Archive for Lex Hixon

On Icon Writing, Vessels and Sieves

Gabriel Icon, Vladislav Andrejev
Angel Gabriel by Vladislav Andrejev

During my college years, I had the great blessing of being able to study for a time at School of the Sacred Arts (SOSA) in NYC. It was an amazing place which gathered masters from many diverse spiritual traditions, teaching everything from Haiku, Tibetan butter sculpture, manuscript illumination, Russian Icon writing (painting), Tibetan Tonka painting, Indian dance, Chinese calligraphy and on and on. There were also lectures on mysticism and sacred traditions by scholars and spiritual leaders. Everything was geared to help you enter into and experience sacred mystical traditions, ground and guided by true masters. It was an amazing place which sadly closed years ago. It was here that I first met Lex Hixon, Karen Gorst (my co-author on Lapis & Gold) and studied Icon writing with Vladislav Andrejev.

Vladislav is an amazing man who radiates spirituality. I was in school at NYU and had to walk across Washington Square park to my Icon class in the old church that SOSA had taken over. I would often come upon Vladislav sitting on a bench deep in prayer in preparation for his class.

Let me put it kindly, I was not a success at Icon writing. This class was probably my first conscious, overtly spiritual struggle and my first awareness of my ego’s roll in defining my life.

To write an Icon, you have to set aside your ideas and submit to the form, following the master’s instructions entirely. At that time, this was impossible for me. Directions and me didn’t mix. I used to brag that I couldn’t even follow the directions on a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese and it was true. Not because I was unable read the instructions or understand them, but because my need to control was so profound. I couldn’t even follow the simplest instruction from someone, even written on a box, without arguing.

I wanted to write an Icon, but I want to “express myself” more. I was angry at being confined. I worked on an Angel Gabriel Icon and I was incensed that I could not alter the image at all to put my stamp on it. I was angry that I couldn’t choose my own colors for the many layers that built Gabriel’s face and clothing. It was absurd. I had big plans, but my plans interfered with my ability to write an Icon and striped me of the intimate knowledge and spiritual truths contained in that process.

In Icon writing everything has form, order and meaning. Order and form are strictly prescribed. You must travel their path to get to meaning. You can intellectually understand the meaning, but it will have no impact on your spirit without surrendering completely into the process. Only in this way will mind and spirit become one in knowledge and can you grow spiritually.

Vladislav’s class made it very clear to me that I had a problem. Through him, for the first time, I began to be aware of how ego was dominating my life. Of course, nothing shifted then. It took me twenty years and 10 days in the cardiac ICU to learn to surrender. But the awareness first came from him, through the process of Icon writing. It is an art, like manuscript illumination, which has deep spiritual effects on the artist. It demands the artist be healed through its process because it’s goals are so profound.

Icons are meant to be windows to God. They seek to remove the veils between the Divine and humanity. They are filters that allow a more pure resonance of God’s light to pour into the world. Theodore Roethke said:

Form is not regarded as a neat mould to be filled, but rather as a sieve to catch certain kinds of material.

This is a profound statement. We are not simply empty vessels to be filled with anything that comes along. We have a choice to filter and hold what is dear to us. Although we are vessels, we are active participants too.

What I didn’t understand yet in Vladislav’s class is that our only work here is opening the door for Divine Light, that some more true expression of the Self can emerge from surrendering the self, and that we are filters and windows too, walking Icons. While written Icons capture a timeless moment of peace and surrender harnessed by the spiritual surrender of the artist, we move through time. Each moment becomes a choice- what will we filter, what will we surrender? What kind of window will we build, one filled with an an opaque and dirty glass or one luminous, bridging two worlds?

Vladislav now teaches at Prosopon School of Iconology and has just released a set of instructional DVDs. Here is a short excerpt:

To see more excerpts or order the DVD go to the Prosopon School of Iconology website and click “Process” on the left sidebar. I believe after 20 years of work I may finally be ready to be a beginning Icon writer. I am ordering this video.

On Joy, Pain & Divine Laughter

Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. -St. Theresa of Avila

This piece of sculpture and St. Theresa’s vision had a profound effect on me when I visited Rome in my early twenties. When you see the piece, it is as if it is floating on air, the marble is to thin in places that it seem transfused with light. Both the sculpture and the vision are a paradox. The sculpture is both heavy stone and ethereal light, the vision is joy and pain captured in the same moment.

I have been wondering about pain and joy over the last several days. I’m beginning to feel I too serious. I think maybe the Divine does not expect us to be so solemn. As usual, I’m thinking about making art and about the emptiness and silence it requires, the pain and suffering it can bring up. I discussed fear and pain on numerous occasions, but never joy and I have to ask myself why.

St. Theresa’s vision shows us that pain and joy can coexist. The pain implicit in having a physical form need not stamp out the joy of our connection to the Divine. In fact, in St. Theresa’s vision, her joy is felt physically as well as spiritually. She describe pleasure, the vision is almost sexual in nature. When I discuss and think about Divine creativity, I always feel very serious and solemn. I’m sure I take myself much too seriously! I’ve been rereading Wendy Beckett’s The Mystical Now, Art and the Sacred and I came upon this quote:

If we confuse ‘the sacred’ and ‘the solemn’, we are only allowing God to come to us from one direction. (p. 34)

What if I allowed that the possibility of joy while creating is equal to the possibility of pain? What if I embrace art as play with the Divine? Could I capture the abandon of a child at play as well as the meditative silence of a monk at prayer? I think I do when I work. Making art is definitely a form of play, but my mind is more sensitized to the suffering and difficulties. Would a small shift in perception change my whole experience of creating?

In his book Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions, Lex Hixon has an essay entitled The Landscape that laughs: Jewish Soul Masters of the Hassidic Way. This essay is all about the experience of joy and laughter as a direct experience of the Divine. It’s an amazing essay with so much to quote, but this passage really struck me:

Awakening to our own Divine Nature is not achieved automatically by going through certain steps in a sacred system, by prayers or meditations or rituals, no matter how sincere we may be. Ecstasy must first burn away these efforts of grasping God, leaving us with only apparent nonsense…Whatever bizarre or sublime form the holy presence may choose to assume and speak through, It redirects us to our original home, to the priceless spark of our intrinsic nature.

…Elie Wiesel writes about these stories of Rebe Nachman: “Laughter occupies an astonishingly important place in his work. Here and there, one meets a man who laughs and does nothing else. Also a landscape that laughs.” We encounter the same holy laughter in an account of kensho, or Enlightenment by a contemporary Japanese [Zen] practitioner: “At midnight I abruptly awakened. At first my mind was foggy, then suddenly that quotation flashed into my consciousness: “I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains, rivers, and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.’ …Instantaneously, like surging waves, a tremendous delight welled up in me, a veritable hurricane of delight, as I laughed loudly and wildly: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! The empty sky split in two, then opened it’s enormous mouth and began to laugh uproariously: Ha, ha, ha!'” Rebbe Nochman and this contemporary Japanese Buddhist both encounter a landscape that laughs. There is no fundamental cultural separation: ecstasy is ecstasy, fire is fire. (p. 121-122)

I have had two experiences with Divine Laughter, both around death. The first was with Lex Hixon himself. I was blessed to spend some time with him during college. Many years later I was told that he had died of cancer a number of years earlier. I was very sad and immediately said a prayer for him. Suddenly I heard him laughing and laughing with his distinctive voice as if he were in the room. There was such joy in his voice. My second experience was during the death of friends husband. I received a call from my friend that her husband had been taken to the hospital. She lived an hour away and I jumped in the car and drove to meet her. The whole way I was busy worrying and praying for her. When I was just about there, I suddenly realized I should be praying for him as well. It was as if the thought had been inserted into my head. Instantly I heard him laughing and laughing as if he were in the room. His laughter filled he car, there was such freedom and abandon in it. He suffered from severe depression so it was quite shocking to hear. When I arrived at the hospital I found that he had died at the exact time I had heard his laughter. I always felt that his laughter was a message for my friend, but now I see it was a message for me too. There is joy to be had here in this physical form.

I feel liberated, as if I am starting out on a new journey. I will keep you posted on my progress!

The Spiritual Earth

Earth from Moon
The greatest spiritual crisis facing humanity today is rectifying our relationship to the Earth. Sadly, our culture has taught us that physicality and spirituality are incompatible. Thomas Berry, an amazing contemporary theologian, describes our collective state like this:

The earth process has been generally ignored by the religious-spiritual currents of the West. Our alienation goes so deep that it is beyond our conscious mode of awareness. While there are tributes to the earth in the scriptures and in Christian liturgy, there is a tendency to see the earth as a seductive reality, which brought about alienation from God in the agricultural peoples of the Near East. Earth worship was the ultimate idolatry, the cause of the Fall, and thereby the cause of sacrificial redemption by divine personality. Thus, too, the Christian sense of being crucified to the world and living only for the savior. This personal savior orientation has led to an interpersonal devotionalism that quite easily dispenses with earth except as a convenient support for life.

My interest in spirituality and mysticism lies primarily in the via negativa. I’m here to tell you that the via negativa and physicality, the Earth, are compatible. In fact they are integral to one another.

The mystic who embraces the via negativa tells us that God is unknowable, greater than anything our mind can conceive. We must therefor remove our mind from the equation, releasing all our ‘ideas’ of God and surrender our need to control. We must surrender any limits that our small minds might place on the unlimited Divine. We must not even will to will ‘God’s’ will.

Because this path often requires a withdrawal in silence, it is falsely thought of as an escape from the world. It is not an escape from material reality; rather, it is a complete surrender into it. God and material reality, our Earth, are inseparable. Naturalist John Muir, though not a practitioner of the via negativa can still help us begin to understand the fundamental link between Earth and God. John Muir

These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty,
no petty personal hope or experience has room to be . . . . the whole
body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire
or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all
one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure
glow not explainable. One’s body then seems homogeneous
throughout, sound as a crystal.
– John Muir

The Franciscan mystic Bonaventure (13th century) described all of creation as a vestige, a footprint, of God. Plotinus (3rd century CE) tells us that God emanates form, creation, without ceasing. Eckhart (14th century) describes God as self-generating, creating without cease. He believes that there was a sort of womb of God which he calls “the Abyss of God” which “… remains forever unique, uniform, and self-generating.” The practitioner of the via negativa seeks entrance to this womb, but it is with the understanding that they will not stay there in the place of no thing, they cannot. This womb is a place of constant birthing, of constant creation. By returning to this place, the mystic is “decreated” (see Tauler) and created at once. There is nothing that is created that is not the Divine. Sufi mystic Sheikh Nur Al Jerrahi (Lex Hixon) of blessed memory, puts this beautifully:

The heart is the spring at the center of a clearing within the uncharted forest of creation. Here, what is human, irradiated by Divine Love, transforms into what is Divine. There is nothing other than perfect humanity-which is simply the conscious realization that God alone exits. (p.372)

God alone exists, thus Earth, rain, illness, grass, everything is God. Eckhart also confirms this view: “Ego, the word ‘I’ is proper to no one but God alone in his uniqueness.”

TreeIf God alone exists, that means that everything that is is God, Being. Thus we do a deep disservice to ourselves and to God by denying our relationship to the Earth. As Thomas Berry says,” Not to recognize the spirituality of the earth is to indicate a radical lack of spiritual perception in ourselves.” Berry goes on the say that:

We need to understand that the earth acts in all that acts upon the earth. The earth is acting in us whenever we act. In and through the earth spiritual energy is present. This spiritual energy emerges in the total complex of earth functions. Each form of life is integrated with every other life form.

Illumination from the Scivias by Hildegard of Bingen

Our very spiritual nature is dependant on our embrace of the Earth. By denying it, we deny ourselves and the Divine. Hildegard of Bingen tells us that creation is linked to viriditas, a term which Matthew Fox translates roughly as greening power. Hildegard says that “the word is all verdant greening, all creativity.” Hildegard understands that God is fundamentally creative and the material and the Divine are fused because of the act of creation.

There is no creation that does not have a radiance. Be it greenness or seed, blossom or beauty, it could not be creation without it.

As an artist, the act of creation is especially present for me. But it is there in every moment of every life, not just the artist’s, if we allow it. Moon from EarthHumanity has but to step out of the way and let the unceasing creativity of the Divine flow though us. Stepping out of the way means letting go of control. Period. We cannot say ‘I’ll let God direct my life” while still draining and destroying the Earth, because God is the Earth. God is alone, there is nothing which is not God. While we fight for control of our planet, we dam up the joyous flow of Light and Creativity into the world. For us to become “all verdant and greening” we need do nothing but accept what is, our physicality and deep spiritual connection to the Earth. I leave you with the words of biologist Elisabet Sahtouris who has worked to heal the divide between science and religion:

Our human task now is to wake up and recognize ourselves as parts or aspects of God-as-Nature and behave accordingly. All are One, all harm harms each of us, all blessings bless each of us.

[Speaking to a congregation] I urged them to occasionally see themselves as the creative edge of God (a phrase I learned from a dear friend) — as God looking out through their eyes, acting through their hands, walking on their feet, and to observe how that changed things for them…

dirt

Note: Over the next few weeks I will be adding a page to this site entitled Earth, with more views and resources on this line of thinking.

Jewish Mysticism & The Veil of Pain

Man is too weak to accept or absorb divine love, which is absolute. For that reason, and that reason alone, does God cover it with the veil that is pain. – Rebbe Zusia (pg. 113)

I’ve been continuing my rereading of Lex Hixon’s writings. This quote is from an essay entitled The Landscape that Laughsin Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions by Lex Hixon
about 18th century Jewish mystics. It’s wonderful if you ever have chance to read it.

The concept of pain as a veil to God’s light is extraordinary. The whole world is veil to shield us from the intensity of God’s light, but in this essay Hixon explain something amazing:

Zusia speaks of our suffering or pain as a Divine veil but suffering also removes the human veils by which we have obscured the Divine Life living through us. The soul master accepts suffering to unveil the intrinsic freedom of the soul. (p. 114)

There are two actions working here: humans protecting themselves from the Divine and the Divine protection of humans. Humanity resists Divinity out of fear. We refuse to follow Divine guidance; we act without honor; we choose smallness over change. Those actions are the veils we create to resist the chaos of Divine Reason. Hixon explains through Rebbe Zusia that the painful experiences in our lives act in a two fold way to clear away our internal blocks to God while still protecting us from complete annihilation in the brilliance of the God Head.

I see the beauty and truth in his point. In my own life pain has transformed me, made me softer, more open, more able to love & to create art. But I do quarrel with his terminology here. He uses pain & suffering almost interchangeably. To me, these are quite different terms. Pain is the nature of the human condition. I do not believe suffering is, suffering can be transcended through acceptance of pain. It is resistance which causes suffering. Suffering is a human veil. Pain is a Divine veil.

Emanation & Return: Remembering Lex Hixon

When I was studying at the School of Sacred Arts in the early 1990s, I had the great fortune to meet Lex Hixon. He was an amazing man and my first real encounter with a true living mystic. Although he was deeply connected to many spiritual traditions, I met him in his capacity as sufi Sheikh Nur al Jerrahi. I will never forget our first meeting. The School of Sacred Arts was in the basement of a church off of Washington Square Park. We used the chapel itself for large lectures. I was sitting reading my Bonaventura (The Soul’s Journey Into God) and all of a sudden I felt a wave of love rush over me, into me. It was like someone woke me up, only I hadn’t been sleeping. I turned around and there he was. There was something shiny about him- clean & new but not in a Windex sort of way. I can’t explain it really.

Later, he took me deeply into the Heart. I prayed with him many times, and each time was like a jewel, a dive deep into the pool of ecstatic love. Great mystics often have the power to take others with them on their journeys. My connection to him was brief in time, but effects me still. When I heard he had died, I was so sad. I said a prayer for him. Immediately I heard him laughing, such a joyous resonant laugh I knew he was deep in that Divine pool, just as he had been in life. That moment has erased any fear I had of death.

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From time to time I return to his writings. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Divine creation and its relationship to the artist. I’ve forgotten one of the key components of this in my recent posts. This is a cycle of going and return, being fed and feeding. In his book Atom from the Sun of all Knowledge, the loving spirit of Lex Hixon, writes:

O Divine Beauty, nothing other than You manifests within or beyond creation. Divine Creativity is the One returning to itself. This is the Neoplatonic circle of emanation and elevation. This return is not a regression to the original Unity but an advance to perfect humanity…(pg.373)

Now that I think of it, the dream I posted earlier this week was telling me just this. Could it be any clearer how important the work of artists is on this earth?