“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” ~~ Proverbs 21:31
As I journeyed with my group along the Silk Road on the fourth day of our pilgrimage, we saw the twin peaked volcano Mount Erciyes, on which St. George of Cappadocia was said to have slain the dragon. As we made our 400 miles across the sunlit fields with poplar trees into the tufted fairy mountain volcanic formations, I had several conversations about art and artists with my fellow travelers. We had visited the Firca Ceramic Factory in the morning. The artisans there explained their apprentice program and the process of training to become a master potter. Not everyone makes the cut, of course, but they can still be employed at the level of tradesman or tourist ware producer.
For people who have no concept of the time, effort, sensibility or spirit that is necessary to produce a great work of art, this “educational session” went right over their heads. Others had their “consciousness raised,” as we used to say back in the old days. This latter group happily gave a fair price for the extraordinary works of these artists’ hands. I myself brought home a small plate of colorful fish to remind me that I am always called to “fish and to catch the hearts, souls, minds, and bodies of others for the sake of Christ and his church” (Matt 4:19).
At lunch I visited with one of my new friends. She asked, “Why did it take Michelangelo so long to paint the Sistine Chapel?” Because it was fresco—fresh plaster. He could only work while the plaster was wet. Bodies with clothes and landscapes went quickly, but nudes and faces were painted more slowly. If we could get up close we could tell by the edges and lines how much he did in a sitting. “Oh. Everyone who saw the chapel on our tour was kind of bored with it all. Now I understand why it was so important.”
I realized it’s because not many of us make art anymore, just as most of us don’t can jams or jellies. We also don’t quilt, knit, crochet or embroider. We buy our clothes premade and our foods prepackaged. Cooking from “scratch” is a lost art. We don’t seem to want to dirty our hands any more with the creative process. Instead, we have lost the spirit that calls us to enter into battle with the raw materials. We are a people without faith that God is with us in these fights. It is as if we are afraid to risk losing the battle, so we do not enter the fray.
I have recently been teaching art to prekindergarten children. The first thing I had to teach their classroom teacher was that “failure in art is part of the process of learning how to succeed.” In other words, it’s not the finished product of polished perfection that we seek, but the child’s growth in using the tools correctly and their creative response to the imagination challenge of the day.
The second teaching principle was allowing the child to do his/her own work. Many of our parents have “taken over” doing for our children so they can have a good outcome. These children will have poor motor skills and will not be self-sufficient when they grow older. They will be less independent and less confident. However, they can master skills in art class that can give them a sense of self-esteem that comes from accomplishing a task, taking charge of their own work, and creating their own designs from their own fertile imaginations.
The third principle about art is joy, and I usually don’t have to teach this to the children. They love to play and the colors, materials, textures, and tools are great ways to explore the world in play. For adults, however, art is about the finished product from the get-go, so we worry that our idea will not come across on the canvas or paper. For the work to come alive, the artist must let go of that original idea and go with the image that begins to come to life on the canvas. Sticking with the old idea is like staying with the old battle plan when the lines of engagement begin to shift. We all know what happened to General Custer at Little Big Horn. The same death will happen to our creative product if we don’t pay attention to the new information coming t us from the front lines.
Likewise, in our lives, we don’t listen to the battles going on in our hearts, minds and bodies. Some might call this our conscience, or that voice that whispers “this isn’t right for you.” That other voice that whispers so sweetly, “but everyone else is doing it…” is like St. George’s dragon, or the personification of evil. Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine used to say, “The Devil made me do it!”
We can go along with the “demon voice” of “everyone else is doing it” and discover that our moral standards are at the lowest common denominator, and we make decisions not on any ultimate truths or standards, but on conditional and relative criteria. The ground is always shifting under us, like a mountain about to erupt. If we refuse to fight this particular dragon and “go along to get along,” then either our mental health or our physical health will begin to fail us. We may intellectually marshal the arguments of reason for our refusal to do battle against this insidious dragon, but like the fiery beasts of the old tales, they will surely begin to ravish the countryside. In this case, the country isn’t Cappadocia, but the heart and mind of the one who needs to gird the horse for battle.
Many of our modern illnesses are related to stress, which comes from having to reconcile two discordant tunes in one’s head. Only when we can fine that one tune to hear will we be both well and at peace. Another image is trying to “spot paint a wall that was painted too many years ago.” Putting fresh paint over dull color will make this one spot stick out like a sore thumb. One must paint the whole wall, and of course, the other three walls and the ceiling, for the rest will look too sad next to that freshly painted wall. The truth is we can’t just put a new piece of cloth on to an old garment; we must change out the whole thing. This is called a “make over” or a life style change, or the “new life in Christ.”
I myself have had a lifestyle change from the hectic, caring for the lives of others that is the life of a pastor to the new life of caring for myself in these years of being on incapacity leave. These past four years others from my old life have pushed me to be “more involved and to do more ministry with and for others” in the hope that I will be able to return one day to full or part-time ministerial service.
As I listen to my body, I realize that the stresses of these activities aren’t for me anymore. I can do them on an occasional basis, but not on a weekly basis, and definitely not on a daily basis. I am healthier when I am in the solitude of my studio writing and painting. I need the quiet to stay well and avoid the stress that brings on the seizures. Here I can reflect on the battles between good and evil, the struggles we all have to live the full Christian life.
We all do battle against the dragon. Some of us want to be at the heart of the action, to receive the affirmations of the people to be there for them and to touch their lives. We think if we can make a difference here, it will atone for our failures to make a difference somewhere else or in some one else. We will be at peace when we understand that while we may gird the horse and swing the sword, “the battle belongs to the LORD.”
As an artwork for spiritual reflection, find an icon of St. George and the Dragon. As you meditate upon it, write out the words of your particular “dragons.” These are the powers and principalities that you struggle against: pride, fear, self-doubt, worry, hopelessness, arrogance, anger, weakness, hate, etc. You can make the words of any size or shape. Embellish them with wings, give them an elongated tail, scales and an open gaping mouth. Now draw a large sword, gleaming brightly in the light of day. Upon this sword write the words of power that come from scripture: “The battle belongs to the LORD!”
Keep this image near you this week and draw strength from it: God is at your right hand!
For photo & info on the volcano at Mt. Erciyes: http://volcanocafe.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/cappadocia-upright-volcano-of-turkey/
For Illnesses related to Stress: http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/10-fixable-stress-related-health-problems