Volume 2, Number 5

May 16, 2011

Theme: Faith and the Creative Process


The Community of Joy

by. Kh. Krista West

Mediocrity Revisited: The Sacred, The Secular, and The Artist’s Soul

by Fr. Joel David Weir

“Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty”

by Mr. Christopher Burkett

Man as Priest of Creation

by Fr. Christopher Foley

Wholeness and the Artistic Life

an interview with Olga Poloukhine

More information about the Authors and Contributors can be found here.

The Community of Joy

May 16, 2011

by Kh. Krista West

A few weeks ago, I stood at my worktable and watched the rain deluging my backyard.  The light outside was that unique shade of Portland leaden gray, a tone that has an oppressive quality, flattening the sky and giving off a somber light.  Many people find it depressing, but it is after these storms that the grass glows with a sublime and intensified light, and it was that intoxicating light that I was hoping to see.  It was a solitary moment, just myself alone with my work, and I treasured the quietude and the beauty.

As I brought my eyes back to the work before me, I beheld an even greater beauty. The yards of beautiful burgundy and gold brocade spread across my table caused my heart to soar.  This glorious fabric was steeped in traditions that were centuries old, yet looked incredibly fresh and sparkling.  In my sixteen years as an ecclesiastical tailor, I’ve had thousands of yards of fabric pass over my worktable and yet their glory never seems to grow stale.  The familiar designs are like old friends well met, the new designs are awaiting their turn to be another link in the ancient chain of the beautification and adornment of Christ’s Church.

A few years after I began working as a church tailor, I met an old friend from high school.  He asked where I was working and I explained.  “You make the same thing over and over again?!” he asked incredulously, “Don’t you get bored?.”   It hadn’t occurred to me to question this, but as I began to reflect upon it, I realized that my repertoire of garments is incredibly limited–only 12 basic designs—so I was making the same garments almost daily and yet I wasn’t bored.  Why was that?

"Only 12 Basic Designs..."

I knew it had something to do with the feeling I got when I was working.  It didn’t happen all of the time, but every once in awhile I would experience the most delicious contentment, a deep sense of gratitude to be part of this line of craftsmen throughout the centuries who had worked at this labor.  It wasn’t particularly glamorous or thrilling work; in fact, any novelty it had had quickly wore off after slogging through tasks like cutting 45 feet of canvas interfacing into 4 inch strips or marking out row after row of bias binding.  But it seemed that the longer I labored, the more joy I had.

As time went on, I began to realize that the very thing that would cause boredom—the sheer repetition of my work—was in actuality, the very freedom that gave such joy.  By working at the same tasks, obtaining mastery bit by bit, year by year, I was going deeper and deeper into the work.   And, yet it wasn’t a self-serving mastery since it seemed that the more I delved into my work, the less I knew.  I had read an account years before of a famous artist who, decades into his career, was convinced that his work was worthless and he abandoned painting altogether; at the time, I thought he was foolish, but I began to understand his motivation—the better you get at something, the more aware you are of your own ineptitude.  In the case of working as an ecclesiastical tailor, familiarity bred humility.  Sure I could make a beautiful set of vestments, but in the back of my mind I knew that at some time and place in the Church’s history, someone else had done it better.

"...someone else had done it better."

It is this very humility, this knowledge that I am laboring in a long, unbroken chain of tradition to which I am held accountable, and for which I will face judgment, that grounds my creativity.  I work within a limited, fixed tradition, acutely aware that I must not add or subtract anything from the essence of the garments which I have been handed down.  And the wonder is that, rather than make my work tedious and lifeless, it’s these very limitations that stimulate and feed my creativity.  As Photios Kontoglou, famous mid-20th century iconographer states “The artist of every period remains within the bounds of this form [the traditions of the Church].  And not only does this fact not trouble him, but by reason of it his work gains in intensity, for, unfettered by any necessity to invent a new type, he can devote himself completely to the task of execution.”  He speaks of the devout iconographers who “…transmitted their art, as a precious acquisition, to the subsequent artists, meekly and joyfully, not as an excellence of their own, but as a treasury of joy and a spiritual feast to which all are invited.”  Unlike many secular artists or craftsmen who find themselves enslaved to the modern, I found myself liberated by the ancient.

Icon by Photios Kontoglou

Every time I pick up my scissors and lay out another brocade, I am laboring within a great community.  Like the unknown artisans who laid the stones of Hagia Sophia or made the glorious mosaics at Ravenna, my faith guides my purpose, which is not a man-centered expression of myself, but rather a God-centered expression of the Kingdom of Heaven.   I am called to lay aside myself and approach the “spiritual feast” that is the adornment of the Church.

Because for the Orthodox Christian artisan, there are no solitary moments.  Each and every moment I spend by myself, working on an epitrachelion or cutting out altar cloths, is in actuality a moment spent in the company of all of the artisans who have gone before me in this long and glorious tradition.  We don’t stand alone, but together, and our joy is not taken from a single thing we might create out of our own limited and corrupt minds, but rather from the knowledge that we are laboring to make the material world give praise and glory to the Creator of All.

Mediocrity Revisited: The Sacred, the Secular, and the Artist’s Soul

May 16, 2011

By Rev. Joel David Weir

About ten years ago (I can’t recall if it was from the suggestion of a friend, my wife, a pastor, or a review in one the Christian art/music magazines I read at the time), I picked up and read Frank Schaeffer’s book “Addicted to Mediocrity.” At the time I was still on my journey to Orthodoxy (as was Mr. Schaeffer when he wrote it). I was also involved in the local and regional independent music scene in and around Indianapolis. I was writing, recording, and performing original songs as often as I could, in the spaces between family, work, and church obligations. For years I had struggled with the place of the “Christian artist.” I played in Church halls and I played in bars. I never felt comfortable “leading worship” in a protestant sense, nor could I ever embrace the “party scene” often associated with playing in bars and clubs. This struggle often presented a difficulty in making any kind of career out of music, because, with a few exceptions, you pretty much had to figure out what “scene” you were going for and dive in.

Even as a fan of music I wrestled greatly and often with the place of music and art in the life of the follower of Christ. What did it mean that, for me, the stuff on Christian radio, even the music we would play and sing during “worship” didn’t actually move me as deeply as, say, certain U2 or Bruce Springsteen songs? Was my faith not strong enough? Was I allowing the world to take too central of a place in my heart? Why did I hate the question: “So, do you write Christian or secular music?” so much? Was it pride? Was it my Gen-X rebelliousness rearing its ugly head again? Well, the answer to the latter two questions, I found, were, to some extent, “yes.” But that was just part of the equation,  part of the new perspective that began with the reading of Frank Schaeffer’s book, and which continued, and, in truth, continues to develop, even to this day, as I grow in my journey as an Orthodox Christian.

Divided and Conquered

The premise of Schaeffer’s book, for those who have not read it, is that relatively recent developments in Western Christian thought, namely some prominent and influential Protestant movements in the 19th and early 20th century, led to what Schaeffer calls a “strange, truncated, unscriptural view of spirituality…”[i] He continues:

“First spirituality was seen as something separate from the rest of real life. It was above ordinary things; it was cut off from the everyday working out of our lives. Spirituality became something religious and had a great deal less to do with truth, daily life, and the application of Christian principles through that life. It became something in itself, both the means to an end and the end in itself. Spirituality became a thing separated from the rest of life. Thus, certain things increasingly were regarded as spiritual and other things as secular.”[ii]

The result of this “compartmentalization” was a lack of honest expression, artistically and otherwise from Christians, along with a fear of appreciating the beauty of creation, art, and free thought lest one be snagged by “the world.” A later result would be the strange commercialization of “Christian art,” which, Schaeffer argues is mostly just sloganeering, propaganda, reasonable (or not so reasonable) facsimiles of secular art, commerce driven mediocrity. His imagery and cutting wit resonated in my searching heart. It is interesting that, at the time, I was just learning about the Orthodox Church. I soon found out that the author of this book that seemed to give voice to what I had felt for so many years also converted to Orthodoxy ten years after writing it.


The Strange Commercialization of Christian art

You Give What You Get

As an artist who wrestled with the question of how to engage the world honestly, while striving to “keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:27b),” entering the Orthodox Church was unexpectedly liberating. Explaining this to friends was difficult. How could a very traditional, liturgical, “we don’t even use instruments in worship,” church be a place of great freedom for an artist’s soul? Aren’t there restrictions on what you can do? Doesn’t the fact that “church art” is a very specific, very traditional, prescribed thing stifle creativity? How is the Orthodox Church not compartmentalizing things “sacred” and “secular” by not allowing contemporary styles of music and art into worship?

The answer, to my surprise was found precisely in Orthodox Church’s unflinching embrace of sacred space, which beautifully and paradoxically coexists with the understanding that the sacred space is there to bear witness to the sanctification and even renewal of all life, all creation in Christ. Perhaps there is no greater expression of this than the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy. Anaphora (Greek: ἀναφορά) means to “carry up” or “offer up.” During the prayers leading up to and immediately following the invocation of the Holy Spirit to change the offered bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, many prayers of remembrance are offered. We remember God’s love for us. We remember the fact that He is Creator. We remember the salvation He offers all of us. We remember our bishops, those who serve the Church in various and unique ways, and all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We remember the president, those placed in civil authority, and those in the armed forces. We remember the sick, the suffering, the homeless, and the forgotten. We remember those who have died. In truth, all of our daily lives, messy and heartbroken and real, are lifted up, along with all creation, as the priest lifts the gifts high in to the air, proclaiming, “Thine Own of Thine Own, We offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!”[iii]

Sacred Space

Among the many profound truths revealed in the Anaphora prayer is the boundary in which the artist can operate. The boundary is precisely that all is God’s – all talent, all beauty, all art, all creation and creativity. It is all His gift, lovingly bestowed on His creatures. Our very lives, our stories and our relationships are gifts from God – and this includes those things that would fall into the category of “secular” things. In the anaphora prayers we are given the highest example of the only truly sane and “creative” response to this gift: to offer back to God what He has given, in thanksgiving, having participated in the gift by giving our very best.

More Like the Person You Were Made To Be

In a worldly sense, boundaries are often perceived as shackles that bind freedom. But, to the contrary, the boundary we find in Christ and His Church liberates the person, the artist, from the shackles of one’s own limited reasoning and understanding. In God, each life, each moment is boundless and created for eternity. The artist also has the potential, by God’s Grace, to be liberated from the chains of ownership and ego that can become a pervasive but destructive force in the artist’s soul. The maddening drive to create something “new”, which is actually wrapped up in the false notion that man can create on his own is transformed into awe and wonder at the goodness of God’s creativity and gratitude for His desire to share that creativity with mankind. Human invention, which is finite, becomes participation in the source of all creation and creativity, the life of God Himself, which is infinite.

The artist’s primary work then becomes the participation in the purification of his own heart. All formulas for what constitutes “Christian art,” all false dichotomies and earthly parameters become irrelevant. The work is not easy, and requires the very difficult, lifelong task of learning and practicing humility. But it is real work, based in the actual Gospel of the God-Man Jesus Christ, not based in worldly categories. It makes the artist approach the creative process concerned more with praying for God’s mercy and help than with how to cater or “angle” the message. Honesty before the face of God becomes the engine for expression, an honesty which often resonates with others. This perspective allows for many unique expressions of the One Truth. As many as there are unique and unrepeatable persons. Within these boundaries the Christian is also free, inasmuch as it does not interfere with the work of purification of one’s heart, to appreciate the ways that God’s Truth “breaks through” even in popular expressions of art.

Saint Diodochus of Photiki said, “All of us who are human beings are in the image of God. But to be in his likeness belongs only to those who by great love have attached their freedom to God.” The call of the artist is to do just this – to attach his or her freedom, talents, and creative spark to the One who gave it in the first place, and through whom it can bear fruit. This is the antidote to mediocre, derivative, bland “Christian” art.

We need look no further than the example of the poetry of David, which teems with the honest expression of a struggling, sometimes even broken man before the face of His Creator. A man, though, who because of his openness and acknowledgment of the source of his freedom, talents, and life, is called “a man after God’s own heart.”

[i]  Schaeffer, Franky. Addicted to Mediocrity. (Crossway: 1981), p. 27.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann puts it this way: “So the only natural (and not “supernatural”) reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and – in this act of gratitude and adoration – to know, name and possess the world. All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens,” “homo faber” … yes, but, first of all, “homo adorans.” The first, most basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God – and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him.” (Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World, SVS Press:1997).

“Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty”

May 16, 2011

By Christopher Burkett

Originally Published in Jacob’s Well

We experience beauty in many ways. In nature, we may experience a beautiful sunset, the sky full of stars on a clear night, the silence and quiet of a snowfall in winter, the burst of fresh new leaves on the trees in spring, the wind and waves and salty fragrance of the ocean, the quiet depth of a forest glade, or the austere strength of a sandy and hot desert. We can also see beauty in the smile of a friend’s eyes, the laughter of children playing, the quiet murmur of an intimate conversation, and in the small kindnesses we give to each other day by day. Lives well lived. Newly born children. The list is endless. There’s the beauty of fine music expertly performed, nourishing food prepared with love, exquisitely written stories and poems, the beauty of ballet and ice skating, fine craftsmanship in construction, handmade objects of beauty and practicality, and the beauty of skills mastered and obstacles overcome. In fact, almost anything well done with care and love can be beautiful. So how can we define beauty?

"Alaskan Lupine" by Christopher Burkett

Beauty is hope. Beauty gives meaning, depth and purpose to our lives. Beauty makes our heart sing, our pulse quicken, our life worth living. Beauty uplifts, beauty blesses. Beauty is the touch of heaven and the rising above this fallen world. When we speak of beauty this way, we are not describing those things which are merely pleasing to look at, but profound beauty which resonates within us and brings forth the remembrance and knowledge of God. Beauty on this level leaves us breathless, as we glimpse a hint of the divine presence which surrounds and fills all things. At those times, we see and know that beauty represents, in it’s most exalted form, a touch of the divine. When we experience beauty on this deep level, words fail us. Thought fails us. We have a brief, though veiled, glimpse into that world of light, power and grace that calls us to respond with wonder and praise. In those profound moments, we need no further proof and our hearts can be changed forever.

"Forest Pond" by Christopher Burkett

Nevertheless, while the natural world is filled with beauty, life and wonder, it still pales by comparison with the depth of beauty contained within the Orthodox Church and our church sacraments. One of the unique characteristics of the Orthodox Church is her recognition of the contribution of beauty to our spiritual life. Our homes and churches are filled with Icons and our services incorporate the use of priestly vestments, chanting and singing, processions, incense, candles, and precisely choreographed sacraments. Beauty is an integral and vital part of our Orthodox worship. This is dramatically evident during Divine Liturgy. During Liturgy, heaven and earth are united and the Saints and angels are present with us. When the chalice is brought forth, we are given Christ’s divine gift of His life. There is nothing more beautiful than this, when we truly “taste and see” and are blessed with the experience of Christ’s peace, love and humility. We then know the reality of His statement, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” At that moment, everything else fades away and we are filled with the realization that Christ’s presence within us is the ultimate consummation of beauty.

"Orange Aspens" by Christopher Burkett

The Title Quote of this essay is from John Keats

Man as Priest of Creation

May 16, 2011

By Rev. Christopher Foley

I came to discover Orthodoxy during a time in my life where I was very heavily involved in performing and writing music. Growing up as an Evangelical Christian and attending a small liberal arts Evangelical College in Northeast Georgia, I struggled for a number of years with reconciling my involvement in music with my Christian faith. How does one maintain both artistic and Christian integrity? Was music only a tool to carry a message? What makes music inherently Christian or non-Christian? How does one appropriately bring the totality of one’s Faith into one’s music or any art form for that matter? Why this need to dichotomize everything in the Christian ghetto? Wasn’t there simply a way to just “be’? Couldn’t one simply be a Christian who performs music without apology? These were many of the questions that I had as a young adult. I had experienced a profound sense of the joy of the creative process while writing, performing and recording music with a band of very close friends who were also Christians. Somehow, intuitively I sensed this as a participation in the creative energy of God. I just didn’t have words for it at the time. The problem was that our band never fit the mold in the Christian music industry. We were much more content playing and pursuing music in a mainstream context. We were simply musicians who were Christians and were trying to create something worthwhile and beautiful.

It was during this time as a college student that I began to study Eastern Orthodoxy and found that it began to answer some of these tough questions. I found that the emphasis on the Incarnation of Christ stressed the goodness of creation and that now matter is united to God. This means that matter matters and beauty is not just something external to God (i.e. – optional) but an energy emanating from from God Himself – an absolute. I discovered that the early Church rejected anything that divided or separated Christ’s humanity from His divinity. As I learned more about the Orthodox faith, I found that the Orthodox teaching that every aspect of life is sacramental underpinned every teaching of Christ and the Church . This idea that matter matters speaks profoundly to faith as it relates to the creative process.

"Thine Own of Thine Own..."

As Orthodox Christians we believe that the Lord is present and fillest all things. Because of the Incarnation of our Lord, now everything CAN become a means of communion with God IF we have the eyes to see it and if we are able to offer up our creativity to God as a priest of creation. This idea is articulated best by Fr. Alexander Schmemann when, in For the Life of the World he says, man’s primary vocation is to be a priest of creation who offers up all of one’s life to God in thanksgiving as we pray in the Divine Liturgy, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all.” If, as we embark on our creative endeavors, we keep in mind these words of St John Chrysostom, “Thine own of Thine own..” our creative endeavors will themselves become a form of prayer and honor to our creator .

Seems easy enough, no? But if we look at the world around us, sometimes even within the church it is clear that we tend to place God in a sphere called “religious” and have ceased being able to see Him in all things. This has caused the world and everything in it to be a closed circuit. Fr. Alexander goes on to say that man, “…does not know that breathing can be communion with God. He does not realize that to eat can be to receive life from God in more than a physical sense.” I think this can be said about the creative process. Whether one is is explicitly “Christian” in one’s creativity or implicitly so, God can still be glorified. The touch point between creativity and faith is the inner disposition of the heart in its relation to giving thanks and praise to God. In short, we must be sure that the Word of God is in our hearts when we articulate our God given creative spirit.

Again, seems easy enough, keep God in our heart and we can be sure our creative energy is being used for the glory of God. But to keep God in our hearts at all times requires a number of things, but most importantly it requires us to take a responsible ownership for our faith and our relationship with God. This ownership and faith is first and foremost cultivated through the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church accomplished through participation in a community of faithful. In practically applying the aforementioned ideas of Fr Alexander, in trying to offer up the totality of one’s life in thanks and praise to God, we are greatly aided by the basic task of trying to live in accordance with and fulfillment of the Gospel commandments – the love of god and the love of neighbor. As we allow ourselves to see that our life is and must be one with God we then begin to make greater sense of our worship. During the Divine Liturgy we sing, ” we praise Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks unto Thee, and we pray unto Thee O our God.” This includes all of our life – our pursuits, our vocation, our relationships and, yes, our creativity. Let us imagine the priest carrying not only the bread and wine but all of the tools of the creative process in procession at the great Entrance – paintbrush, computer, pen, instruments, etc. Not that we should actually carry other items in the Great Entrance, but rather that we remember that The Divine Liturgy teaches and reminds us that all of life is to be offered up to God in thanksgiving. The bread and wine are the culmination and embodiment of all of our creative endeavors and the fullest expression of our creative tools. Is this not what our liturgy teaches us – how to bring the Life given back to us as food back into the world? This is what St. Maria Skobstova calls the “eternal offering of the divine liturgy beyond the Church walls” or what St. John Chrysostom call the “liturgy after the Liturgy.” The creative and faithful “priest of creation” is one “who makes of one’s life a liturgy, a prayer, a doxology, to make of it a sacrament of perpetual communion,” as Paul Evdokimov says.

"The bread and wine are the culmination and embodiment of all of our creative endeavors"

The artist, through this God given creativity, has the responsibility to offer up this talent to God and to do something with it like in the parable of the talents. We are to glorify God in everything that we do. Thus to create something beautiful with a spirit of excellence and attention to detail, one can lift up and offer oneself to God. This is really how faith and creativity can converge for the Orthodox Christian. Paul Evdokimov sums it up nicely as a vision for life when he says, “all of life, every act, every gesture, even the smile of the human face, must become a hymn of adoration, an offering, a prayer. One should offer not what one has, but what one is.” We can simply add that for an Orthodox Christian who is involved in the creative process every note, every stroke of the brush, every word must be something offered up in thanksgiving and praise to God as the Creator Himself – the source and origin of all things. Glory to God for all things!

The late Archbishop Job offering up his talent for God

Wholeness and the Artistic Life

May 16, 2011

Below is an interview with artist and iconographer Olga Poloukhine entitled “Wholeness and the Artistic Life”. In it, she describes her history as an artist in New York city, a child of the Russian emigration, and an active member of Church life. She also speaks about her more recent move towards iconography and the tension of the sacred and the secular that our culture imposes on us.

The Interview can be heard here.

A gallery of her work can be seen on her website here.

Volume 2 Number 5, Authors and Contributors

May 16, 2011

Khouria Krista West is an ecclesiastical tailor and the owner of Krista West Vestments (www.kwvestments.com).  She and her husband, Fr. Alban West, serve St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon.  She is mother to three daughters and enjoys cooking and knitting in her spare time. She also hosts a podcast for Ancient Faith Radio, The Opinionated Tailor.

Fr. Joel David Weir is the acting rector at St. Stephen the First Martyr Orthodox Church in Crawfordsville, IN and Camp Priest at St. John’s Camp.  Fr. Joel graduated from St. Tikhon’s Seminary in 2010. He has served at St. Stephens since June of 2010, and lives in Crawfordsville with his wife, Presvytera Maria, and his two children, Ophelia and Liam. Fr. Joel writes occasionally, and even still plays his guitar sometimes.

Christopher Burkett has been photographing the landscape for 35 years, with the help of his wife, Ruth, as a way of implementing the blessings and grace he has received through the Orthodox Church. They are fortunate in being able to make a living selling Christopher’s hand made photographic prints which are sold in various photographic galleries across the country.For more information: christopherburkett.com. In New York City his work can be seen at the Michael Ingbar Gallery, 568 Broadway, New York, NY 10012; (212) 334-1100

Fr. Christopher Foley is the priest in charge at Holy Cross Orthodox Mission in High Point, NC.  After a career in hand painted furniture, house painting and rock and roll, he pursued studies at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and graduated with an M. Div. in 2006.  He is married to Matushka Carrie  and has four boys – Evan, Aiden, Jonas and Alexi which never allows for a dull moment.

Olga Poloukhine is an artist and iconographer from LaGrangeville, NY. She has art degrees from Rutgers and Columbia Universities. For several years she taught art in public schools throughout Westchester County, New York. She is a member of National Association of Woman Artists and a founding member of the Long Island Graphic Eye Gallery. She is currently a member of St. Gregory Orthodox Church in Wappingers Falls, NY. Her work can be viewed at her website here.