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Friday, February 24, 2012

Divine Creativity

I have long been fascinated by the intersection of the creative process and the Divine.

Yes, I'm a "blogger" - whatever that means - but I blog what I write. Sometimes, that's about controversial subjects like reproductive rights, politics, and, of course, the Anglican Communion in general and The Episcopal Church in particular.

Other times, it's just my musings about a conversation or an incident, or something that has happened to me in my life on which I reflect and presume to share with whomever happens to be wandering and wondering around cyberspace and finds me.

I think there is a deep, inexplicable longing in each heart and soul that not only seeks to find the expression of the questions of the realities of our lives - the good, the bad, and the ugly - but also desires to communicate with other souls who may or may not have been asking similar questions or concerns.

Child Art - Age 4.5 years
Art has a language all its own, in different forms and dialects. Poetry, prose, sculpture, pottery, music, painting, photography, stained glass, textile, fashion, knitting, cooking, sewing, architecture, and landscaping are but some of the major forms of artistic expression with all sort and manner of components and subdivisions within each category.

It starts with an idea - sometimes with great clarity - which seeks to find shape and form.

Other times, it starts with a question and, once the artist has surrendered to the creative process, ends up somewhere completely different than where s/he originally began.

Vincent Van Gogh once said, "If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,” then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."

Until, of course, the voice speaks again, daring to be silenced. Van Gogh was certainly tormented by that inner voice which he tried to silence his whole life, leaving us gasping at the inexplicable beauty of his art.

I'm still fascinated by this talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of "Eat, Pray, Love") on Nurturing Creativity. Do check it out, when you have 18 minutes or so to spare.

She muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses, and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius.

What a fascinating idea, right?!? I guess it's the same idea which captured the imagination of my childhood notions of a "genie" in a bottle who has to be "rubbed" into reality, and we only have three wishes - any three wishes - that will be granted and come true.

In Christian circles, we talk about "being inspired by the Holy Spirit". Is this the church's version of a 'genie' - the 'third person' of a Holy Trinity bottled up inside of us? What do we have to 'rub' - or what 'rubs' us - that will release that Spirit we 'have' that sometimes produces 'genius' we often call 'creativity'?

Anais Nin once said, "If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it."

I remember - long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away - listening to Martin Smith who was then head of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, who said something that has never left me.

In his marvelous, clipped British accent, he said, "Whenever you get to a place where you find yourself asking, 'Hmmm... what am I to make of this?', that place is a place of a call into creativity with the Creator. It is a vocational call to 'make' something of 'this'- whatever it is - with God."

Oscar Wilde once said, "No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist."

Kid Art
Children are much better at this than adults. Unless they have already been otherwise carefully taught, they don't have the cultural filters many adults have and are not incapacitated by a sense of failure or paralyzed by a sense of shame.

Many have not yet discovered the terrorism of 'perfection', so they splash paint on paper or canvas or scrawl letters on wrinkled paper or instinctively color outside the lines or draw figures or images that bear only vague resemblance to what we know in reality.

They somehow know that it's the emotion that is evoked from the art form that is far more important than someone else's sense of "right" or "wrong" or "perfection".

Pablo Picasso once said, "Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun." I think the child in each of us intuitively knows how to do this.

Check out the program at St. Peter's here.
I'm very keen on a project that has been started by a friend of mine, Sharon Sheridan, at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown, NJ. It's called a "Children's Day of Art" which seeks to offer children from ages 6-13 with an opportunity to express their creativity.

There will be workshops led by regional artists in cartooning, drama, poetry, pottery, eco-sculpture and music. During lunch, they'll also have a chance to dabble in and enjoy some "edible art" with a local chef.

One of the things I love about this project is that, to raise some start up money for the event - to pay for supplies and food and to provide some of the local artists who will be offering the workshops - Sharon has engaged a wonderfully creative fundraising idea.

It's called "Kickstarter" - a website that will allow people to contribute online and provide funds that will, well, 'kickstart' the program. I think it's brilliant. If you have a moment, go over to the web page and check it out. And, if you are of a mind and are able, please make a contribution.

I think the communal, societal need for art and artistic expression is ageless and timeless, but in uncertain times like these where boundaries are obscured and life feels especially fragile, I think there is an even greater need for creativity and imagination.

Indeed, I really believe that the decline in churches is a direct fault of lack of religious imagination. We seem so wed - no, actually, addicted is a better word - to our organizational structures we seem not to know what else to do or how to do it.

Scribbled by a one-year old
So, we just keep our noses to the bureaucratic grindstone, trying to fit our ecclesiastic pegs, made smooth and round by years of polished tradition, into cultural holes that are now made square or rectangle or triangular by post-modern concepts and ideas and realities.

Over the past ten years or so, I have come to think of my priesthood as art. Despite my years of education and training and experience, I often venture forth into the world of human relationships and community with nothing more than a thought or idea and have absolutely no idea where I will land or what the final outcome will be.

Oh, I THINK I know where its going, but, more often than not, if I open my mind and my heart and my soul to be fully present with another, I'm the one who is changed and transformed. I'm the one who is led to a new understanding, a new perspective, a new idea I never thought myself capable of seeing or thinking all on my own.

Which is, of course, because I'm not. Alone.

One story by way of explanation from that galaxy far, far away.

When I was a Chaplain at Lowell University in MA, a young woman appeared at my office door one day. She had recently discovered that she had been adopted as an infant and, though she adored her parents, she was consumed with the idea that she had a birth mother she had never known.

She was not only intensely curious about this woman and the story of what had led her to give her daughter up for adoption, she felt that being disconnected from that story was part of the indescribable pain and longing she felt, despite her happy childhood and present life and wonderful, loving parents.

So, we set off on a year long journey together, to check into birth records and research her branch of the roots of her family tree. She did all the hard work, really. I served in the role of part guide, part cheerleader, part prayer partner, part reality check as she followed her quest for identity and meaning.

I'll never forget the day we discovered that her birth mother had died. We found the death certificate which lead us to her birth certificate which led us to her maternal grandparents.

Eventually, and after long, often difficult conversations, I went with her to visit them. They had not known about their granddaughter's existence. They knew their daughter had died, but they didn't even know where she had been buried. They thought they knew which cemetery - in point of fact, they knew the cemetery which was less than 10 miles from where they lived - but the painful circumstances of their daughter's life and death prevented them from knowing anything more.

After long discussions, we decided to go together - the four of us: parents, daughter and priest - to find the grave site and, perhaps, find some solace and peace for years of painful memories.

We searched and searched but could not find a grave marker with her name on it. I offered to go to the cemetery office to see if there were any unmarked or "pauper's" graves and, perhaps, find her there.

My hunch proved to be correct. There was a section of the cemetery that was no longer used for that purpose - the practice of cremation has changed all that - but which had once been set aside as a mass burial ground for those who could not afford a place of rest of rest for their own moral bodies.

There we stood - a pair of brokenhearted parents and their young, hopeful granddaughter - each carrying a small bouquet of flowers. The parents held daisies - the flower they remembered as their daughter's childhood favorite. Their granddaughter carried white roses because she remembered from her church that white roses were given to mothers on Mother's Day who had lost their mothers.

The Luck Pine - Rafael Messa, age 9
We stood in silence over this unmarked plot of graves - I with a vial of Holy Water in one hand and an unopened Prayer Book in the other, dressed in my cassock, surplice and stole - which contained the bodies of who-knows-how-many other mother's children, once born to great hope and expectation, given a special and unique name - now inscribed in an old cemetery register, tucked away on a dusty shelf -  who were buried deep in the hard, cold ground, anonymous and unknown to all but God.

The dead silence in that spot was suddenly broken open by my student who turned to me and asked, her voice chocking with emotion, "Please pray for her."

I have no memory of what I said. My words are as lost to me now as the woman's life was then to her parents and daughter. I remember blessing the grave with Holy Water. I remember praying for her soul and the love that was once lost but now, by some amazing grace, had been found buried beneath the cold, hard ground.

I remember tears and weeping and sobbing. I remember the four of us holding each other in a tight circle around the grave. I remember grandmother and daughter placing flowers on the grave.

I remember the grandparents saying, "We forgive you. We hope you can forgive us."

I remember the daughter saying, "I forgive you. I don't understand, but I forgive you. I thank you for giving me such wonderful, loving adoptive parents and leaving me with these wonderful, loving grandparents. Even though I never knew you, I hope you know how much I will always love you for the act of unselfish love which led to such happiness in my adoptive family. I hope you are at peace."

As we stood there for a few more silent moments, I remember thinking, "Ah, and this is the essence of being a priest: Standing at an unmarked grave, saying prayers for someone I never knew, helping people I don't really know to find peace and solace in the knowledge of the Communion of Saints and the unconditional, abundant, lavish, wasteful, amazingly beautiful love of God."

It is the work of an artist to make something of beauty, something that communicates that which words alone can not carry. Something that takes us beyond our present reality and points us to something bigger, something better, something greater than ourselves.

Something that the world might consider foolish and wasteful and lavish. A luxury that we discover to be an absolute necessity to the continued beat of the human heart and the soaring of the human spirit.

I did not know I could do that. I only showed up at my office faithfully each day which one day called me to make a journey in faith with a confused, brokenhearted young woman on a quest. I traveled with her to wherever her path led, even to strangers who became her relatives. It ended as we stood together at the door of death and, together, found new life waiting for us both.

I am a priest. This is what I do. It's an amazing vocation and I am deeply, richly blessed.

I don't think this is solely the work of a priest.

Tree of Life
I think it is the work of divine creativity which is buried deep within the soul of the enterprise of being human. Sometimes, it finds expression in what the nuns of my youth called "corporal works of mercy". Sometimes, it finds expression in other, less pragmatic, more artistic forms.

This work awaits being uncovered or discovered or recovered by risking and daring and dreaming that, together with the God of Creation, we might call order out of chaos and life out of death.

William Faulkner once said, "The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life."

As I begin this season of Lent, I find these words calling me on, leading me to the resurrection I know awaits after forty days and forty nights in the wilderness.

Lent, I am discovering, is the ultimate, artistic journey into Divine Creativity. 

I pray that the Divine Creativity, by whatever name she is known - genie, muse, genius, the Holy Spirit, Shekinah - will find us where we are and help us to see that the ancient tombs of our lives are not empty.

They are filled with imagination.

And, love.


Jackie said...

As I move--slowly, gently, flittingly through your writings, I am finding--to use a word that is so ill-sued--blessing. I need this right now, for so many reasons of my own and others' making. I need to believe that Orders--all of them including Baptism--are not a sham. I need to believe there are people who can be trusted, who admit their flaws and frailties, who do not need always to be right or to bully, to hide behind their collars. I need to trust that honor and integrity are not the province of fools, with no reward save rejection and marginalization. I need to believe in redemption. I need to weep--for few things move me to that place--but your words do. Thanks you.
May your upcoming journey be rich and full of delights.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Jackie. Thank you very much.

revrob said...

I pray for the Episc Church bec of leaders who insist they r right n then bully the person in the pew n Bishops bully Priests. Bidder in DC read one of Eliz's Blogs, thought it was written by a Priest- the one on Whitney Houston, so caring n aware of drugs undermining apparent success. Bidder emphatically fired the Priest. Ironically she was going to battle LITURGICAL POLICE. now she has become that herself. Cry a little bit...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

revrob - I'm not sure what you're trying to say here. By "Bidder" do you mean Bishop Budde of DC? Why did she fire a priest? I'm so sorry. I'm trying to make sense of what you've written but I'm confused.