Read an Excerpt
Windows into the Soul
ART AS SPIRITUAL EXPRESSION
By Michael Sullivan
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 Michael Sullivan
All rights reserved.
Letting God Have It
The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
Letting God have it is our beginning prayer. Telling God off may not sound like praying, and it's probably not the advice you'd expect to hear from a priest. But learning to be honest with God—telling God what you really think, the good and the bad—is essential to the relationship established in prayer. I speak from experience.
Many years ago, as I was going through a transitional time in my life, a beloved priest suggested I yell at God—and I reacted the same way many people do when I give them the same advice in my office today. At thirty, I was getting ready to go to seminary, my parents had just divorced, and my grandmother, who had been the glue of my childhood and the constant peacemaker in our family, died. I was dealing with addiction in a loved one, winding down my law practice, giving up a sizable salary, packing all our belongings, and asking my wife and eighteen-month-old daughter to head off to a seminary in the middle of nowhere. In the throes of this amazing call to a new vocation, I should have been ecstatic. Instead, life made no sense and I was terrified by all the changes around me.
I awoke one night horrified by life itself. I remember thinking that I was alone in the world and losing all that was dear to me. For the next several days, I slid into a deep, dark place that I had no idea existed. An abyss had been beckoning from within me, a place paradoxically both haunting and alluring. What I'd embarked on was my first dark night of the soul. All the transitions pulled and pushed me into a place of pain and suffering. I thought there was something so wrong with me that no one could love me, not even God. I didn't love myself. I hated myself and I thought about ending it all.
I didn't realize it at the time, but deep within, I was angry with God for my parents' divorce and for the death of my beloved grandmother. I wanted to yell out my anger but had no idea how to open my soul before God. My heart was closed, my desires were a mystery, and my life was a secret pain that only I knew. Friends and acquaintances suggested various strategies for dealing with the pain, but nothing worked. Exercise didn't help. Meditation was a farce. I couldn't eat. And therapy—what a waste of time. I remember thinking, "How can I bear my soul to this shrink when I don't know what's going on in me, when I am losing everything I've had? How can anyone understand?"
I began to do what I'd always done under high stress: I gave myself a pep talk: Hunker down. Bear it. Grit your teeth. Keep walking. Keep working. It will go away. It will go away.
Thank God I sought the help of my priest. Someone I trusted and who knew me really well, she made the simplest of suggestions: go to church; yell at God. Like Abraham and Sarah, I laughed out loud at the thought of a God so faithful. God wanted me to yell. Right. God was the soft, gentle, shiny thing up there behind the altar rail. God was some disinterested divine being who walked in the garden long, long ago and then left us—left me—here to figure it out. To yell at God implied that God could hear, might actually listen, and might actually care. And even if God could hear me, as any good Southern boy knew, yelling at God was not allowed. No way. Absolutely no way. Yell at God—get in trouble. Yell at God—go to hell. It sounded like an invitation from the devil himself.
But my priest was right. I needed to yell at God. It was important, even necessary. Without it, I was going to take up residence in the abyss. And so on a hot Sunday afternoon with no one around, I walked into our big, empty church. Standing there all alone, I thought I might be able to do it. I was sure I could. But in that empty church, looking at that empty cross, I couldn't yell at the Big Old Man. As much as I tried, my throat clenched like a fist and I stood speechless. Speechless. I was in the safest place on earth, before one who loved me like no other, yet I was scared to death. There was no way I could do it. It just wasn't right, not holy, not me.
My priest said to go again. So I did. Five times. And on the sixth trip I began to talk. Actually, I whispered. I thought I had to be polite. I thought I had to use language God would understand—good, holy, clean language. But an interesting thing happened. As I whispered, I began to cry, and the tears liberated me. What started as a cry became a curse, and with a single phrase flowing from my lips, from the depths of my life, I started praying. If you had been a fly on the wall that day, you wouldn't have described my words as prayer. But for the first time in my life, prayer opened up for me like it never had. The words came and I found it easy to talk with God. I poured out my hurt, my distress that God had not saved me from the pains of divorce, death, and addiction. I told God all I was feeling, wanting, and hoping. About an hour later, I was exhausted. I had yelled at God without stopping for sixty good minutes and I was still alive. I was more alive than ever. God was more alive than ever.
I had discovered that telling God off was essential in the midst of all the transitions I was experiencing. Does that make you want to run from the room, or at least put down this book? Usually, people discourage us from telling God how we really feel. But faced with the grief of our lives, most of us must find a place to let God have it so we can give up control and begin to pray. Look at the Psalms. One after another, the psalmists stand before us calling to this place. Consider Psalm 58, decrying the wicked and perverse. The psalmist is so angry that he asks God to break the teeth of the wicked in their mouths, to let them vanish like water that runs off the mountains. Lots of other Psalms take a similar path: Psalms 31, 38, 39, or 44 for starters. Each of them names the anger of the heart and asks why God doesn't answer.
Few of us enter into the prayer of the psalmists—we'd rather stay in control and hold on tightly. But I learned, standing in that empty church, that I had to fall deeply away from God to fall deeply into God. I had to fall into all the things I feared—into the horror and pain. By accepting God's invitation to tell my Creator off and give up control, my soul began to fill with light and I saw it as it really was for the first time. My soul was God's soul—the empty tomb of God's love for me in the death and life of Christ.
Art can open this same window in your soul and bring in resurrecting light. In the safety of your spiritual home—your soul—you can discover God's invitation to prayer, which invites you to open your heart to participate in the divine grace of God's love for you as you fall into the arms of Christ. For some, that might mean delving into pain and suffering. For others, it might mean a totally different path. One woman, for instance, told me during a recent art meditation that she'd never shared her joy with God, letting her soul's thankfulness just rest in God.
No matter which response you experience, art facilitates the opening of the soul's windows and allows your soul to take flight and soar in God's passion. By its very nature, art allows your vulnerability and your joy to come to the surface—literally—on surfaces of paper, canvas, or clay. It's in expressing the darkness and joys of your life that you discover the grace of God's passion—a duet, if you will, of God's suffering and resurrection with you in your life. Art allows you to discover your soul resting in God—your life's melody and the Son's song of redemption interwoven in the harmony and dissonance of your common life. This is the duet that God sings with you when you're wiling to open the windows to your soul, let the light in, and discover that your very life is the empty tomb of grace.
Prayer One: Word Collage
Time Required: 1 hour
Here's a simple first step you'll probably enjoy as we jump into art and prayer. It's useful as a daily "check-in" or when you're having trouble identifying what's going on in your life, so you may want to go back to this exercise again and again.
God, thank you for bringing me to a place of hopefulness. Help me to be myself, to let go, and to see you in this prayer. Amen.
Gather the following materials before you begin this exercise:
A large piece of construction paper. Buy a pack and select the color that appeals to you just before you begin. If you like this method after a few times, bind the collages together to form a journal. The patterns and themes will be important to revisit as you move deeper into your prayer life.
Felt-tipped markers or colored pencils.
Find a quiet, comfortable place where you feel safe and willing to speak freely to God. You might consider going to an empty church or a garden, or taking a hike into the woods.
Follow these simple steps.
– Close your eyes.
– Breathe deeply, starting from deep within your abdomen and breathing up into your chest, all the way up to your collarbone. See if you can lengthen your breathing so that your inhalation and exhalation are equal, pausing between them for just a couple of seconds. After breathing this way four or five times, let your breath return to normal.
– Ask God to bless this time and help you be more willing to give yourself over to your Creator.
– Begin to meditate on this question: What interferes with my relationship with God?
– As thoughts begin to materialize, take the markers and write down words or phrases that come to mind. Be sure to reserve one of the colors for later in the exercise.
– Let the thoughts come as fast as they can; don't pause to analyze or judge them. There are no right or wrong words to use when praying with God. Just let your words and thoughts flow. If you show anger, remember that the psalmists did too. If you use strong words, be thankful that God allows you to be honest.
– Be creative. Write words upside down, diagonally, in a spiral, pattern—however you choose. Begin to let your inner artist come to life.
– When the thoughts stop coming, look over what you've listed. Are there any themes? Do the themes spur you to consider other thoughts? If so, jot them down on the page.
– Take a minute or two to relax and live with your responses. Don't judge them. Just live with them.
– Now, take the colored marker you've reserved and write what comes to mind when you consider God's response to what you've written. Again, be creative. Let God's response be woven into your words—upside down, diagonally, whatever comes to mind. Does God have doodles to record? Does God respond with whimsical curls and designs?
– If you have trouble imagining God's response, ask yourself what you've been waiting for God to say to you. What would God say if you were playing on the schoolyard together or running a country road side by side? In other words, what would God as friend have to say to what you have discovered?
– When you are finished receiving God's response, take time to look at the collage again. How does it make you feel? Take time to really live with it and let it sink in.
– With your eyes closed, breathe deeply, as you did at the beginning of the exercise. After four or five deep breaths, let your breathing return to normal and say "Amen."
Was it easier to identify your feelings than to tell God how you felt? Why or why not?
What feelings did you experience? Did your feelings change when you considered God's response to what you'd written?
What surprises came your way?
What did you learn about your relationship with God?
Tools for the Journey
Make a list of the times in your life when you've been honest with God. Why was it possible at those times? Any time you hold things back from God, go to this list and see how you not only survived but how you were strengthened.
Think about your best friend. What makes it possible to be yourself with that person? How could that relationship influence your prayer life with God?
Write down how you feel each day at the top of a journal page or on the margins of your calendar. Use the writings as a cheat sheet when praying.
WINDOW TWO Unlearning Prayer
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray ..."
The road to God is never as straight and smooth as we wish it were. More than once I've been surprised by the wisdom passed along to me from other pilgrims on the path. That's how I discovered that I needed to unlearn some of my prayers. Let me explain.
Many years ago, I traveled to a monastic community for a retreat. I was searching for answers to spiritual bends in the road at that time—especially as they related to my vocation. So, I thought a week of solitude and spiritual direction would help and made my way to Mirfield, a historic monastery in the North of England. I'd long admired the Mirfield Fathers, men of the faith who also lived and worked among the longshoremen of the Docklands in London. They had also been instruments of peace and reconciliation in South Africa long before Apartheid ended. I sensed that these men would help me understand where I was in my journey and what recent rumblings in my soul meant.
I took meals with the community at Mirfield, took lots of walks, reread T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets yet again, and sang prayers in the company of the brothers all day long, from far before the sun came up until long after it went down. The discipline with which they sang their praises and laments to God embodied the very pathway of the artist in prayer. In the melodic lines of prayer they found a way to express their souls. It seemed to me the melodies were canvases upon which they painted their life in prayer.
I also visited with Brother Peter, a spiritual director I'd known from my seminary days. I hoped he might point me in the right direction, or have some word of Scripture that would set me on a path toward wholeness. But what he actually had to say surprised me: "Let the prayers of the church be the prayers of the church," he advised me. "Say them without ceasing, but when you turn from them, be present in the moment of the task God sets before you. Let your sculpting be your prayer. Let your painting be your prayer. Let your breath be your prayer. Nothing more. Just be with God."
In other words, Brother Peter told me to unlearn what I knew about prayer. I shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater, of course, but I had to expand my experience of prayer beyond the words I read in dusty old books. He was right. I'd discovered enough freedom with God to be able to pray more openly, but mostly I was still praying in the language I thought God wanted to hear. I thought God wanted prayer to sound like the words of Shakespeare or Billy Graham. But all the "thees" and "thous"—and even the campfire-friendly God-as-chum approaches—left me empty. What I'd learned in art hadn't come fully into my life of prayer.
Don't get me wrong. I come from a tradition where written prayers are the mainstay. We need them. I need them. They're not only a part of me, they also tie me to those who have gone before. From the Lord's Prayer to the words of the Book of Common Prayer, prayers from memory are a vital part of who we are as worshipping Christians. But sometimes we can hide in these prayers. If your prayer is only an arrangement of stock phrases, then you're probably not pushing to new depths in your prayer life. We may be using the lovely words of traditional prayers as a way not to tell God where we are in our lives.
The practice described in this chapter helps you examine the words you use, why you use them, and what they really mean to you. It will also allow you to find new ways to express your soul before God, placing your whole person before your Creator.
Prayer Two: Mixed Media
Time Required: 1–2 hours
This prayer identifies stock phrases you use in your prayers while also illustrating how your faith has both helped and hindered your prayer life. It attempts to liberate the words we know by examining the words of your own faith tradition. That way, you make a conscious decision about whether those words enrich your prayer life.
God, help me pray with my own words to express my hopes, dreams, and fears. Open my heart to hear your word in new and challenging ways and deliver me from praying to please you only. Amen.
Gather the following materials before you begin this exercise:
A worn Bible that you are willing to cut and tear.
A worn book from your religious tradition that you are also willing to cut and tear. As an Episcopalian, the Book of Common Prayer is always an excellent resource. For Lutherans, the Augsburg Confessions might work; for a Presbyterian, possibly the Westminster Confession; for Catholics, perhaps a missal or a prayer book. If you're not willing to cut the book, use a photocopy for your prayer.
If you don't have a Bible or book from your religious tradition, collect readings that have been important to you recently and consider making copies of portions of them for use in this exercise.
You might also gather copies of prayers that have been helpful to you in the past. Are there prayers you associate with a wonderful day or event? Are there prayers that have been painful, even prayers that may have tormented you along your spiritual journey?
Select magazines that express various aspects of your life in society. If you're a lawyer, for instance, a bar association newsletter might work. If you exercise, consider a running magazine or a periodical focusing on the sport you like. If you're a cook, bring cookbooks, recipe cards, or food magazines to the table. Whatever your interests, bring printed materials you're willing to cut and tear apart.
Rubber cement, tape, and, for heavier items, a glue gun.
Other paper items that are central to your journey in the faith. You might consider making color copies of photographs of your baptism, a special retreat, or individuals important to your journey.
Other non-paper items that express some aspect of your journey. If you have "relics" of important spiritual times that you could glue onto poster board, gather them if you are comfortable doing so. For example, an old cross necklace or a pendant given to you at a crossroads in your life makes an excellent addition to the mixed-media creation. Your creation will not necessarily be permanent—you can always retrieve the items if you want.
A piece of poster board. If you have many non-paper items you anticipate affixing, consider purchasing a piece of foam core to use instead of poster board. You can get foam core from a local craft store or frame shop.
Acrylic paints or felt-tipped markers.
Excerpted from Windows into the Soul by Michael Sullivan. Copyright © 2006 by Michael Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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