Defenders of Art and Music

An icon of Kassia


Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day — a day more often associated with the 19th century workers’ movement than with 9th century Byzantine theology.

But . . . there is a cultural connection. The women who marched for workers’ rights to the tune of “Bread and Roses” asserted “Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too” – spiritual as well as material sustenance. Similarly, the figure of Kassia (b. 805-810, d. bef. 865), yet another aristocratic woman who took up the monastic life, underscores the role of the visual and musical arts in the life of Christian worship and contemplation.

The icon of Saint Kassia shown here would have been among those artifacts outlawed and destroyed by the 726 CE order of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, in an effort to end the veneration of lifeless, idolatrous images. The doctrinal dispute quickly took on political overtones within Byzantium and between Byzantium and Rome, and took sometimes violent turns. The first iconoclastic period was brought to an end by the efforts of the Empress Irene, who engineered a church council at Nicea in 787 that reinstated the use of images in the church and forged a reconciliation between the Eastern and Western branches of the church.

The controversy erupted again in 814. Kassia was evidently an iconodule — that is, a supporter of images — based on letters written to her by Theodore of Studium, one of the chief theological apologists for the iconodule position. (An excerpt from one of these letters indicates both that Kassia had shared her early writings with the monk, and that she had already considered pursuing monastic life as a response to the ongoing controversy.)

Although the second period of iconoclasm was begun under Emperor Leo V, it was continued under the Emperor Theophilus. This might make the legend surrounding Theophilus’ relationship with Kassia suspect. As the story goes, Kassia was on the short list for consideration as Empress, and was almost the Emperor’s chosen, but lost out when she responded with a witty theological retort to the Emperor’s disparagement of women at the engagement ceremony. (When the Emperor mentioned that “from a woman [i.e., Eve] came all baser things,” she replied “and from a woman [i.e., Mary] came all better things.”) In any case, Theophilus married Theodora, not Kassia; when he died in 842, Theodora, now regent, reinstated the veneration of icons.

Some time after this, Kassia is known to have founded a monastery in Constantinople, become its first abbess, and devoted herself to the composition of hymns — another form of art in aid of religious devotion. Of the 49 hymns attributed to her, 30 or so are in current use in the Eastern Orthodox church. These include a challenging hymn that takes the voice of one of the myrrh-bearing women, traditionally sung on Holy Tuesday.

Another of her hymns, a paean to Christ’s liberation of the dead, concludes . . .

You who breathed life into mortals
Lived with those in hell.
Those in darkness you told to come out
And those in bonds to be released,
To the destruction of the enemy.
And when you called those who had died before
To rise up,
I came to life.

On this International Women’s Day, we wish all women — and men, for that matter — abundant life.

More about Kassia (and others) . . .

Biographical entry and links to her work and primary and secondary sources at Other Women’s Voices

Wikipedia’s entry on Kassia includes the text of the Hymn of Kassia

A reading of the meaning of Kassia’s legend for contemporary Orthodox women — and perhaps others

A bit more on the iconoclastic controversy (with slides)

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Notes on December 10 and Grace

A Work of Art

The long-awaited day of the Women’s Center’s Fall Arts and Crafts Sale is upon us!

After pricing and setting up yesterday — a round of thankful applause goes to friends Blair, Brian, Christie, Daniel, and James for their assistance in this department! — we’re convinced this will be one of the more interesting sales of recent years. We have a particularly extensive and varied selection of knitted goods, and of jewelry, in addition to original art works, unique imports, and an extraordinary table of ceramics. So we encourage everyone who can to come by and browse. And buy, too — since proceeds from the sale benefit the Women’s Center and help fund our ongoing program.

This year, it will actually be possible for shoppers to use their credit cards, if they wish, in a limited way. [We hasten to add that we advocate shopping responsibly!] The Women’s Center’s online site is ready to sell credits good for the purchase of merchandise at the sale. Credits come in $5.00 units, with a 1% handling fee (so, a purchase of $5.05 will buy $5.00 of merchandise at the sale). The credits are non-refundable, however, so we encourage potential users to SHOP FIRST, and buy only the credits they will need. This arrangement is clearly not for everyone, but we thought it might permit some folks to take advantage of the sale who might otherwise not be able to do so.

December 10 is not only the date of the Women’s Center’s Fall Arts and Crafts Sale, however. It is also — admittedly thanks to some advance consultation of the calendar — the date of the Seminary’s annual Lessons and Carols service, followed by Apples for Advent. And this year, due only to the grace of that same calendar, it is also the anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The arts,” it turns out, is a thread of thematic connection between these three seemingly coincidental celebrations. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Moreover, “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he [sic] is the author.” That is, the vision of the arts painted by the Declaration of Human Rights is that of a realm of freedom and engagement, within which people may fashion something for their individual or collective benefit. The vision of the arts as beneficial is one that makes us smile.

The annual Lessons and Carols service, too, pulses with the life of the arts — in text, in music, in song and symbol. In the juxtaposition of Biblical words and musical phrases, the mutual reflection of prose and psalmody, this community every year calls to mind and celebrates the profound beauty of the season of advent and the mysterious grace of the incarnation.

It is questionable, in fact, whether that profundity, mystery and grace can speak to us at all except through forms that strive for beauty of expression — that is, through the arts. It is these very forms that recall us to awe in the face of felicitous communions, whether of color or sound or shape, and to delight in those felicities. It is these forms, in the final analysis, that teach us the experience of grace.

When it comes to the ancient distinction between “art” and “craft,” the Women’s Center’s Fall Arts and Crafts Sale probably falls more on the side of the humble crafts than the exalted arts. And yet . . . the humble guise of common things — wool, for instance, or wax or clay — is not finally an obstacle to the experience of grace made possible by spirited form, and the mindful transformation of materials to which it testifies. The experience of grace is, in part, the sudden appreciation of something — however homely its origin — as wonderful, delightful, perfect in its own incomparable way, in the full awareness that it could have been otherwise, and that its particular, gracious way of being comes to us as a gift.

An Evening with Art and AIM

AIM is one of the agencies funded by the Louisville AIDS Walk

The intimate gathering in the Women’s Center last night had a delightful time over paints and markers, some light snacks and drinks, and develped a new friendship, with Celeste Anderson, a mental health counselor who works with AIDS Interfaith Ministries of Kentuckiana (AIM). AIM is one of the 11 agencies that benefits from the money raised by the Louisville AIDS Walk, and the only one that provides mental health counseling and pastoral care. Celeste opened our eyes to some of the day-to-day realities people with HIV/AIDS face, and shared some of her challenges and hopes in working for HIV/AIDS prevention.

AIDS is a unique disease, in that it is fatal, incurable, and preventable. Technically, in fact, people do not die of AIDS; people die from “opportunistic infections” that afflict those whose immune systems have been destroyed by the disease process. And while it is the case that better medications, treatment, and knowledge about the disease are helping people live longer and better with HIV, the disease that can lead to AIDS, this doesn’t mean there is now a cure for AIDS. The medicines are costly, treatment is complicated and requires patient cooperation for its effectiveness.

So people who have become complacent about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS — including many young people, who seem to believe that “there’s a pill for that now” — don’t take the precautions they need to take to prevent the spread of AIDS. This is one reason young people, and especially young women, are more and more the ones who show up with newly diagnosed cases of HIV. Knowledge, taking the disease seriously, and recognizing that “it happens here” and not just to “other people” in “other places,” contributes to prevention. Celeste talked of her sadness and frustration, as an AIDS educator and counselor, at seeing young people who have acquired HIV+ status; one of her missions is to make that number ever smaller.

Celeste pointed out that AIDS is a special concern for women. The incidence of HIV/AIDS among women is on the rise, as is the incidence of cases attributable to heterosexual transmission. It is particularly important for women to know their own HIV status, to have frank and open communication with their partners, and to protect themselves. Women often do not know they have the disease, until they become pregnant; at that point, while there are treatments that can reduce the risk of having a baby who is also infected with HIV, it is too late to prevent illness for the woman. Women’s situation illustrates the complex factors that encourage silence and false complacency with respect to AIDS, that are connected with “the way people get AIDS.”

There is still an enormous stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, Celeste said. Many of her clients hide their status from significant others in their lives, including their adult children, suffering the isolation and stress that comes with secret keeping. That very fact indicates the depth of shame and self-blame people with HIV/AIDS can feel. That shame is still fueled by the many others who reject and demonize HIV/AIDS patients. Combatting that sense of shame is another of Celeste’s missions. Here, because AIM is an agency which takes the life of the spirit seriously, mobilizing spiritual resources is vitally important. Celeste spoke highly of partners in this ministry, including Central Presbyterian Church, which hosts a monthly dinner for HIV/AIDS sufferers and their friends and caregivers, which is a much-needed occasion for sociality and human connection.

AIM's slogan

We are grateful to Celeste Anderson for taking the time to join us last night, and to share her knowledge and experience with us. We learned much from her — and enjoyed meeting her daughter, as well, who made two dynamic, colorful posters! We look forward to seeing her on Sunday, at the Louisville AIDS Walk registration tent. The money we raise by walking and finding sponsors will go to fund AIM’s work in the coming year, as well as the work of 10 other agencies who work with Louisville area HIV/AIDS sufferers, their caregivers, and families.

Thanks for the 2009 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture

We are celebrating the 2009 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture!

We are celebrating the 2009 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture!


The Women’s Center owes many thanks to the 2009 Katie Geneva Cannon lecturer, Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, and to the 2009 alumna preacher, Rev. Dr. F. Camille Williams-Neal, for making the 2009 Katie Geneva Cannon lecture and events a profound, moving, and enlightening experience for us and for our community.

Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas

Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas

Dr. Douglas’ lecture, “A Blues Slant: God Talk/Sex Talk for the Black Church,” addressed both the sources of refusal to engage the realities of the body and sexuality within the Black Church tradition, and some of the consequences of that refusal. Beyond that, she explored the potential for the discourse of the blues to constitute a discourse of resistance and reclamation that opens up new possibilities. Dr. Douglas offered an expansive definition of “sexuality,” using this term to refer to all those embodied ways people are drawn into and seek relationship and communion with others, rather than the more restricted, reductive use of sexuality to involve genital intimacy. With this more inclusive meaning in mind, and also mindful of the theological legacy of the God of a created physical universe, and of the incarnation, she proceeded to lay out a view of sexuality as intrinsic and necessary to the life of the spirit and the human relationship with God. Conversely, alienation from sexuality, whether through prohibitions or culturally-imposed distortions and corruptions, damages people’s relationships with themselves, others, and God. We will be pondering the implications of this fresh, provocative, and persuasive theological perspective for some time.

Rev. Dr. Camille Williams-Neal

Rev. Dr. Camille Williams-Neal

Rev. Dr. Camille Williams-Neal’s sermon, “An Unparalyzed Vision,” developed the theme of the body, and its intrinsic relation to the spirit, in a profound meditation on Mark 2:1-12. Williams-Neal first led the congregation through a simple, and powerful, physical exercise of representation and movement that created a context for considering this text in which Jesus heals the body and life of a paralyzed man. She then proceeded to compare vision to jello — and I suspect that those who heard this sermon will never again be able to think about vision without recalling that a developing vision takes some boiling, hot circumstances, and then the cooling air currents of God’s grace; that it needs stirring; that it comes in many flavors, like the flavor of “healing” or “forgiveness;” that “there’s always room for” . . . you know . . . even when we have had too much of others’ debilitating visions of who or what we are and can be. Ultimately, Williams-Neal drew the congregation into a transformative vision of an embodied, transfiguring God who draws an embodied people towards new life.

We need to mention the remarkable offerings of music at this worship service, as well, including an original composition by Mary Beth McCandless and Jeremy Franklin which we hope they will make more widely known.

The events of the Katie Geneva Cannon lecture concluded with lunch, followed by worship, in the Women’s Center Monday afternoon. The brief service further incorporated the themes of the body and its liberation, using art as a vehicle for channeling movement into the creation of work that captures the moment and points towards the future.

So, we thank these extraordinary scholars, prophets, and leaders for their gifts, and for their willingness to bless our community with them during these past two days of the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and Consultation. We hope we will honor their gifts in the days and months to come by embodying the flavor of vision called “learned something,” and “putting it into practice.”

V is for Va-Voom!

People came, saw, . . . concurred!

People came, saw, . . . concurred!

The events of V-Week frankly overwhelmed us here at the Women’s Center — but in a wonderful way! And not least with the climax (if you will) of the week, with Friday’s performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

We were completely taken by surprise at the demand for tickets. We had to shut down online sales by Wednesday, for fear of double bookings, and were apologetically telling people we would be selling standing room long before the end of the week. (Our apologies to everyone who turned away in discouragement! Next time we’ll plan more performances.)

As it turned out, we were able to squeeze in everyone who turned out for the packed-house performance, and what a performance it was! Thanks go to the talented cast of students and faculty, and to our incomparable director Christine Coy-Fohr, who along with the talents of art director aaron guldenschuh, lighting director Daniel Stillwell, and sound director Sonja Williams created a visually rich backdrop for the varied tones and voices that narrated Ensler’s sampling of women’s experiences around sexuality, embodiment, relationship, and wonder, as well as experiences of violence.

Over the course of the next few days or so, we hope to sort out some of the highlights and insights of the week. For now, however, this first observation: that the narratives of women’s experiences around sexuality, embodiment, relationship, and wonder constitute a context for the narratives of experiences of violence.

As we know from exegesis class, context matters. Without it, the pericope floats, excised, in an abstract space of intellectual consideration, apart from the body of the text in which its fuller meaning becomes apparent.

People often consider “violence against women” in this decontextualized and recontextualized way — as something that shows up on a list (e.g., of “women’s issues” or “contemporary problems”) of things to think about or donate money to, as something “we’re against, obviously,” as something with its own awareness day and ribbon color and “focus on” Sunday. The sitz im leben of violence against women is not (or not only) the shelter, the flourescent agency lobby, the living room, the counseling session in the pastor’s study. It’s got to include women’s lives and experience, women’s embodied possibilities for pleasure, creative achievement, joy and exuberance.

That seems obvious enough. And it’s precisely a dramatization of [some of] those experiences, from women’s perspectives and in women’s words, that The Vagina Monologues presents. We will be reflecting on the new insight that’s given us all into the meaning of “violence against women” for some time, and trying to work out ways to respond to the renewed and even clearer call to end it.

/edited for content 2-18-09/

Thank You, Ann Laird Jones!

Restorative Table Justice

A sample of finished pottery from Clay Forms: Restorative Table Justice

J-term is over, the Spring semester is about to begin (weather permitting . . . ), and we hope a few thoughts are turning to V is for Venite and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. But first, words of thanks are in order for the Women’s Center’s 2009 Artist-in-Residence, Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones, and the marvelous and inspiring program she brought us over this past month.

We watched in awe as the Fellowship Hall in the lower level of Caldwell Chapel became a working ceramics studio. The class burgeoned, even more community members visited on open studio hours, and the creative energies flowed. All the while, people were thinking about the presence of God in the sacramental life of the church, and how that is made manifest, tangible, relatable in the implements of that sacramental life, the table and font or bowl, the chalice and pitcher . . . and why those things, how these tangible things speak to us and to our embodied selves.

The artist and her students reached out into the community, conducting three different workshops with three different local community groups served by three Louisville area congregations. A lot of pottery was being made, and with each cup and bowl, new insights into the nature of theology, creation, and the various ways God and human connect.

The official program finished out with a lecture, last Monday, “Arts and Theology Integrated,” an artist’s statement on the meanings encoded in the work of the past weeks. But the creative work went on as students finished up studio work, crafted papers . . . and as the weather did its best to hold Ann here in Louisville just a little longer! In the end, the task of finishing some of the pottery had to be left to others, as Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones’ inimitable presence was required elsewhere. She made arrangements before she traveled back to Mississippi to display the works of the class Clay Forms: Restorative Table Justice in the cafeteria during the next two weeks, so that the entire community would be able to see what the class accomplished.

We look forward to Ann’s time with us in March, for the workshop “How Then Shall We Thrive?”, March 19, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m., in the Women’s Center, as a continuation of the work begun during J-term. In the meantime, we will treasure what we’ve learned, and seen, of the fruits of arts and theology integrated.

Thank you, Ann, for your immense generosity of time and talent, your willingness to share these many gifts with us and our community throughout this time, and the many insights this gave us throughout this past month!

“Clay Forms” Class Underway!

pottery-1Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones, the Women’s Center’s 2009 Artist-in-Residence, has her hands full — literally — with the creations of an enthusiastic class of 15 J-term seminarians, who are reflecting on eucharistic theology and wrestling with the material demands of crafting the implements of the eucharistic table. The class met with and led its first of three planned community workshops at Anchorage Presbyterian Church this past Saturday, with 60 (!!) attendees eager to participate in the hands-on creation of clay forms and share the reflection on the meaning of communion.

Word of the studio experience is getting around the seminary campus as well, and the temporary open studio in the lower level of Caldwell Chapel has been humming with activity.

What a gift this is! Thank you, Ann, for your generosity in making it available to our community!

The class “Clay Forms: Restorative Table Justice” runs through Saturday, January 24. Ann will lead a workshop focused on women in ministry, “How Then Shall We Thrive?” on Monday, January 26, 9-4, and lecture on “Integrating the Arts and Theology” on Monday, January 26, 7 p.m., in Caldwell Chapel.