Archive for Christianity
I thought the new year could do with some color. I am an artist after all! So I’ve updated my blog’s look. I welcome any comments you have & ideas on how to improve it.
I have discovered (actually she discovered me first…) an amazing new blogger Epiphany Girl. You’ve got to check her out. She writes so beautifully about spirituality!
Epiphany girl pointed out to me that the poem about Mary in my post about the feminine and the Divine has a dig at women in it. Hildegard gives it to Eve pretty strongly. I have a lot to say about Eve, but I’m still working up a full post. In the meantime I decided that there must be some Christian poetry somewhere that captures the beauty of the feminine nature of the Divine in a way that really speaks to me without putting women down. I was lucky to happen across Steve who told me about the Liturgy of St Basil which is used twelve times a year in Orthodox Churches:
All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace, the assembly of angels and the race of men. O Sanctified Temple and Spiritual Paradise, the Glory of Virgins, from whom God was incarnate and became a child, our God before the ages. He made your body into a throne, and your womb He made more spacious than the heavens. All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace. Glory to you!
This is so amazing!
I have been inspired by so many who have shared their own mystical experiences, Hildegard of Bingen, Alex Grey, Meinrad Craighead, & Gartenfische to name a few, to share my own. I share this experience because it has everything to do with why and how I make my art and live my life.
In college, I had the good fortune to study in Florence. I was inundated, saturated with the energy of the Divine which is captured in those works of art & churches. I had never experienced such intensity before. I became particularly enamored of a Madonna & Child painting in a small shrine made in a former grain market, called Orsanmichele. The building was constructed around an open-air grain market where several healings had taken place which were attributed to the Virgin Mary. I visited this painting of Mary almost everyday for months and when I returned home I continued to pray to her.
One day when I was visiting my family, I had pulled the binds down in my old room and lain down on the bed to pray. I was holding a Mary medal which I used to wear around my neck and facing my old bookcase. I prayed for a long time running my fingers across the medal’s ridged surface when suddenly felt I was being watched. I opened my eyes and there was Mary’s head suspended over my stomach (my womb). I knew I was her without doubt. She was dark skinned and mysterious, the earth mother. I gasped and heard a loud pop. Mary disappeared and at the same moment I was filled utterly with a flash of blue light.
When the flash passed, my eyes were swimming like they do when exposed to something too bright. I noticed floating in my field of vision, a short dark column. It was the same experience as staring into a light bulb and upon looking away seeing dark dots float before you. I thought it was strange, such a distinct shape. So I got up and went to where the light had seemed to come from & where the shape also seemed to be coming from in my old bookcase which I hadn’t really looked through in years. There, wedged between two larger books and pushed slightly back so it was out of sight was a small (about 4”x 2.5”) black leather New Testament with gilt edges. Its spine was the exact shape and size of the dark mark floating around in front of my eyes. I knew with complete certainty this was where Light had come from. I had had no religious training at all. The only time I had every opened this Bible was when my Dad gave it to me at least 10 years earlier. At that time, I had opened it randomly and read just St. Luke’s description of the Annunciation.
It took me a long time to put together the fact that I had experience an annunciation of sorts although I only painted annunciation scenes for years after that. In my paintings, I always showed Mary as experiencing incredible fear. (See my early wood cut above. Sorry for the poor quality picture!) On the day I received the Light, the blue Light of creativity, I was given the job of being a vessel for this Light to enter into the world. This is a fearful task and I wasn’t up to it. I believe that is why I have been gifted with my illness, scleroderma- to prepare me for this sacred task. Having scleroderma has cleansed me of anger, bitterness & depression. Having scleroderma has taught me to be empty and surrender, although there is still much more to learn on that front! I pray to my Source everyday that I might be able to be a true vessel for the Light. Now my depictions of annunciations are no longer filled with fear.
This blue Light within is like a baby, it needs to be nurtured and cared for, protected and fed. This is the job of artists. Perhaps some might think artists are selfish or self-centered. Really they have turned inward to nurture this Light so that it may be infused into the world.
Today as I was finishing up my sculpture, I started thinking about how we choose to serve humankind and the Divine. It seemed very clear to me that it is a choice. The choice that I have lived with most of my life is to serve through suffering. But this is not the choice I make now. I’ll explain using the example of medieval women mystics.
The wonderful scholar, Caroline Walker Bynum, has written extensively on medieval women mystics. Her books Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics)
and Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Ucla)
changed my life because they helped me identify the path that I had been unconsciously taking. Bynum talks of medieval religious women who cultivated suffering. They rolled in glass and starved themselves to name just a couple of the physical punishments indulged in. It was part of the mystical path of Imitatio Christi. In the medieval period life was extremely hard. There wasn’t much you could do to mitigate suffering. So these mystics embraced suffering and gave it meaning. As Christ suffered on the cross to redeem and heal humanity, so the women would inflict pain and suffering upon themselves believing that through their own suffering humanity would be healed.
I think, however, here is a major difference between what Jesus underwent, and what these women mystics underwent. His suffering was God-given. He did not seek it out; he only followed the path that had been laid for him. The medieval mystics, on the other hand put their own will into the matter. They constructed the idea of Imitatio Christi. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I adore these women and their writings. I only wonder how God might have appeared and how they might have served without exercising their will. St. Francis is interesting because he also practiced Imitatio Christi. He cultivated suffering, but he also accepted God-given suffering in his early illness and through receiving the stigmata later in life.
I realized while I was sculpting today is that for along time I carried this idea that I had to suffer to serve God. I am not just talking physically either. I was not comfortable with joy and at ease with the calm passage of time. Some how it felt selfish and wrong to be happy when there was so much work to be done to heal the world. But now, this seems incredible hubris to me. I realized that I have released the need to suffer and I chose to serve God and humanity through light rather than through the darkness of suffering. Sculpting today I felt the light and was grateful.
You can have an illness and not suffer. For me this is one of the main lessons of St. Francis’ life. His stigmata smelled of roses.
This is so radical:
When I stood in my first cause, I then had no “God,” and then I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing, for I was an empty being, and the only truth in which I rejoiced was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted; and so I stood, empty of God and everything. But when I went out from my own free will and received my created being, then I had a “God,” for before there were any creatures, God was not “God,” but he was what he was. But when creatures came to be and received their created being, then God was not “God” in Himself, but he was “God” in the creatures. (p. 200) Meister Eckhart (13th century German Christian Mystic)
Eckhart is telling us that the idea of “God” blocks God. Words, ideas, even knowing itself is another veil between the soul and God. He wants us to go deeper into God, to release everything- ourselves, God, even the will to do God’s will. In doing so, he directs us to the womb of God, to Pre-Being. The womb of God eternally births God as Being, Reason, etc. all the active attributes of God. It is everything in potentiality. Eckhart’s idea echoes Plotnius’ concept of the One that emanates the Intelligence.
So where is the artist in this? Eckhart is giving us a road map to tap the creative well of the Divine. In releasing everything, language, wants, attachments, we will ultimately connect to that place within us that birthed us. This is the Womb of God, a state of Pre-Being which births forth the Universe eternally. It is the ground, the basis, cause of all form and of existence itself. To contact that ground within ourselves causes an immediate creative birth or emanation. If an artist finds this place, their creative output is assured. Eckhart describes this state thus:
If it could be that a fly had reason and could with its reason seek out eternal depths of the divine being from which it issued, I say God, with all that he has as he is “God,” could not fulfill or satisfy the fly. So therefore let us pray to God to be free of “God,” and that we may apprehend and rejoice in the everlasting truth in which the highest angel and the fly and the soul are equal- there where I was established, where I wanted what I was what I wanted. (p. 200)
There is a 14th century manuscript included in Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (The Classics of Western Spirituality), which describe what St. Francis considers “perfect joy”. I can’t tell you how much this story has helped me. I’ve paraphrased it here:
Brother Leo asks St. Francis, “What is perfect joy?” St. Francis replies listing the things that would logically bring him great happiness: If all the masters in Paris join my order, it would not be perfect joy. Or if all the masters in Europe, and the King of France joined the order, that would not be perfect joy. And if all the non-believers in the world were converted and I had the grace from God to heal all sickness, that would not be true joy.
(Okay, so what would it be? Get ready!)
“I return from Perugia and arrive here in the dead of the night and it is winter time, muddy and so cold that icicles have formed on the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs, and blood flows from the wounds. And all covered with mud and cold, I come to the gate and after I have knocked and called for some time, a brother comes and asks: “Who are you?” I answer: “Brother Francis.” And he says: “Go away; this is not a proper hour for going about; you may not come in.” And when I insist, he answers: “Go away, you are a simple and a stupid person; we are so many and we have no need of you. You are certainly not coming to us at this hour!” And I stand again at the door and say: “For the love of God, take me in tonight!” And he answers: “I will not. Go to the Croisers’ place and ask there.” I tell you this: If I had patience and did not become upset, there would be true joy in this…” (p.165-6)
It is this passage that inspired me to make an altar of St Francis’ feet. How can seeming misery be joy? Illness and wounds, whether physical or metaphorical, can bring enormous suffering. Our experiences of pain are mirrored for us by St. Francis’ stigmata. On my altar I planted the aloe vera plants in his stigmata to show that our wounds can bring healing to our lives. But this, St. Francis counsels us, is only possible through acceptance not struggle. It is struggle that produces suffering, and acceptance which produces joy. There are, in fact, things that happen in each life that can not be changed and which seem completely unacceptable, things like severe illness, disfiguration or scars, & the death of a loved one to name a few. St. Francis shows us that there can be happiness, even joy in the face of these terrible events and from that healing. Pain & joy are not mutually exclusive emotions and healing depends on the coexistence of the two.
I mention this only because it is so easy to be thrown by the events of life and to forgo making art. But art is life blood to an artist and we must learn not to be crippled in the face of great obstacles rather we must create.
Of the Divine Word
Pregnant with the holy
Word will come the Virgin
Walking down the road
If you will take her in.
(The original Spanish is so much better…)
Del Verbo divino
La Virgen prenada
viene de carmino
si le dias posado.
St. John of the Cross
This beautiful poem is a road map for what a spiritual artist must do to hook into the flow of Divine creativity. The fundamentally creative nature of the Universe is represented here as the pregnant Virgin. Her pregnancy is physical creativity in potentiality. Her virginity is the state of her mind and soul; it has nothing to do with her sexuality. The pregnant Mary instructs us on how to make ourselves ready to receive the creative spirit. We must make ourselves as virgin ground, unstamped by the traumas & desires of life. We must be open and hold ourselves empty in order to be filled. St John reminds us that this is all that is necessary for the Divine to enter into us. It is the nature of the Divine to create, or as Plotinus would say, to emanate form. If we allow the Divine in, our own creative output is assured and, more importantly, sacred. It is the moment of creation, the intimacy an artist can feel with God that is the object. It is that union, which without effort, spontaneously produces the form which will be come a physical work of art. What’s more, art that is produced in this way captures the resonance of that experience and can, on some level, transmit some of that energy to its viewer. This is the ideal that the spiritual artist must continually strive for.