Posts Tagged ‘art’

Rocks, ritual


I had e-mailed with some of them beforehand, or answered questions on Facebook. But really, they were strangers—13 other women, mostly from the US, mostly schoolteachers.

I had returned to Delhi on the night train from Varanasi; most of the scholars from the six week program had departed or were in the process of departing. In charge of this last journey, I had gone back and forth between our four cars, checking and double checking that everyone had a seat, was settled, had dinner, had water, and was calm. I answered questions about lodging for the last night before they went to the airport. I answered questions about wifi, food, availability of ATMs, printing boarding passes, pick ups from the train station, and cost of auto-rickshaws. I mediated a few little conflicts, mostly cranky and tired nerves, and people weary of one another after six long weeks of travel and complicated academic research.

We said our farewells. One student was vomiting, sick. Another student had missed a flight due to visa problems. I kept problem-solving, sharing wipes, water, medicine, reassuring words, information.

The start of the teachers’ program: new people, new energy, new questions. Finally, an art teacher led us in a simple activity. We each chose a small rock. She had provided paintbrushes and acrylic paint. In silence, we were each to paint our rock, however we liked.

What a simple task. I don’t think I’ve done something so simple since I left home in May.

I looked at the colors, and chose white, pearl, bronze, dark copper, and pale pink. I painted my entire rock white, first, and then waited while it dried. I immediately found a flat side of the rock, and thought about ways to use that side, and whether I wanted to paint words, or a design, or another object.

It felt so good to paint! Everyone painted, including both Jain professors. The room was quiet for a long time. I loved seeing the pearlized surface of the rock once I used the pearl color, and then appreciated—my mouth watered—the sensation of laying down the paint with the wet curve of my cheap paintbrush.

It was so satisfying to see the surface of the rock change, to make my creative mark on it, to be left alone to work with pretty shades of paint, chosen only by me.

The rocks are radically different. One person painted a really great tiny portrait of a face, another did an elegant and minimal flower, following the grain of the marble in the rock. Some people used every primary colors, others used restraint. Each morning, we bring our rocks and place them on white cloth. At night, we take them back to our rooms with us.


Sometimes, I place my rock colored-side down so only the golden-pearl side shows up. Sometimes, I put my rock so it slightly touches my roommate’s. It’s such a tiny ritual, and it’s not very intellectual or complicated at all…and yet, it satisfies me.

One of the challenging things about travel is that we have so little of our familiar home routines. And actually, this can be transformative, as we practice the posture of hands open, ceding control.

It’s a kind of balance: I always decorate whatever room I’m staying in. I hang maps and make collages out of wrapping paper, newspapers, and mantra cards. I put up photographs, patterned paper, and letters above my bed. I hang scarves and put out objects, stacking my books under a make-shift paperweight. I like to walk into my room and see something home-like, something recognizable as “Stephanie’s room.”

And small rituals reassure us. It’s interesting that something as elemental as rocks, paint, silence, and routine (carrying home, carrying back) can provide a touchstone for the group, a marked beginning and a little melody to carry us through the day.


My rock, with the pearl coat drying.



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stone cross cappa

A cross carved into the outside of a cave church in Cappadocia.

Even though I studied history, I was never interested in dates, battles, kings, economics, politics. I have a terrible mind for dates and facts. Individual lives interested me, saints and their close friends, who became their biographers. Villagers who encountered the holy, and built shrines, documenting their own faiths into history. Grandmothers’ trunks reopened after Communism, the old icons and prayers intact in their hands and memories.

So many places in history are heavy with this kind of weight. What did Faulkner say about history? The past is never dead?

I remember looking at the “maps of the holy land” in the back of my mint green, Precious Moments Bible, during particularly long sermons. The maps were mostly brown and beige, with small bits of river. I couldn’t imagine those places as real.


At Harran, a city that has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. The earliest mention of Harran in records is from 2300 BCE.

Never would I have imagined I’d go to Ephesus, and walk where Paul preached. Or see the kind of cave churches early Christians imprinted with carvings. Stone dining tables remain, as do trenches for wine, and holes in the wall where they might have hung cradles.

The faces of Christ are often rubbed off. Imagine the centuries of pilgrim hands, touching, caressing the stone, bringing prayers and desperate wishes. Imagine the Christians taking over the caves from pagans, and—first thing—carving a cross on the walls.

red last supper cappa

Inside on of the cave churches, an ancient painting of the Last Supper.

For me, the numinous wasn’t a tiger or a mighty spirit in another room, it was red paint on stone, or a damp cave, or a dark place for prayer. I entered Abraham’s cave on the women’s side, full of Muslim women and girls praying, where once Abraham spent ascetic years. I saw Job’s well, where God finally blessed him with holy water to heal his afflictions. I ran my hand over stone carvings from the earliest Christian period. I saw where pre-Christian families worked and lived.

cone house

Recreation of a traditional mud house, interior, in Harran.

Maybe nobody should try to study history until they can picture the food, the sunrise, the dust, and the fireplaces of those who lived it. I think about everything I know about Abraham—from the Bible camp song “Father Abraham,” to the promise illuminated by countless stars in the sky, to his wife laughing outside the tent—and then imagine him, and old man, praying in a cool cave. I prayed in that cave—my mind reels at the connecting point.

abraham's cave

Inside Abraham’s cave.

This might be the biggest blessing and take-away from my trip to Turkey, that I got to be, in all tactile glory and physicality, in places of history and beauty. I should dig up my Bible, find those sterile beige maps, and recolor them. I can collage on photographs, and write in impressions.

red crosses cappa

Paintings of crosses, Christ, and saints at Cappadocia.

Next time I teach Sunday school, I won’t bring out the felt board, I’ll bring in rocks, and sand, wool, cooking ingredients, red paint, terracotta, blankets for the floor, and make a cave. We’ll pretend we’re pilgrims (and aren’t we?), with all our doubts, idiosyncrasies, needs, and desires. We’ll touch, dream, articulate, and pray—and then read about Father Abraham, Prophet Job, and letters from Ephesus. Maybe we can somehow tie knots in our strand of history back into those stories, and realize them better.

job's well

Children peeking into Job’s well.



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Mary in splendor, in Hagia Sophia.

Mother Mary was all over this trip. Surprising that after having lived in places like the Bronx, where she is also frequently found—from shrine to garment to tattoo—that I would feel so close to her at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

When I was little, going to a missionary Baptist church out in the country, Mary didn’t come up very frequently, although I often got to play her in Christmas pageants. (Having blonde hair and blue eyes that matched her robes seemed prerequisite.) Even with nativity sets, I was always interested in the tiny baby, and in rearranging the stable crowd in various scenes. Mary wasn’t doing much in those little ceramic sets—kneeling, eyes cast down.

At one point in upper elementary school, I undertook to read the entire Bible, cover to cover. There’s not much Mary in there, either, actually. I loved the book of Esther, which read like a novel, and liked the idea of Eunice and Lois, early members of the church important enough to have names. Besides her magnificat, Mary doesn’t say anything. And Jesus himself is kind of rude to her in the wedding story, acting annoyed that she pressed him into service. And, to be honest, growing up trying to be a good girl, Mary just seemed meek and mild, the opposite kind of woman that a subscriber to Sassy magazine would aspire to be.


Tradition says that after Jesus, as he was dying, charged his dear friend John with caring for Mary, John took her to Ephesus, where she lived out her days. This shrine is on the site of where her house is supposed to have been.

When I did my master’s in Byzantine hagiography, I finally started thinking about Mary in earnest. I saw images of her as God-bearer, as a near-warrior lady, holding the safety of humanity underneath her skirt, looking with intensity at Christ as she begs forgiveness on our behalf. My professor said, of her downcast eyes, “In these [Byzantine] images, she’s not looking down because she’s meek. She’s looking down because she is nobility, and they don’t look commoners in the eye.”

One of the things that’s so exhilarating about Istanbul is that beautiful images are grander than you can imagine, and jaw-dropping beauty is around every corner. I frequently found my eyes filling with tears. I would turn a corner, look up, and see an image of the theotokos, completely not expecting it, and stunned into staring.

Or I’d see something out of the corner of my eye, look up, and see Christ as king, splendid and solemn, staring at me from centuries ago—gold still shining in the dim cave light.


Outside the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus, where pilgrims tie prayers on scraps of paper.

I couldn’t help by pray, and be awed (which is also a kind of prayer, I think), along the way.

CS Lewis defined the word “numinous” like this:

“Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room,’ and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind.

It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous.

Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.”

(When I looked up this story to get the details right for this post, I also found the following quote from Shakespeare that gets at “numinous,” “Under it my genius is rebuked.”)

So I would be walking around Istanbul, thinking about pistachios and how I used to always misspell “Constantinople,” (despite that master’s degree) and would suddenly find the hairs on my neck rising as I see another fresco, another mosaic, another image that stops my voice.

It’s hard to write about the numinous. When you have an experience—in a stand of sugar maple trees, at a child’s baptism, at the bed of a dying grandparent, in a chapel in Prague—that brings goosebumps, tears, a whoosh of energy in the gut and heart, and it feels like all of creation meaning…

It’s like the old writing class edict “show, don’t tell” falls apart. How can I show you? I can only tell you that I was greedy for images of holy and gold, and was blessed with more than I could handle.


Votives lit by pilgrims at Mary’s house.

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My reflection with Matt’s on our first morning in Istanbul.

My classmate and our group leader, Abudurrahim, asked us to write a short response about our expectations for the trip (ten days, eight cities, countless sites and people, throughout Turkey), on the very first evening. I have been engaging in inter-religious dialogue and work for eight years; I’ve spent years of academic and professional time wondering about expectations for interfaith engagement.

But this was personal: What did I hope to get?

Matt and I were in the unusual position (for Western, American, Christians) of being in the minority; of the fourteen of us, only four of us were Christians. We often stopped during the day so our friends could worship in a masjid, but we never participated in a Christian service. I was startled to see large pieces of holy calligraphy, in Arabic, throughout Hagia Sophia, and disrupting my view of the central image of Christ.


In Hagia Sophia, Christian images were plastered over both during times when the building was used as a mosque, and destroyed during iconoclastic periods. Our guide noted that the Islamic leader at the time did not want to destroy the images, because Jesus and Mary (Issa and Maryam in the Qu’ran) are sacred to Muslims as well; he just had them plastered over because images are not suitable for a place of worship. Here we can see the plaster being removed from the mosaic, painstakingly.

But this is what I asked for. I often use the word “disequilibrium” when I’m talking about education in general, and IR engagement specifically. It’s a term from Piaget. All children experience disequilibrium every time they encounter something, new in the world, that doesn’t go along with what they previsously knew. It doesn’t feel right. You have to check for other information, and finally incorporate the new worldview into what you know. It happens before you learn anything.

One of our jobs as teachers is to provide safe places for students (or congregation members, or clients) to experience disequilibrium.

For a toddler, it might be: You thought if you pushed this toy, it would light up red. But look! Sometimes it lights up green—what do you think about that? The world can be surprising. Keep pushing, see what happens.

For young adults, it might be: You have been taught that the protagonist of the book is always good, dependable, trustworthy. Guess what? Here’s an anti-hero, an unreliable narrator, a character you don’t like but somehow connect with.

For any of us: Every black person you’ve seen on television has been a criminal; you know only what the media has chosen to show you. Guess what? Your family has a new member, and he’s lovely, the son-in-law for which you’ve always dreamed. You’ll have to feel the disequilibrium, hold on as all the old synapses get sorted and grow, and incorporate these new understandings with how you move through the world.

I often pray that God will give me a posture of openness. By this, part of what I mean is that God will keep me curious, open to disequilibrium, and hold me safely through it. In my reflection for Abdurrahim, I said I hoped that I would experience things that I did not expect, and make new relationships and encounters that expanded my understandings.

This is easy for me to say, in America. In my home, with the pillow that smells like me, my favorite coffee cup, a closet full of clothes that suit the weather, and classes in which I excel. Surrounded by English language, and an endless (truly) assortment of food and drink that are tasty and nutritious.

Swimming like a faithful fish in a Christian environment, at a school of theology marked by a central chapel, and images and languages from the Bible throughout the literal landscape. Where I can wear a cross around my neck, say “Merry Christmas,” or “God bless you,” two dozen times of day, and never feel uncomfortable. Where I can seek out interfaith seder meals, or interfaith iftar, or read about Buddhism…if I want to. And no one will stop me or question my intentions; I am privileged that way.

The other hope I had was to really encounter history. I’ve learned and read so many Byzantine hymns, prayers, songs, stories. There was a time in my life where Gregory and Basil, Constantine and Helena—they were in my daily thoughts and writing.

This trip exceeded both of these expectation—boy, did I feel disequilibrium. Mostly in small ways—but they add up!—and in some delightful, serendipitous ways as well. And the history—well, I got goosebumps every day. I’m still working out what it all means to me. At the moment, my mind still reels slightly, dizzy from new geography, new tastes, and a crazy array of beauty and holy.


The interior of the Blue Mosque. So, so breathtaking. One can’t help but pray.

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Flowers and freedom

My run in a dramatic adaptation of The Great Divorce ended last night. An amazing book, an amazing play. It’s a really quick read, and I recommend it for anyone with Lent coming up… a really rich opportunity to reflect on free will, God’s mercy and compassion for us, the nature of human choice, and heaven.

Here are some snaps of little bouquets I made out of the flowers I received:

Gorgeous arrangement Matt chose for the color of the roses, in a teapot.

Tiny vases on the shelf above our kitchen sink.

Giant lily overtaking a creamer on our dining table.

One for my vanity top, with unmade bed in the background.

Mini arrangement on Matt’s dresser.

Milk glass and matryushkas in the bathroom.

Finally, here is a chunk of my dialogue– at the end of the play, as the Teacher, I’m telling the Traveler (who has experienced many vignettes about the nature of human love, choice, anger, and free will) about the difficulty of understanding things from our limited perspective in time… and yet, the necessity of seeing it that way, for now, in this life. The Traveler wants to know if it is possible to ask about the end of all things.

“…all answers deceive. If you put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain.

The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

But if you are trying to leap on into eternity, if you are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so you must speak) then you are asking what cannot be answered to mortal ears.

Time is the very lens through which you see–small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope–something that would otherwise be too big for you to see at all.

That thing is Freedom. Yes, Freedom–the gift whereby you most resemble your Maker and are yourselves part of eternal reality.

But for now you can see it only through the lens of Time. A little picture of one moment, following another, following another…and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise.

The picture is but a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of time destroys your knowledge of Freedom.”

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Photo by Tasayu Tasnaphun

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.” –Helen Keller

Sometimes, we feel the shatter.  Oh, the breaking, the sudden sharp sound, the numb eye-widening.  Faith can be hard to access… in such times, I know I go into “me, me, what am I going to do?” a self focus, a collapsing of a telescope in.

I am stronger when I remember I am not alone.  Actually, I have never been alone.

How many times will I have to learn this lesson to remember it for real?  God, help me remember the strength that I forget, and help me to cast out to my community when it seems all I have is sherds in my hands, sherds that make no sense.

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December 6 – Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it? (Author: Gretchen Rubin)

For the Big Love Party of two dear friends, I made dozens and dozens (with my students) paper flowers. I gathered birch branches and greenery and paper luminaries. For the luminaries, Matt found an amazing font, and we printed out sections of Song of Songs onto translucent paper. I tore the edges of the paper (for a rougher, more organic look) and then taped the paper into columns. They went around candles (made from the cheapest glassware at the dollar store around the corner and candles) so the light shone through the words.

I hung branches from the ceiling, with a team of amazing volunteers, and we hung the paper flowers and real greenery. Candles everywhere, and voila: Big Love Party landscape of dreamy love.

I’ve also made sugar cookies recently, and done several bulletin boards. Bulletin boards don’t sound very exciting, but I consider them giant collages, and love layering paper and text and student work, and three dimensional pieces when I can.

I wish I had more time to paint. I love doing tiny watercolors, and Matt has so many great photos of flowers from the neighborhood.  Maybe over Christmas break I can do one.  I also wish I had a reason to make more collage. A long time ago, my home church was making a memorial cookbook and prayerbook, and wanted a special cover. They commissioned me to make a collage, and I had the best time collecting various papers and sacred texts, and making a tiny painting, and making a collage.  I feel like for that sort of time commitment, though, I couldn’t do it for “just me.”

Thinking about it, I might take my tiny watercolor kit to St. Louis with me, and make a sliver of time each day to paint something. Maybe I’ll end up with a winter companion piece to “Indian Blanket.”

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