Category Archives: church

They did not turn aside when they went.

One of the readings for Holy Monday is from Ezekiel, a description of what the prophet saw in his vision of creatures and wheels:

…a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like the color of burnished bronze. The hands of a man were under their wings on their four sides; and each of the four had faces and wings. Their wings touched one another.

The creatures did not turn when they went, but each one went straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces. Their wings stretched upward; two wings of each one touched one another, and two covered their bodies.

And each one went straight forward; they went wherever the spirit wanted to go, and they did not turn when they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches going back and forth among the living creatures. The fire was bright, and out of the fire went lightning. And the living creatures ran back and forth, in appearance like a flash of lightning.

Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went.

As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them. When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

I was interested to see how artists might have rendered these images. Many of the pictures I saw were quite psychedelic, and just as mind-boggling as the descriptions Ezekiel gave. My favorite was this quiet sculpture, detail of an Amiens Cathedral facade which shows only two wheels, and a prophet who might be seen as receiving his vision, or perhaps meditating on the whole of it — which would be impossible to render in stone. The complexity and drama are only hinted at by the way the wheels are interwoven or interweaving.

The church fathers have written that the four living creatures are the cherubim, the guardians of the throne of God. The burning coals are holy men, the lamps signify the light of the gospel, and the wheels signify Holy Scripture; St. Gregory the Great tells us that “the New Testament lay hidden by allegory in the letter of the Old Testament.”

Ezekiel closes his description (beyond this day’s reading) with the words, “This was the vision of the likeness of the Lord’s glory. I saw it, and I fell down on my face….” and God spoke to him, gave him an assignment, and gave him a scroll, saying:

“Son of man, eat this scroll, and go and speak to the children of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. Then he said to me, “Son of man, your mouth shall eat and your stomach will be filled with this scroll that is given you.” So I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.

My Bible footnotes remind me that the faithful can also know that sweetness that Ezekiel tasted, as the Psalmist sings:

How sweet to my taste are Your teachings.
More than honey and the honeycomb in my mouth.

This probably works best when we love and obey those teachings… Lord, have mercy!

Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved:
for thou art my praise.

Jeremiah 17:14

First Lazarus, then palms.

Today was Lazarus Saturday, which has something of the flavor of Pascha, because when Christ raised Lazarus he showed that He had power over death. And eleven people were baptized this morning before the festal Divine Liturgy! That is a lot of joy right there, flowing from “the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead.” We had a reception lunch for them, and afterward, no one wanted to go home. The afterglow was clinging to us who rejoiced with the new members, and we also experienced some of the joy of our own baptisms, whether we were able to remember them or not.

The night before, because I was sponsor for one of the catechumens, I attended their last class. Our rector urged the eleven who would the next day be Newly Illumined to forget about social media for Holy Week and Bright Week, and give themselves to accompanying Christ to the Cross by means of the church services. I am trying to do that, too…

But – oops – I looked at Facebook just now, and saw this status from Father Stephen Freeman (from Tennessee):

“It is said that Christ used Lazarus’ name when He raised him from the dead. Had He just said, ‘Come forth!’ everyone in their graves would have come forth.

“St. Paul writes that on the Last Day, Christ will descend from heaven with a shout! I suppose it will be a general, ‘Come forth!’ Sometimes I think it might be, ‘Ya’ll come forth!’ or the Aramaic equivalent.

“That great gettin’ up good morning!”

This evening we had moved on to Vigil for Palm Sunday, and blessing of palm branches. While some of us had been sitting and chatting this afternoon in warmth and light, other dear parishioners had been using the energy from their dose of grace to decorate the church.

“Today the grace of the Holy Spirit has assembled us.” That was one of the lines that I heard a lot at tonight’s service, and then, when the candle chandeliers that had been festooned with palm branches were set swinging, and I was standing under one of them, we sang the long Psalm hymn, “His mercy endureth forever.” Truly.

Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the LORD!

The beautiful theology of Holy Week.

As we Orthodox approach Holy Week, and western Christians come to the end of it, I want to share with you this video that iconographer Jonathan Pageau has recorded to help us enter into the mysteries of Christ’s passion through the events depicted and revealed in the several featured icons, leading up to and including His glorious Resurrection. The artist’s own exquisite stone carving of the Crucifixion is included.

Jonathan introduces the topic with brief comments about the Notre Dame fire, and about the state of the arts and Christianity in the West. He goes on to show us the interrelatedness of the images specific to the season and how they sort of “talk to each other” as they reveal the deep theology and meaning of these holy days.

“Understanding the Icons of Holy Week”

The video is posted on the website of the Orthodox Arts Journal, but if you like to hear Jonathan talk about the arts, philosophy and theology, he has a YouTube channel, The Symbolic World. Some people lose track of time playing games on their computer, but my personal temptation is to watch Jonathan’s videos late into the night.

Whether it comes to you this Sunday or next, I wish you all a most blessed and salvific Easter!

Spring Zoë

When the sun was just rising above the groves I drove away from my sister’s house and about an hour north to visit the Monastery of the Theotokos the Life-Giving Spring, which is nestled in the foothills at about 2,000 ft. elevation. It was Sunday morning and I wanted to attend Divine Liturgy there; the service was starting at 8:30.

Christ’s mother Mary is called the Life-Giving Spring because of course Christ is Himself the Water of Life. Just as the name of our first mother Eve means life in Hebrew, Zoë means life in Greek. There is an icon associated with this name of the Theotokos, and a feast day on the Friday following Pascha.

It was a beautiful drive, especially as the road climbed very gradually into green hills scattered with large patches of lupines and poppies. This year California’s Central Valley received more rain than usual, and the landscape is still gentle and lush everywhere. Many of the plants that will eventually be stickers and thorns are still pretty wildflowers.

I had reserved a room for the night at St. Nicholas Ranch retreat center just next to the monastery, and I parked my car there and walked through the gates and up the hill to the monastery itself. I had never visited here before, and didn’t know that this little hike would right away give me the opportunity to take pictures of wildflowers. 🙂

Then I entered the courtyard of the church, through a hall lined with mural icons of saints, in process of being painted; once I saw two of the sisters painting when I passed through. The courtyard has four planters with walls on which one can sit. They are filled with many ornamentals, but especially palms and bugleweed, a species of ajuga, which right now is in full bloom, its blue spikes standing boldly up from the mat of green leaves.

On my drive to the monastery I am sorry to say I had wasted time in my too-frequent mental lament over the unsightly palm trees that dot the landscape in the warmer areas of the state. Of course in their essence they are not ugly, but the way they have been used makes them appear that way. I think sometimes it is because they aren’t incorporated into any symmetry; or they stick up in an ungainly way out of context of their setting (for example, in Northern California where I live, and where conifers naturally and more healthily grow), often as a solitary botanical oddity. The majority are also not maintained and many have more dead fronds than living ones.

Here at the monastery I was given a huge gift, in encountering palm trees in all their glory. Many species of palms have been incorporated into the landscaping, and someone obviously gave thought to how to arrange them in the most beautiful way. Gardeners care for them and trim the dead fronds. My feeling about them has forever been altered, now that I’ve seen palm trees as they certainly were meant to be.

On one side of the courtyard is the church, where I spent the next couple of hours settling my spirit that had been jangled by all the activity of getting there. What a magnificent temple! The nuns’ singing transported me to heaven, by way of Greece. The whole service was in Greek, though the Gospel was read in English also. At least 50 other visitors were there with me, including several families with young children; I heard that they come from all over the world, and I personally met people from British Columbia, and from various points in California that are several hours away. I had words with a monk who I think  was from Greece, judging from what he said to a question, “I don’t know, I don’t speak English,” and from how another person translated for him so he could answer me.

After the service we walked across the courtyard to the dining room where dozens of visitors ate lunch provided by the sisters. It was the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, and the story of her life was read to us from a perch high on the wall above, as we ate in silence in the trapeza style of Orthodox monasteries. We filed back into church to complete our meal with prayers, and then thick and sweet Greek coffee was served in the courtyard.

After a little coffee and cookies and socializing, we were invited to another room to hear a talk from (Korean) Father Gregory on St. Mary of Egypt, in English. It was very encouraging! Her life and example of repentance illustrate spiritual truths that I have been hearing from every direction in the last couple of weeks, and which I hope to consider altogether and write about later.

I shopped in the bookstore and bought a little icon of St. Porphyrios, who has blessed me so much this Lent through the book I’ve mentioned here, Wounded by Love. And then I returned to my room for a rest before Vespers which was to be at 3:00. The next string of pictures starts with a view of the monastery from just outside the window of my room, and includes scenes from a stroll around the property that evening.

It was a deep and quiet sleep I fell into that night after spending the last Sunday of Lent at this special place. I skipped the morning service that was to be at 3:00, and walked up the hill again for for a lovely breakfast, which I shared with only two other women, as most of the visitors had departed the day before.

I want to tell you about the hearty breakfast menu: On the table waiting for us was a bowl of cut-up grapefruit; a dish of rice and white beans lightly flavored with tomato and other good tastes; oatmeal cooked with cashew milk and fruit – we thought dates and blueberries and maybe figs; cookies with molasses; good bread; peanut butter; and a bowl of walnuts in their shells.

Down the hill again, and I packed my car for the drive home, full to the brim of blessings from my oh so brief, introductory sort of pilgrimage to this holy place, and already imagining my return. But before I descended to the valley again I had one more stop to make, about which I will tell you in my next post.