New Old Friends

Art is capable of bringing into sharper relief emotions associated with the most profound experiences of human existence.
Robert Wuthnow (23)

I am an artist. I am a self-taught artist. I was brought up in a Christian faith tradition. I no longer go to church except for weddings and funerals. I have had a difficult relationship with a God that hangs out with old Anglican/Episcopalian theology. I have spent my lifetime seeking spiritual solace outside of church, turning my back on my roots by doing so.

But I was born a creative being, an artist. My earliest memories of self include performance, a love of books, poetry, writing, art, music. I did not choose to be baptised and confirmed. I did not choose to be part of the church choir. I did not choose to be Episcopalian. Those choices were made for me. When I was given a modicum of choice, I chose to attend the evening “Experimental Worship” service. My friends and I (of all ages) sat on the floor at the altar, made our own bread for communion, sang our own songs, recited our own prayers and as far as I knew, God did not mind. But when the young assistant minister who organized us left for a new church and a new more traditional assistant took his place, Experimental Worship stopped and my interest in church waned.

Still, the choice not to go to church has dogged me. There are other choices I have made in my life that took me far from my roots, and I have never regretted them. But this space that defines my worthiness in the face of God still niggles me; still fills me with questions.

If God is within us all, does that mean there is more than one God?
Is being a spiritual being enough? Enough for whom?
As an artist, is the divine gift from God our deep desire to create and question?
How are Art and God/Spirituality and Self intertwined?

It was a great delight to dive into a book recommended to me by Ruth Wallen, my Goddard advisor. The book is Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist by Robert Wuthnow (2001, University of California Press). Reading it over the last week has been like visiting my Self through the experience of strangers. Wuthnow interviewed over 100 artists “candidly about their work, their lives, their spiritual journeys, and their aspirations and hopes. (ix) Through Wuthnow’s thoughtful and illuminating book, I have discovered deep kinship with many of the artists; their questions are my questions, their responses my responses, their emotions my emotions and collectively their stories have offered me the opportunity to revisit my humanness or Berrisford Booth calls it “personhood”. (91)

In my own life, I have questioned my relationship with God, art and spirituality. I have grappled with feelings of inadequacy, the desire to be more, questioning the choices I have made, especially if they were against the hopes and dreams others had for me. I have dug deep down to unearth the old messages that undermine my confidence. And reading about the twists and turns that other artists have taken filled me with a great sense of community. I am not alone. If I bumped into any one of these artists on the street, we would speak the same language.

In one story after a bout of breast cancer, Sharon Thomson writes about the changes that came in her spiritual life which had been heavily weighted in the Christian tradition.

“I felt terrific, and I discovered a whole bunch of thinking about the ways in which we create reality…it is possible to reinterpret, to make a choice about the way in which we want to perceive reality… I wasn’t even concerned at that point about whether this works with Christianity or not. I was much more involved in experiencing the spiritual life, which for me is really about the essence, the point of contact with something greater than myself, the moment when I know that there’s something more going on than this moment that I can perceive with my senses.” (88)

After my own breast cancer experience, I went back to church fearing that my absence had been part of the reason I got sick. It was perhaps an irrational thing to do, but my first instinct was to return to my roots and try to make meaning of this new experience. My Sunday visits to church were no consolation. They filled me with sadness and even more questions. I hated the concept of original sin, the patriarchal voice of condemnation. My spiritual and emotional needs were being stifled there. When I stepped away again, I received a pastoral visit from the priest who wanted to know why I had been absent.  After listening to my story and my decision not to go to back to his church he asked me incredulously, “But you were sick,” he said, “and now you are well. Are you not grateful for that gift from God? Don’t you think you should come to church and show your thanks?” I felt like I was being blackmailed by God himself.

I got some therapy and retreated back into my art (photography and writing) to find solace and spiritual acceptance. Booth’s experience in his own life resonates strongly for me.

“In my art I was trying to ordain myself instead of being ordained from the outside. That’s what I was looking for, the ability to ordain myself with the knowledge that I’m doing this not because it’s running away from anything or running toward anything…but the ability to accept my spirit, the sum total of all my experiences.” (91-92)

My personal quest led me to other forms of spiritual practice. I began to meditate and practice loving kindness and mindfulness in my day. I wrote an article Already in God’s House about my faith, lost and found. I realized I could have a spiritual practice outside the church that was just as viable for me as one inside was for others. From Wuthnow’s book:

Ann Biddle summarizes spiritual practices as “learning how to live your life creatively…It’s about reaching your fullest potential. It’s about creating artistry in any area of your life, through your practice. It’s about opening up your mind to the possibilities of who you are and to see the uniqueness of who you are. It’s about making an impact on the world in a creative, innovative, forward-thinking way.”  (111)

As a self-taught artist, I have searched for my own meaning in the books of Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, Nirmala, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama. Each has brought a spiritual message that has consoled and defined me. Through them, and my spiritual practice, I have created a strong connection with the universe. I believe in angels and saints and mystery.  But Wuthnow’s book brought me more. His almost ten years of interviews and writing brought me a community of shared experience and a renewed faith in art as a viable and important spiritual practice.

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