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A little encouragement goes a long way up the mountain

Our Advent art meditation for today is from Psalm 119: 105-106

Climb to Croagh Patrick © Jen Norton

Climb to Croagh Patrick

A lamp to my feet is your Word, a light to my path.
I resolve and swear to keep your just ordinances.

A few years ago we spent part of our summer in Ireland with some good friends. For one of our adventures, we climbed Croagh Patrick (aka “The Reek” to locals. Reek is Irish for “stack”). Croagh Patrick is a 2500 foot tall (764 metres) mountain jutting up from Clew Bay in County Mayo. Thanks to hours on the elliptical at the gym I did pretty well, but not being an avid mountain climber I got my workout! I was grateful to borrow some great hiking boots and a walking stick. I was amazed to find out that little old nuns and priests often climb The Reek barefoot as a spiritual pilgrimage.

The first two-thirds of the hike up is part pathway, part hopping up rocks, all surrounded by lush green hills, sheep and babbling brooks. There’s a nice little resting spot at a level place after that section where you can look back and see your progress and some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Ireland. Then there’s the last third of the climb…

The last section of the ascent is about a 40˚ scramble up loose, slippery chunks of shale. It makes a few turns, so the first time you climb up, you have no idea how far to the finish. Fortunately, you are not alone. Hundreds climb the mountain every day, no matter the weather, and as they descend they encourage you as they pass. In true Irish hospitality, they cheerfully declare, “You’re almost there lads!” or “Only about 10 more minutes to the top!” Sweet mother of God…how many times did I hear that in the last hour of the climb? But what did I know? They’d been there; I hadn’t. Their words were a lamp to my feet. I resolved, I swore, I kept climbing. And step by step, we made it to the top.

At the top is the legendary “Bed of St. Patrick” (complete with donation box), a little chapel and (surprise!) a bathroom with running water. I can’t even imagine being the guys who had to carry all that up! If it’s a clear day, you also get a stunning 360˚ view of County Mayo and Clew Bay.

Or so I hear. On the day we went, the top of the mountain was in fog. Guess I’ll have to make a second pilgrimage. Fortunately, like “a light to my path,” I also know there will be another Pint waiting for me back in a Westport pub when I finish!

This little 10 x 10 painting is designed from my memory of the scenery and is available here.

You may also be interested in this Facebook site by Irishman Matt Loughrey called Croagh Patrick 365. The site is now transitioning to other charitable ventures, but Matt climbed the mountain every day for 365 days as a fundraiser for St. Vincent de Paul Society. Now there’s someone who’s resolved to keep Just Ordinances!

Your Purpose Will Find You

Family Tree © Jen Norton

Family Tree, Acrylic on paper

Today’s Advent meditation is on Jeremiah 33:14-16

Today is bill-paying day. I have a hard time with this task, not because I can’t handle simple subtraction, but because it’s so dang boring, my mind wanders. I often find myself, pen in hand, realizing that 10 minutes have passed and the empty check still sits before me (no, I haven’t migrated to online billing yet). You should not hire me as your book-keeper. It’s not my calling.

We all have a purpose determined by our talents, desires and skills. As one of my friends likes to say, “What’s for you won’t pass you by.” In this verse from Jeremiah, God assures us that He will keep his promise and that David will always have an heir to his throne. How could David (or Jeremiah) have known that somewhere down the line, his descendent would be Jesus Himself? In his own time, David was somewhat of a celebrity. Popular, musically gifted… a regular McDreamy of the biblical world. Like current pop-culture celebrities, he often fell victim to his own inflated ego. He did some bad stuff, like stealing his friend Uriah’s wife and then arranging to have him killed to hide his own guilt. He ignored his family in favor of work for so long that he didn’t realize his wives and children were plotting against each other for the throne. Still, he kept turning back to God, and when he realized his own evil mistakes, he showed true repentance. For some reason, God kept favoring him, forgiving his transgressions (although not without punishment). God kept his promise of salvation through the lineage of David. David’s purpose could not “pass him by.” Good God, I guess there’s hope for us all!

Today’s painting is of a tree, a family tree maybe. At the risk of mixing my biblical metaphors, Jesus promised that if we have faith only the size of a mustard seed, we can move mountains (although he never says how long those mountains take to move). At the base of the tree is the “mustard seed” heart. From this, the tree grows, branching out into colorful boughs. This tree was painted over a previously rejected piece of art that’s been hiding in my junk pile for a few years. The glow of color emerging from the rough acrylic layers is from that earlier attempt. It never made it to a frame, but its purpose here is apparent. This tree would not be as bright if I had tossed the old piece. It had a purpose. I think I understand why God favored David so much.

This painting is available here.

This Little Lighthouse of Mine

The reference for today’s Advent Art Mediation is John 1: 6-9

Santa Cruz Lighthouse Art © Jen Norton

This Little Lighthouse of Mine

John is introduced as a man sent from God to bear witness to the light that was coming into the world. It is clarified that he is not the actual light, but merely here to testify. If we continue on past verse 9, we see that not all recognize “the Light”, but those that do are empowered to become children of God.

I have to admit, there have been points in my life where I wasn’t so sure about the light thing. Maybe Jesus was just a great social revolutionary. Maybe he’s just one iteration of many times God has become man. Other indigenous cultures have similar mythology, after all. I’m a painter…I work in shades of gray and alternate possibilities. But then I look at stories of men and women that really walked the earth (in recorded time) and historical narratives that tie together. The bible was compiled over a long period of time by a variety of people. It would be awfully hard to tie up all those loose ends and fulfill hundreds of prophesies without some form of divine intervention, not to mention stand the test of time under the scrutiny of scholars. And then there was that death and resurrection thing, with eye-witnesses. So I choose to believe.

Stronger proof for me has been in the moments when I’ve actually felt God’s presence. The occasion that comes to mind today happened about 15 years ago. We were trying to have children and coming to the realization that it wasn’t going to happen with out the miracles of modern science. I was really down and really worried.

One day, after work, I was “called” to go stand along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, near the Lighthouse that houses the surfing museum. Called is a weird thing to try to describe (or believe) in an internet blog post. I can only say that I had this intense desire to drive 1/2 hour in the opposite direction from my house, over a mountain, to go stand on the cliff of the sea for no known reason. This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this phenomenon, so I didn’t question. I just went. I stood by the ocean in the wind with my eyes closed. After a moment, all human sounds around me left and all I heard was the wind in my ears. In the wind, I heard a voice that instantly told me exactly what needed to happen and to not be afraid. It wasn’t an audible voice…it was more like the words were placed inside me.

You may be thinking I’m a bit crazy. That’s OK…I’m an artist, so your crazy might just be my normal. I only know that the feeling I left with that day carried me through the years it took to get my beautiful daughter, born on Christmas Eve. Near the lighthouse, I caught a glimmer of light to come.

This tiny Lighthouse art is available here.

Look Alive!

Today’s passage for my Advent art meditation is Mark 13: 33-37. The apostle warns us “stay awake” and not be caught unaware when the Master returns. This passage comes at the end of a chapter on all the trials and tribulations to be expected in end times. I find the message relevant to me in current life, not just for some future official “End Times.” It’s a scary chapter. It snaps me out of my complacency and reminds me of all the horrible things that could happen in life. Things that DO happen…I just hope they don’t happen to me! Or anyone I know. Or to anyone near me. I’d rather stay asleep, under the covers. No tribulations, thank-you-very-much.

The only way to not worry about scary things is to live totally in the present. That’s a mighty tall order for humans capable of remembering, holding grudges, having goals and who live under the delusion that all we have belongs to us. It’s pretty much impossible.

Waiting Patiently © Jen Norton

Waiting Patiently

Animals are better at the practice of living in the present than we are.

Take my dog Patti, for example. Patti is a dog who was rescued from a backyard puppy mill. She was kept in a garage, used for breeding and then abandoned. She came to us with a lot of fear. She’s had her tribulations. Now, however, she’s living in a relative dog garden-of-eden. She doesn’t dwell on yesterday. She doesn’t worry about tomorrow. She only cares about two things:

1. Food

2. Who’s providing the food.

Like most dogs, Patti can often be found sound asleep, stretched across the couch, snoring away… But touch the can opener, turn on the stove or come through the door and she’s immediately up, bounding toward you in hopes of a dropped scrap or a bowl of tuna water. Patti lives in the present. She’s “awake” when her master shows up.

If only we could so easily be devoted to God. If only we could stay focused on 1. Love and 2. Who’s providing the Love. But alas, like a dog distracted by a piece of sausage, we once were tempted to step away from our natural state as “children of God” with a bite of apple. Now we have to remember to stay awake. We have to make a point of it. So much easier to fill ourselves up life’s “junk food” and ruin our appetite for God. But then the sugar high fades, and we fall asleep again. We go back to the dream that we’re ready. But we don’t know when we will be called to stand accountable or to breathe our last breath. We should be prepared at any moment. Bummer…I really did want to stay under those covers.

11 x 14 matted reproductions of this painting are available here.

The Season of Family

In the flood of Cyber-Monday media, it’s easy to overlook that we are also in the season of Advent, the beginning of the Western Christian liturgical calendar, and the four weeks leading up to Christmas. In an attempt to be more present in this season, I got my shopping done early and thought I’d try something different this year. Maybe you’d like to follow along? No need to be any version of Christian. Everyone is welcome.

Working from the “Painting a Day” idea, I am going to do a small painting each day from now until Christmas based on my reflections on a daily scriptural reading. This is not a bible study…I’m not a scholar. This is just about what the reading makes me think of on that day. If I read the same scripture on a different day, I might have a different take on it. I am following the readings listed on Catholic.org, and I am reading them from my old and well-worn copy of “The New American Bible,” Catholic translation. I will post the scriptural reference, my personal reflection, and the painting it inspired. In addition, the art will be listed for sale in my Etsy store at a discounted rate during this 2011 holiday season.

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And so…on to today, which is Day 2 of Advent. The reading is from Corinthians, chapter 1, verses 3-9.

Garden Party © Jen Norton

Garden Party

Paul is writing to the Christian community in Corinth to address the problem of the community splitting into various factions. The verses for today are merely the opening of the letter as Paul expresses thankfulness for the believing community, assuring them that they have all they need through Christ, that they will be strengthened through Him, and it is by God alone who that they are called to a fellowship with Jesus.

This reading made me think of family, especially after the two Thanksgiving celebrations I attended last weekend. The painting for today is from a photo of my sisters, mom and a few cousins at a family gathering. I think it might have been my Grandfather’s birthday somewhere in the ’80s, but I can’t be sure. We were all sitting around a table in the garden just talking about “stuff”. Probably didn’t seem important at the time, but 20+ years later, I find inspiration in it.

The most important social structure in God’s eyes is family, because it is through family that we learn the lessons of love and forgiveness. Sounds easy enough, but there sure are days I fail the class. If you’ve ever gotten annoyed with a spouse, frustrated with your children, fought with a sibling or whined about family obligations, you know what I mean. It’s so easy to think things would be SO MUCH EASIER if only everyone would just think like me! (can you relate?). But that’s a selfish lie. It’s a lie that breaks down relationships and community. In God’s world, we’re meant to give. We’re meant to put another’s needs first. We’re meant to live with charitable hearts. That’s a tough calling for a mere human to uphold. The Corinthians struggled with it. I stumble over it. But when I can surrender my own mindset for the good of another, I see what is meant by being “called by God to a fellowship with Jesus Christ.” Those same family situations that challenge me also give me opportunities to see that I am capable of more and loved by many.

The season of Advent is all about family. It’s about a 13-year-old Hebrew girl who becomes pregnant, threatening to dishonor the man she is intended to marry and ostracize her family. They’re poor, they have to flee to another land, sleep in barns and Joseph had to raise a child that wasn’t even his. Talk about family challenges! Yet, through the strength of God and His helpful angels, a child is born who is immediately recognized by poor shepherds and rich kings as the savior of us all. The family endured and we should all be thankful.

I hope everyone who reads this has someone they can call family, whether they are blood-related or not. What are your biggest family challenges during Christmas?

Would you like to purchase “Garden Party”? Click here.