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I know I cribbed this title from St. John of Damascus, but the subject is the same. One of the reasons I have stayed in the Anglican church is because of the legitimate acceptance of icons. Many Anabaptist and Protestant churches reject the use of icons, and regard them either with suspicion or abhorrence. I grew up with that attitude, and I can not sincerely hold it.

Yesterday we finally got the icons on the walls of our bedroom (which also serves as home office – it’s a very small house.) My husband came home, looked at the icons, crossed himself and said,”Now I really feel like this is home.”

Why is that? For us, the icons are the family portraits, and the focus of many prayers. They are a lesson in humility and faithfulness. Our icons are carefully chosen; they are not mere decoration. And when we have the icons in the room, no other ornament is adequate. We have no paintings or decorations. We have two small family photos on the desk, and nothing more. The room is plain blue, the window coverings wooden slat blinds.  The bedcover is as simple as we could get.

Why? Our home has been furnished this way for a reason. Functionality is all important. The furniture needs to be good quality so it will last. It needs to be plain because we do not flatter ourselves that we are important people who can afford to buy fancy stuff. We don’t want to think about the household furnishings, or try to impress anyone. And most of all, we do not want to insult the humility and simplicity of the saints, who gave all for God.

I had icons in the past, but until I began to have a prayerful presence with them (that is, praying with the communion of saints) I did not have that humble spirit. I had a possessive spirit, despite my outward simplicity. Once I acknowledged the icons as exemplars and spiritual elders, I found a new humility. All other household ornaments were as grass, once beautiful but now withered. I had no need for the paintings and wood and porcelain and crystal.  The saints of God were too beautiful for these earthly inadequacies, these paltry treasures.

We have many icons, and we don’t have room for all of them. Over the door we hung a primitive iron crucifix, and the incredible St. Catherine Pantokrator; on the other side of the cross is the famous and miraculous Valdimirskaya, the Theotokos of St. Vladimir’s monastery. (Mind thee, these are reproductions, but the power in them is apparent.) An olivewood crucifix hangs alone over the bookcase, flanked by beeswax candles, and a tiny Guadalupita (our Lady of Guadalupe) carved in cedar sits on top of the case. I placed a diptych of the Theotokos and the Pantocrator on the desk, on top of the consecrated elements. It was a gift from a dear friend years ago. The head of the bed is blessed with a simple wooden cross and an icon in beeswax of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Beeswax has a long history of iconic use, and is mentioned as such in the Paedalion, the canons of the Orthodox Church. (And a reminder to Anglicans – they still apply to thee.)

Our main focus is the the array of icons on the wall opposite the bed. At the top is the Rublev Trinity, which must have precedence; below that is an icon of the Crucifixion. Under that is a cast concrete cross with three aspen leaves in relief. It is heavy but small. On either side of the Crucifixion is, to the left, another icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and beside that, an early Greek icon of the Archangel St. Michael. To the right of the Crucifixion is Christ Pantokrator, and outside that, slightly below, is an icon of Saints Peter and Paul, holding up a model of an Orthodox sanctuary. Below them is  St. Mary Magdalene, my patron, in a modern icon that shows her with the flask of oil for anointing the dead and a red egg, a symbol of the tomb. She is the Apostle to the Apostles, bearing the news of the Resurrection. Below that is a Russian icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, a great mystic and monastic. On the left of the cross is St. Columba of Iona, my friend and guide, and outside that is a large modern icon of St. Athanasius, confessor of the Church. In special place of prominence below the cross is my husband’s patron, the stern and otherworldly St. Nicholas of Myra.

To regard the icons is to pray without words. It is to enter the throne room of heaven, and stand among the Body of Christ, gathered in perpetual adoration. The icons remind us that in Christ we do not die, but live. The icons teach us to pray with our eyes and with our bodies and with our hearts, as well as with our minds and mouths.

Pray without ceasing, said the Apostle, and in the presence of the icons, we can do so.

I love animals, especially dogs. I’m not sure why; we did not have pets when I was a child. There were enough human mouths to feed without adding anymore. Not all my sisters are like this. Only one is a genuine dog-lovin’ freak. (It’s just true, Jill.)

Quite a few dogs have come through my life. Almost all my dogs have been rescues, usually older dogs. I have had one puppy out of  all the menagerie of animals I have raised or trained. So it was quite a surprise when a puppy came into our lives suddenly.

We were not expecting a puppy. It was a snap decision by one member of the household, and the rest of us reacted in various ways to the little black and white bundle of joy. Stony silence, lukewarm acknowledgement and some screaming. I was the lukewarm one, since I’m the one who is home all day, and the one with the dog-training experience. That told me who would be making sure pupster got out when he needed, and that he learned to chew the dog toys and not the workboots, table legs and antique spinning wheel. But I really like dogs, and ended up in that ambivalent response. Nice dog – but do I need this?

Some went from “oh, oh, oh, what a sweet puppy” to “how dare you do this without asking everyone first?” Because we do live in intentional community, something as demanding as a new dog really needs group consent. We did not have that for about five hours. The seniors went into a huddle, and things were said, arguments boiled, tears were shed, and we reached a conclusion. The puppy could stay.

It was a huge learning process, and I’m glad it was over a puppy and not a baby. Puppies are infinitely easier. And the SPCA won’t send the police if you keep a puppy in a crate for a couple of hours while you go to church. The police will come if you try that with a baby.

I think we all learned something about the stresses of our particular interactions. What I learned about myself is that I am demanding respect for what I am, even when that has nothing to do with the issue at hand. I am asserting authority when I don’t hold that authority for that occasion. I look back to yesterday, and sort of laugh at myself, because pomposity is always funny. Something had to be the snowball hitting my tall black opera hat. The others learned other things, and it’s not my place to say what, but even though we were completely disrupted for half the day, we soon settled down and came to a reasonable accommodation.

I think one thing we really learned is that we can get upset, raise our voices, argue and cry and it won’t tear us up. We are, in just a short period of time, finding out that we are stronger than our conflicts. How could that happen but by the grace of God, who gives us true peace?

I promise that my next post after this will be something a little more cheerful.

Nicholas and I have been discussing secular Christmas a lot. We usually do in Twelfth Month, because it annoys us so much. I have to admit this. We are Plain by nature as well as by leading, I think, and the tacky celebration that Christmas has become is just not to our taste. We aren’t really denying ourselves anything by not participating – we wouldn’t do it anyway. When we had to in our previous life-roles, we weren’t happy about it.

And I think most people aren’t truly happy about it, because it seems so forced and desperate. “We are going to have a good Christmas this year,” someone will say to the family, “and you’re damned well going to like it!” And that’s how the family feels -damned, damned to Christmas Hell for about six weeks.

Oh, I sound Scroogy. I’m not. I am delighted with our Lord, with the great gift of restoration to the full love and life of God. I want to “keep Christmas in my heart all year round.” But Scrooge, once enlightened, keeps Christmas all year by generosity, and love, and genuine kindness. He doesn’t buy tinsel and expensive chocolate, but a turkey for a poor family and medicine for a dying boy. Read A Christmas Carol, not just watch the Muppet version.

I am being blunt here: If we eat more than we need, we are taking food from the mouths of others. Really. We are well-fed, even overfed, and so many in the rest of the world are starving. And please don’t give me a line about how-do-we-get-it-there and political problems. I’m not the national leader. I’m not the United Nations. What are we paying these people for? Get to it, public servants! Serve the public! Go figure it out! If the military can get billions of dollars worth of personnel, equipment and resources to a war in a distant place, then they can bloody well get food, medicine, skilled caregivers and shelter to Africa, India, or wherever it is needed! I am smarter than they think, and I can see through the lies they are telling us.

Because when we put up the party lights and feast, feast, feast, for a month and a half, spending what’s left of our income and credit on useless trinkets, we are dancing on the dying and the dead. We are not keeping Christmas even at Christmas. We are just indulging and pampering.

Why do we need to be placated? Is it just bread and circuses? (For those unfamiliar with that term, it means the government is keeping the populace quiet with cheap, plentiful food and mindless, gory amusements. Think Doritos, Big Gulps, television and video games.) Or is it because we are living lives of quiet desperation, as Henry David Thoreau said?

Time to sober up and settle down. Have I said this before? I will keep saying it, too, until I can no longer draw breath or something radically changes. I expect the radical change will be forced on our culture, rather than be a genuine movement of the heart.

If you are not keeping the fast, start. No meat, fish, eggs. Minimal dairy and fats. No chocolate or treats. Cook everything from scratch, as much as possible. And if you’ve already bought a bunch of useless gifts and ornaments, return them. Give what people need. If they need nothing, then give a charitable gift in their name. Preachers say these things every year, and every year the congregation says, “Yes, you are so right,” and then they charge the Visa up to the sky buying Barbies and sweaters with reindeer patterns. 

I am very anti-culture at this time of year. It’s the principal reason for keeping the Advent fast. It is a stand against consumerism and hedonism. It’s why most gifts I give are made by my own hands, at Christmas or at other times. I am literally NOT buying into culture. (But note this: I am not being polemic about this. Our own little household is recently formed, and the others are used to cultural Christmas. I am not forcing this on them. Teach by example.)

My husband, Nicholas, has written an excellent and educational post on the winter solstice and festivities on his blog, “Anglican, Mostly Anabaptist.” ( and you can link from this page.


Once we lived off the grid (no electricity or telephone.) Things had to work without connections. So things worked or we didn’t keep them. That meant we had to know how to work with them, or they were useless.

This is not true of a lot of gadgets and devices curently available.  I say this now because it is the time of the year when all sorts of gizmos appear on the gift-buying market. “What will we get for Uncle Merv this year?” “What did we get him last year?” “An automatic wall-washer.” “Did he like it?” “How do I know? He never used it.”

So off to the big box store with all its desperate seasonal decorating and promotion, and what do you get Uncle Merv this year? There’s the Pierre Cardin multi-tool that includes a blade for declogging sinks, or the kitchen appliance that bakes bread, poaches eggs and smokes the ham, too. There’s some strange personal grooming razor, the purpose of which remains a blessed secret.

If Uncle Merv actually tries any of this stuff, he’ll probably find it doesn’t work nearly as well as the non-gadgets he’s used for the last three hundred years for exactly the same purposes. And it will be broken by the end of the month.

Why do we keep doing this? We fall into the same stupid trap year after year. We feel compelled to buy gifts, wrap them in coloured paper and hand them out to friends and family who in turn hand us doodads in shiny paper. We could just keep the wrapped doodads we bought ourselves. It is a silly exchange program, and why we continue to engage in it, I don’t know.

If we are going to give gifts, shouldn’t they be something so useful that the recipient will really find his or her life improved? These are things that work, that maybe your family wouldn’t think to buy for themselves.

Tempered steel tools (that is, good ones) such as hammers, screwdrivers, real garden tools; a plain black wool hat with a brim (think Quaker or Amish – very practical); a plain denim jacket, like we had in high school because it was stylish but now is outrageously sensible; warm workboots; a packbasket; a handloomed wool shawl (not the expensive pashmina, but Shetland, in black or brown); really good knives with riveted wooden handles; a handmade cross or crucifix or creche (remember why we’re here); a family prayer book or hymnal; a seedstarting kit, with peat pots and a grow light; a boar-bristle hairbrush; wool socks in dark colours  (goes with anything); instead of a big gift like the plasma screen digital tv or the laptop, a sewing machine, loom, spinning wheel, chain saw or hydraulic woodsplitter. Some kitchen things besides knives: a real hardwood cutting board; antique enamelware (still usable); a stovetop coffee pot (perk or drip); a real brown betty British teapot; a bean pot; a canner or pressure cooker; glass storage jars; handmade wooden spoons; tempered glass measuring cups; a big stack of cotton dinner napkins; a birchwood draining rack for handwashing dishes; lots of colourful dish clothes and towels.

These are things that work. Why waste your money and someone else’s time and the world’s resources on junk that requires batteries that will poison the land and water, or made of plastics that poison everything between extraction and disposal?

These are gifts I have received over the years which I remember and did make a difference to me: One hundred pounds of potatoes, Danish sausage, a gardening book, work gloves, wool roving, the loom my parents gave me when I was ten (a tiny harness loom – lots of fun!), cross-country skis, a kerosene lamp, a winter parka, handknit Irish sweater, socks. Stuff I got that I don’t have anymore, and didn’t make much difference: Dressy clothes, perfume, earrings, popular fiction, chocolate (obviously gone.) In other words, the stuff women usually get.

What did I ask for this year? Socks. Good ones. Me and Dumbledore, we always need socks.

I have said before that I was looking for the hundred-year boots. Fashion boots, even the plain ones, wear out after just a few seasons. I’m hard on footwear. I’m on my feet a lot, working at home or walking. Weather doesn’t stop me much. I need good boots and I want them to last.

My husband is the same way. He is fed up with cheap footwear. He hangs on to the old shoes that are comfortable until they are past redemption, and he still wears them. He really needed winter boots this year. He had an old pair of steel-toe workboots, but they had separated at the sole, and were as waterproof as a colander. Nicholas needs steel-toed boots, too. He’s a do-it-himself guy and his favourite tool is a ten-pound maul. He wears steel-toed boots in the gym, too, because he doesn’t do any aerobic stuff. He lifts free weights, and a lot of weight at one time. A dropped bar or a couple of 40-lb. plates could mean a broken foot.

We recently moved to a city with a great downtown area. It still has stores where common people like us would shop, not just the haughty Rodeo Drive type place some cities encourage. One of the stores we visited recently is an Army Surplus store. It’s got real surplus, not just cheaply made camping gear, like some places.

And it has boots. Steel-toed scuffed up seconds, but otherwise, good new boots. We found a pair of CSA rated boots for $30. They are weatherproof and insulated. Finally! Good boots, good price!

But I’m not going to wear steel-toes. I would get a wee bit tired carrying my feet around all day. Still, I found something there.

Parade dress boots. In bitsy sizes, for I suppose, bitsy soldiers. Black, plain, really cheap boots that look like they may last one hundred years. Next spring, I know where I’m buying my Easter shoes. (Yes, R & A, your mother will wear Army boots.)

You have to be a little bit worried. People don’t know how to bake bread. They can’t tell wheat from oats in the field. They don’t recognize a jar of baker’s dry yeast when they see it.

To most Americans, bread comes out of a plastic bag, purchased at the store. “Fresh” means it hasn’t reached the Sell By date. It has all kinds of strange ingredients they can’t pronounce. Left in a room with an oven, wheat flour, water, sugar, salt, yeast and a little olive oil they would not know how to turn it into something edible. Does this bother anyone else?

Bread baking is Food 101. No,it is Food Kindergarten. You need to know this to survive. What is going on?

What have we been sold, that someone else can do this better than we can? That we don’t have to touch the raw ingredients of our food? That we are busy, important people who don’t need to bake ever, because we have servants? Even Marie Antoinette knew how to milk a cow. Well, she and her friends used to go out to the model farm at Versailles and play at barn chores. It is a weird thing: sort of like Paris Hilton and “The Simple Life,” only with guillotines at the end of the season.

Are we not real people anymore, doing real things, like digging a garden or canning the tomatoes? Are we sold completely on convenience? (For convenience you can substitute the words “tasteless, lacking in nutrition, processed food items.”)

Whenever I bake a loaf of bread people here are impressed. “Do you bake?” they ask. I can’t imagine anyone in my hometown asking my mother that. Women baked. My father baked, and still does, and he makes a fine apple pie. Mastering the simple chemistry of flour, water, leavening, and heat was a basic life skill, like tieing shoes. (I was born before Velcro.)

When I do spinning demonstrations, someone is sure to say, “Oh, I could never do that!” But I then point out that all women learned to spin up to about 150 years ago. All women learned to spin, usually by the age of ten. Of course you could do it. It was once a universal skill.

Breadbaking is a universal skill. You would be hard-pressed to find a culture that didn’t have some form of  ground-grain product. Homemakers made bread the way we heat frozen food in the microwave. They didn’t even think about it. They just did it, often every day. Of course anyone can do it. Not so long ago, anyone did. Everyone knew how. (Well, maybe the women knew, but that might be an assumption. Men cooked for themselves even in the traditional past. We still see this campfire cooking attitude in men who love the barbeque grill, but not the electric range. It’s a cultural memory of travelling in the wilderness without the women.)

To make this blunt: we’d better pull ourselves together and start learning these basic skills. The price of wheat and grain is high right now. A loaf of low-quality (spongey, flavourless, soft) bread is at least $1.50 right now; good bread is $3 and climbing. I haven’t figured it out completely, but I think I can bake a loaf of bread for less than 80 cents. I can sew a dress for less than $10. I can spin a skein of wool yarn for next to nothing, since I already have the fleece. There are a hundred thousand ways to get by without hitting the mall once a week.

Okay, you have to settle for a few things. Nothing’s going to have a designer label on it unless you put it on. (Clip it out of an old dress, for all I care, or make ones that say “Made by Me.”) Things you make have a good chance of lasting for a long time, if you do a good job of it, so you won’t have an excuse to go pleasure-shopping very soon. You won’t need a platinum credit card if you make it yourself. No one is going to notice you in the high-status store, and go green with envy. (I can’t believe anyone envies anyone else for what they own. Shouldn’t you pity them?)

So take a chance. Get a cookbook or go on line or call Grandma, and learn to bake bread. All you need is water, wheat flour, yeast, sugar, salt and a bit of oil. You can put it in a loaf pan or on a cookie sheet. You probably already have an oven. Your first effort might be a bit wacky, but most likely not. You’ll love it, your family will love it, and you will start connecting to how God meant things to be, where He gave us the resources and we were to make sure we didn’t run out of them. The earth is meant to be sustainable.


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