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Archive for Pain & Suffering

St. Francis Mid-Way, a Poem

St. Francis: The Healing Nature of Wounds by Sybil Archibald St. Francis the Healing Nature of Wounds back view by Sybil Archibald
The Healing Nature of Wounds by Sybil Archibald

This is a poem I wrote last year when recovering from losing so much blood. I felt great deal of despair and I found solace and hope in the example of St. Francis. I know I’ve posted a lot about St. Francis in recent months, but I promise this will be my last post on him for at least a few more!

St. Francis, Mid-Way, Speaks

On Stigmata
As the warmth spreads softly through your hands
You cannot realize how much it will burn
For years it will burn
Brighter and dimmer in rhythm with a secret cycle
but always aflame
always searing
bringing the spirit to boil
I am the pot for a sacred recipe I will never know.

My side cries the blood-red tears of a mother for her Son.
I will never forget.

My feet produce a holy smudge as I walk
Each step is a sacred stab
Painting soil, rooting me,
My palette: blood mixed with the trod upon earth,
Earth and man are one.

On Internal Boiling
I keep these ever bleeding wounds hidden as best I can
My secret shame that I should be singled out for God’s mark.

Many times I feel I cannot bear it.
Many times I wonder if I can go on.
But I do

There are moments when the pain and anguish subside, like the brief parting of clouds during a grey winter’s day
Then I am flooded with Your Light
I forget to wonder
I forget embarrassment
There is only You
My joy

Then the clouds close and blood fills my eyes.
I am here on earth again.
And the best I can do is bask deliciously in the echo of that moment.
Putting one wounded foot in front of the other,
Trusting that the pigmented marks I leave, my sacred painting, serves a purpose.

What the Ordinary Person Says of their Wounds
I am wounded to the core and my fever burns unceasingly.
I keep these ever-aching wounds hidden as best I can
My secret shame that I should be singled out, that I am different.
Is this God’s mark?

Lord, let my expectations and my mark be one.
Grant that my unfulfilled and broken plans
Dissolve in your sacred boiling pot.
I have endured all manor of physical pain.
But nothing compares to the suffering of lost dreams.
I throw myself on your mercy.

Let this small, circumscribed life have meaning.
Dear Francis, show me the way.
- Sybil Archibald 2012

St. Francis by Sybil Archibald

St. Francis Broken, a Sculpture: The Healing Nature of Wounds

St. Francis by Sybil Archibald

This is the story of the sculpting, breaking and repair of my St. Francis of Assisi sculpture and how it parallels my own spiritual transformation.

———————————————————————————————————————————

St. Francis in process by Sybil Archibald Something in me responds deeply to St. Francis and his life. When I contemplate him, I immediately feel more myself because he was so completely himself. He did nothing out of obligation or appearances, only out of freely given service. When I open to him, I see who I am and my own struggles but I see them through the larger lens of love. My vision of what my own story means expands and I am healed.

Making this sculpture was a remarkable spiritual journey. Francis was the first piece I started in my Earthen Vessel Series and also the longest to come to completion. The first time I thought he was complete, he had no arms (See image to right).

At that time, I was quite ill and confined in body and spirit. I had not yet found the confidence to act in my art and fully express my vision. Hence the his lack of hands, a symbol for our ability to act in the world.

I next sculpted the Pregnant Virgin: A Creative Vessel:

The Pregnant Virgin Mary by Sybil Archibald The Pregnant Virgin Mary by Sybil Archibald

It was a liberating experience for me. As the Virgin Mary’s back is open to receive, so I opened and for the first time in many years and felt complete freedom and harmony in creating. Then when I looked back at St. Francis, I knew he needed arms though at the time I was not conscious of why.

I added arms and I also painted his pedestal. It was the first of the series to have a completed pedestal and I was so excited to see my vision fulfilled.
St. Francis by Sybil Archibald St. Francis by Sybil Archibald

Then my life changed dramatically. My family and I decided to move from Florida to the Northeast and in the tussle of the move, Francis fell over and was shattered.
The piece of St. Francis' face St. Francis broken bodySt. Francis' broken body When I saw him scattered across the floor, I was not immediately upset. My first thought was, this is me. I am scattered and broken just as Francis. On a deep level I knew that repairing this sculpture was a necessity, that it was integral to my spiritual development. Somehow I felt that once it was repaired something in me would have been repaired. So, I collected every piece like a treasure and saved them.

Several attempts to fix him shortly after the fall met with no success. Something always failed to work or got in the way. Finally in September of this last year I enrolled in a sculpture class so I could get some ideas on what to do. The teacher was able to suggest something, but almost the next day and before I could do anything, my heart went haywire. I went through 3 months of complete agony as my heart raced and danced unrhythmically in my chest. I could barely leave bed. It was this forced seclusion, like a desert sandstorm scouring the landscape clean, that left me a new more whole person. It stripped away the past and located me squarely in the here and now for the first time in my life.

Shortly after emerging from bed I began to work again. As I started painting, the flood gates opened and I knew it was time to return to Francis. This time, his shattered parts came together with ease and he was repaired.

When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.
Barbara Bloom

My sculpture is not the same as before it broke, but it is richer in meaning. I did not mend his cracks with gold like the Japanese, but I left the scars of his fall visible. This sculpture now caries a deeper message about the value of wounds in our lives. It also carries the charge of my own healing captured in the creative act of making this piece. Please forgive the terrible photos. The colors did not translate and I will get quality images taken soon but I hope they will give you an idea of his repair.

St. Francis repaired St. Francis repaired
St. Francis repaired

St. Francis rejects worldly good by Sybil Archibald The arc of this sculpture’s journey illuminates a deep truth: sometimes we must be broken because we are too small. And more importantly, that the act of breaking is an act of love because the breaking brings the possibility of true and deep healing. We are meant to be bearers of the Light but our beliefs and ways are often too small for our aspirations. Thus, we must be broken so we may be reformed as a greater more loving vessel, so we are able journey where our hearts desire.

This sculpture’s journey, also parallels St. Francis’ own life’s story. He was a nobleman with every advantage who went to war. But while away, he was imprisoned and became very ill. An early biographer, St. Bonaventure’s (1217-1274 CE) wrote in The Life of St. Francis :

Since affliction can enlighten our spiritual awareness (Isa. 28:19), the hand of the Lord came upon him (Ezech. 1:3), and the right hand of God effected a change in him (Ps. 76:11). God afflicted his body with a prolonged illness in order to prepare his soul for the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

His illness changed him. It broke him of his privileged life and when he returned to Assisi he could not continue as he had before. In the end, he stripped off his clothing in the center of town and, naked, left his wealth and family behind (See pedestal panel to the right: St. Francis Renounces Worldly Goods).

But it was his very brokenness from war and illness, a seeming tragedy, that allowed him to reform and be the amazing example of love he eventually became.

The Death of St. Francis by Sybil Archibald St. Francis Preaching to the Birds by Sybil Archibald St. Francis receives the stigmata by Sybil ArchibaldPedestal Panels: St. Francis Receives the Stigmata, St. Francis Preaches to the Birds & The Death of St. Francis

Later in his life, St. Francis received the stigmata, the sacred wound of Jesus’ crucifixion. At that time he became a physical symbol of the connection between brokenness and love. Bearing the stigmata softened him and deepened his compassion. It connected him to the Artist (my name for the divine) and to the unceasing flow of divine creativity. But at the same time it anchored him securely in the physical world and reminded him always that he had a body; that he was here to be and act in the physical world. That he bore that anchoring pain without suffering over it, is part of what made him extraordinary. For more on this see my post on St. Francis’ story of perfect joy.

Our own experiences of pain and brokenness are mirrored for us by St. Francis’ life and also by the stigmata that he bore. I planted aloe vera in his stigmata to illustrate the healing power our wounds can bring to our life. Our brokenness and wounds leave their mark but free us to become greater than we are. Making this sculpture and taking a parallel journey from brokenness to wounded wholeness has freed me. This sculpture was the key to unlocking an unconscious mental cage I was inhabiting. I am forever grateful to St. Francis and the shining example of his life.

With love, Sybil

On Hands and Pursuing Your Gift

Over the past 6 months or so my hands have almost completely contracted into fists. I have limited movement in my two index fingers and a bit more in my thumbs and that’s it. I get along just fine, but from time to time I feel the loss of my ability to play the piano. Today I was a concert and I felt the twinge, just a seductive hint of self-pity. When I came home this video was in my email via Triumph of the Spirit.

I mean, do you think God is trying to tell me something? The joy and life in this woman is astounding for anyone, not just a person with disabilities. She embraces what she has, her gift, with gusto and joy. I loved playing the piano, truly, but I never had a gift for it. I am no musician, more like an amateur crafter filling a Saturday afternoon. I believe this video was sent to me to show me how to let go of suffering over my hands and embrace my gift. Each of us has a gift, perhaps not the one we would choose or perhaps we dislike the way it is given. But, wow, look what is possible if we embrace it.

“Come to the edge.”
“We can’t. We’re afraid.”
“Come to the edge.”
“We can’t. We will fall!”
“Come to the edge.”
And they came.
And he pushed them.

And they flew.
- Guillaume Apollinaire

The Healing Hand (c) Sybil Archibald

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!

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Creative Process

This is unbelievably amazing and inspiring. I felt a tremendous weight lift off my shoulders as I watched:

Art and Facing Darkness

Last night A.R. Rahman won an Oscar for Best Original Song and this is what he said:

All my life I have had a choice of hate and love. I chose love and I’m here.

This is a powerful statement on many levels. Today I’ll focus on just one: every time an artist sits down to work they choose love. Even if they are expressing pain or anger or darkness they are facilitating the presence of the Divine Artist on Earth. They tap into the fecund well of Divine Creativity and allow it to flow into the world.

Matthew Fox, founder of creation spirituality, describes the same thing slightly differently:

The artist names holy “isness” in all its forms—joyful and beautiful, sad and tragic. We need the artist to name our common experience of “isness” —to tell us when “isness” has just passed by and to assist us in expressing our gratitude.

The artist opens the door to the present moment which is the only place to truly experience of the Divine. It is silly to try and pretend that darkness does not exist in the world, that we could exist without sadness, anger or pain. Artists help us to name and experience these emotions, this is what Fox means when he says “isness”- to locate these feelings in the universal experience. Their part in the never-ending upward spiral toward the Universal Maker which snakes from light to dark and back again.

Art helps us to stop resisting our emotions and the present moment. When standing in front of a work of art, we breath and absorb the moment. We experience our feelings. We project our personal issues and see them reflected back safely. This process allows us to move forward out of darkness instead of being stuck there. By experiencing the darkness in our lives we are released from it, by resisting it we are trapped. A work of art can help us face our darkness and this is an act of love. Art acts a loving midwife to the soul urging us onward in our spiritual development.

A.R. Rahman:

Heart Surgery and Fear

Sacred Heart by Sybil Archibald
Detail of one of my paintings

Tomorrow, January 9th, I’m going in for minor heart surgery. I will be discharged on January 10th. I know the Divine is involved here because on January 10th last year I went into the hospital with a serious heart issue. I will be leaving the hospital the very same day I entered it 1 year ago. No person could plan that.

This year has been an intense transformational journey for me. Last year I had an episode of ventricular tachycardia. It was very dramatic. I went into the hospital with a heart rate of 223 beats per minute. They called code blue, 10 people descended on me, just like ER.

Well, I have to tell you that it was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. In that moment, the first moment in my entire life, I surrendered completely to God. I had not one instant of fear. Every person treated me with beauty and I was carried through to safety. I believe my absolute calm and trust dramatically impacted this situation were I was mere seconds from death.

I spent 9 days in the cardiac ICU while they tested me in every way possible. In the end, they fitted me with an implanted cardiac defibrillator. When I left the hospital everything returned to normal except that the Divine hadn’t finished teaching me yet.

In March I got the stomach flu. The usual thing, I threw up for about 24 hours. When I got up the next day, I was walking down the stairs and I heard a pop. The only other time I had ever heard that sound was when I experienced a flash of Divine light. I realized my defibrillator had gone off. It continued to fire 11 more times in the next 5 minutes. If you don’t know what that means, I’m sure you’ve seen on TV doctor drama doctors administering a shock to a person with paddles. Well this is the same thing only delivered directly to your heart. It is excruciatingly painful.

The ambulance shuttled me off to the hospital where I found that my cardiologist had set my device too low. My heart rate was completely normal, fast because of the flu but normal. The machine went off because the programming was wrong.

I was completely traumatized by this. I jumped at every noise. I had nightmares of it going off again. I was afraid to walk down the stairs. Sometimes, I was so consumed with fear, I was literally afraid to move. I know it sounds terrible, but it turned out to be one of the most important experiences of my entire life. It is no mistake that I heard the same sound as in my vision.

Dealing with this has changed my relationship to fear. I never knew that most of my decisions were made out of fear. That fear regulated everything I did. This experience has liberated me from fear. I learned how to be with fear and still act, how sitting with fear instead of resisting it transforms it.

I learned to deal with my fear so well that when, I was faced with another truly fearful situation, I was ok. In September, I found out that part of my device had been recalled for delivering inappropriate shock (one woman had, I believe 58 shocks, in 1 hour) I did freak out for a day, but then I handled it. I took my time gathered all the appropriate information and 3 ½ months later I am acting. Not out of fear, but out of the knowledge that I am making the best decision for myself and my family.

People often think of fear in the context of what it stops us from doing, perhaps flying to an exotic local, changing or job, etc. But my experience is that we are so deeply unconscious of our fears that we actually think we like doing what we have always done. See Jan on this. I don’t do half of what I used to. It’s not because I’m sick. It’s because I won’t waste my energy on doing things just to please other people when they rob me of my life force. I never realized how terrified I was of disappointing someone or making them angry.Sacred Heart

I could never have started this blog before because I would have fear what people would say. Why do we hold back and resist change? We only get our mirrors dusty so they can’t properly reflect the One.

This cycle is done. On the 10th I will leave the hospital and I’ll be on to bigger and better things. I hope it is more art, but that’s not up to me, that is in the hands of the One.

I send you blessings. Thank you for reading.

Illness & the Divine

You are in love with me,
I shall make you perplexed.

Do not build much, for I intend to have you in ruins.

If you build two hundred houses in a manner that the bees do;
I shall make you as homeless as a fly.

If you are the mount Qaf in stability.
I shall make you whirl like a millstone.
-Rumi

I spend a lot of time with kids. It’s wonderful and difficult at the same time. Children are brutally honest. As I’ve mentioned before, I have scleroderma. This condition has caused my hands & face to contract. It has also caused my jaw to come out of alignment so that my teeth do not meet up properly. In short, I look strange. This doesn’t usually bother me because I don’t think about it. That fact that my hands don’t open doesn’t really affect my life much except for a few things I’ve had to give up: piano, knitting & a few miscellaneous activities. Sometimes when I see a picture of myself from long ago I’m sad,
Anyway my point is, I am who am I regardless of my what I look like. There are some people who are perfectly gorgeous in everyway and are miserable. But that’s not me, I’m deformed but happy. But when I get around kids and they ask me why I look funny it does upset me because it’s a shock. I don’t remember I’m strange because I never think about it. I think this is God’s way of tempering me like a sword, throwing me into the fire to make me stronger.

To truly reflect the Divine in this world, we must learn to be present in every moment. We must be totally in the physical world without controlling it. It’s amazing how much I want to control the world. I want my face back, I want my hands. But I know that is just me controlling the flow of Divinity in this word. I won’t be a dam, I wish to be an open well, a channel between the ocean & the land. Clearing this channel takes letting go of everything I think I am.

Thank you hands that contract so I may expand
Thank you jaw that hangs open so I must speak
Thank you feet that ache so I must stay still
Thank you heart that weathers the storm so I may be washed clean
Thank You again and again
Thank You
-Sybil Archibald

Art & The Physical

Making art is a physical act with physical outcomes. The crux of the problem is how to join the physical and spiritual worlds. How do we bring the sacred into physical form and why?

I am deeply influenced by the ideas of early alchemists who sought to purify matter. Most people have heard of how alchemists looked for the philosopher’s stone, an elixir, which would transform base impure metals such as lead into gold. They described their quest as perfecting or healing matter. Gold, the purest metal, a symbol of the Divine on earth was not the true goal of an alchemist. Alchemists believed in the sacred principle “as above, so below” as written in the Emerald Tablet. As the alchemist purified matter externally, they believed they were making corresponding internal changes to the own souls. Their true goal was spiritual perfection & union with God.

The same principle is at work when an artist creates. Artwork manifests the spiritual changes occurring within the artist as they create. All creativity is ignited from the same flame, tapped from the same eternal well. By creating, artists contact & connect with their source and that fundamentally changes them. Why do you think so many artists turn to drink and flirt with madness? This connection with our source is awesome and can be overpowering and painful. Artists don’t need pain and suffering to create, but most of us are so closed off from our Divine source that when we access it, the pain of our separation crashes down on us in a crushing blow. It’s not the pain an artist needs to create, it’s the pain that comes with the act of creation.

However, if an artist or mystic continues to seek God eventually they become tempered like a sword in the fire and can bear more closeness with less pain. When the artist learns to allow the fecund stream of Divine creativity to flow through them with out expectation or control, the artwork which is created resonates with God. This artwork becomes a pivoting point from this world to the next. But the goal is not to escape the physical and return to God, it is to join the two worlds as one. Art can provide a powerful experience of the Divine in a way few other things can.

Sister Wendy has a really interesting passage in her book The Mystical Now: Art and the Sacred (Thanks John for pointing it out to me!):

GK Chesterton, mourning our state as fallen creatures, ego-lovers…explained: ”We have forgotten who we and what we are.” And art, he said, ”makes us remember that we have forgotten.” This is painful. It is also our best means apart from direct contact with God, of rediscovering that interior integrity. All great art, being spiritual, both grieves over and celebrates “what we are.” It needs no religious iconography for this…(p. 9)

She goes on to say that this is why “so many people unconsciously fear and resist art.” It is not the fear of art, it is the fear of God.

I think it is clear from what I have said, that artists have a responsibility for the physical nature of what they create. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the artist’s responsibility to the Light, to choose to be a vessel for light and good in this world. But this is slightly different. Artists also have a responsibility to the material world. As the alchemists did with metals, the artist purifies matter in the act of creation. Our responsibility is nothing less than to be active participants in healing the earth. My next post will clarify this in further.

Buying Paper: A Blast from the Past

Yesterday I went to NY Central Art Supply to buy paper. It was a weird, weird experience for me. I used to practically live there in the paper section. They have the most amazing paper selection- like you died and went to heaven! But around 15 years ago, I gave up paper and store-bought art supplies. I worked almost entirely on animal skin parchment and made my own paints & inks from scratch. I even made a lot of the pigments from vegetable and mineral sources. See my book Lapis & Gold for more on this. NY Central paper samplesUsing these techniques meant that I didn’t set foot in NY Central for 15 years.

Going there again was almost like going back to a childhood home and seeing someone else’s furniture. One of the sales people called me ma’am. I had my 7 year old in tow. I thought people were looking at me like I was an alien. And yet it was sweet to be there again. God I love paper! I love artists.

In all probability people weren’t looking at me like I was an alien. I just felt that way because nothing had really changed there except me. Even some of the sales people were the same. I felt I should be walking around the corner to have a beer at the Village Idiot (long since closed) with my friends and not return home till 3am. I suddenly felt I had no responsibilities at all and then my son grabbed my hand. I don’t have the body I had, I don’t have the mind I had, or the pain & suffering I had. It was beautiful and sad at the same time. A paradox- the truest indicator of Divine presence.

Sister Wendy, Plotinus & Beauty in Art

Yesterday there was a fascinating interview with Sister Wendy on The Huffington Post. I want to highlight two things she said. The first relates to praying in the tradition of the via negativa. When asked how she prays, Sister Wendy says:

I go about it as I think everyone should go about it. I look to God and let him love me. Prayer is God’s business, not everyone’s business. That’s where mistakes are made: people think they’re responsible. Just be quiet and let God draw you into his peace.

Beautiful! The second interesting quote regards finding the Divine in art:

When I realized that one could talk about the beauty of art and so show people the beauty of God without using a word that might frighten them…People that don’t believe in God are in contact with him when they are looking at him, at beauty. God is found in all art. Ballet dancing, hunting scenes, Carraveggios. Wherever you’ve got this great power of beauty, you’ve got God.

That’s an interesting way of looking at it. The mystical tradition would say that there is nothing which is not God. God is present everywhere (see my post on this here) even in a scrap of discarded trash. But I think Sister Wendy is getting at something deeper here, things that are “traditionally” beautiful can open a closed soul in a gentle way. There is value in gentleness.

This is not to say all art should fit traditional norms of beauty (if such a thing exists).There can be great beauty in pain and sorrow as St. Francis teaches us with his rose scented stigmata. If my goal is to bring a greater experience of the Divine into world, it must by necessity be done with beauty because the Divine is Absolute Beauty. All beauty reflect Beauty. As Plotinus says:

When one discerns in the bodily, the Idea that binds and masters matter of itself formless and indeed recalcitrant to formation, and when also detects an uncommon form stamped upon those that are common, then at a stroke one grasps the scattered multiplicity, gathers it together, and draws it within oneself to present it there to one’s interior and indivisible ones as concordant, congenial, a friend….
- Plotinus, Enneads I, 6{1} Beauty

Here, the “Idea” is form that gives existence to physical matter. For Plotinus form is emanated directly from the Divine and therefore the entire material world is united, bound together by true and absolute Beauty. The trick for artists is how deeply
we move toward uncovering absolute Beauty, how much can we polish the mirror of the world.

Fear

Today found about something might change quite dramatically in my life. If it comes to pass, I will share it here. But for now, I’ll just say that it brought up a lot of fear for me, fear of change. I was inspired and helped by a post written on Dec. 3rd by Jan about an experience she had with an icon. She says that:

Today I sat with the Virgin of Vladimir and found her eyes to be as piercing as they were the first time I ever sat with her. She holds the pain of the world in her eyes, which causes me to have tears. Tears are the gift of God, so I am assuming sitting with a few tears is my gift.

The ability to sit with tears without trying to stop or change them is an amazing gift. It is by sitting and accepting our pain that we can transform it. So today I took Jan’s cue and sat with my fear and it started to shift. Thanks Jan! Now that that’s processed, I’m going to draw…

My Annunciation

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.

Bernardo Daddi MadonnaIn 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.
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.

The Yoke of the Spiritual Artist

Woman by Sybil ArchibaldThe act of creation is by its very nature an imitation of the Divine. The artist is the microcosmic reflection of the Macrocosm. Knowing this lays a beautiful yoke upon the artist forcing them to seek Light. It is a yoke that, if we knew our true Selves, would already have been accepted without question.

Woman by Sybil ArchibaldEverything that is created in this world comes from the Divine Womb. To create the artist must access this uncreated well which gives birth to Being and Light. Therefore act of creation is itself and act of Light. To be successful as artists we have to choose Light in everything we do to secure our own creativity. This doesn’t mean the superficial avoidance of anger, pain or sadness because this avoidance is actually darkness. The Light artists must seek is found only by embracing chaos, by diving into pain and sorrow in order to emerge in the Womb. This Light is the complete surrender of self to the yoke of the Divine (and I don’t mean religion). Without this surrender God seems cruel and unforgiving; with it the Divine becomes the fecund well that nourishes the artist without ceasing.Woman by Sybil Archibald

The goal of the spiritual artist is to be the microcosm of the Creator. As written by Rabindranath Tagore about above and below:

My Song

This song of mine will wind its music around you, my child, like the fond arms of love.
This song of mine will touch your forehead like a kiss of blessing.
When you are alone it will sit by your side and whisper in your ear, when you are in a crowd it will fence you about with aloofness.
Woman by Sybil Archibald
My song will be like a pair of wings to your dreams, it will transport your heart to the verge of the unknown.
It will be like the faithful star overhead when dark night is over your road.
My song will sit in the pupils of your eyes, and will carry your sight into the heart of things.
And when my voice is silent in death, my song will speak in your living heart.
(p.363)

Woman by Sybil ArchibaldThe Divine stream of creativity which flows into this world is the milk of life. It is nourishment. Art can heal; art can transform; art can nourish and succor the world. As artists, it is our choice to make.

Suffering?

I’ve been thinking about a comment Gartenfische left on my post exploring St. Francis’ early illness about pain being a constant, but suffering being a choice. What makes us suffer over some things and not others?

I have a condition called scleroderma which has caused my hands to contract almost into fists. However, I don’t suffer over it at all. In fact the only time I ever think of it is when people stare. On the other hand, I suffer greatly with my menstrual cycle but only for a few hours a month. The first thing effects everything I do and yet doesn’t move me, the second effects me a few hours a month and takes a huge toll.

I have to ask why? And, then, I will have to ask what I need to polish within myself to clear the way for God. My attachment to suffering is like dirt on a mirror. It keeps me from fully reflecting my Source in my life and through my art.