By Mark Michael
I noticed the man bending low in the pew and whispering to his dark-eyed children, their eyes following his hands as he pointed to different spots in the chancel. I began to approach, but paused when they closed their eyes. When he had finished praying, they all made the sign of the cross, right to left, and he rose from the pew and moved toward me with a broad smile.
He introduced himself to me, relating a tale I had heard, in parts, many times. Ten years earlier, our parish was renovating our Victorian church interior, and he was a novice monk at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity nearby, a colony of Old Russia on the steppes of Central New York. He was studying with the master iconographer there, a link in the chain that led back to the days of the tsars and the wonder-working staretzes.
Brother Constantine, as he had been then, had learned all about writing icons and painting murals. But his particular gift was in working with gold foil, precious and fragile, ever so thinner than paper. He had trained his big fingers to move with thrilling deftness, widening the arcs of haloes, picking out the rays of glory that shone from majestic Pantocrators and Transfiguration sunbursts
But this had been his greatest work, the tall Gothic arch that marked the divide between the chancel and the nave; intertwined grapevines and fleurs-de-lis, crowned with the diocesan arms. Peering up from two and half stories below, the beaver and cross beneath the Gothic mitre were unmistakable. Because it was the real thing — true gold — it glittered as brightly as the day he had begun to trace the stencil lines and apply it ever so carefully to the old plaster.
“Lift up your heads, O ye gates,” sings the angelic chorus, “and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in” (Ps. 24:7). “This is the gate of the Lord,” the psalmist proclaimed, “the righteous shall enter into it” (Ps. 118:20). Christ Church’s chancel arch was meant to evoke that gate, the one thrust open by our ascended King, and flung wide for all who follow in his grace-shedding train. As in the Jerusalem above, where the gates are wrought of a single pearl (Rev. 21:21), the way is open: the communicants pass beneath the rood to kneel before the Lamb who reigns from his throne.
Surely a graced imagination could see it in a spare hall as well, for he also reigns amid the pine boards and the daubed whitewash. But there is something fitting about using rare materials and delicate craftsmanship to praise him who is beautiful above all. As it was for the builders of the ancient temple and the Apocalypse’s city of peace, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is wrought in Lebanese cedar and embroidered damask, polyphonic voices, frankincense beat fine, and sheets of golden foil.
St. Benedict providentially allowed the artists a place among his monks, warning only that they should “work at their art in all humility” (Rule LVII). The regular discipline of the monastic life has long seemed especially suited to the kind of time, concentration, and steady apprenticeship that such rare crafts demand.
Is there not also a certain monkishness in those who dedicate themselves to such projects outside the cloister, as several of this issue’s pieces reveal? What could be more self-effacingly humble than digging a new pit in the foundry floor for each new bell, as they still do at Taylor and Sons? What an act of ministry it is to recover a set of Lamentations from a single manuscript in the library of an Aragonese village cathedral, and then record them for us all to enjoy again, as New York Polyphony does on their latest album? What of the perennial task of casting ancient themes and texts in fresh musical idioms, as the Cranmer Anthem Book and a series of dedicated contemporary worship leaders are doing?
Those who take up such work rarely win wealth and glory by it, for all the sacrifice it demands. The things they produce, the art that serves the liturgy of God’s people, is a common work of praise, an expression of love. “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy Name be the praise” (Ps. 115:1).
For all the personal humility of its creators, such work is certainly marvelous to the rest of us, who see through it to the majesty it reveals. The former Brother Constantine said he knew the monastic life wasn’t right for him, that he was grateful for his normal name and his wonderful family and his new, respectable job in the forward-looking city. But he had to bring those children miles off the highway to see this arch just once, for he knew he would never do anything like this again. He was almost in tears telling me how grateful he was to have created this thing, this testimony to the glory of God.
Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.