Archive for St. Francis

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

On An Artist’s Responsibility to the Light

Opening to Love by Sybil Archibald Opening to Love (back view) by Sybil Archibald
Opening to Love
by Sybil Archibald

Light

Light
devoured darkness.

I was alone
inside.

Shedding
the visible dark

I
was Your target

O Lord of Caves.

by Allama Prabhu
English version by A. K. Ramanujan
Original Language Kannada

My esophagus and I have had a lovers spat. But after 3 months on a liquid diet I am happily eating solid food again. What a trying time. Some days it took more than 2 hours to drink a single cup of fluid because it simply didn’t want to go down. Each time I go through a difficult spell with my health, I know that there is divine purpose. I always come through healed in mind and soul as well as body.

Though my esophageal quarrel was extremely difficult, I made it through because of painting. Painting allowed me to connect to the deep well of creativity that regenerated me even as I felt my body slipping away. Painting became my anchor to life and each time I lifted my brush I felt I was reeling myself into safe harbor. This time made crystal clear the personal value of making art and also made clear why art is so important to the world.

Anyone who has read this blog will know I believe art and healing are deeply connected. As an artist is healed by the process of their work, that energy is captured. This energy resonates within their piece where it has the potential to heal its viewer. This is my highest goal, to create work that heals. I also think that is what art does at it’s best. Art can do other things: educate, shock, bring beauty. But all these fall aside when measured against the sacred calling to heal and transform.

This may seem a lofty goal that is not often reached but it is important to set lofty goals as Henry Moore says:

The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.
-Henry Moore

I would change that quote slightly from something you cannot do to something it seems you cannot do. It is too easy to limit what we can do by dismissing goals as unattainable.

Art has the ability to change people on a very deep level and therefore artists have a great responsibility. Some might say they have a responsibility to themselves or to their vision, but I would disagree. Instead, artists have a responsibility to the Light / Creativity that they shepherd into the world. It is a flickering flame that must be cradled and cherished that it may heal and guide us forward.

Unfortunately, the art world and many artists have forgotten the sacred nature of their charge. Many are trapped and blinded by history’s model of the bohemian artist shocking the world. This model began in 1863 when Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet was first shown, it shocked audiences by placing a nude woman with a pair of clothed men in a landscape. At that time, the strict prescriptions of the 19th century salon were stagnating art and needed to be shattered. Younger artists liberated by Manet’s courage were inspired into a sort of 19th century “Fight the Power”. Manet’s model of shock eventually led to the great movements of 20th century art like cubism and abstract expressionism.
Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet
Each of these movements sought to shock the art world and bring something completely new. For example, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso, generally recognized as the first cubist painting, was incredibly controversial. At first it was considered immoral and scandalous and later revolutionary.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso

This became the pattern for success is the art world. Shock your audience by reacting to the art currently in vogue. Be the bohemian outsider attacking the collective notions of what is acceptable in our society. And this model worked well for a long time and gave us a lot of great art. However, now, this model is failing both the art world and society as a whole.

Today, it is almost impossible to shock anyone. We have all seen countless murders and even really war causalities on TV. We are even jaded to the point of numbness.

Yet artists still doggedly cling to this notion of shocking the establishment. No longer able to shock the public at large, artists have settled for shocking the artworld with increasingly self-reflexive works that are no longer accessible or meaningful to the average person. Works that paradoxically become more and more cerebral the less they mean. Works that deconstruct and criticize what has come before and call attention to everything that is wrong in this world.

It seems to me that as a society all we can see the darkness: the murder and crime, the wars, the destruction of our environment.

When I said artist’s have a responsibility to the Light it meant it. We need to start carving a path of Light out of the darkness we are mired in. Artists have a unique opportunity to praise what is good and beautiful in the world and to point the way to healing ourselves and our earth.

I don’t mean artists need to become Pollyannas. Showing only Light is just the other side of the coin showing only darkness. We must acknowledge the darkness and transform it, hold the world’s darkness on our canvases along with it’s Light, the pain and the joy in a way that allows the release of the pain and the movement toward joy. By praising rather than complaining we add to the Light in the world, we add to a movement of healing that will in time reach a tipping pointing where darkness and Light can rebalance in a healthier way.

Where does this leave artists who deal with dark subjects? I say that if an artist is authentically engaging their own pain and not just making an intellectual statement they are healing themselves and adding to the Light. It does not do to deny the dark, day needs night, as summer needs winter. What is important is the intention of finding the path of Light for it is there for those who search. And the world so desperately needs us to search. So artists, I say, be brave, be ever so brave and enter your own darkness to find your path to Light. The world is depending on us.

With love,

Sybil

St. Francis by Sybil Archibald

The stigmata of St. Francis altar by sybil archibald
The Healing Stigmata of St. Francis Altar 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

Emerging from the Desert

Plotinus by Sybil Archibald
Plotinus by Sybil Archibald

Form in Void
The tree is stripped,
All color, fragrance gone,
Yet already on the bough,
Uncaring spring!
Ikkyu Sojun 15th century

Three years ago, my family and I moved from the Northeastern United States to Florida. This summer we returned to the north- a circle complete, a spiritual trial survived.

We headed south seeking warmer weather and improvement in my health. My husband’s business closed so we sold our home and moved to paradise with a smile, happy to leave the busy northern pace and the weight of our possessions. More than anything, we sought a simplified life with deeper connections to one another and less stress.

I undertook this journey with an open heart. I was happy to begin a new adventure, but was blindsided by what happened. Within a month of moving I contracted shingles on my left eye and for 3 years my health related challenges never settled down. For example, my esophagus stopped working and I had a long period where I had to be on a liquid diet. These various issues kept me pretty much in bed. Under the circumstances, I found it difficult to meet people and became removed from the flow of life around me.

My life was literally stripped of everything but my family and my art. Friends, my house, my garden, life as I knew it had evaporated and I had no ability to replace it. It was definitely not what I expected upon moving to paradise and you won’t be surprised to hear that I experienced many dark days and nights.

At the time it seemed unfair and unbearable. Now, however, I see the reason. After meditating on the early desert fathers of Christianity, it is clear why I needed to be separated from my active life. The desert fathers believed that social interaction interfered with spiritual growth. They escaped into solitude deep in the desert. In In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Treasures of the World’s Religions), John Chryssavgis writes:

“Desert” (eremos) literally means “abandonment”; it is the term from which we derive the word “hermit”.…The desert signified death: nothing grows in the desert. Your very existence is, therefore, threatened. In the desert you will find no one and no thing. In the desert, you can only face up to yourself and to every aspect of your self, to your temptations, and to your reality. You confront your own heart, and your heart’s deepest desires, without any scapegoat, without any hiding place.…After all, you cannot hide in the desert; there is no room for lying or deceit there. Your very self is reflected in the dry desert, and you are obliged to face up to this self.…The desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not of personal retreat. It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace. It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape. It is a place of repentance, not recuperation. Living in the desert does not mean living without people; it means living for God. Antony and the other desert dwellers never forgot this.

The desert fathers forced themselves to face who they truly were, to wrestle and triumph over their demons. I was not so brave. I didn’t willingly undertake the loss of everything as they did, but none the less, this is what happened. I was left with myself alone. Everything that I ran to escape, the anxieties, the pain, the loss was there to greet me.

For many years this blog charted not only my spiritual journey, but my struggle to make art. When I lived up north, the pain of making art was hard to bear. It brought up my internal struggles, grief and anger: all these years in bed while careers were made and lives lived. In Florida, after about a year of being forced to sit with all of these feelings, they began to trickle away. Even my fear of being immersed in the creative process began to melt. I finally surrendered and art became my lifeline as it was in the beginning and always should have been.

I would rest up for days and then drag myself into the studio. Gradually it happened, I began to hit my stride again. This feeling I hadn’t had in 15 years of illness began to creep over me. I was in the process of becoming the vessel I always longed to be. I felt the creativity surge through me. I felt life begin again inside.

Now that I’m back in the Northeast, I’ve left the desert and returned to the true land of paradise; here where my association to others is strong and my friends are happy to see me. My material possessions- my garden and house are gone but my connection to life is restored. I have to be grateful for the difficulties and pain I experienced in Florida, because in journeying through I found myself again. The desert ends up being a beautiful place. I have unearthed that space within that acts as a door between heaven and earth. It is an entrance for creativity to flow from the Divine into the material world. I am only one of many, many doors, but it gives me heart to go on. My job is to protect that space from the busyness of everyday life; to grow it like the garden I once had, a desert transformed.

Here are some examples of what I’m currently working on:

St. Francis of Assisi (Dimension: 55″x 18″) / The Pregnant Virgin Mary ( Dimensions: 55″x 18″ )
St. Francis by Sybil Archibald The Pregnant Virgin Mary by Sybil Archibald
Click the images for more views and closeups.
St. Teresa of Avila
St. Teresa by Sybil Archibald St. Teresa by Sybil Archibald
For more of my new work check my online gallery.

On Process, Sculptures and Kindness

Alleluia-
Verse for the Virgin

Alleluia! light
burst from your untouched
womb like a flower
on the farther side
of death. The world-tree
is blossoming. Two
realms become one.
Hildegard of Bingen
(Trans. Barbara Newman from Women in Praise of the Sacred)

When I make art, I am seeking the Void or the womb of God, a place Hildegard describes so beautifully as the nexus where “two realms become one”. The last several years have brought me a much needed emptying process creating space in my life for this sacred nexus to flourish. I have been laid open and unclogged by making art. Making art cleared me and making art connects me with the Void. It is a form of deep, committed prayer.

This is the story of my opening told through my sculptures. I started as an artist sculpting in clay at the age of four, but left the medium for 20 years. Upon my return a few years back, I made very controlled sculptures like this one:

The Egg Cracks (c) Sybil Archibald

Like an egg, I was slowly cracking open- excavating a space for the Divine to enter. But as I created, I felt stuck. I didn’t feel that deep freedom which connecting to the Divine creative flow brings. I was controlling the process too much.

To loosen my grip, I began a series called the “The Act of Creation”. These pieces are about surrendering to the moment of creation without judgment. It was important for me to create without expectation of the outcome, to surrender product for process. I entered into the Void and mingled with the Divine creative energies there. Thus I acted on this clay only by instinct and stopped in the moment I felt this internal flow of creativity recede. As a vessel, I felt the creative energies within me merge into matter and I felt it as a physical sensation deep within my body. These pieces are a captured instant of the creative process made concrete and a record of, perhaps, my most intimates moments in the arms of the Artist.

Here are just a few from this series for more check here.

Act of Creation #1
Act of Creation #1 (c) Sybil Archibald

Act of Creation #1 (c) Sybil Archibald

Act of Creation #2

Act of Creation #2 (c) Sybil ArchibaldAct of Creation #2 (c) Sybil Archibald

Act of Creation #3

Act of Creation #3 (c) Sybil Archibald

Act of Creation #7

Act of Creation #7 (c) Sybil ArchibaldAct of Creation #7 (c) Sybil Archibald

Act of Creation #8

Act of Creation #8 (c) Sybil Archibald

Act of Creation #9

Act of Creation #9 (c) Sybil Archibald

Act of Creation Group Shot

Act of Creation Group (c) Sybil Archibald

Making these pieces completely opened me up. Suddenly I had ears, finally the Artist had come and gently slipped me on like a glove. My current “Mystical Vessel” series, sculptures of mystics who profoundly influenced my spiritual development, could not have happened without this experience of letting go. Here are the first three pieces from this series:

The Pregnant Virgin
The Pregnant Virgin (c) Sybil Archibald

The Pregnant Virgin (c) Sybil Archibald
For video of this sculpture check here.

Hildgard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen (c) Sybil Archibald

Hildegard of Bingen (c) Sybil Archibald
For video of this sculpture check here.

St. Francis
St. Francis (c) Sybil Archibald

St. Francis (c) Sybil Archibald
He needs arms before I make a video…

Making art in this way, deeply connected to Divine flow of creativity, is an adventure, a riotous ride into the unknown. Like a whirling dervish, I spin into hidden realms and it is sweet compensation for a body confined by illness. Which is why, despite everything I have been through, I am profoundly grateful for the infinite kindness of God.

On Peace, Resistance & Creativity

Peace
Peace flows into me
As the tide to the pool by the shore;
It is mine forevermore,
It ebbs not back like the sea.

I am the pool of blue
That worships the vivid sky;
My hopes were heaven-high,
They are all fulfilled in you.

I am the pool of gold
When sunset burns and dies, —
You are my deepening skies,
Give me your stars to hold.
-Sara Teasdale

My theme for this year is creating peace. In my last post, I wrote about my belief that we can release some of the pressure building up in the wider world by addressing that chaos and pressure in our own little garden. By changing our interior selves we powerfully effect those around us for the good. With this in mind, I have been ferreting out all the sources of pressure and turmoil in my own life. To my surprise, I find they are all internal. It’s not the breaking of a glass in the kitchen that brings turmoil, it’s my response. The more I resist a situation, the more upset is created.

I recently became aware of just how much I resist everything. My greatest resistance turns out to be to my own feelings. I resist feeling angry, sad, or experiencing uncomfortable memories; I even resist feelings of love and connection which are too intense. When I am resisting, I have to throw myself into doing something, anything so I won’t have time to feel. This unconscious need to do, causes more turmoil than anything else in my life. I end up forcing things to happen in ways are destructive instead of allow things to unfold in their own time. And because art cannot be forced (it must be allow to unfold), this behavior also kills the creative impulse and the artist’s connection to the divine flow. It clogs the divine well and gums up its receiving vessel.

Since Thanksgiving, I have worked tirelessly to not resist my feelings. As a result, I experienced about a month of intense, overpowering anxiety- an anxiety so strong I almost felt I wouldn’t make it through. It woke me at night and stalked me during the day. But I stuck with it. When anxiety bubbled up, I would stop and be still, embracing the fear as long as I could hold it. Then I’d take a break and enter back in. Eventually, I passed through this intense cloud. It was breathing that got me through, huffing and panting, almost like I was in a month long labor.

Amazingly, this has experience has shifted my whole being. I know real quiet and peace for the first time in my life. My connection to my family is deeper because I can tolerate and hold more feelings of love. Now when something comes up, whether it’s anger, anxiety or pleasure, I’m there to I feel it instead of running away. For the first time ever, I have a physical sense of being here on this planet and a consciousness of my “vesselhood” and the value that that holds. I’m tossing out the clutter from my vessel left, right and center. I am an open jar waiting for Divine creativity to fill me.

In closing, here is a picture of my newest sculpture of St. Francis and a link an old post containing his writing on what is perfect joy. I’m going to put together a video of him, but this week it’s so cold I just have to stay in bed with a heating blanket! Peace- Sybil

St. Francis by Sybil Archibald
St. Francis by Sybil Archibald St. Francis by Sybil Archibald

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.

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.

St. Francis, Women Mystics & the Question of Suffering

Holy Fast, Holy FeastToday 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.St. Francis receives the Stigmata

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.

St. Francis: His early Illness

St. FrancisI’m reading St. Bonaventure’s (1217-1274 CE) Life of St. Francis. Early in St Francis’ life, before he embarked on the path to sainthood, he became seriously ill. He as just a regular young man until this illness transformed him. This is what Bonaventure says about it:

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.

It was after he recovered that he began to take on the role of mystic. I’ve written a lot lately about the beauty and role of illness in spirituality. I find it everywhere throughout mystical literature. St. Francis left few writings, he taught through the example of his life. The numerous transformations he under went to become one with God are intense. I’ve written about a few of them before, including the meaning of his stigmata. His life shows the effect of illness Divinely given and humanly accepted. Tomorrow I’ll post about some medieval women mystics who cultivated suffering as a way of serving humanity. This is a completely different, willful thing.

Bonaventure’s writings are beautiful. Besides his Life of St. Francis, I also love The Soul’s Journey into God. In it he describes the physical world as “vestiges,” foot print of God. Every living creature and every object contains God’s grandeur. I spent one summer trying to apply this to everything I saw: Chihuahuas, garbage, car exhaust, hideous neon yellow jackets, you name it. I finally started to get and now it seems like second nature after of years of practice. Well most of the time! Heavy perfume and spitting still get me!

What St. Francis Tells the Artist

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.