Archive for Judaism

The Binding of Isaac

Love came and emptied me of self,
every vein and every pore,
made into a container to be filled by the Beloved.
Of me, only a name is left,
the rest is You my Friend, my Beloved.
-Abil-Kheir (967 – 1049)

I am in the process of updating my art website and I wrote this about a couple pieces I did on the Binding of Isaac. I thought you might enjoy it:

The Binding of Isaac is a story that I have wrestled with for many years. When I first came to it, was overwhelming in its injustice. But now I understand that this is a story, not of God’s cruelty, but of God’s infinite love and kindness toward humanity. It is also a story of the power of surrender.

The Binding of Isaac is about being in an impossible situation, something that is so terrible that we think we cannot face it. This is a common human experience. It is not a question of the justice or injustice of a situation, it is a question of how we face a situation we cannot change or escape. Can we trust the Divine forces in our lives or do we fight and struggle? I have been in this situation over and over again with my health, how do you accept the unacceptable? But I have accepted it and learned to surrender as Abraham did and just as Abraham was shown such compassion and kindness, so have I. The Divine desires us to be creative luminous beings and if we won’t listen to this desire, the we will be forced to listen but in the kindest possible way that we can listen to. The act of surrender is the act of hearing God.

The first piece is Abraham’s Annunciation when he is told by God of his task. The second piece is the Binding of Isaac. There are two more pieces in this series to be completed, the moment Abraham puts the knife to Isaac’s neck and the unbinding of Isaac. These pieces are in progress and will be posted. 

Spiritual meaning of material used: These pieces are on sheep skin parchment representing the ram that Abraham sacrificed. The 22k gold leaf represents the spiritual perfection achieved by Abraham in his of of surrender. The pigments are handmade, for the most part from stones and plants representing the mountain Abraham climbed for his sacrifice. I also used bone black a pigment made from charred bones to represent the ram.

Image #1: Abraham’s Annunciation
The writing pouring into Abraham’s head is the Hebrew text from the Bible.

Image #2: The Binding of Isaac
The Hebrew lettering around his wrists is the text from the Bible, translation on edge of the box.18″x14″.
The Binding of Isaac, Abraham's Annunciation by Sybil Archibald

The Binding of Isaac, Abraham's Annunciation by Sybil Archibald

On the Courage to be Yourself

Debra Ann over at Tangled Stitch had a recent post about accepting yourself that really got me thinking. Here she is talking about Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul:

Well I am up to the chapter on Temporary Insanities and I think this is the chapter that best describes me at this time in my life. I have to decide whether I am willing to accept the eccentricities of myself or whether I am going to hide them. This one sentence made me cry” Without the zany persona, you might be condemned to darkness, and that would be a tragedy”. End quote first paragraph Page 259.

I got to thinking about how much I modify myself to please others and how it shuts down my creative process. Then a friend sent me the inspiring video below of Vanessa Hidary “The Hebrew Mamita”. I find that I can’t stop thinking about it. The video is a little off my main topic in subject matter (confronting prejudices), but bear with me. It’s more than just the importance of confronting prejudice. Hidary displays a radical acceptance of herself, an absolute and fearless facing of who she. And she defiantly displays it to the world. Her abandon is truly breath taking and courageous. It’s an inspiration. Watch this and imagine if you felt this way about yourself what kind of work you would allow yourself to make; what kind of nourishment you would provide the world.

On Joy, Pain & Divine Laughter

Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. -St. Theresa of Avila

This piece of sculpture and St. Theresa’s vision had a profound effect on me when I visited Rome in my early twenties. When you see the piece, it is as if it is floating on air, the marble is to thin in places that it seem transfused with light. Both the sculpture and the vision are a paradox. The sculpture is both heavy stone and ethereal light, the vision is joy and pain captured in the same moment.

I have been wondering about pain and joy over the last several days. I’m beginning to feel I too serious. I think maybe the Divine does not expect us to be so solemn. As usual, I’m thinking about making art and about the emptiness and silence it requires, the pain and suffering it can bring up. I discussed fear and pain on numerous occasions, but never joy and I have to ask myself why.

St. Theresa’s vision shows us that pain and joy can coexist. The pain implicit in having a physical form need not stamp out the joy of our connection to the Divine. In fact, in St. Theresa’s vision, her joy is felt physically as well as spiritually. She describe pleasure, the vision is almost sexual in nature. When I discuss and think about Divine creativity, I always feel very serious and solemn. I’m sure I take myself much too seriously! I’ve been rereading Wendy Beckett’s The Mystical Now, Art and the Sacred and I came upon this quote:

If we confuse ‘the sacred’ and ‘the solemn’, we are only allowing God to come to us from one direction. (p. 34)

What if I allowed that the possibility of joy while creating is equal to the possibility of pain? What if I embrace art as play with the Divine? Could I capture the abandon of a child at play as well as the meditative silence of a monk at prayer? I think I do when I work. Making art is definitely a form of play, but my mind is more sensitized to the suffering and difficulties. Would a small shift in perception change my whole experience of creating?

In his book Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions, Lex Hixon has an essay entitled The Landscape that laughs: Jewish Soul Masters of the Hassidic Way. This essay is all about the experience of joy and laughter as a direct experience of the Divine. It’s an amazing essay with so much to quote, but this passage really struck me:

Awakening to our own Divine Nature is not achieved automatically by going through certain steps in a sacred system, by prayers or meditations or rituals, no matter how sincere we may be. Ecstasy must first burn away these efforts of grasping God, leaving us with only apparent nonsense…Whatever bizarre or sublime form the holy presence may choose to assume and speak through, It redirects us to our original home, to the priceless spark of our intrinsic nature.

…Elie Wiesel writes about these stories of Rebe Nachman: “Laughter occupies an astonishingly important place in his work. Here and there, one meets a man who laughs and does nothing else. Also a landscape that laughs.” We encounter the same holy laughter in an account of kensho, or Enlightenment by a contemporary Japanese [Zen] practitioner: “At midnight I abruptly awakened. At first my mind was foggy, then suddenly that quotation flashed into my consciousness: “I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains, rivers, and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.’ …Instantaneously, like surging waves, a tremendous delight welled up in me, a veritable hurricane of delight, as I laughed loudly and wildly: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! The empty sky split in two, then opened it’s enormous mouth and began to laugh uproariously: Ha, ha, ha!'” Rebbe Nochman and this contemporary Japanese Buddhist both encounter a landscape that laughs. There is no fundamental cultural separation: ecstasy is ecstasy, fire is fire. (p. 121-122)

I have had two experiences with Divine Laughter, both around death. The first was with Lex Hixon himself. I was blessed to spend some time with him during college. Many years later I was told that he had died of cancer a number of years earlier. I was very sad and immediately said a prayer for him. Suddenly I heard him laughing and laughing with his distinctive voice as if he were in the room. There was such joy in his voice. My second experience was during the death of friends husband. I received a call from my friend that her husband had been taken to the hospital. She lived an hour away and I jumped in the car and drove to meet her. The whole way I was busy worrying and praying for her. When I was just about there, I suddenly realized I should be praying for him as well. It was as if the thought had been inserted into my head. Instantly I heard him laughing and laughing as if he were in the room. His laughter filled he car, there was such freedom and abandon in it. He suffered from severe depression so it was quite shocking to hear. When I arrived at the hospital I found that he had died at the exact time I had heard his laughter. I always felt that his laughter was a message for my friend, but now I see it was a message for me too. There is joy to be had here in this physical form.

I feel liberated, as if I am starting out on a new journey. I will keep you posted on my progress!

Reading up on Spiritual Artists

Alex Grey paintingI’ve decided to expand my reading list. I’m never going to abandon the succor of the medieval mystics, but I just ordered a dozen books by and on modern & contemporary spiritual artists. The first to arrive is Alex Grey’s The Mission of Art. Grey is an interesting artist who charts the spiritual energies of the human body in a very technical way (see image on right). His work has value and power, but much of it seems very cerebral and controlled. I don’t believe God can be controlled so I am excited to see what he has to say. I’ll report promptly, but for now, he begins his book with this amazing quote from Beethoven:

There is no loftier mission than to approach the Godhead nearer than other people, and to disseminate the divine rays among humanity.

Beethoven’s work is so clearly suffused with the Divine. However, I’ve always questioned the metaphor of traveling nearer to the Godhead. The early Kabbalists used this idea interestingly. They meditated on the chariot of Ezekiel to make the mystical ascent to God. I guess because I suffer from over thinking this metaphor, beautiful as it is, engages my brain too much. I would rather say removing the veils or polishing the mirror to reflect the Divine more clearly. How’s that for cheek- arguing with a genius!

The Moonlight Sonata

Jewish Mysticism & The Veil of Pain

Man is too weak to accept or absorb divine love, which is absolute. For that reason, and that reason alone, does God cover it with the veil that is pain. – Rebbe Zusia (pg. 113)

I’ve been continuing my rereading of Lex Hixon’s writings. This quote is from an essay entitled The Landscape that Laughsin Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions by Lex Hixon
about 18th century Jewish mystics. It’s wonderful if you ever have chance to read it.

The concept of pain as a veil to God’s light is extraordinary. The whole world is veil to shield us from the intensity of God’s light, but in this essay Hixon explain something amazing:

Zusia speaks of our suffering or pain as a Divine veil but suffering also removes the human veils by which we have obscured the Divine Life living through us. The soul master accepts suffering to unveil the intrinsic freedom of the soul. (p. 114)

There are two actions working here: humans protecting themselves from the Divine and the Divine protection of humans. Humanity resists Divinity out of fear. We refuse to follow Divine guidance; we act without honor; we choose smallness over change. Those actions are the veils we create to resist the chaos of Divine Reason. Hixon explains through Rebbe Zusia that the painful experiences in our lives act in a two fold way to clear away our internal blocks to God while still protecting us from complete annihilation in the brilliance of the God Head.

I see the beauty and truth in his point. In my own life pain has transformed me, made me softer, more open, more able to love & to create art. But I do quarrel with his terminology here. He uses pain & suffering almost interchangeably. To me, these are quite different terms. Pain is the nature of the human condition. I do not believe suffering is, suffering can be transcended through acceptance of pain. It is resistance which causes suffering. Suffering is a human veil. Pain is a Divine veil.

Are you only as good as your last piece?

The question as asked in Gloria Dean’s Blog is interesting to think about, but I believe this is question misses the true point of making art. Art is not about our own assessments of good and bad, it’s about the work’s relationship to world and its viewers. It is next to impossible for an artist to judge the true purpose or quality of their own work.

Case in point, several years ago I painted a piece about the Binding of Isaac. It is the moment Isaac hands are bound by his father for his sacrifice. The decision to paint the rope tying around his hands as actual Hebrew words from the Bible was automatic. I went through a period of illness, the painting lay abandoned, then judged by me as not so hot. Some time later I had the painting in a gallery and a woman in a wheelchair came in. She was in an almost reclining position. She had oxygen pumped to her nose, and she seem to only have movement in her arms and head. Her wheelchair was electric and she was determined to get into the gallery by herself. She wasn’t going to be bound by her illness. I watched her struggle as she finally made it in, immediately drawn to my painting. I could see something in her body language shift as she looked at it.

She told me part of her story: she was an ultra-orthodox Jew who had left her faith. Something out the Hebrew lettering and the image spoke to her about her illness. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone understand my own work on a level so much deeper than my own understanding before. By seeing her reaction I received new meaning for the painting which helped me understand my own illness. Clearly, I had made this work for her and never known it. She said it helped to ease her. Sometimes we must surrender to our bonds to achieve freedom.

By judging our own work & keeping locked away, we not only block ourselves but block the Divine. Our paintings and works of art can be portals for the creative flow of healing energy into the world. If we are truly creating, it’s not coming from us, but through us. We are the filter through which light can pour. A filter is necessary for otherwise, the light would blind us. This is an awesome gift and responsibility- the responsibility not to judge. Even a piece, which by traditional artistic standards may not be great, may have a greater purpose. We don’t and can’t know. It’s up to use to be humble enough to allow the process to work through us.