03 May 2023

A photograph to illustrate
a new book by a priest-poet

‘A Doorway into Thanks: Further Reflections on Scripture’ … Tim Vivian’s new collection of poetry includes my photograph of the royal doors in the iconostasis in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, the work of Leonid Ouspensky

Patrick Comerford

It is always a pleasure and a delight to see how one of my photographs is used in a new book, a magazine or a newspaper.

In recent days I have received Professor Tim Vivian’s new collection of poetry, A Doorway into Thanks: Further Reflections on Scripture, with its cover illustrated with one of my photographs on the front cover. To my delight, my name is also included on the front cover.

Tim Vivian is a professor emeritus of Religious Studies at California State University, Bakersfield, and a priest in the Episcopal Church living in retirement. He has an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Episcopal).

A scholar of early Christian monasticism, he has published numerous books, including The Sayings and Stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (volume 1), and he has co-authored The Life of Antony and The Life of Bishoi. He has previously published two books of poems, Other Voices, Other Rooms and Poems Written in a Time of Plague.

My cover photographs shows the royal doors in the iconostasis or icon screen in the original chapel in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights. When I was studying at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, I regularly had a one-day retreat in this Orthodox monastery in Essex.

The iconostasis in the chapel is the work of two of the most important Russian émigré icon writers of the last century, Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky (1902-1987) and his friend and colleague, Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug (1908-1969).

Leonid Ouspensky, who painted the royal doors in the iconostasis, is known as an important artist and iconographer of the 20th century, and for his seminal books on the theology of icons, written with Vladimir Lossky, including The Meaning of Icons and The Theology of the Icon. These books introduced Western readers to the spiritual and theological understanding of icons.

The influence of Ouspensky and Father Gregory is also seen on the walls of the refectory in the monastery. These are decorated with frescoes and murals using oil and turpentine on plaster, to look like Byzantine frescoes, under the direction of Sister Maria, who had studied iconography in Paris with Ouspensky.

The title of this new book, ‘A Doorway Into Thanks,’ comes not from my photograph but from Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Prayer.’ Tim Vivian also refers in his introductory reflections to the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos and his poem ‘The Meaning of Simplicity’:

Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
but that’s when a word is true:
when it insists on the meeting.

Tim Vivian believes poetry ‘should be transitive, and deal with something other. Thus, a doorway offers transition, liminal space, an invitation, a going across, into possibly numerous somethings other. We can’t assume, however, that the door is always open; if closed, we need to open it. A doorway can confront us: Have we the courage to reach for the handle?’

He writes: ‘Given the horrors of 2020 and 2021, we must open the door both to grieving and thanksgiving. The poems here are midrashim. Midrash is a reflection on scripture. These poems first imagine passages and stories from the Bible and then reimagine them: they build stages, create, and breathe life into characters, and landscape biblical passages with new, often challenging, backgrounds.’

Many of the poems in this new book have religio-political subtexts, and in prticular this collection stands as a condemnation of the violence, corruption, deceit and racism of the Trump years. The poems speak of darkness, the things that darken the US and American hearts, but they also speak of the life-giving lights of mystery, wonder, and thanksgiving, the things that give people hope.

As the writer and poet Louise Erdrich tells us:

This is how our lives complete themselves,
as effortless as weather, circles blaze
in ordinary days, and through our waking selves
they reach, to touch our true and sleeping speech.

Tim and I are of an age, and so I am not surprised that among the many influences he acknowledges, along with the Greek poets Yiannis Ritsos and CP Cavafy, are singer-songwriters ‘who have inspired delighted, gladdened, comforted, and challenged’ him over the years such as Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. He also draws inspiration from George Herbert,John Donne, Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams, and also Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Ruth Ginsberg.

Tim Vivian writes that he was first made aware of my photograph by Father Michael Plekon, an Orthodox priest, professor, author, sociologist and theologian who has written extensively writing about people of faith struggling for social justice and for ways of rediscovering holiness in ordinary life. He is especially interested in the encounter with God in the everyday.

In his inscription on the title page of this book, the author writes: ‘To Patrick, with thanks for your wonderful picture, Tim.’

He concludes his introductory reflections, saying: ‘Deep thanks to Patrick Comerford … for use of his photograph on the cover, and thanks to Michael Plekon for alerting me to it.’

• Tim Vivian, A Doorway into Thanks: Further Reflections on Scripture (New York: Austin Macauley Publishers), 210 pp, $14.95, ISBN: 9781685620004

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