Theme:
Art: Old and New

Art: Old and New

Summary: Sunday, November 10 — Friday, November 15, 2019

Art reveals what people believe and emphasize at any one time. (Sunday)

Images such as the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” and the “Immaculate Heart of Mary” keep recurring only if they are speaking something important and good from the unconscious, maybe even something necessary for the soul’s emergence. (Monday)

Art begins with receptivity. —Mirabai Starr (Tuesday)

The thing is to allow ourselves to become a vessel for a work of art to come through and allow that work to guide our hands.  —Mirabai Starr (Wednesday)

As I again sat listening to gospel music and spirituals, words began to form in my mind and I scrambled to write them down. —Diana L. Hayes (Thursday)

In its various forms, art can provide incarnational and contemplative insight. (Friday)

 

Practice: Contemplating Art

I often refer to the insightful work of contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber. This week’s contemplative practice is from Wilber’s excellent book The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Simply reading his essay is a contemplative experience. He offers one of the most beautiful and joyful perspectives on art that I’ve found.

Some of the great modern philosophers, Schelling to Schiller to Schopenhauer, have all pinpointed a major reason for great art’s power to transcend. When we look at any beautiful object (natural or artistic), we suspend all other activity, and we are simply aware, we only want to contemplate the object. While we are in this contemplative state, we do not want anything from the object; we just want to contemplate it; we want it to never end. We don’t want to eat it, or own it, or run from it, or alter it: we only want to look, we want to contemplate, we never want it to end.

In that contemplative awareness, our own egoic grasping in time comes momentarily to rest. We relax into our basic awareness. We rest with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. We are face to face with the calm, the eye in the center of the storm. We are not agitating to change things; we contemplate the object as it is. Great art has this power, this power to grab your attention and suspend it: we stare, sometimes awestruck, sometimes silent, but we cease the restless movement that otherwise characterizes our every waking moment. . . .

Think of the most beautiful person you have ever seen. Think of the exact moment you looked into his or her eyes, and for a fleeting second you were paralyzed: you couldn’t take your eyes off that vision. You stared, frozen in time, caught in that beauty. Now imagine that identical beauty radiating from every single thing in the entire universe: every rock, every plant, every animal, every cloud, every person, every object, every mountain, every stream—even the garbage dumps and broken dreams—every single one of them, radiating that beauty. You are quietly frozen by the gentle beauty of everything that arises around you. You are released from grasping, released from time, released from avoidance, released altogether into the eye of Spirit, where you contemplate the unending beauty of the Art that is the entire World.

That all-pervading Beauty is not an exercise in creative imagination. It is the actual structure of the universe. That all-pervading Beauty is in truth the very nature of the Kosmos right now. . . . If you remain in the eye of the Spirit, every object is an object of radiant Beauty. If the doors of perception are cleansed, the entire Kosmos is your lost and found Beloved, the Original Face of primordial Beauty, forever, and forever, and endlessly forever. And in the face of that stunning Beauty, you will completely swoon into your own death, never to be seen or heard from again, except on those tender nights when the wind gently blows through the hills and the mountains, quietly calling your name. [1]

If Ken Wilber’s words have brought to mind an actual person, place, or thing, close your eyes for a few minutes and simply contemplate your own experience of their radiant beauty. When we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, or an open heart to witness, Great Beauty will reveal itself in all living and created things.

Reference:
[1] Ken Wilber, The Eye of Spirit: Integral Art and Literary Theory (Shambhala: 1997), 44.

For Further Study:
John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision (HarperOne: 2018)

Diana L. Hayes, No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (Orbis Books: 2016)

Diana L. Hayes and Charles Ngede, Were You There?: Stations of the Cross (Orbis Books: 2000)

Richard Rohr, The Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013)

Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How A Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books: 2019)

Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics (Sounds True: 2019)

Image credit: Autumn (detail), Marie Bashkirtseff, Ukraine, 1883.
Inspiration for today’s banner image: And in the face of that stunning Beauty, you will completely swoon into your own death, never to be seen or heard from again, except on those tender nights when the wind gently blows through the hills and the mountains, quietly calling your name. —Ken Wilber
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Art: Old and New

Changing Places
Friday, November 15, 2019

There must be a way to be both here and in the depth of here. Jesus is here. Christ is the depth of here. This, in my mind, is the essence of incarnation and the gift of contemplation. We must learn to love and enjoy things as they are, in their depth, in their soul, and in their fullness. Contemplation is the “second gaze,” through which we see something in its particularity and yet also in a much larger frame. We know it by the joy it gives, which is far greater than anything it does for us in terms of money, power, or success. In its various forms, art provides this incarnational and contemplative insight.

Two pieces of art have encouraged and enhanced my contemplative gaze. The first was one I saw in a Nuremberg art museum by Hans von Kulmbach (1476–1528). [1] It portrays the two human feet of Jesus at the very top of a large painting of the Ascension. Most of the canvas is taken up by the apostles, whose eyes are being drawn up with Christ, as the two feet move off the top of the painting, presumably into the spiritual realms. The image had a wonderful effect on me. I too found myself looking beyond the painting toward the ceiling of the art museum, my eyes drawn elsewhere for the message. It was a real religious moment, one that simultaneously took me beyond the painting and right back into the room where I was standing. It was another instance of understanding the Christ in a collective sense, recognizing not just his ascension but also ours. (See Ephesians 2:4-6.) The Ascension is the Christ Mystery come full circle.

Located in the upper basilica where Francis of Assisi is buried, it is a wonderful bronze statue of St. Francis inviting the Holy Spirit.

The second piece of art was created by a sculptor whose name is hidden. Located in the upper basilica where Francis of Assisi is buried, it is a wonderful bronze statue of St. Francis inviting the Holy Spirit. [2] Instead of looking upward as is usual, he gazes reverently and longingly downward—into the earth—where the Spirit is enmeshed with the earth. Francis understood that the Holy Spirit had in fact descended; she is forever and first of all here! There are many artists who inherently understand incarnation. They see art as a major transposition of sacred place from there to here.

Both these pieces of art put the two worlds together, just from different perspectives. Yet in both images, it is the Divine that takes the lead in changing places. Maybe artists have easier access to this Mystery than many merely verbal theologians.

References:
[1] Hans von Kulmbach, The Ascension of Christ, 1513, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436835.

[2] Sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi, artist unknown, Upper Church in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy; photo by K505/Shutterstock.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How A Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books: 2019), 118-119.

Image credit: Landscape (detail), Owon, Korea, late Joseon Dynasty.
Inspiration for today’s banner image: The image had a wonderful effect on me. I too found myself looking beyond the painting toward the ceiling of the art museum, my eyes drawn elsewhere for the message. It was a real religious moment, one that simultaneously took me beyond the painting and right back into the room where I was standing. —Richard Rohr
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Art: Old and New

Release and Healing
Thursday, November 14, 2019

My art flows from the patterns and paths of my lived experience which—like yours—are at once deeply personal and entirely universal. —Julie Ann Stevens, Living School Alumna [1]

Today contemporary theologian Dr. Diana L. Hayes shares a very personal part of her life and the healing she found in the creative process. In Hayes’ book No Crystal Stair, she describes herself:

I am a Catholic womanist, standing firmly in the shoes my mothers made for me and walking toward a future in which all of God’s creation will be recognized and affirmed regardless of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. I am black. I am Catholic. And by the grace of God, I am here. I invite you to share my journey of self-discovery and faith. . . . My spirituality, a womanist spirituality, that is, a spirituality forged in the awareness and experience of the multiplicative forms of oppression that are used to limit and restrain black women, has been honed and sharpened by my journey with God throughout my life. . . . Womanist spirituality is the encounter of black women and Jesus spelled out in song, poetry, novels, and memoirs that speak of the everlasting struggle as they continue to move themselves and their people one step closer to the Promised Land, a land to be found after death, yes, but more important, a land they know has been promised in this life as well. [2]

Hayes writes about her mother’s unexpected death after a brief illness:

The shock of her death sent me on a devastatingly downward spiral, although few knew about it. I look back at the time from April of 1998 through the end of 2000 and have very little memory of anything except her death and my grief.

Some time before that, I had been asked to write a meditation on a series of pictures that depicted the Stations of the Cross on the whitewashed walls of a small church in a village in Tanzania. The artist, Charles Ndege, a young Tanzanian, had brought the passion of Christ to bold and vibrant life. What was most striking was that the passion was presented as taking place in a small African village and all of the people were clearly and beautifully depicted as African. I had had the pictures for some time and would occasionally pull them out and look at them, especially when I was feeling low. One day, as I again sat listening to gospel music and spirituals, words began to form in my mind and I scrambled to write them down. . . . Writing [that] book brought healing to my soul. Some few have challenged the depiction of Christ as black, thus revealing their own ignorance and limited faith, but for many, this book, especially its pictures, has provided spiritual release and healing. [3]

Like Hayes, I too have found healing through the creative process of writing. My beloved lab Venus passed away just as I began to write The Universal Christ. I dedicated the book to her memory. If we trust that nothing is wasted, creativity (art) may be one way we can participate in the evolutionary process of making all things new. We cannot bring back our loved ones, but our love may find new forms of expression for the healing of both our own hearts and the world.

References:
[1] Julie Ann Stevens, https://listenwritetransform.wordpress.com/subscribe/.

[2] Diana L. Hayes, No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (Orbis Books: 2016), xxviii, xxiii, xxvi, xxvii.

[3] Ibid., xxviii, xxxi-xxxii. The book Hayes refers to is by Diana L. Hayes and Charles Ngede, Were You There?: Stations of the Cross (Orbis Books: 2000).

Image credit: Woman Standing Near a Pond (detail), Edward Mitchell Bannister, Canada and United States, 1880.
Inspiration for today’s banner image: Womanist spirituality is the encounter of black women and Jesus spelled out in song, poetry, novels, and memoirs that speak of the everlasting struggle as they continue to move themselves and their people one step closer to the Promised Land, a land to be found after death, yes, but more important, a land they know has been promised in this life as well. —Diana L. Hayes
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Art: Old and New

The Creative Life
Wednesday, November 13, 2019

I’ve discussed public and even famous works of art this week, but the very process of creating art is valuable and generative, even if no one else ever sees it. Mirabai Starr reminds us of the freedom of childhood and encourages us to be courageous and to embrace our creative nature once again. While we may consider childhood to be in our distant past, a child is still within each of us today.

When you were a child, you knew yourself to be cocreator of the universe. But little by little you forgot who you were. When you were a child, everything was about color. Now you pick black as your automatic font color, because that is the coin of the realm. When you were a child, you traveled from place to place by dancing, and now you cultivate stillness, which is great, but you are forgetting how to move to the music of your soul. You can hardly even hear that inner music over the clamor of all your obligations. . . .

Yes, you are worthy of art making. Dispense with the hierarchy in your head that silences your own creative voice. . . . It is not only your birthright to create, it is your true nature. The world will be healed when you take up your brush and shake your body and sing your heart out. . . .

The part of our brains with which we navigate the challenges of the everyday world is uneasy in the unpredictable sphere of art making. We cannot squeeze ourselves through the eye of the needle to reach the land of wild creativity whilst saddled to the frontal cortex, whose job it is to evaluate external circumstances and regulate appropriate behavior. Creativity has a habit of defying good sense. I am not arguing, however, that the intellect has no place in the creative enterprise. The most intelligent people I know are artists and musicians. Their finely tuned minds are always grappling with some creative conundrum, trying to find ways to translate the music they hear in the concert hall of their heads into some intelligible form that others can grasp and appreciate.

What a creative life demands is that we take risks. They may be calculated risks; they may yield entrepreneurial fruits, or they may simply enrich our own lives. Creative risk taking might not turn our life upside down but, rather, might right the drifting ship of our soul. When we make ourselves available for the inflow of [Spirit], we accept not only her generative power but also her ability to [overcome] whatever stands in the way of our full aliveness.

You do not always have to suffer for art. You are not required to sacrifice everything for beauty. The creative life can be quietly gratifying. The thing is to allow ourselves to become a vessel for a work of art to come through and allow that work to guide our hands. Once we do, we are assenting to a sacred adventure. We are saying yes to the transcendent and embodied presence of the holy.

Many of us seem to think we are too “old” to create something “new,” which is really too bad. Although my writing is certainly a creative act, it has been a long time since I have expressed myself freely with color, movement, or sound. If I’m honest, I would probably feel a little silly trying again at my age, but Mirabai’s writing reminds me that I am the poorer for it. What joy, satisfaction, or even embodied presence are we missing out on by our self-consciousness?  

Reference:
Adapted from Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics (Sounds True: 2019), 157, 159, 160-161.

Image credit: Original painting (acrylic on canvas, detail), Sophie McKay Knight, with imagery contributed by women scientists from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, as part of the Chrysalis Project coordinated by Dr. Mhairi Stewart, 2016.
Inspiration for today’s banner image: The creative life can be quietly gratifying. The thing is to allow ourselves to become a vessel for a work of art to come through and allow that work to guide our hands. —Mirabai Starr
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Art: Old and New

Fallow Time
Tuesday, November 12, 2019

When speaking of art, we most often think of the finished product whether it be a painting, a drawing, a performance, a sculpture, a poem, or another expression of creativity. Today, I invite you to consider the evolving process of creation as described by my friend Mirabai Starr who believes, as I do, that each of has the capacity to offer something new to the world. It does not come quickly or easily, but few things of any depth or value ever do. Mirabai writes:

A miraculous event unfolds when we throw the lead of our personal story into the transformative flames of creativity. Our hardship is transmuted into something golden. With that gold we heal ourselves and redeem the world. As with any spiritual practice, this creative alchemy requires a leap of faith. When we show up to make art, we need to first get still enough to hear what wants to be expressed through us, and then we need to step out of the way and let it. We must be willing to abide in a space of not knowing before we can settle into knowing. Such a space is sacred. It is liminal, and it’s numinous. It is frightening and enlivening. It demands no less than everything, and it gives back tenfold.

There is a vital connection between creativity and mysticism. To engage with the creative impulse is to agree to take a voyage into the heart of the Mystery. Creativity bypasses the discursive mind and delivers us to the source of our being. When we allow ourselves to be a conduit for creative energy, we experience direct apprehension of that energy. We become a channel for grace. To make art is to make love with the sacred. It is a naked encounter, authentic and risky, vulnerable and erotically charged.

The muse rarely behaves the way we would like her to, and yet every artist knows she cannot be controlled. Artistic self-expression necessitates periods of quietude in which it appears that nothing is happening. Like a tree in winter whose roots are doing important work deep inside the dark earth, the creative process needs fallow time. We have to incubate inspiration. We need empty spaces for musing and preparing, experimenting and reflecting. Society does not value its artists, partly because of the apparent lack of productivity that comes with the creative life. This societal emphasis on goods and services is an artifact of the male drive to erect and protect, to engineer and execute, to produce and control. Art begins with receptivity. Every artist, in a way, is feminine, just as every artist is a mystic. And a political creature. Making art can be a subversive act, an act of resistance against the deadening lure of consumption, an act of unbridled peacemaking disguised as a poem or a song or an abstract rendering of an aspen leaf swirling in a stream.

Reference:
Adapted from Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics (Sounds True: 2019) 159-160.

Image credit: Marion Greenwood (standing in front of mural painted for the WPA Federal Art Project, detail), Archives of American Art, Washington, DC, June 4, 1940.
Inspiration for today’s banner image: Making art can be a subversive act, an act of resistance against the deadening lure of consumption, an act of unbridled peacemaking disguised as a poem or a song or an abstract rendering of an aspen leaf swirling in a stream.  Mirabai Starr
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Art: Old and New

Worship or Transformation
Monday, November 11, 2019

Truly a sword is piercing my heart, the pain is so great. How could this be happening to my child, to my son? I remember when he was born. —Diana L. Hayes [1]

Even though I was raised a “good” Catholic, I was often puzzled by the frequent use of heart imagery among our saints and in our art. Paintings of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” and the “Immaculate Heart of Mary” are known to Catholics worldwide; in these images, Jesus and Mary are always pointing to their hearts, which are ablaze. I often wonder what people actually do with these images. Are they mere sentiment? Are they objects of worship or objects of transformation? Such images keep recurring only if they are speaking something important and good from the unconscious, maybe even something necessary for the soul’s emergence. What might that be?

The lines above from Diana Hayes suggest an answer. Visual art speaks to us on a deeper level than our intellectual mind. Artists use color, form, line, and texture to bypass our normal defenses, stirring emotions that transcend language, explanation, time, and space. The blazing heart of Mary is undeniably united with the heart of her son. Even if we feel distanced from the divine suffering of Jesus, who cannot draw near to the parent of a suffering child? Humans are made to feel empathy, but sometimes fear or self-interest blocks the flow of love in us. Art can help us reconnect with our humanness.

Many have described prayer as bringing our thinking down into our heart. Next time a resentment, negativity, or irritation comes into your mind, for example, and you want to play it out or attach to it, consciously move that thought or person into your heart space. Dualistic commentaries are almost entirely lodged in your head. But within the heart, it’s much easier to surround thoughts and sensations with silence, with the warmth of your life-blood—which can feel like burning coals. In this place it is almost impossible to judge, create story lines, or remain antagonistic. You are in a place that does not create or feed on contraries but is the natural organ of life, embodiment, and love. Love lives and thrives in the heart space. It has kept me from wanting to hurt people who have hurt me. It keeps me every day from obsessive, repetitive, or compulsive head games. It can make the difference between being happy or being miserable and negative.

Could this be what we are really doing when we say we are praying for someone? Yes, we are holding them in our heart space. Do it in an almost physical sense, and you will see how calmly and quickly it works. Now, the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart have been transferred to you. They are pointing for you to join them there. The “sacred heart” is then your heart too, a heart on fire with love and compassion for the world.

References:
[1] Diana L. Hayes, No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (Orbis Books: 2016), 59.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 203-205.

Image credit: Srce Marijino (Immaculate Heart of Mary, detail), artist unknown, Goriča vas Church, Slovenia, second half of 19th century.
Inspiration for today’s banner image: Truly a sword is piercing my heart, the pain is so great. How could this be happening to my child, to my son? I remember when he was born. —Diana L. Hayes
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Art: Old and New

Good News from Old Images
Sunday, November 10, 2019

I am telling you something that has been a secret. We are not all going to die, but we shall all be changed. —1 Corinthians 15:51

This year’s Daily Meditations explore the theme “Old and New: An Evolving Faith.” Rather than seeing “old” and “new” dualistically, the term “evolving” acknowledges the relationship between the two. We are often surprised to learn that a deeper awareness or clearer vision is actually only “new” to us and considered “old” by others. My friends John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan have uncovered this for me with their extensive research on how Christ’s resurrection is portrayed in Western and Eastern Christian art or icons. [1]

Art reveals what people believe and emphasize at any one time. In their masterful study, the Crossans demonstrate that the East and West each had very different theologies. The West declared, “Jesus rose from the dead” as an individual. The Eastern church saw the resurrection in at least three ways: the trampling of hell, the corporate leading out of hell, and the corporate uplifting of humanity with Christ. Unfortunately, after the Schism of 1054, the two Christian threads had little reliance upon one other, since each considered the other side heretical and did not seriously study one another’s sources.

The Crossans demonstrate through art that “the West lost and the East kept the original Easter vision.” In my opinion, both of us tried to breathe the full air of the Gospel with only one lung, and it left us with an incomplete and not really victorious message. All that remained in the Western church was the one line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell,” but few were sure what that exactly meant.

In Eastern Orthodox icons of the resurrection, Western Christians observe something strikingly different from our familiar depictions. Eastern icons picture the Risen Christ standing astride the darkness and the tombs, pulling souls out of hell. Chains and locks fly in all directions. This is good news that’s worthy of the name!  He is joined atop with a cloud of other resurrected bodies (Matthew 27:52-53)—some with halos some not!

Most Western paintings of the resurrection show a lone man stepping out of a tomb with a white banner in his hand, but in the many churches and art museums I’ve visited around the world, I have yet to see any written words on that banner. I always wonder, why the empty space? Perhaps it is because we were unsure about the message of resurrection. We had imagined that resurrection was just about Jesus, and then found ourselves unable to prove it, nor could we always find this abundant life within ourselves or other human beings.  It became simply something to “believe”.

The resurrection is not a one-time miracle that proved Jesus was God. Jesus’ death and resurrection name and reveal what is happening everywhere and all the time in God and in everything God creates. Reality is always moving toward resurrection. As prayers of the Catholic funeral Mass affirm, “Life is not ended but merely changed.” Jesus’ incarnate life, his passing over into death, and his resurrection into the ongoing Christ life is the archetypal model for the entire pattern of creation—which Eastern Orthodox artists help us to visualize. Jesus is the microcosm for the whole cosmos. As in him, so also in all of us. As in all of us, so also in him.

References:
[1] John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision (HarperOne: 2018), 45-59.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How A Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books: 2019), 105-106, 185-186. See also my meditation earlier this year, “The Death of Death,” https://cac.org/the-death-of-death-2019-04-21/; view examples of Eastern and Western icons of the resurrection and watch my short explanation at universalchrist.cac.org/#history-of-the-christ.

Image credit: Resurrection of Christ and Descent into Hell with the Feasts and Saints (detail), tempera on wood panel, Russia, late 19th century.
Inspiration for today’s banner image: Eastern icons picture the Risen Christ standing astride the darkness and the tombs, pulling souls out of hell. . . . This is good news that’s worthy of the name!  —Richard Rohr
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