Archive for Sister Wendy Beckett

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!

Max Beckmann on the Artist and Danger

Max Beckmann Triptic
Max Beckmann is one of my favorite artists. I grew up a few blocks from the LA County Art Museum and there was an utterly stunning Beckmann show at some point during my childhood. Such a revelation! I sensed something in those paintings, a deep connectedness that I yearned for in my own life. As a child I felt these paintings were holding my hand leading me someplace I dearly wanted to go. Beckmann describes his work this way:

What I want to show in my work is the idea which hides itself behind so-called reality. I am seeking for the bridge which leads from the visible to the invisible, like the famous Cabbalist who once said:’If you wish to get hold of the invisible, you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible.” To penetrate is to go through. (p. 94)

This quote is from a wonderful book, Max Beckmann and the Self by Wendy Beckett. Another quote which struck me forcibly is:

[drawing] protects one against death and danger. (p.28)

Of course, and thankfully, there is no escape from physical death, but death by failure to live and danger are another matter. The idea that making art can protect the artist rings true to me. Certainly drawing helped be battle a fear which was over powering my life.

When an artist isn’t creating they loose their connection to the Divine and their connection to the physical word. They their life force and the resulting fear and /or depression deprive the artist of the their ability to act. For the artist, there is only a shadow life without art. Their life becomes about damming up the Divine creative wellspring instead being a channel for it to flow through. The artist loses their trust in the world, their ability to see and act for their own higher good. This ultimately drives them to make poor choices and poor choices bring danger.

If the artist does their work, they form as Beckmann puts it, a bridge, a deep connection between heaven and earth. This happens in the present moment, a mystical space which is always here for us to tap into:

O living always, always dying!
O the burials of me past and present,
O me while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever;
O me, what I was for years, now dead, (I lament not, I am content;)
O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and
look at where I cast them,
To pass on, (O living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind.
Walt Whitman

This is the state where art is created, sacred space and in which we are connected to our true Home. A sense of trust and goodness permeates us. All is right with the world. Connection to this state allows us to make clear decisions for our own highest good. It allow us to travel uncharted paths safely and this the artist true job: to chart the uncharted. Although it may feel more dangerous actually leads us out of danger.

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.

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.