Tag Archives: Christian art

The Stones of Easter

“If the people were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Luke 19:40

The stones are speaking. Are we listening?

The memory of stone. People have spoken of it since humankind first wielded tools to chisel its surface. What stories might be locked in the smallest of river stones, the bedrock beneath the plains’ rich soil, the mountains crushed into gravel for our roads? Certainly we find there the record of the earth’s transformations, the bones and footprints of long-dead species, delicate traceries of plants, massive forests. But what about human lives? Have stones absorbed the fleeting touch of our lately-come species, the storms of blood, tears, laughter, prayer that accompany our kind wherever we wander? Do stones remember us?

Stones of Easter: Bread. Photo C.L. Francisco
Stones of Easter: Bread. Photo C.L. Francisco

I love stone. I have loved it from earliest childhood. I love the weight and feel of it in my hand, the warmth of it beneath me when I rest from walking, the magic of its kaleidoscopic patterns. When I can I travel to mountains and canyons and deserts to spend time in its company. Stone is alive, sentient in some way I can’t explain. I feel it most strongly in wilderness, where human busy-ness is limited—but it has also caught me unawares in urban alleys.

Stones of Easter: Wine. Photo by C. L. Francisco
Stones of Easter: Wine. Photo by C. L. Francisco

I am unlikely ever to hear a stone speak in human words, or a tree in propositions, or a dog in iambic pentameter. A stone communicates in the manner of stones, just as a dog communicates as dogs do. My experience of the speech of stones is deeply non-verbal, partly visceral and partly emotional, untranslatable. Sometimes I take a photograph or pick up a stone when I feel it; other times I simply let it be. The imagery comes later.

Stones of Easter: Flesh. Photo by C. L. Francisco
Stones of Easter: Flesh. Photo by C. L. Francisco

I am not a professional photographer, or even educated in photography. In the past I saw the images in a camera’s eye as an imagined canvas, in terms of shape and balance, tension and flow, light and dark. Now I find myself photographing scenes that pulse with the energy of subtle presence, and I let the rest take care of itself. Sometimes my pictures absorb a hint of that power, sometimes not.

Stones of Easter: Blood. Photo by C.L. Francisco
Stones of Easter: Blood. Photo by C.L. Francisco

What is a photograph? At its simplest it is a record of objects seen, events observed, people known. But like history, a photograph participates in the awareness of the one who watches and records. And like a scientific experiment, the photographer’s participation is a variable that must be considered. The same scene taken by different people with identical cameras at roughly the same time may be distinctly different—based on something I call “soul,” for lack of any better term. At times the camera’s eye appears to mediate an exchange of understanding? meaning? relationship? being? between photographer and subject, and this fleeting touch (or lack of it) marks the photo.

The Stones of Easter: Release. Photo by C.L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Release. Photo by C.L. Francisco

What are the stones saying with their images? I believe they are communicating their presence, no more. “Look at us!” they cry. “We are alive, in ways you have forgotten you ever knew. We are—as the trees are, and the waters, and the atmosphere that shields the Earth from the extremes of space. Truly see us—see all of creation—we who have been dismissed by your arrogance as mere commodities. See us, before only stones remain to see the sunrise.”

The Stones of Easter: Tomb. Photo by C.L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Tomb. Photo by C.L. Francisco

Slipping unseen along the fringes of consciousness, the temptation is always there—to “clean up” the images, make them perfect, adjust their proportions to fit more neatly into Western ideas of beauty. Sometimes I make changes without thinking, and then I have to destroy the image if I can’t undo the edits. We have an implicit understanding, the stones and I—that their images will remain as I find them, removed only from their matrix, and, at most, adjusted for contrast. After all, they are the language of stone, and much is inevitably lost in translation.

The Stones of Easter: Searching the Skies. Photo by C. L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Searching the Skies. Photo by C. L. Francisco

Many years ago I discovered a new word: panentheism. Not pantheism (many gods), not theism (usually one god separate from creation), but pan-en-theism—one Spirit present in all creation, without the great divide between spirit and flesh that seems unavoidable in most Western traditions. Perhaps this word can suggest a way to bridge the gulf between stones that speak and a planet of dead rock.

The Stones of Easter: Lament. Photo by C. L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Lament. Photo by C. L. Francisco

In Christian scripture the apostle Paul describes the perceptions of ordinary people: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly . . . .” These words could describe any human being who has lost her sense of kinship with the web of life in which she lives. We see the world distorted in a bit of poorly polished metal—and ourselves more prominently than all else. But unlike Longfellow’s Lady of Shallot, we have no curse to excuse our stubborn avoidance of the Earth’s true face.

The Stones of Easter: Emergence. Photo by C. L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Emergence. Photo by C. L. Francisco

Stone is patient. Stone does not envy or boast, and is neither arrogant nor rude. Stone simply is, demanding nothing. Stone is not false, but embodies the truth of creation. Stone accepts human abuse and awaits our healing. Stone endures all things, is always being transformed, yet is ever the same.

The Stones of Easter: Rolling Stone. Photo by C. L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Rolling Stone. Photo by C. L. Francisco

All the photos in The Stones of Easter series* were taken on my brother Don’s mountain during Easter week, 2010, when I was deeply immersed in writing the final chapters of The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat. Starting on the morning of Maundy Thursday and ending on Easter Sunday, each day I packed a lunch and water flask and set off up the mountain with my camera. In a very literal sense, I went in search of a vision.

The Stones of Easter: Gone Away. Photo by C.L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Gone Away. Photo by C.L. Francisco

The result of the vision that met me there is Yeshua’s Cat.

 

And, of course, one of Wendy’s cats.

EasterCat

 

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* Sixteen photos in The Stones of Easter series are available for sale at http://www.zazzle.com/moon_seasons. The original series included 24.

 

 

This post was originally published in April, 2014.

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Miranda Lamden’s Mysteries and Yeshua’s Cats Together!

I’ve been thinking a lot about how This Madness of the Heart (and all the following Miranda Lamden Mysteries) fit together with my Yeshua’s Cats series–and why I feel certain the two series can coexist as books by the same author. But since my reasons are more feelings and instincts than logic, I’ve had trouble putting them into words.

So I did what I often do when I need to make sense of something: I created a piece of art (below). After all, what good is an art therapy degree if you can’t use it to clarify your own confusion? If I’m lucky, by explaining the image I’ll be opening up what lies behind it!

The Sleuth, Chi Rho, and the Cat

So, what are you looking at here?

First, I chose a Hubble image for the background: “Interacting Spiral Galaxies” . . . surely ideal for this project, since galaxies don’t often interact–anymore than churchfolk and professor-sleuths! It felt like a propitious beginning.

Hubble, Interacting Spiral Galaxies

Three interlocking circles fill the foreground. The center circle pulses with a glowing gold and green light; the Christian Chi Rho emerges from its heart.

What is the Chi Rho? Like most symbols, it has different meanings across cultures, but for me it’s a symbol used by early Christians in the first three centuries after Yeshua’s birth–before Constantine transformed it into an imperial banner (the cross didn’t emerge as a Christian symbol until after the year 500).

Chi Rho, early 3rd C catacomb

The Chi Rho gets its name from the two Greek letters that overlap to create the symbol: Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, or Christ. In the image above, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega are added. I did experiment with using a cross in the center circle, but I like the visual effect of the Chi Rho better, probably because it has “rays” like the sunburst. Anyway, the central circle is meant to be the Christian faith–not the organized religion–but the living faith of all the individuals who hold themselves to be Christian.

The circle to the right is Mari, from Yeshua’s Cat, turning aside from a path in a green forest to investigate the central circle. In her circle she represents all of the natural universe. Creation.  Everything that exists naturally, apart from the intervention of humankind. This natural order also includes human beings, since they’re part of the created universe–but not their civilizations.

The totality of the created world–as we know it on Earth–is flowing back from Mari’s search like the tail of a comet.

 

The circle on the left is where Miranda, my detective, lives. Her circle is the world of human civilization–urban, complex, multi-cultural, and often unsure exactly what they believe. Many, like Miranda, have their roots in Christianity, but have turned away from the church. Spinning out from her circle is a spiral of different world religions. But in her circle she, like Mari, has paused to examine something about the Christian faith that has caught her eye.

Both Mari and Miranda live outside the Christian fold, and they approach it from opposite directions. Mari moves from the non-human, natural environment, Miranda from a detached, urban, academic world. Still, both find themselves intrigued by the light in the center circle. Mari has the easier approach: Yeshua introduces himself by saving her life, and she joins him as a friend. But Miranda has been scarred by her Christian experience; she mistrusts the church and its agendas. As a professor, she sees all religions as examples of the human yearning toward the divine. Truth claims don’t enter the picture. She simply records what she observes, without making judgments. Her methods are catlike: she steps cautiously toward anything new, not committing herself, poised to slip back into the shadows if conflict threatens.

I knew a number of women like Miranda in my years apart from the church. Their worlds were full and rich, but they didn’t screen their experiences through a Christian worldview. Yet they were sometimes attracted by a light shining out from this tradition many of them had left behind.

. . . maybe the light shone through a person
a man like Elmus
or as comfort in the midst of  evil
perhaps through the One’s presence in some crisis of their own
or simply in prayer and meditation.

But today we live in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to say, “I believe.” The language is lost. What does it mean to believe? Who are we believing in? People who live in the secular world can’t respond to most Christian overtures–because they don’t understand the words anymore. God-talk is becoming literal non-sense to those outside the churches.

People like Miranda are who they are, just as cats are cats. Each responds to life according to their gifts . . . but for some reason those inside and outside the churches are drawing further apart.

Perhaps we might learn from the effort, and love, we put into cross-species communication with our cats (and dogs, gerbils, birds, and ferrets) . . . and look at the incomprehensible human beings around us as if they concealed inner selves as delightful, unique, and full of surprises as a cat’s. It’s not really such a stretch.

I happen to find the lives of alienated Christians intriguing, perhaps because I’ve been there myself. And if the polls are right, their numbers are growing. Their honesty is often fierce, like their determination never to be taken in again by faux-Christianity and self-serving lies. Sadly we don’t have to look far to find the lurking predators they’re avoiding. And that’s what This Madness of the Heart is about.

Miranda peers into the light of Christian faith–but she looks from a place apart. Her own experiences haven’t shown Christianity to be that promised “light to the gentiles.” So she watches, examines, records, and considers. In the meantime, I feel privileged to narrate her journey.

 

Click here to visit my Miranda Lamden Mysteries site.

 

 

 

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A Christmas Prayer for 2016

"A Christmas Prayer," by C. L. Francisco (see at bottom for explanation)
“A Christmas Prayer,” by C. L. Francisco (see at bottom for explanation)

When I want to focus my prayer over time and through all my senses I create prayer as art–in my intent, in my  praying, and in my prayer’s final emergence into the world. So here is the embodiment of the prayers I’ve been praying during an extended retreat for the last week or so, as I’ve grieved and prayed for the healing of the inhumanity I see steadily emerging in the patterns of our nation’s new administration. I believe that the reality that is taking shape there honors neither America’s historic democracy nor the Christian faith.

“A Christmas Prayer” prays that the incomprehensible divine love we celebrate at the Christmas season will fill all our hearts, from the smallest child to the nation’s leaders, and open our eyes to the wideness of God’s mercy, which encompasses the whole of Creation.

I, too, feel the times growing harder; the American dream seems to be slipping through our fingers. But I don’t understand how so many of America’s Christians could have gotten so muddled in their distress. How could we forget that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”?

We must hold to these and other words that have shaped our faith:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”!

“What does the Lord require of you but to do do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus did not model the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” by narrowing the definition of “neighbor” to those whose race, language, skin color, birth country, and beliefs were identical to his own.

I grieve for us as a nation.

“The Scapegoat,” by Wm Holman Hunt
“The Scapegoat,” by Wm Holman Hunt

We have stumbled and fallen at the 3rd temptation where Yeshua stood firm: we have grasped for temporal power. These words are from Yeshua’s Cat describing his final temptation in the wilderness:

There was silence for a time. Then ben Adamah’s eyes cleared, he saw me watching, and he smiled. Now he was looking at a definite place, somewhere to the right of where I stood (my fur was bristling, and I was ready to spring away at any moment. Did I see something moving there in the moonless dark?).

“Oh, you evil fool,” the son of Earth laughed, “you have misjudged your game tonight! I have seen too many good men corrupted by even a little of that power to fall into its snare. The power I seek is the power to heal body and soul, the power of one who walks unnoticed among many, seeking the good of all: the power that binds creation together, not a power that consumes it. Burning through my heart is a power that rejects you and all you offer. I will have none of your thrones, your palaces, or your rich robes. No man, woman, or child will ever grovel before me in fear! Get out of my sight, corrupter of innocence. You have no place here.”

The night grew quiet then, the tension vanishing on a slight breeze. Whatever had been happening was finished.

“Come, curl up beside me, little mother,” ben Adamah said softly. “My vigil is over for tonight. It’s time to sleep.”

2_grace2

 

For those of you with a curious turn of mind, I’ll explain a bit of what’s going on in this digital mosaic. The overall pattern is based on the south rose window at Notre Dame of Paris. Literally thousands of tiny pieces of layers were combined to complete the whole.

  • At the very center is a spiral galaxy from the Hubble series, with a star superimposed, also from Hubble, and a close up of Mary and the baby Jesus from William Holman Hunt’s “The Triumph of the Innocents.”
  • Around the central image is a circle of 12 identical panels of the “Tree of Jesse” from a Chartres Cathedral window. The, tree, or root, of Jesse–Jesus’ human lineage (from the prophet Isaiah)–is often called the Tree of Life.
  • The round rose-window shapes in the next ring are 24 identical images of grape vines from another Notre Dame rose window, pieced together into rings.
  • The next circle out from the center is composed of elders from traditions all over the world, including Pope Francis, an Orthodox bishop, Rev. Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and many others from cultures great and small.
  • Behind each elder’s head is a plain aquamarine stained glass circle.
  • Above these circles are hands of different colors, each reaching out to help others and to the One in prayer.
  • Beyond the ring of hands are round stained glass windows framing the faces of ordinary people from ethnic groups around the world.
  • Interspersed between these portrait circles are small stained glass windows from Notre Dame de la Croix.
  • Around the outer edge of the circle are flowers from blossoming trees holding the faces of the world’s children, overlain with translucent spring beech leaves.
  • From behind each blossom the Bethlehem star shines out.
  • Throughout the whole circle the branches of the tree of life weave in and out of the pattern.
  • And overall, a rainbow of stained-glass light colors all the shapes beneath it, just as the One’s love embraces all Creation.

I wish you all a blessed Thanksgiving and Christmas, filled with gratitude for our many blessings, and with prayers for our leaders’ wisdom.

 

 

 

 

Yeshua and the Mystery Religions

Anyone who has studied the history of religions is aware of the shift in human consciousness that began sometime in the last millennium BCE and lasted into the early centuries of the Common Era. During those years human religious practice moved dramatically away from old communal forms and took on more personal expression. Individual human beings began to approach their gods in increasingly distinctive ways, and more and more spiritual teachers emphasized the value of individual human lives. Even C. G. Jung tried to explain the phenomenon in his Psychology and Religion West and East.

Ancient Sumerian gods
Ancient Sumerian gods

 

buddha-sm
Buddha
Zarathustra
Zarathustra

In India the sage Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, offered seekers a Middle Way to enlightenment between the extremes of asceticism and worldly sensuality. In Persia Zarathustra introduced the idea of the freedom of individual human beings and the importance of their choosing to labor with the God of Light, Ahura Mazda, against the forces of darkness and ignorance.

 

 

Prophet Hosea
Prophet Hosea

In Israel the prophets emerged, offering ethical virtues such as compassion and mercy as alternatives to the old sacrificial system; Hillel the Elder followed in the 1st C BCE with his Golden Rule, and his famous statement that “whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world, and whosoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

 

Jesus of Nazareth, born around 4 BCE, brought a unique gospel of love and life to humankind, known for two millennia as Christianity.

Early catacomb images of Jesus performing miracles
Early catacomb images of Jesus performing miracles

All around Jesus, throughout the ever-spreading Roman Empire, Mystery Religions were attracting followers by the tens of thousands. In each of these Mysteries, individual men and women found hope of eternal life through initiation into secret knowledge unavailable to those outside their communities. Dionysian, Eleusinian, Cybeline, Isaic, Mithraic, and Orphic mysteries were but some of them. In many instances the secret knowledge was imparted through the initiate’s participatory experience in the death and rebirth of the god or goddess.

Serapis-Osiris,Persephone and Hades, Mithras, Dionysus
Serapis-Osiris,Persephone and Hades, Mithras, Dionysus

In the process of writing The Cats of Rekem, the third volume in the Yeshua’s Cats series, I wandered into the jungle of Greco-Roman Mystery Religions. I won’t try to offer an explanation of why they exploded into the ancient world, but they were spreading like wildfire across the Mediterranean basin in the years before and after Yeshua’s life. Early Christians were well acquainted with these religions, and in many cases they came to the Church from them.

Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries
Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries

Numbers of people have written countless volumes of material about the relationship between early Christianity and Mystery Religions, some scholarly and accurate, many biased and inflammatory. As a writer of historical fiction whose characters are rooted in the beliefs of their day, I came up against the question of Mystery Religions in a very personal way. In particular, I found myself needing to understand exactly how Yeshua’s original message differed from the message of the Mysteries. And I didn‘t want to expound the same old Christian apologetics and bland assurances that no overlap ever existed. It obviously did.

Christ as Sol Invictus, mosaic from 3rd C Vatican grottoes
Christ as Sol Invictus (unconquered sun), mosaic from 3rd C Vatican grottoes

So I dusted off my books on Greco-Roman culture and began to refresh my memory. I took notes, and made charts. I even drew up a spreadsheet. I concluded that there were many, many apparent similarities between the practices of the early Church and the Mystery Religions; in fact, there were far more similarities than differences—baptism, equality of men and women, depictions of mother and child, separation of the community from the wider society, hope of immortality through the death and resurrection of a god or founder, ritual commemoration of that same founder’s death and resurrection. The list goes on and on.

But this left me with two troublesome questions. First, did these obvious similarities in the early Church really reflect Yeshua’s message? And second, allowing for the possibility that they might not, how did Yeshua’s message itself differ from the Mysteries? I even went so far as to wonder what he might have said to one of the Mystery devotees that surely crossed his path.

"Christ and the Adulteress," Cranach the Elder
“Christ and the Adulteress,” Cranach the Elder

In the end I isolated several radically new ideas in Jesus’ message that found no parallels in the other religions of his day. In some cases these ideas didn’t survive very long in the young Church. Here they are, as I see them:

  • He preached a loving God who sought reconciliation with humanity—not justice, or retribution, or punishment
  • He brought this God into direct relationship with human beings, without priests or organized religions between them and the Deity who loved them
  • He offered his listeners a simple choice: accept God’s love and embrace the freedom growing out of that love, or turn their backs and lose themselves in their own darkness
  • He preached a peaceful, non-violent approach to life
  • He didn’t call for a system of initiates vs outsiders: the thrust of his message was always of mysteries revealed, hardened hearts opening to understanding, and truths simple enough for a child to grasp
  • Perhaps in contrast to the Mysteries, (which were celebrated in darkness) he characterized his message as one of light, revealed in the light of day for all to see
  • Rather than the emotional frenzy common to the Mysteries, where initiates agonized and suffered, imagining themselves suffering with their dying and rising god, he offered his followers a death accomplished, and new life freely given: where such participatory agonies have entered the Church, I suspect they may have come by way of the Mystery Religions, not Yeshua’s words

The first two hundred years of the Church were violent and chaotic, and the records are conflicting. Many stories lie outside the scope of the Bible. I believe that there’s room to question traditional understandings of the Church’s message–and to question the way the Church has interpreted the words of Christ.

But don’t take my word for it: look for yourself! If there’s a mystery, it’s hiding in plain sight.

 

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Yeshua’s Cats Advent Season

HollyStrand

Now! Yeshua’s Cats’ Advent Puzzles are back!

24 days of amazingly detailed masterworks of Christmas art

each hiding its own tiny cat! Find Mari (or Miw)!

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14_M_01_1418_Antonio_Vivarini_Adoration_of_the_Magi_SM

Click on the link above to start!

Of Time and Faith

 

Pre-Dynastic Egypt, photo NYTimes
Pre-Dynastic Egypt, photo NYTimes

My recent immersion in ancient Egyptian art (for A Cat Out of Egypt) has reminded me of the many hours I’ve spent roaming happily through the art of the Ancient Near East–as far back in human history as the Stone Age years (roughly 50,000 to 10,000 BCE). Just in surveying the history of Egypt, I’ve traveled through so many cultures so quickly that thoughts on the nature of cultural change have finally stopped me in my tracks. So today I want to share with you some of my wandering thoughts on time, change, and Western culture, born of encounters with the work of long-dead artists.

TrainTrackBefore Einstein turned science on its head, people in Western culture tended to picture time as a single line which connected the beginning and end of all things. This is no longer the case, at least among scientists. The idea of linear time emerged from the early cultures of the Ancient Near East and was essential to Judaism’s understanding of reality. Judeo-Christian culture embraced linear time as its own, and structured history and reality accordingly. Wherever the Church—and later Western culture—extended its influence through colonialism and conversion, linear time was a non-negotiable part of the package.

Chartres Labyrinth, photo by Maksim
Chartres Labyrinth, photo by Maksim

But many cultures prior to Judeo-Christian contact tended toward circular or spiraling ideas of time. These ideas took various forms, from the cyclical rebirth of the entire universe to models more directly reflecting the turning seasons and skies. Cycles of death and rebirth were generally part of these worldviews, but for those of us firmly planted in a linear model of time appreciating these other models can be difficult.

 

Oddly enough, I can offer an example of time as a circle/spiral from my own experience. I’ve always thought in images. So if I thought of time, I pictured it, just as I did everything else. For as long as I can remember, at least back into my elementary school years, whenever I’ve tried to recall memories in sequential order, I’ve imagined years as circles in an ascending counterclockwise spiral. Winter begins each new circle at the top, moving into spring on the left, summer at the bottom side, and fall on the right, all rising toward a new winter and a new circle on the upward spiral. The spiral’s circles are formed of rather misty mosaics of memory-images from the seasons and events of the year. I offer this example simply to suggest that if a thoroughly Western child of elementary-school years could spontaneously create such a circular model—one that persists on into adulthood alongside a standard linear model of time—then cyclical time might not be all that alien to any of us.

"American Progress," John Gast, 1872
“American Progress,” John Gast, 1872

Linear time as the Church concretized it in Christian doctrine defined history as the stage upon which God acted to lead Creation to its divinely ordained conclusion–thus contributing, if indirectly, to the Western idea of progress. Also moving onto the stage at some point was the idea of a divinely chosen people whose own culture set the standard for all other peoples. By the 19th C, Western culture was producing theories of cultural evolution with “primitives” on the bottom and privileged Western society on the top. Immeasurable pain and violence were inflicted on other cultures as a result, and the damage is ongoing today. Although most reputable scholars rejected such ideas of cultural evolution by the mid-20th C, similar notions do still linger in the popular mind. Almost any person raised within a Western worldview is, at the very least, a carrier of embryonic presuppositions regarding progress and “primitivism,” whether they wish to carry them or not. It’s in the air, in our mothers’ milk.

Akkadian victory stele, 2250 BCE
Akkadian victory stele, 2250 BCE

So what does all this have to do with my journeys through ancient art? Well, I found myself asking, “Why do cultures change?” When Stone Age humans began domesticating animals, was it “development,” “progress,” or simply change based on circumstances we can’t see clearly today? Cultural change that led to dynastic civilizations and large-scale warfare can only be called progress (with any certainty) if where we stand today is the intended and best possible result in an overall plan of history. When Neolithic groups moved toward urbanization and the beginnings of metallurgy, was it progress, or simply change? What other paths existed in prehistory as possibilities—what waves had not yet collapsed? In Western Asia and Eastern Europe cultures adhering to traditional ways disappeared—or were wiped out by the widespread wars, plagues, and famines of the last half of the Bronze Age. And here a possibility began to grow in my mind.

ST-slavesI considered the course of events in recent centuries when Traditional, or Earth-based, cultures encountered Western civilization. One thing I had never considered before now demanded my full attention: African Traditional peoples, Native Americans, South Sea Islanders, Aborigines—these peoples did not progress, or develop, or evolve—their cultures were annihilated. They were not in the process of change when first contact was made. Change was not offered to them as an option. Whether they were killed with weapons, pestilence, starvation, or all three together, their cultures were extinguished. Greed for land and resources, brutally efficient weaponry with the sense of power born of it, and the tantalizing possibility of “might makes right”—these human factors undergirded the conquest of “new worlds.” Would it be unreasonable to suppose that these same human factors sealed the fate of indigenous peoples whose lands adjoined the Fertile Crescent and the civilization it cradled?

Bound Captive, Early Dynastic, Egypt, photo NYTimes
Bound Captive, Early Dynastic, Egypt, photo NYTimes

This line of thought led to disturbing questions often debated among academics—but for me, these questions have become personal. What is progress? Does it really exist? Why is change a good thing, if an existing situation is good already? Is it possible that unlovely traits like greed, abusive power, and fear have always been the most common motive forces in human change?

 

 

Movie "Avatar," idealized indigenous people
Movie “Avatar,” idealized indigenous people

Now that the Western world is beginning to perceive the number and variety of plagues spawned in its long shadow, some people have begun to look with yearning and regret at Earth’s remaining Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, when we look we tend to see through the lenses of our own worldview, darkly. We do not see these fellow-humans as people who belong to themselves, with their own lives and concerns, but as solutions to our problems, romanticized projections of our notions of a paradisal age.

Perhaps wisdom remains for the healing of the Earth. Perhaps sustainability is something we can learn. Perhaps if we ask with respect, elders may share their wisdom. But first we of Western culture need to look to our own house.

Stained glass window "Jairus' daughter" by Annemiek Punt, photo Beckstet
Stained glass window “Jairus’ daughter” by Annemiek Punt, photo
Beckstet

Professor and historian E. Glenn Hinson first introduced me to the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, a French priest and philosopher of the first half of the 20th century whose reflections on God and history led to repeated censures by the Catholic Church. But the one piece of his thought that burst into my world like a supernova was his assertion that God has given the future of the Earth into human hands: if we don’t take responsibility for our world, God won’t step in with an exasperated sigh and clean up the mess. In the Apostle Paul’s words, we must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). “Progress” does not necessarily reflect God’s will, nor does God necessarily “will” what is happening in our world today. Christ has pointed the way in love, and the Holy Spirit strengthens us as we labor, but if we don’t work for the salvation of all God’s creation, humanity’s end times may be grim indeed.

 

 

 

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The Speaking Stones of Easter

 

“If the people were silent, the very stones would cry out.”                                                                       Luke 19:40

The stones are speaking.  Are we listening?

The memory of stone.  People have spoken of it since humankind first wielded tools to chisel its surface.  What stories might be locked in the smallest of river stones, the bedrock beneath the plains’ rich soil, the mountains crushed into gravel for our roads?  Certainly we find there the record of the earth’s transformations, the bones and footprints of long-dead species, delicate traceries of plants, massive forests.  But what about human lives?  Have stones absorbed the fleeting touch of our lately-come species, the storms of blood, tears, laughter, prayer that accompany our kind wherever we wander?  Do stones remember us?

Stones of Easter: Bread. Photo C.L. Francisco
Stones of Easter: Bread. Photo C.L. Francisco

I love stone.  I have loved it from earliest childhood.  I love the weight and feel of it in my hand, the warmth of it beneath me when I rest from walking, the magic of its kaleidoscopic patterns.  When I can I travel to mountains and canyons and deserts to spend time in its company.  Stone is alive, sentient in some way I can’t explain.  I feel it most strongly in wilderness, where human busy-ness is limited—but it has also caught me unawares in urban alleys.

Stones of Easter: Wine. Photo by C. L. Francisco
Stones of Easter: Wine. Photo by C. L. Francisco

I am unlikely ever to hear a stone speak in human words, or a tree in propositions, or a dog in iambic pentameter.  A stone communicates in the manner of stones, just as a dog communicates as dogs do.  My experience of the speech of stones is deeply non-verbal, partly visceral and partly emotional, untranslatable.  Sometimes I take a photograph or pick up a stone when I feel it; other times I simply let it be.  The imagery comes later.

Stones of Easter: Flesh. Photo by C. L. Francisco
Stones of Easter: Flesh. Photo by C. L. Francisco

I am not a professional photographer, or even educated in photography.  In the past I saw the images in a camera’s eye as an imagined canvas, in terms of shape and balance, tension and flow, light and dark.  Now I find myself photographing scenes that pulse with the energy of subtle presence, and I let the rest take care of itself.  Sometimes my pictures absorb a hint of that power, sometimes not.

Stones of Easter: Blood. Photo by C.L. Francisco
Stones of Easter: Blood. Photo by C.L. Francisco

What is a photograph?  At its simplest it is a record of objects seen, events observed, people known.  But like history, a photograph participates in the awareness of the one who watches and records.  And like a scientific experiment, the photographer’s participation is a variable that must be considered. The same scene taken by different people with identical cameras at roughly the same time may be distinctly different—based on something I call “soul,” for lack of any better term.  At times the camera’s eye appears to mediate an exchange of understanding?  meaning?  relationship?  being?  between photographer and subject, and this fleeting touch (or lack of it) marks the photo.

The Stones of Easter: Release. Photo by C.L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Release. Photo by C.L. Francisco

What are the stones saying with their images?  I believe they are communicating their presence, no more.  “Look at us!” they cry.  “We are alive, in ways you have forgotten you ever knew.  We are—as the trees are, and the waters, and the atmosphere that shields the Earth from the extremes of space.  Truly see us—see all of creation—we who have been dismissed by your arrogance as mere commodities.  See us, before only stones remain to see the sunrise.”

The Stones of Easter: Tomb. Photo by C.L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Tomb. Photo by C.L. Francisco

Slipping unseen along the fringes of consciousness, the temptation is always there—to “clean up” the images, make them perfect, adjust their proportions to fit more neatly into Western ideas of beauty.  Sometimes I make changes without thinking, and then I have to destroy the image if I can’t undo the edits.  We have an implicit understanding, the stones and I—that their images will remain as I find them, removed only from their matrix, and, at most, adjusted for contrast.  After all, they are the language of stone, and much is inevitably lost in translation.

The Stones of Easter: Searching the Skies. Photo by C. L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Searching the Skies. Photo by C. L. Francisco

Many years ago I discovered a new word:  panentheism.  Not pantheism (many gods), not theism (usually one god separate from creation), but pan-en-theism—one Spirit present in all creation, without the great divide between spirit and flesh that seems unavoidable in most Western traditions.  Perhaps this word can suggest a way to bridge the gulf between stones that speak and a planet of dead rock.

The Stones of Easter: Lament. Photo by C. L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Lament. Photo by C. L. Francisco

In Christian scripture the apostle Paul describes the perceptions of ordinary people:  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly . . . .”  These words could describe any human being who has lost her sense of kinship with the web of life in which she lives.  We see the world distorted in a bit of poorly polished metal—and ourselves more prominently than all else.  But unlike Longfellow’s Lady of Shallot, we have no curse to excuse our stubborn avoidance of the Earth’s true face.

The Stones of Easter: Emergence. Photo by C. L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Emergence. Photo by C. L. Francisco

Stone is patient.  Stone does not envy or boast, and is neither arrogant nor rude.  Stone simply is, demanding nothing.  Stone is not false, but embodies the truth of creation.  Stone accepts human abuse and awaits our healing.  Stone endures all things, is always being transformed, yet is ever the same.

The Stones of Easter: Rolling Stone. Photo by C. L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Rolling Stone. Photo by C. L. Francisco

All the photos in The Stones of Easter series* were taken on my brother Don’s mountain during Easter week, 2010, when I was deeply immersed in writing the final chapters of The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat. Starting on the morning of Maundy Thursday and ending on Easter Sunday, each day I packed a lunch and water flask and set off up the mountain with my camera. In a very literal sense, I went in search of a vision.

The Stones of Easter: Gone Away. Photo by C.L. Francisco
The Stones of Easter: Gone Away. Photo by C.L. Francisco

The result of the vision that met me there is Yeshua’s Cat.

 

And, of course, one of Wendy’s cats.

EasterCat

 

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* Sixteen photos in The Stones of Easter series are available for sale at http://www.zazzle.com/moon_seasons. The original series included 24.

 

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Painted Gospels

 

Symbols

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In the days before Yeshua’s Cat was written, before the wildfire scorched our land, I was exploring the changes that had carried humanity forward in time from the old Earth-based cultures of the Stone Age, through the violent upheavals of the late Bronze Age, and into the time of the Roman Empire. The planned lectures and workshops vanished in the wildfire’s smoke, but something else emerged. I realized that without the art of these ancient peoples we would understand almost nothing about them. So where was the art of the early church? How had my education in early Christian history managed to focus so entirely on words? As a result, I turned to the internet and the local university library and began to search for the visual language of the early Church. (In case you’d like to explore on your own, Picturing the Bible by Jeffrey Spier is a good place to start.)

Wiki_Jesus-NuntiatellaCatacombs
Painted bust of Jesus, Nunziatella Catacombs

For much of the mid-20th century, common wisdom dismissed the “search for the historical Jesus” as a groundless hope, a fantasy for the unrealistic.  But although we may never see a portrait of the flesh and blood man Jesus, the search has proved far from “groundless”: in our time the Earth herself has been yielding up the voices and visions of Jesus’ earliest followers with increasing frequency.

1st C walls under San Clemente, photo Marc Aurel
1st C walls under San Clemente, photo Marc Aurel

Anyone who visits Rome today steps into a buzzing archaeological hive. This in itself isn’t so strange; after all, many of Rome’s greatest attractions were literally unearthed from its ancient past. What fascinates me is how these ruins emerge. They aren’t turned up by a farmer’s plow, or weathered out of an eroding riverbank, but excavated from beneath the city’s basements. Apparently, Rome buried itself. And the same can be said of Jerusalem, or almost any other Mediterranean capital.* In Rome, for example, the twelfth-century Basilica of San Clemente that still stands today used the walls of the fourth-century San Clemente as foundations.  This earlier church rose on top of a first-century mansion.  Stairs of ever-increasing age, exposed in recent excavations, descend from the sunlit world down through the virtually intact fourth-century church and into the bowels of ancient Rome.  There visitors can walk along a first-century Roman alleyway and explore a now-subterranean apartment building adjacent to the walls of the mansion used as an early Christian meeting place.  And under it all lies the rubble of Rome’s great fire of 64 CE.

Santa Maria Antigua, Rome
Santa Maria Antigua, Rome

Canyons carved into the human past are literally opening at our feet along the Roman streets.  We can almost believe we hear the slap of sandaled feet two thousand years dead. Anything seems possible. The past walks with us in ways we never imagined. Beneath the many strata of Roman civilization lies tuff, or hardened volcanic ash. Tuff is relatively soft until exposed to air, and is ideal for tunneling.  This Roman bedrock made possible the creation of the lowest levels of all Roman ruins, the catacombs.  As long as sufficient structural support was left in place, there was almost no limit to the number and extent of these labyrinthine burial chambers.

 

Catacombs of St. Callisto
Catacombs of St. Callisto

Although the most famous are Christian, catacombs existed before the early church period, and provided burial space well into the Common Era for those of many different religions.  Their painted burial chambers offer us some of the earliest glimpses into the faith of Christian believers, perhaps even back to the middle of the first century.

Vatican Necropolis, 3rd C. CE
Vatican Necropolis, 3rd C. CE

Visual art as a way of communicating our experience of the world is always personal, and far more powerful than words.  Art strikes human depths directly.  When a person chooses images to express the soul’s deepest yearnings in the face of death, non-essentials fall away.  The heart chooses whatever makes life livable, hope possible.  When we look at funerary art, we meet human beings as they turn their faces toward the mystery of life moving into death.  This mystery is what we find in the catacombs.

Jesus raising Lazarus, Via Latina catacombs
Jesus raising Lazarus, Via Latina catacombs
NikeHerc
Winged Victory and Hercules

So why are these earliest of Christian testimonies so little known?  Why have these painted gospels made so little impact on how Christians understand their faith today? Perhaps it is because our own worldviews get in the way.  So an American tourist in Rome snaps a photo of Nike (Winged Victory), and calls her a Christian angel.  Another sees a faded catacomb painting of Hercules with the three-headed dog Cerberus and identifies him as the Good Shepherd (with peculiar sheep).  We see what we expect to see,  squeezing everything into familiar molds. Or perhaps most people just haven’t had the chance yet to truly experience these painted gospels for themselves.

 

Early Christians chose dramatic images of Jesus and the Old Testament when they painted their tombs. Those appearing most frequently in the 3rd century and earlier are below:.

Jesus the Good Shepherd, who cared unceasingly for his flock:

Early catacomb images of the Good Shepherd
Early catacomb images of the Good Shepherd

Jesus the miracle-worker, who healed the sick, raised the dead, and controlled the elements:

Early catacomb images of Jesus performing miracles
Early catacomb images of Jesus performing miracles

Jesus the wise teacher:

Early catacomb images of Jesus teaching
Early catacomb images of Jesus teaching

Jonah’s sojourn in and emergence from the fish’s belly:

Early catacomb images and tomb carvings of Jonah
Early catacomb images and tomb carvings of Jonah

Daniel’s deliverance from the lions:

Early catacomb images of Daniel in lion’s den
Early catacomb images of Daniel in lion’s den

The three young men protected from the fiery furnace:

Early catacomb images of three men in fiery furnace
Early catacomb images of three men in fiery furnace

Early Christians also painted images of themselves on tomb walls, using two motifs more often than others:  women and men with arms raised in prayer and praise; and small groups of Christians gathered around shared ritual meals.

Early catacomb images of Christians gathered together
Early catacomb images of Christians gathered together

The paintings in the house church at Dura Europos in Syria (dating from about 230-250 CE) are the only Christian images of similar age that have been discovered. The paintings there depict the good shepherd, Jesus’ miracles, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the women at the tomb, as well as Old Testament scenes. Also like the catacombs, they portrayed contemporary believers in positions of praise (orants).

No crucifixes, no suffering martyrs, no images of sacrifice appeared in the early years.  These came at least 500 years later, with the developing doctrines of the church.

But what does all this have to do with people like us, living two thousand years later?  What impact might it have?  Let me paint you a picture with words.

Jesus, Nunziatella catacomb
Jesus, Nunziatella catacomb

The Christian faith whispering from the dark walls of the catacombs shows us a young man of their own culture–robed, beardless, often holding a wand in his hand–reaching out with compassion and power to touch and heal the human pain around him. He stops the flow of menstrual blood that has made a woman ritually unclean for years. He commands death to release the dead Lazarus, and death yields to him. He sits as a teacher in a circle of disciples, speaking words of life. A strong man with bare legs, he stands among a flock of sheep, carrying a lamb across his shoulders. He betrays no weariness or impatience, only watchful care.

The faith pictured here is in a loving, powerful, and wise man sent from God to point the way and guide his people. They relied on his healing power, his love, and his commitment to their well-being. His God-given power was stronger than death, stronger than the destructive powers of nature, and stronger than human malice.

Early catacomb image of women serving a meal
Early catacomb image of women serving a meal

The believers in these painted gospels were neither theologically complex nor concerned with church structure. Women appeared in positions of leadership as often as did men. No canon of scripture had yet been established, although Paul’s letters were circulating among believers by the 50’s–when there were already growing Christian communities in Rome. Church hierarchy was only a spreading shadow on the horizon, and authority was fluid. What we now consider to be the four gospels were written between 70 and 100 CE, and did not become authoritative until much later. Communities of Christians followed their own personal experience and oral traditions, and suffered at the whim of Roman emperors.

By the third and fourth centuries, the increasingly hierarchical church forcibly silenced dissenting voices. Orthodoxy narrowed to a fine line. A few men concentrated all the power in their own hands. Congregations became sheep in ways they had never anticipated in the early years, and their shepherds were not always good. Too often fear, shame, and guilt discouraged the sheep from straying. Bloody sacrifice–Jesus’ own, and that of the martyrs–became a cornerstone of church doctrine where it had never been before. Bishops formulated creeds, damning those who did not confess Jesus in precisely their words–along with all followers of other faiths. The groundwork was laid for the Crusades and the Inquisition.

The Pains of Hell, 1100 CE
The Pains of Hell, 1100 CE

Like the Romans buried Rome, the church buried itself. But unlike Rome, what the church buried they rarely considered fit to use for new foundations. Whether these developments, and those that have followed in the centuries since, have anything at all to do with the message of Jesus of Nazareth is a question more and more people are asking today. In the end each of us may need to dig through the rubble of time and consciousness to find our own buried treasure. But one thing seems clear:  the treasure is there. Perhaps our perceptions are at fault.

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CatBarSingSm

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Wealthy Jerusalem home of the Herodian period
Wealthy Jerusalem home of the Herodian period

* The Wohl Museum of Archaeology in Jerusalem has excavated similar subterranean houses of the Herodian period from the hillside overlooking the Temple Mount.  Although currently the museum has no website of its own, many pictures of their discoveries are available online . . . .

 

 

 

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The First “Christmas” Art

 

Catacomb of St Callisto, Rome. Photo by Jim Forest
Catacomb of St Callisto, Rome. Photo by Jim Forest

Did you know that most of the very early “Christmas” art that has survived into the present is in the catacombs around Rome?

 

 

 

The Annunciation, Catacomb of Priscilla, 2nd C CE
The Annunciation, Catacomb of Priscilla, 2nd C CE

 

Perhaps the earliest known Christian painting is a simple 2nd century portrayal of the Annunciation, on the dome of a tomb in the Catacomb of Priscilla. But dating wall paintings is an inexact science at times, and many believe the paintings at Dura Europos to be earlier.

 

 

Virgin and Child with Balaam, Catacomb of Priscilla, 3rd C CE
Virgin and Child with Balaam, Catacomb of Priscilla, 3rd C CE

 

A painting of the Madonna and Child in the same catacomb complex has been dated to the late 3rd century. These paintings were done in the popular Roman style of the time.

Much of what remains of early Christian art has been discovered in these catacombs, which were used primarily from the 2nd through the 8th centuries CE. They were closed in the 9th century, mainly because of repetitive destruction by invading Goths and Lombards.

 

 

Crosses were not common among the earliest symbols. Instead, the Chi Rho, Good Shepherd, fish, anchors, alpha and omega, and praying figures known as “orants” were typically used to decorate tombs. The Good Shepherd in particular was also a common symbol for pagan Roman burials.

The Magi before Herod, 431, Santa Maria Maggiore
The Magi before Herod, 431, Santa Maria Maggiore

Not until after 313, when the Edict of Milan made the practice of Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire, did Christian art become more public, and eventually, more complex. The Magi with their gifts was a favorite theme in the 4th and 5th centuries, as was the Annunciation, the angels singing praises, and the Virgin and Child; however, Mary was most often portrayed solemnly, seated on a throne with the child in her lap.

There has  been some discussion about whether the arrow-like symbols in the painting below of Jesus with Peter and Paul might also be angels.

After the first millennium artists began to “humanize” the nativity, adding details to the scene and softening Mary’s appearance. Finally, by the 1300’s the classical paintings we’re familiar with today began to emerge.

Interestingly enough, the first portrayal of Jesus on the cross didn’t appear until sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries.

 

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