Soul Food Archive: Spiritual Practice
Main Courses are offered on a frequently changing menu. Here are words and images to ingest and digest for inner nourishment. We hope these hearty meals invite you to taste and savor, to muse, reflect and remember, to journal, to create art...that is, to feast on food for the spirit.
Pascha #2, by Archimandrite Kiprian,
Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY*
Our current main course, below, is just one of several Soul Food offerings. Please visit, also, our buffet of Guest Caterer Specials and, for lighter fare, our Desserts & Snacks counter. And, to sample earlier menus, we hope you'll check out the Soul Food Archive. Like all who prepare foodstuffs, we hope to hear from those we serve! Space to leave comments, or read others' comments, on our cuisine follows each Soul Food offering.
When Carl Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, appeared in 1961, some reviewers groused (unfairly) that it could hardly be called "biographical." Why? because they thought more of Jung's everyday life should have been recorded. But as he stated, "Only what is interior has proved to have substance and a determining value."* (p.ix) What Jung's critics missed was that the work is the story of a soul. The great biographies and autobiographies (long before Jung) have always revealed their subjects' inner and outer lives, as well as the ways in which these entwine. And the richest of these are works covering a person's entire life--A to Z, or "womb to tomb" as the saying goes. Let's focus on biographies with this overarching reach.
• Visual biography is a subset of biography. Sometimes a whole lifetime is recorded in paint or stained glass or other media, as with this glass painting of a celebrated 19th century Romanian revolutionary.* And if we gather and weave together images of our own lives in journals, scrapbooks, video logs and internet blogs, poems and songs and letters and photos and fabrics (and perhaps even a DVD to accompany our tombstone!), we might hear Socrates weighing in from across the great divide: "I was right! The unexamined life is not worth living!"
Many have created a life-overview through hitching-devices that track life-stages and events, as has the author of Love, Loss and What I Wore.* Threads such as 't.v. shows I watched' and 'books I read' and 'games we played,' or 'cars I drove' and 'places I lived' or 'current events as I aged' can move one's story along and are easily illustrated. When we assemble our biographies visually it helps us see our lives in totality, within an arc of meaning. No matter how many more years we hope to have, such an approach--even with blank spaces on a story board or blank pages for years yet to come--represents our entire life span. And this has a connective power that's different from memoirs about 'our summer trip' or 'my years at the plant.' A whole-life approach helps us live the remainder of our days with more conscious intentionality, because we experience them from a transpersonal vantage point as part of a larger whole: Life-At-A-Glance.
Some questions rise up:
~ Is it time to begin weaving together the threads of my life--even if I anticipate many more years?
~ How can I view, and even record, my life as a whole?
~ Would a visual record be simpler to create than just a written record? Where do I start?
~ Would I want realistic images--or symbolic ones? Must a story be told in linear fashion?
~ How is such a project connected to appreciation of and gratitude for my life?
~ Is this a project just for myself? Or would it have value for others--family? the world soul?
• Visual spiritual biography is a subset of this subset...
There are types of visual (auto)biography in which the person's spiritual life is made explicit. For example, using any medium, images of the interior highlights of a life--such as dream scenes and times when we knew "there's more"--can be interspersed with images of external events. Here are six blocks from a large 19th century American quilt.* The quiltmaker has appliquéd everyday stories from her rural life and titled them--we see a rooster being corralled, and "The Tiresome Boy" getting up to something! However, for all we know, some of her blocks also may be about the life within: perhaps those mega-butterflies appeared in a dream, or perhaps her conversation with the fair-haired gentleman was a moment when ordinary time stood still. We can only guess at this folk artist's intentions, while marveling at how treasured her life story must have been for her to so painstakingly record it. Simpler "paper quilts" are often made using collage rather than textiles.
Another way the spiritual can be incorporated into biographical art is when images of everyday life are set in a broader transcendent context. Important events in the subject's life--inner as well as outer--are depicted, and gathered against a background referencing their supernatural meaning. For example, here is a Tibetan thangka of Guru Rimpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century C.E.* It includes scenes from the holy man's life, but we see also the classic Asian celestial setting for such artwork: fantastic clouds, like none quite seen from earth. This visual shorthand is easily read as "the outer life isn't all there is--it has a much larger, not-quite-invisible backdrop."
And, then, at the pinnacle of visual spiritual biography are the biographical (or vita) icons
of the eastern Christian tradition, such as this one of New Martyr Elizabeth of Russia.*
This modern Saint Elizabeth (1864-1918), granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England and sister of Russia's tsarina, went through horrific revolutionary times, founded a religious order to serve the poor of Moscow, and at age 54 was hurled down an iron ore shaft in western Siberia. Today, glorified (canonized) by the Russian Orthodox Church, her story--one of faith and love--has spread throughout the world. This icon by U.K. iconographer Aidan Hart pictures scenes from Elizabeth's life on three sides, under a Deisis (the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist or Forerunner turned towards Christ), along with Saints Martha and Mary of Bethany and archangels Raphael and Gabriel, all patrons of Elizabeth's life and ministry. There is much information about this brave and beautiful woman on the web.†
In the iconographic tradition, persons are pictured immersed in a sea of gold, representing the light of eternity. And the techniques of icon-painting (or, as some prefer, 'icon-writing') create the effect of luminosity--again, spiritual light--permeating and illuminating both the subject and events from the subject's life which are included. This radiant background serves the same function as the Buddhists' clouds, telling us that we're viewing a marriage of spirit and matter. The technique says that this life is embedded in and shot through with that which is 'Other.' Sacred art traditions offer models to draw on for creating our own visual spiritual biographies.
A few more questions are raised:
~ Would spending time gazing at a biographical icon--this, or one of many, many others--help me think about my life as a whole, and the presence of the holy in it?
~ Can I imagine telling my life in this or a similar visual format? and, if so, how would I picture myself? what scenes would I include around the border?
~ If I created such a work, how could I make explicit the spiritual dimension of my life--• celestial references?
• a golden background? a cosmic backdrop?
• a showering of sparks or glitter?
• above the personal scenes, the hand or eye of God?...or another means?
Read Others' Comments...
Thank you so much, Center--and Aidan Hart--for helping the world know more about St.Elizabeth. Her story is filled with choices, and in that way is a model for the rest of us, who also have choices to make about life directions. This is a magnificent work of art, and I certainly appreciate seeing it. Blessings on you all.
Hello to the Center. I too am swept into the icon of St.Elizabeth, and want to read her story. Not much luck finding an affordable copy of the bio you recommended--can you help? Many thanks from down south.
New Orleans, LA
Dear Jonas, Yes, we can help. The Lubov Millar book referred to (2009 ed.) is available from St.John of Kronstadt Press, 1180 Orthodox Way, Liberty, TN 37095 [web address: www.sjkp.org] for under $30 +s/h. You might also be interested in the Rule St.Elizabeth wrote for her community in 1914. A 53-page booklet titled "Martha-Mary Convent" contains this, with more pictures, and is available from the same site for $6 +s/h. A bonus: with our recent order came this Press' catalog, written by someone with a sense of humor--a delight to read! Hope this helps, Jonas, and thanks for visiting our website...there'll be something new each month. Warm wishes from L.A.
* Credits for this page:
~ Pascha #2 by Archimandrite Kiprian, Holy Trinity Icon Studio, Jordanville, NY
A family in old Russia welcomes visitors with special Pascha (Easter) treats. Gratefully used with permission from Holy Trinity Icon Studio, Jordanville, NY, 13361. This excellent website is the source for inexpensive traditional icon prints and mounted icons.
~ Memories, Dreams, Reflections, C.G.Jung with Aniella Jaffé (NY: Vintage, 1965 [English ed.])
~ Painting on glass, 20"x18,"1975, by the late Timotei Tohaneanu, abbot of Brancoveanu Orthodox Monastery in Simbata de Sus, Transylvania, Romania. His subject is Tudor Vladimirescu (c.1780-1821), the Wallachian revolutionary hero who led an 1821 uprising against the Ottomans. Note how the artist, credited with reviving a centuries-old Romanian folk art tradition of glass painting, surrounds his hero with miniature scenes from daily life, including military scenes. From Romanian Icons on Glass by Juliana and Dumitru Dancu (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1982), reproduced with the gracious permission of the publisher (in addition, every effort was made to contact the site now housing this work, Brancoveanu Monastery).
~ Ilene Beckerman traces her life from1940s childhood onward, through sketches of the clothes she wore at different times. The simple paper doll figures--or, in some cases, coathangers--on which she drapes her garments are a satisfying solution to the near-universal lament, "...but I can't draw." Love, Loss, and What I Wore [Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1995] has since met with success in a stage version.
~ Quilt blocks from an appliqué centennial album quilt, c.1876-80s, Burdick-Childs family, North Adams, MA (78.5"x79.5"); possibly a family or group project. This remarkable work is in the collection of the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Falls, VT. Six of the thirty-six blocks of the quilt are excerpted here. (See 55 Famous Quilts from the Shelburne Museum, Celia Y.Oliver, ed. [Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990]).
~ The Tibetan thangka is of Guru Padma-rgyal-po, one of the eight manifestations of Guru Rimpoche. From Dharma Publishing, Cazadero, CA. Please go to www.dharmapublishing.com for history, publications, meditation aids and services from this extraordinary organization, which has disseminated the teachings and art of Tibetan Buddhism in the western world since 1971.
~ Icon of New Martyr Elizabeth used with gracious permission of the iconographer, Aidan Hart. See more of his work at aidanharticons.com, a site which also has masterful analyses of iconography in our day under "Articles."
The scenes under the Deisis in the icon of St.Elizabeth are as follows:
Top left: Elizabeth weds her husband, Sergei (1884), and chooses to be chrismated in the Russian Orthodox Church (1891).
Top right: The couple perform many works of mercy. Sergei continues the work of his father, Tsar Alexander III, in the Holy Land (building a church for Russian pilgrims).
Second left: Sergei is assassinated (1905).
Second right: The widowed Elizabeth, almost 41, prays by her husband's coffin about God's will for her life.
Third left: Elizabeth builds Saints Martha and Mary Convent, Moscow (1909).
Third right: Religious community of nursing sisters approved, Elizabeth as abbess (1910).
Bottom row: Divine liturgy is at the heart of convent life and ministry
The sisters serve the sick and poor of Moscow
Elizabeth's martyrdom, with Sr.Barbara, western Siberia (1918)
Their bodies smuggled out of Russia.
Their burial: Cathedral of Mary Magdalene, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem--the church built by Alexander III
for Russian pilgrims (1921)
† On the web, search under Saint Elizabeth of Russia. We recommend the Lubov Millar biography Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke [Richfield Springs, NY: Nicodemus Orthodox Publishing Society]; the 2009 edition is filled with rare historical photographs.
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