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!

I admire Marie’s garden.

A mile or so down the mostly dirt road from the monastery lives my friend Marie, who moved there from my county a few years ago. She’s learning by a process of self-education, experimentation and observation how to garden in this “intermountain” area that gets very cold in winter, yet doesn’t escape the summer heat and drought.

She made me a cup of tea, and I sipped while we walked and chatted our way around her vast plantings and greenhouse — herbs, vegetables, trees and flowers, intermingled with native plants and wildflowers, all of which ultimately either thrive or don’t. Many of the trees and shrubs and even perennials she has to plant in mesh cages to keep out the gophers. And of course there are deer, and rabbits.

Marie isn’t sure about many of the flowers, whether they have come from seeds she threw out one time and forgot, or if they are fully native-born. But if they are happy to take the place of weeds and grow in that climate, she is happy, too. She has other work to do besides gardening, sitting at a desk and computer, and appreciates the necessary breaks during which she can work outdoors with material and living things, but still, she was happy to unpack the hedge trimmer that was delivered that morning, which will help her to prune a hundred lavender bushes.

If we had been competing for the prize for who could remember the most names of plants, I don’t know who would have won. Mostly we both had to be accept that we were unable to bring to mind the names of many that were actually very familiar, even our favorite salvias or wildflowers. I knew I had seen this striking bloom before, but I had to ask Pippin that night what it was:  Pretty Face (Triteleia ixioides) or Golden Brodiaea.

It was Marie who told me what Bugleweed was, and who also knew the name of a salvia she showed me and that I would like to find, “Gracias.” When I went looking for it just now I found a site extolling the wonders of our native sages where I read that some of these plants can live 40 years  if they are growing in a spot that they like. They are typically drought tolerant; maybe some of the species I have planted have not thrived because they got too much water. Check out this list: California Native Sages

I wish I could identify this pretty blue flower that I also pictured at top. If someone knows… [update: I think this is the flower I just saw on the Annie’s Annuals blog, Nemophila menziesii “Baby Blue Eyes”] In this picture it looks more purple for some reason.

Out there you don’t find the orchards and gardens such as the monastery tends; you are in the middle of oak and scrub. Marie does like the oaks, but they get a little monotonous, so she is lovingly expanding the botanical interest and color palette by her labors. She has planted more species of manzanitas and ceanothus, also California natives.

When I left her place I got turned around and drove the wrong way for a mile or two, but that route took me past a great view with more flowers that I didn’t know, and which I could only see at a distance — but what a springtime spread that was.

I was halfway home, stopped at a rest area, before I really noticed my shoes, which were carrying with us quite a bit of that mountain dirt. As I cleaned it off that night it was a fitting end of my trip that turned out to be more about farms and gardens than I expected. I’m very thankful for all those who tend the Lord’s creation and are fellow-gardeners with Him, and to be around so many of them in just a few days was a joy. It’s another springtime in God’s world.

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.

The orange blossoms called me…

The orange blossoms beckoned, from my youth, from the Central Valley, from the treasury of olfactory memories in my mind, and from the image imprinted there the last time I visited my childhood home at this time of year. I didn’t remember the scent itself, but I remembered the ecstasy of inhaling it.

In response I made a little road trip last week, and spent time in Tulare, Kern and Fresno Counties, smelling citrus blooms and visiting with family and friends. I stayed with my sister Nancy, the farmer, who lives in the middle of the groves of trees that she and her husband care for. The Sumo mandarins that directly surround them were just about to bloom, so they had recently been covered with bee netting.

What? you ask. Yes, they are protecting the trees from the bees, because if the Sumos get cross-pollinated with other citrus such as lemons they may make seeds, and that is a no-no for seedless mandarins. It’s just one of the many sorts of special treatment that the trees and the harvest get, and an example of the extra work involved to grow this fruit that was developed in Japan. If you haven’t eaten a Sumo it may be because the costs add up quickly to make them expensive in the stores.

Nancy found a few Sumos remaining from this year’s harvest to give me. They are large for a mandarin orange, seedless, very tasty, and their loose rind makes them super easy to peel.

I came home with oranges from my father’s navel orange trees, too, which I didn’t expect. That fruit would normally be all picked and gone to market long before now, but this year the trees in the Valley are loaded with fruit, and it’s very small. That is a recipe for not being able to sell it, so the oranges fall on the ground eventually and the farmers take a loss. Farming is hard in many ways, and it’s not getting easier.

The next few photos below are from years past, taken at various times of year, of these country roads and places where I spent my childhood.

The view below of the Sierras with the sun rising behind reveals the profile of a formation that looks from there like a man lying on his back. We call it Homer’s Nose (though I didn’t remember “meeting” Homer until recently, and only heard about him from afar):

Since I was “so close,” one day I drove farther south an hour and a half to visit another Farm Girl, Kim of My Field of Dreams. After reading blog posts about each other’s gardens and families for many years, we enjoyed our first face-to-face meeting. We were like old friends or long-lost sisters (well, we are sisters in Christ, after all) and talked and talked, while I ate her delicious flourless muffins and got my wish of a spell of porch-sitting with Kim, looking out at the gardens that she was anticipating planting this week.

lemon flower

I didn’t want to leave, but I must. I got back on the two-lane highway with crazy tailgaters, and survived the ordeal again in reverse. When I arrived safe and sound back at Nancy’s it was the most relaxing thing to be able to sit outdoors before dinner and chat. Here we get chased indoors by fog or cold breezes very early, but there we were warmed by the rays of the sun on our backs and the air was still, and laden with orange scents. 🙂

I spent three days with my family. The last night we four siblings all were together, with some spouses and a few members of the younger generations, at the house where we grew up together, where my brother now lives. There again we ate our barbecue on the patio, and never went in, and it was the sweetest thing just to be together with those persons so fundamental to our psyches. My brother helped me pick a couple of bags of oranges from the same trees that have fed us for decades — they weren’t too tiny — and I’m confident that the eating of them will help me to prolong the savor of my brother and sisters and the whole family that I love.