Pilgrim Path

This blog is the work of a seeker and poet. Walking stick in hand, I head out into the world, not of the world, but in the world. My words and my friends carry me along and light the pilgrim path of spiritual journeys.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Being raised “sporadically” as a Presbyterian, I had what one might call a “deprived” childhood when it comes to religious art. The only picture I remember seeing at church was hung behind the choir. It was the classic portrait of the Western European/American version of Christ painted by Walter Sallman:

We are taught to take our prayers directly to the Triune God. Intermediaries don’t play a significant role in our life of faith.

However, when you grow up in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic neighborhood (Brighton Park in Chicago) where rosary beads, scapulars, communion dresses and missals are the essential tools of ones’ faith, it is easy to become captivated by these “exotic” accoutrements.

While I found these instruments of faith to be interesting, my curiosity was particularly heightened whenever I caught a glimpse of an icon of some saint or another. (One of the great feats for a Protestant was to pass by the front of a Roman Catholic Church on a “Holy Day of Obligation” and sneak a peek inside as a door was about to close.)

Through the many doors that God has placed before me, I’ve been blessed in my adult life with a broadly ecumenical point of view. I’ve learned about and participated in a wide variety of religious observances and come to respect them deeply. Just this past spring, I was permitted to join an Icon Writing (yes, writing, not painting) workshop. You can read about that experience and see my result at:  Icon Workshop - 2010.

Over a long span of my life, icons have intrigued me. A few years ago, during one of many trips to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was fortunate enough to accidentally arrive during Spanish Market – a festival of art and music.

One of the aspects of Santa Fe that I adore so much is that the people of the city wear their faith like another layer of clothes. Their faith is ever present. And so, it was no surprise that much of the artwork on display and for sale carried a spiritual theme.

(In an amazing bit of synchronicity, as I was putting this piece together in my head, I received an email that pointed me in the direction of book on Russian iconography. It is titled: Hidden and Triumphant – The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography by Irina Yazykova and translated by Paul Grenier.)

In the foreword to this book, written by Wendy R. Salmond, I found some words that explain part of my fascination with icons:

“The icon preserves the canon by standing at the border
between two worlds, awakening the viewer’s spiritual
vision through the workings of the physical eye. All
icons are canonical when outer form and inner content
harmonize, bringing the viewer face to face with the world
of spirit in a state of prayerfulness. Like a heartbeat,
eternal time flows through such icons, undisturbed by the
restlessness of human time reflected in the history of continual
stylistic change.”

While walking up and down the streets of Santa Fe that shoot off the central plaza, I came across a booth that displayed a less conventional collection of icons. Enjoying all things “off-center,” I stopped and gazed at all the remarkable work. The artist’s name is Christina Miller (www.iconfusion.com).  After a while, Christina caught me hovering for some time and we struck up a conversation. After speaking to Christina, I think I know why I am so attracted to her work. Christina is a true artist with a genuine soul who shares her joy through her work. Here is a picture of one of my favorite icons of hers that I own. It is called: Bellini Madonna.

At the time I bought it, I didn’t realize that Bellini was a famous High Renaissance artist who painted many pictures of the Madonna and Child. There are a couple of aspects of this icon that pulled me in and grabbed me. First, it is not all that common to find an icon depicting the Madonna alone. Second, the depiction was executed using only black and white paint. Despite these deviances from traditional icon writing, I still found the work to be effective in its ability to draw me in, quiet my heart and allow me to center myself and pray.

I have more pieces by Christina that I plan to share with you as this series continues.


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Monday, December 27, 2010


Christmas is over and New Year’s will be here in a few days. The run-up to Christmas is always so fraught with hyperactivity that it’s hard to take the time to really enjoy the holiday. Usually, sometime ON Christmas Day, I find myself with enough time to become reflective. One of the best parts of the holidays is the opportunity to work with memories both old and new.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been changing my Facebook profile picture every few days to reflect some childhood memories of Christmas – sitting in the big spinning chair in front of the Christmas tree so confident that I’d been a good boy, standing in front of Uncle Don who came to our apartment dressed as Santa and made me feel so special, and finally, bundled up in a snow suit sitting high atop a pile of snow in my childhood backyard. Those are the simple, old memories that are quick to come by. Prompted by old photos, it is still easy (at least for now) to reconstruct the details.

For some reason, this year, an obscure, unphotographed memory has been popping into my head. Because of the holiday season, I guess I’ve got a little more time to pay it the proper attention it deserves. Like the others, it’s a childhood memory.

I grew up sporadically attending Brighton Park Presbyterian Church with my mother. I don’t really recall my father attending church with us but he did always give us rides back and forth in whatever current incarnation of a Rambler we owned at the time.

Brighton Park Presbyterian Church felt like home to me because I had several relatives who also attended church there – my mother’s sister, Aunt Bessie, and her son, my cousin, Douglas. Another cousin, Margaret, and her husband, Norman, who was the son of one of our former pastors, also attended. It was easy to feel comfortable there. Besides these relatives, anyone who was friends with these kin also treated me with kindnesses.

The particular memory that has been picking at my brain is of a friend of my cousin, Douglas. I believe I am remembering his name correctly – it was Jim Hardin. He was a tall, distinguished and good looking young man who I believe was a teacher. I recall one night riding in my cousin Douglas’ car to go visit or pick up or drop off something at Jim’s apartment. Douglas was always very good at getting me to tag along with him and I was happy to go because Douglas is a good guy who is fun to be around and who has a wonderfully explosive laugh. It may have only been one visit, but I remember it to this day.

Jim lived in a very neat apartment with lots of dark wood furniture. There were bookcases filled from floor to ceiling with books and there were display cases with glass sides that were lit from inside that seemed to me to hold museum-like treasures. My recollection is that there were busts and other artifacts that looked as if they had come from ancient Egypt. This apartment was nothing like the apartments of my relatives – this place was magical.

I can’t recall a thing about what Douglas and Jim discussed that night but I know they were content to let me take my time staring at these amazing, odd items. I’d always looked up to Jim (of course, he was also about 6 ft tall) but this visit to his apartment raised his value in my eyes.

In wasn’t until these memories came to mind this year that I realized the influence that Jim might have had upon me and my life. As some of you know, I was a Chicago Public School History teacher for a few years at the start of my career. I know there are others, including Mrs. Florence Zvetina at Gunsaulus Elementary School and Miss Fay Hasan at Kelly High School, who also led me to that career choice.

But there is another aspect of my life that I believe may be even more influenced by Jim Hardin. I am a collector of objects from far and wide that may not mean anything to anyone but me but with which I enjoy filling up every available space in my house in order to feel comfortable.

I’ve had a bit of writer’s block for a while as some of you have probably noticed. I’m hoping to break that logjam by starting a new series about Curious Objects. These items, along with my insatiable desire to tell stories, should keep these pages full, at least for a little while. Stay tuned…

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010