Wednesday, December 29, 2010

thirtieth visit: Dec 29th 2010 Christian Science

7:30pm wednesday
First Church of Christ Scientist, Pittsburgh
201 North Dithridge Street, Pittsburgh PA 15213

Tonight there are seven of us in the sanctuary including the pastor, who is also a theater professor at Carnegie Mellon University, I later learn. Walls are a soft white matching the softness of the luxury of having someone read aloud to you. She reads for at least 20 minutes, probably longer. First from the Bible, then from Mary Baker Eddy’s poetic “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” skipping large chunks of pages between passages, choosing so quickly and with such certainty, almost as to assume some sort of other-worldly guidance.

Christian Science boasts a female founder: Eddy, 1867, Boston MA, raised a Congregationalist. Christian Scientists refer to the worship-place as "Mother-Church" and God as “Father-Mother.” After the readings, the service consists of: silent prayer and the Lord’s Prayer, time for open sharing of recent life experiences amongst the congregation and several hymns throughout. The informal sermon addresses the element of light and it’s spiritual significance, water and its role in healing, and the benefits of rising above personal concerns to recognize the greater concerns of humanity, the unification of humanity.

Distinguishing Christian Science: the emphasis in healing through prayer and faith as opposed what we refer to as modern medicine and pharmaceuticals. John explains to me: Mary Baker Eddy was healed of a spinal injury at age 45 while reading the Bible. Following that incident, she claimed an understanding of the power to heal. He continues: It’s a natural process—the use of what we have around us already—not a supernatural process. Followers of Christian Science who have mastered this ability are called practitioners.

The “Science” in Christian Science refers to the belief that there are certain truths that serve in the same way that principles or laws of science do—truths that establish a predictable outcome every time.

As I mentioned, the pastor at FCCS is in theater arts. She explains to me that as an artist, she did not care much for organizations, and for 15-20 years she had been uninterested in religion before becoming active in Christian Science. We talked about this: Considering artists, when spirituality is referred to specifically as “religion” barriers go up. For certain reasons, many artists do not consider the commonalities between an artistic practice and a spiritual one. While we talk, I am reminded of a popular course offered at the school where I obtained my masters of fine art—a course focusing solely on the concept of transcendence and the sublime, in relation to art and otherwise.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

family lore

My grandfather, a farmer, used to say that on Christmas Eve the animals could talk. As a child, I was more excited about this possibility than about Santa Claus. Merry Christmas Day!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

twenty-ninth visit: Dec 19th 2010 United Methodist

11am sunday
South Avenue United Methodist Church
733 South Ave, Wilkinsburg PA 15221


I'm breaking the rules a little, as Wilkinsburg is actually not a part of Pittsburgh proper. (
Some Pittsburghians might not know this.) But it's exactly the the kind of community I'm most strongly drawn to for this project. Wilkinsburg was annexed to Pittsburgh once, then fought for and obtained de-annexation, and has remained that way since. Borough is the preferred term; nothing about it is suburban.

During my visit I meet Bob, a leading member of the Wilkinsburg Historical Society, and I learn that Wilkinsburg is known as the "City of Churches." So how could I leave it out? In fact I'll be back. ...a church literally on every corner here, but no counter-balance of bars. This, in fact, is a dry borough. Always has been, with no sign of changing. (Bob kindly lends me the book he helped write on the History of Wilkinsburg, to browse though during the concert which occurs directly after the holiday meal... which in turn occurs directly after today's service.)

I am one of an estimated four attendees under 60 years of age in today's small congregation. The sermon: dreams as messages and all the different ways a story can be told—specifically the different tellings of the Christmas story, as recorded in the Bible. This sermon holds my attention; the metamorphosis of a tale as a result of its retelling is something I talked about often in my narrative painting class.

After the service I spend more-or-less the rest of the afternoon in the church with Anne. In the basement: Holiday Dinner with Rev. Keller at our table. Naomi and her husband, who just recovered from open heart surgery 6 weeks ago. Anne's husband, Ed. We talk a lot about art. We eat a lot of good food.

Anne gives me a tour of the church—three large floors. The second and the third are used as a school for developmentally handicapped and autistic children. Anne moved her membership from the Presbyterian Church across the street to this one in 1957 because there were more members her age, and she finds the Methodist Church oriented more strongly toward social causes. (She is a social worker, and has a counseling center on the second floor of this church.)

Anne shows me the tiny secret chapel on the second floor. This is the reason that Mary, at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, has suggested that I visit this church. (26th visit, 4th paragraph) Well worth. Anne seems to be in no hurry to leave the little chapel, even if it is much colder here than in the adjoining hallway, which makes it seem even more secret. "Many very good things have happened in this room," she says. I want to ask, but feel I would be interrupting the intimacy of her nostalgia. And sometimes I like mysteries to remain mysteries.

Adding to the tally:
1 worshipers in
a Steelers turtleneck, a Steelers jersey, a Steelers jacket and a Steelers cap. Does he really only count as one? Running Total for the project: 16 (to date)

twenty-eighth visit: Dec 18th 2010 Roman Catholicism

5pm saturday
Church of St. Raphael
1118 Chislett Street, Pittsburgh PA 15206

I have often walked our dog by this church and felt it due time that I pay a visit. I don't know about anyone else, but this week has been a doosey for me. I haven't had this much to do and gone on such little sleep since I was preparing for my thesis as a grad student. But instead of my studio, I have Saturday Anticipated Mass at 5pm as quiet time for my lately unquiet self.

One pink and three purple candles are lit on the advent wreath. (advent = coming) Only one more left—the white one, for Christmas. Saturday evening masses exist for those who can't attend mass the next day (
hence the term "Anticipated"), so the pink is lit as if it IS Sunday. I have read that the concept for experiencing this mass as if it is ocuring in tomorrow's time, has roots in Judiasm, where the "day" begins at sundown the previous evening, and runs to the next sundown.

"Do we get refreshments this time, Mom?," the middle child of our family, my younger sister, asked every Sunday morning, when we were young. Three times out of four my parents would laugh and say "Sorry, Katy, no refreshments this Sunday." Our church offered communion once a month. Is it any wonder that Katy ended up converting to Catholicism in her late 20's? She'll say it's because her husband is Catholic. I think it was to get her wish: refreshments every week.

The first few times I attended a Catholic service as a part of gatherings, I was not sure if those who are not Catholic should cross themselves when "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" is spoken. With my Protestant up-bringing, I had been choosing not to, and noticed that at a previous service the Priest had singled me out and caught my eye, for my lack of movement. I decided to give my sister a call.

"No, there's not a reason that you should not cross yourself, if you want to. It's OK to do so if you are not Catholic. But I didn't for a while because I was not used to it. I did not want to do something that I did not feel completely sincere about." I concur exactly and this is actually a
gatherings-rule I had established for myself, as well.

Communion enters quickly into the conversation. This is what she says: "Catholics always go up to the front for communion. [So does East Liberty Presbyterian... see my 26th visit] And we all drink from the same cup. You know that white cloth the Priest uses to wipe the cup between worshipers' sips? It's suppose to be anti-bacterial. But you don't have to drink from the one common cup. I don't. [
She's not up for giving her immune system a weekly challenge.] There are usually miniature cups of wine at the alter, too, and I just grab one of those."

She goes on: "The reason you can't take Communion in a Catholic church if you are not Catholic
is that we believe that the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ. Catholics feel that if you don't really believe that, then you should not partake. You know all the chanting and the bell-ringing that happens before the Eucharist is offered? That's when the conversion is happening... the Priest is performing the transformation, changing it."

The reason Catholics would choose not to receive Holy Communion would be if they are in a state of sin. I wonder which assumption is made of me: that I am non-Catholic, or in a sinful state? Because for me, Catholic Holy Communion-time is drawing-time, as long as it does not seem to be distracting worshipers.

And this is something I wish I could express to those who notice that I'm sketching: When I can draw during services, I actually remember my experience at the service more clearly. Despite the fact that I'm sure that the assumption, in this case, is the opposite.

As I am leaving, Father Joe stops me and asks if I'm the one who emailed him. He welcomes me to stay as long as I please, check out the side alters, draw, photograph. I do.

Oh, and adding to the tally:
2 worshipers in
Steelers jackets. Running Total for the project: 15 (to date)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

twenty-seventh visit: Dec 8th 2010 Prayer Labyrinth

9am - 9pm (I went just after 7pm) wednesday
East Liberty Presbyterian Church (ELPC)
116 S. Highland Ave,
Pittsburgh PA 15206
east liberty

Same address as visit numbers 13, 22 and 26, but different congregation, entirely different part of the church, different type of worship and important that I include.

A student at Pitt told me about the existence of this labyrinth. Thank you, Rob. Before this experience, the only thing I knew about the labyrinth was that it appears in Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth. a chapter header I think? the video? ...back cover? Somewhere. Either it's not thoroughly explained, or I am developing a bad memory, because I did not know a thing about its use until I prepared for this visit.

Anyway, this is what I have come to understand:
This labyrinth is not a maze. Let's talk technicalities a minute. A maze includes dead ends and intends to make the user lost. A labyrinth of this sort, on the other hand, consist of a single continuous path not intended to confuse or frustrate users in any way. The purpose is exactly the opposite: to allow for a means of quiet meditation during ambulation, meant to bring the user closer to the Spirit. Most histories I read link labyrinths to medieval Christians, but the ELPC claims the labyrinth is "an ancient, sacred symbol found in many religious traditions throughout the world." A few sources link the oldest forms to the Pagans.

ELPC has conducted a Labyrinth Ministry since 1996 and owns four floor labyrinths, painted on canvas. The labyrinth at this visit is an eleven-circuit Chartres pattern, 36 feet in diameter. It is based on the labyrinth that exists in Chartres Cathedral in France, which is made of pavement stone, and was built during the 13th century (year 1220 at best guess).

One descends a flight of stairs to enter ELPC's social hall, where the labyrinth is located. Mid-flight at a landing where the stairs turn is a guest book. I am the 3rd to walk today. The first walked in meditation of John Lennon (anniversary of death today) and Elizabeth Edwards (passed away today). The second in prayer for the homeless. I sign into walk for hope of tolerance in today's society. One worshiper (the second, I assume) is just completing, tying his shoelaces. We talk a minute before he leaves.

The room is dark except for a few soft lamps and a stand of flickering votive candles close to the start of the labyrinth's path. Evening seems like the perfect time to walk, for me. And I'm grateful for the solitude.

The walk: (from
"The labyrinth has only one path, and that path leads from the entrance to the center, and then back out again on the same path.
We usually speak of the labyrinth walk in three phases:
    1.    Walking from the entrance to the center: release, surrender, letting go, letting be.
    2.    In the center: illumination, insight, receiving.
    3.    Walking from the center to the exit: integration, union, understanding.
Before you start walking, you may want to spend a few moments in silent reflection, as preparation for your walk. ...Stay as long as you want in the center, or at any point on the labyrinth."
"...the winding path into the center and back out again is a metaphor for the journeys of life and faith." (ELPC).

When I finish I notice that the fourth labyrinth walker of the day has arrived. It is common for many walkers to use the labyrinth at the same time, but he has been sitting quietly, writing in his journal. Eventually I realize that he is waiting to start until I leave... which is why I have an excuse to return on a Monday or Wednesday to do my on-site drawing for this visit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

twenty-sixth visit: Dec 5th 2010 Presbyterian

11am sunday
East Liberty Presbyterian Church
116 S. Highland Ave,
Pittsburgh PA 15206
east liberty

Yes, same address as visit numbers 13 and 22, but different congregation, entirely different part of the church, entirely different religious leader, and entirely different type of service. Today
I attend with intentions to participate in the labyrinth prayer walk following the service. The labyrinth is mentioned for this date on ELPC's website, and I called to confirm... but it must have been canceled on short notice, so I end up heading home after realizing this, post-service. I'll just catch it on Wednesday—do feel it's very important to include in this project. And still fits my rules: same address, but different congregation, different part of church, etc, etc... and definitely my last trip to ELPC for this project, to be fair. Meanwhile, I'll blog about today's service.

Today (or at sundown) observers of Christianity and Judaism are lighting candles—two for the second Sunday of advent, and five (plus
the Shamash candle) for the fifth day of Hanukkah, respectively. At ELPC, the sermon is on fire... or um, concerning fire. Addressing all the different types of fire: that of brimstone, or that of determined pious passion... and which do each of us bring?

Reverend Randy Bush had mentioned that I should attend this service "to see how everyone rises to take communion at the front of the church." They do (I did), indeed. I want to ask him more about this, as I understand it's mostly only at Catholic and Episcopal services that this ritual is performed in this way. For a Presbyterian service, here there's a remarkable amount of pageantry in the coming and going of snuffers and crosses carried on staffs. And who can name a performance artist who doesn't love a pageant?

While drawing in the sanctuary after service, I have a conversation with a woman named Mary who suggests I attend South Avenue United Methodist Church in Wilkinsburg because the building has a little chapel hidden away on the second floor. She loves churches with secret worship rooms and I'm intrigued, as well. Wilkinsburg had been on my schedule a couple of weeks ago, but I had to cancel. And whether (or how) she knew that just yesterday I decided that it was past time to try again, I can not tell you.

Oh, and a new total on our Steelers garb.
Today I saw:
2 worshipers in
Steelers jerseys.
2 worshiper in Steelers sweatshirts.
1 worshiper in a black and gold striped sweater.
Later this same day, I returned to Beth Shalom to take my photographs, and the gentleman who was vacuuming there was wearing a Steelers sweatshirt. Alas, I can't prove he was worshiping (though I can't prove he wasn't either...) but I guess in the end I can't count him. Sigh.
Today: 5 worshipers at East Liberty Presbyterian Church wearing Steelers garb.
Running Total for the project: 13 (to date)

twenty-fifth visit: Dec 4th 2010 Judaism, Conservative

9:00am saturday
Congregation Beth Shalom
5915 Beacon St, Pittsburgh PA 15217
squirrel hill

Mine is a soul that loves the minor key. Growing up in church I had to wait for Greensleeves (What Child is This) or O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Once a year or so if I was lucky, I got my wish. Regarding Judaism, in services with song, it's a given every time. And I absorb every note.

I made my "warning" phone call to the administration of the synagogue earlier in the week. "Our doors are open to you. But let me ask: Are you Jewish? OK, there is no writing or photographing in the temple on the Sabbath. Come back any other day if you need to do that. And this is going to be really boring for you. It runs until noon. Come at 10am instead of 9.
At 9am hardly any one will be here anyway. You will be very bored." I love this project. I even love making the phone calls for this project.

I arrived at a little after 10. The service ends just over 2 hours later. Pardon my arguing, but I wasn't bored. Am I the only one who enjoys listening to the sounds of a language not understood? To me, English is the most boring of them all.

I've always liked a good assignment, nerdy through and through. As a teacher I never give one that I wouldn't want to do myself. As a former student, no longer receiving them, I simply make them up for myself. (Well, that's what all artists do.) Like this one called gatherings. Along this vein, I've really taken to the portion of Shabbat service in which worshipers are assigned a set number of pages in the prayer book and a small block of quiet time in which to offer these words in mediation. I love the idea of individuals united in the quiet task even if I am the only one reading the English-translation side of the pages.

This is one of the friendliest congregations. I approached this visit assuming that it may be a situation where I enter, experience, then exit without much interaction with others... perhaps because of my complete lack of Hebrew skills, I tend to enter my own world and stay there a bit.

However, not the situation in this case. My first clue came when Rabbi Werbow specifically welcomed me, in addition to stating the customary "Shabbat Shalom" as he circulated the congregation, shaking each attendee's hand. When the service ended, Joel, who had been sitting immediately behind me, introduced himself and asked from where I was visiting.

Thinking about it now, I realize that EVERYONE I spoke with that day asked me this. "Highland Park" I would answer.
A pause, and "Ohhh". Later Joel commented that my dress looked somewhat Middle Eastern. Janice asked if I meant the Chicago neighborhood of "Highland Park". Nope. The Pgh one, just up the street. Am I looking a little "not-from-this-town-ish" in my dress?

Joel encourages me to stay a minute and attend the reception on the floor below. He is excited to learn that I am an U of Michigan alumni, and claims there are a few others in the congregation. He introduced me to Rabbi Werbow and asked whom else would I like to meet. I met Janice, who then said to Diane "Let me introduce me to my friend". ("Friend," meaning me. Wow.)

Each of these kind folks asked many appreciated questions about gatherings. And Janice had a story for me about Community Day School—a school serving the Jewish community—a school that is held in a former Catholic church here in Squirrel Hill. She claims that you can still tell where the confessionals were located... in a space where the children now eat lunch... where former stained glass windows replaced with clear. Re-purposing spaces, the history that buildings hold within them, the grace of willing adaptation. We both find this fascinating. And it made me think a minute about the story of Hanukkah, too.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

twenty-fourth visit: Dec 1st 2010 Judaism, Hanukkah

4:45pm wednesday
lighting of the first candle of Hanukkah at
The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh
5738 Forbes Ave,
Pittsburgh PA 15217

First night of Hanukkah and first flurries of the season. For me at least. (Did it snow when I was out of town last week?)
o many little people, mittens and hats. Tiny puffs of breath in the air. A blessing, the light, a song. Up the stairs for hot chocolate and jelly donuts. More singing: ten fingers clasped above our heads and we all become spinning dreidels. Hundreds of tiny people go home with chocolate mustaches and sticky fingers. Happy Hanukkah.

Hanukkah, Festival of Lights. This exact phrase is also used to describe the Hindu holiday Diwali (see 14th visit). Except for the symbolic use of light, in meaning the holidays are unrelated. ...But is anything ever really completely, absolutely unrelated? During a conversation earlier this evening, a friend of mine said to me, "We have so many surprises in our lives that are not welcome, it's just nice celebrate the good ones." Unexpected goodness. While Diwali marks the financial new year, and celebrates the triumph of wisdom and love over ignorance and evil, the return of Rama and Sita from banishment (surprise!), Hanukkah's significance comes from the unexpectedly long burning-time of a tiny bit of oil. See, the Syrians had over-taken the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem, and had been gathering there to worship Zeus. In 165 BCE, the Jewish Macabees reclaimed and rededicated their temple once again to Judaism. There was only enough oil to allow the rededication flame to last for one night, but it unexpectedly continued to burn for eight, until a new supply of oil arrived. Eight menorah candles, eight days of Hanukkah.

Here's to welcomed surprises and happy unexpecteds, otherwise known as miracles—playing essential roles in art and religion alike. Since one can't make provocative art about something already known to be true, I'd venture to say that most artists dedicate all their working hours to the discovery of little miracles. This project included.