months of temperatures so low, sap can freeze causing a tree trunk to explode. Here, Levitan is sharing, with the melting of snow (which also means mud), spring is here.

The snow pile is shrinking on the roof of the little porch and has already fallen off the fir trees. The ice-encased birch branches have been freed. The horse is taking in the sun, waiting for his owner, whose footprints we can see going off into the woods through the slushy snow. 

We all know a day like this: we go outside with fewer layers of clothes and just stand there, letting our bones soak up the strengthening sun. Even the little birdhouse up top in the birch tree seems to be taking in the sunlight!

Levitan is known as a Mood Landscape artist, because he is so good at capturing the atmosphere of a scene (the mood). I'm thinking, the Catholic Mass ends with the words, "Bow your heads and pray for God's blessing." OK, but there's also a time to lift up our heads to receive God's blessing. Levitan's first hint-of-spring days, all blue sky and disappearing snow, invites us to look up with grateful eyes.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Footpath in a Forest, Ferns

This painting is titled: Footpath in a Forest, Ferns. I might change it to Footpath Through the Forest, because the word through seems to convey the sense of movement. I want to walk on this winding path. We don't take along our cellphone while walking here. Levitan presents this still place, where we listen and observe.

These days we're inclined to think we're communicating well because we're talking on the phone all day. Not really. I'm thinking of the primaries leading up to last November's election - so much interrupting, talking over the other with raised voices. It happens on the television discussion panels. There's no real dialogue, each looking for the moment to spout the truth. Listen! - they get their moment and can't stop talking, because if they take a breath, someone else will steal the time.

Some years ago I spent two weeks in a little hermitage at the edge of the forest on Monte Corona in Italy. In the 1500's the Camaldolese Hermits built the beautiful monastery, surrounded by hermitages where monks lived and prayed. The Camaldolese were driven out by Napoleon and the monastery fell into disrepair until the Monastic Community of Bethlehem took possession of it. Now there are about twenty monks re-claiming the monastery and making it a center of monastic discipline and inner life. How hospitable they were, taking me into their community.

Following the Carthusian Rule of St. Bruno the monks live silent lives, talking only for necessities and during their four hour Sunday walk through the forest and meadows. During this walk (the Spatiamentum) the monks walk in pairs, rotating every half hour. Community is built that way.

So I asked the young monk, "What do you talk about for four hours, your families?" He answered, "No, we don't even know the stories of our brothers here, unless a monk chooses to share something of his family, where he's been or what he's done in his life." I laughed because the first thing an American asks of someone they've just met is, "What do you do?" So I pressed further, "Do you talk about the week's food?" He answered again, "Our food is uneventful." "So, what then?" "We talk about the ferns uncoiling, about the tree leaves coming out in succession, what birds are singing, can we identify that tree by its bark, what the are clouds telling us about the afternoon weather."

There are Americans who would like to tear up Levitan's forest path with their crashing Land Rovers or all-terrain vehicles. The message of this winding path is, Go slowly. Look! Listen! Notice that Levitan has painted only the lower part of the forest. There's so much to attend to there, we don't need to be looking up to the tree tops. Maybe that's for another walk. 

Some people are only close observers of store windows and magazine ads. Lent invites us to more: Come Easter, might I be able to identify the trees in my neighborhood by looking at the tree's bark and leaves. That would please God who has invested so much of God's imagination and creative energies into such lovely and generous diversity. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Cornflowers 1894

Sometimes landscape artists take a break from sitting outdoors and instead, stay inside painting flowers. That's what Levitan has done here: though this "painting" isn't a painting at all, but pastels on cardboard. Here the artist has placed a bunch of wild and varying-ly blue cornflowers (with a couple of white ones) and two pieces of grass with seed heads in a contrasting, brown-glazed, earthenware pot. It's quite clear, Levitan loved flowers.

Perhaps he painted landscapes and still-life flowers in an attempt to heal himself psychologically. He'd lost both of his parents when he was a teenager, was homeless for a time, had to drop out of art school because he couldn't pay the tuition, was sick with a bad heart, was what we would today call, clinically depressed, even to attempting suicide a number of times.

Levitan was also Jewish, suffering under the tsar's 650 laws (1881-94) regulating every aspect of  Jewish life in Russia's cities. After a failed attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander III, 20,000 Jews were expelled from Moscow to the countryside. Levitan and his siblings were caught up in that  banishment.

In one book of flower symbology there is a little footnote indicating that cornflowers are symbols of tenderness. Tenderness means:  kindness, affection, compassionate, caring, concerned, sympathetic, humanity, warmth, fatherliness, motherliness, gentleness, benevolence, generosity. Isn't it interesting that Levitan, who was orphaned as a boy, has chosen to picture cornflowers which symbolize tenderness, which means fatherliness and motherliness.

But tenderness is always under attack. Saint Paul understands in writing to the Ephesians:

"There is to be no trace of bitterness among you, of passion, resentment, quarreling, insulting talk, or spite of any kind; be kind and tender to one another, each of you generous to all, as God in Christ has been generous to you." 4:32
A Harvard scholar spoke recently on TV in light of the recent desecration of Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats being phoned in to Jewish schools and daycare centers in thirty-three states. He said, "This is what happens when a divided country lives in the extremes of left and right; the middle ground is abandoned." 

The national heart is becoming savage. Savage means uncivilized, violent, uncontrolled, ferocious. An organization called  Savage Arms advertises: "Make the 2nd amendment your first priority." The ad continues, "To hold one of our firearms in your hands is to know what winning feels like." Your first priority?! Jesus said: "But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." Matthew 6:33. And Jesus also said: "If anyone wants to be first he must be the last of all and the servant of all." Mark 9:35

Whether he intended to or not, Levitan has given us these luminous cornflowers which are a symbol of tenderness. Instead of worrying about candy this Lent, we might consciously pursue tenderness. A friend is practicing what he's calling a Ministry of Smiling for Lent's forty days.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Cloudy Day 1895

Levitan's Lyrical Landscapes have wonderful powers which may: 

  • call forth a memory, perhaps long forgotten, 
  • carry a suggestion for some new direction, 
  • invite a day dream or night dream,
  • inspire personal creativity.

Discovering Levitan's Cloudy Day, I was immediately reminded of a third-grade day in 1959 when Mrs. Balbo taught us about clouds. I think of it more as a  class about imagining than about science. Needing some help understanding the painting, a weather-friend refreshed my memory:

"These are strato-cumulus clouds, which are a low layer of clumped or broken gray masses. They typically cover the sky, but between them we might see patches of blue. In terms of weather, they look worse than they are; usually bringing only drizzle, but stormy weather may occur at the front or tail end."

Levitan's formidable clouds are on the move. The wind is stirring up the waters which remain reflective. Maybe we can even hear the wind! We see two tidy farmer-fields and forest on the lake's far side. The leaning grasses growing near the water's edge on the left, help us to feel this weather. A little bit of blue sky remains on the horizon.

I mentioned the other day that if the teacher wasn't talking about religion, plants or animals, I was gone. So of course, I had to go to summer school for arithmetic in 6th grade. Listening to the phone conversation from the dining room, while Sister told my mother of my failure, was like the front-end of Levitan's threathening weather: dark clouds portending a terrific storm of sadness, misery and ruin. Problem: my family had arranged a cottage for two weeks up in Maine on Rangeley Lake. 

Rather than allow my failure to spoil the trip for everyone, my father packed the five siblings into the station-wagon and off they went, leaving mother and me behind to catch up after my final. Many years later she told me it hadn't dawned on her she'd be without a car, until she saw the Pontiac disappear down the road. But one summer evening, we both got on bicycles and peddled to a restaurant about a mile away for dinner together. The apocalyptic storm was over head, but dropping only drizzle, indeed there was already this lovely patch of blue.  

Having had the teacher stand over me while I worked on my fractions, I completed my summer school successfully. A patch of blue in the low, gloomy sky. A neighbor-lady drove us to the airport where we walked across the tarmac and up the stairs to the little prop plane - my first flight. Another patch of blue. And Maine, on a lake surrounded by forest, wild weather and animals! The strato-cumulus clouds of failure had covered me, threatening an awful storm. But it wasn't as bad as I'd imagined it would be - more like drizzle and with patches of blue. 

Not all, but a lot of life is like that.

Rangeley Lake, Maine