Friday, August 19, 2016

Will you do it? Can you do it?

By Sister Cecelia

In 2015 the monastics had many discussions about how we would celebrate our 50th New Skete anniversary. One idea that emerged was to have a commemorative icon painted that would symbolize who we are.

The monks and nuns spent much prayer and reflection on what we would like to see in the icon, and we agreed on a plan. We articulated our ideas and sent them to several iconographers with a request for an agreement as to time needed to complete and how much the commission would cost. The question came back: Why not do it yourself? You have iconographers there. So I was asked, Will you do it? Can you do it in time for the anniversary? There was no way I could complete the icon in time for the beginning of the anniversary year, 2016, but we agreed it would be sufficient if I could have it completed by the day of the Pilgrimage.

So began the process of preparing the board and the drawing. Many questions needed input: which Transfiguration model to use, what size the small temple was to be, which two saints to depict and their size, and which animals of the Creation to depict. Only a few changes from the next draft were

made: the church needed to be a little smaller and from a different viewpoint so that the large middle bonja would be more centered and with the cross on it pointing to Christ. The two saints would also be a little smaller, and the creatures would be only those we might see around here, both wild and domesticated. The suggested list of animals kept getting longer. While not everyone was thoroughly satisfied with all the decisions, approval was given and the painting began.

Painting for others and painting for one’s own community whose tastes are so varied can be stressful. Trusting in the Spirit to guide me, I began work on June 13, 2015. Any and all were invited to come and see the progress, and I welcomed critiques, which were varied: “The horses look more like donkeys.” “The Scottish Highlander’s legs are too long.” “Where is a cat?”

To me the faces are the most important part of icons. What do the faces express when anyone gazes upon them? Until St. Maria Skobtsova and St. John Cassian, in the upper third of the icon, were completed to the point where I was happy with their faces, I felt nervous. Once their faces looked acceptable, the whole project became quite joyful. As the icon neared completion I asked Brother Stavros to write an explanation of the meaning of the icon, which he graciously did. By the beginning of June 2016 the icon was completed, brought up to the church, and after several deliberations hung where its placement was originally planned. On the Feast of Transfiguration, August 6, Metropolitan Tikhon said a special prayer of blessing during the Divine Liturgy.

I rejoiced that I had met the July deadline I had set for myself and that now I could tackle the many little jobs I had set aside to be able to work on this icon.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Choir As the Icon of the Community

Brother Christopher

Recently I watched a PBS episode of the American Experience telling the story of “the Boys in the Boat,” the Olympic 9-man rowing team from the University of Washington that won the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It was a gripping tale that described how the various members of the crew had struggled with adversity both in and beyond the sport to ultimately arrive victorious at the medal podium. Their courage and perseverance were deeply inspiring, and it was a thoroughly uplifting program. But the aspect of the story that struck me most unexpectedly was its description of what needed to take place among the crew members in order for them to succeed. The 9-man event demands that the crew work as one, harmoniously developing a rhythm with the oars that manifests a sleek elegance, gliding through the water with seemingly effortless precision. Only the crew members know the maximum amount of effort and concentration that go into winning the race at that high level. The documentary included several shots taken from above the boats, and the words that came to mind immediately were beauty and grace. To observe such a crew working as one was lovely to behold.

            Now while I love sports, the connection I made with the program had less to do with rowing, a sport I never really had an interest in, and more to do with seeing a group of individuals working together as one for a worthy goal. Together they became something more, something ennobling that perhaps wouldn’t have been available to them in the same way as individuals. That is something I experience deeply in my life as a monk: together we become something more than we could ever be simply as individuals. As this is our 50th anniversary, what astonishes me as I reflect over the history of the community is how this group of very human people (along with others who helped along the way) have been able to build not simply a monastery, but a way of life that reflects that corporate ideal. It is a living expression of the truth St Paul speaks about in 1 Cor 12:12:

For as with the human body which is a unity although it has many parts—all the parts of the body, though many, still making up one single body—so it is with Christ.  13 We were baptised into one body in a single Spirit, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as free men, and we were all given the same Spirit to drink.  14 And indeed the body consists not of one member but of many.  15 If the foot were to say, ‘I am not a hand and so I do not belong to the body,’ it does not belong to the body any the less for that.  16 Or if the ear were to say, ‘I am not an eye, and so I do not belong to the body,’ that would not stop its belonging to the body.  17 If the whole body were just an eye, how would there be any hearing? If the whole body were hearing, how would there be any smelling? 18 As it is, God has put all the separate parts into the body as he chose.  19 If they were all the same part, how could it be a body?  20 As it is, the parts are many but the body is one.  21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ and nor can the head say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’

            In today’s culture, people sometimes wonder why anyone would choose the monastic vocation as a life path. They imagine it to be so disciplined, so austere. Then, to top it off, there’s the issue of being celibate! My response is always the same: it’s the fulfillment I experience in being part of something that we strive for and achieve together that we could never accomplish by ourselves, that manifests our deepest ideals and beliefs. It is feeling fully alive, having the opportunity to become my best self in union with these other brothers and sisters. In this fragmented and compartmentalized world we live in, our monastic life witnesses to the joy of living in God together in a manner that doesn’t squash individuality but allows it to serve the most noble of causes: the reign of God.

            At New Skete we have a saying that “the choir is the icon of the community.” This refers to the basic work we engage in as monastics: common worship. When we get together each day for the daily liturgical services, we sing in harmony, doing our best to blend together with each particular piece without the benefit of musical accompaniment. Since we are not professional musicians, it is something we have to work at regularly, and we formally practice at least once a week. But when we experience during the services the fruit of the work, the blending of our voices and the realization of a smooth harmony, it symbolizes the wider confluence and communion that takes place in our lives together. The sensation literally takes us out of ourselves in a transcendent way, moving us together toward the mystery that has held prime of place in each of our lives. And just as the group of eight oarsmen and a coxswain from Washington became one in the 1936 Olympics, so, too, do we become one body, witnessing in song what is continuously taking place in the various activities of the community. And that makes all the difference!