I covered up an old painting I didn’t care about, one of those “unsold inventory pieces,” which inhabit every artist’s storage areas. In the old days, artists would burn their least good works in the winter to stay warm. While we might want to see these works, artists burned them for a reason. They made better fires than art. We artists know art and we know what we like: excellence. If a work doesn’t meet our standards, we can destroy it and move on. Texans have been burning their furniture in the recent winter snowstorm, when their statewide power grid failed. They can always get new tables and chairs, but no one wants to lose fingers or toes.
I used to think my art was a precious thing, as if it were alive. Now I’m more discerning, for a work needs to hold together and still speak to me for a long time for it to be a “quality piece.” Since I’m still pushing the boundaries of an idea, sometimes my work falls short of my goals. Yet if I ever get to the point at which I’m just repeating techniques and forms, I won’t be enjoying myself. I’ll move on to something else, I’ll guarantee you for sure! I was born on a Thursday, and like all such children, I have far to go. I will most likely never stop searching for a better way to express my creative journey or my experiences in this world.
I’ve often wondered about the artists who find one style and work it out infinitely, as compared to those who develop and change over the years. I love the landscape, and have given priority to God’s creation in my own creative endeavors. I feel closest to God in nature and identity with God’s creative energies when I’m making my art. Making art becomes a spiritual experience for me, since it brings me into union with God. I’ve often wondered if the artists who refine only one style ever end up losing their sense of creative joy. While a gallery might find it easier to sell our products if they look like our previous work, artists have to decide if they paint for public approval and sales or for continuous, creative purposes.
This decision is easier for those who have other means of financial support, but for the most part this has been the lot of artists over the years. A few well heeled families may support their creative endeavors, but many others are the starving artists of legend. Most of us end up in the latter category, since we don’t work full time at either our art or our day job. We sacrifice for our muse.
So what does the spiritual life have to do with the life of an artist? Most people think artists spend their lives wantonly drinking in cafes until late at night. These are “artist pretenders,” since actual artists are called to the solitude of their workplaces and the silence of the moving spirit in the pushing and pulling of the media in which they work. If they command their materials, they produce one level of work, but if they surrender to the movement of the spirit, they enter into a dialogue with the work which comes to birth through their hands. In a sense, we cannot “make art,” but we “allow art to become a reality in our presence.”
For those who insist on “tackling their work” or “achieving mastery over a medium,” this attitude of surrendering before the canvas or artwork is difficult to understand. As Jason Nesmith, the captain of the fictional Galaxy Quest spaceship said, “Never give-up, never surrender.” This is such a trope of television writing, the movie makers had to poke fun at it. What’s sad is we confuse our spiritual life with the movies. Sometimes the best course is to surrender. When we realize we’re at the end of our ropes, we don’t tie a knot and hold on. We let go and let God. We quit trying to fix it and control it. We offer compassion to the broken, rest to the tired, refreshment to the hungry, and cheer to the downhearted.
So it is with a painting. It starts with an idea, in this case, I wanted to recycle old material into a new purpose. I also wanted to revisit the aerial view of the lake area where I live, but with snow. I cut and sewed one afternoon until I had enough shapes to glue on my square canvas. You can see the tapestry elements as well as the old embroidery, which I think dates from the 1970’s.Then I set it aside to dry overnight.
The next day, I used my acrylic paints to put the first layers on the canvas. I ended up with more warm colors than I intended, but the under layers were also warm reds and golds. I was losing energy and couldn’t feel the painting speaking to me any longer. This is “artist talk” for losing sensitivity to the changing field of colors on the surface. It’s similar to not being able to recognize the look of boredom on a conversation partner’s face while you go on and on with your tale. In the studio, you lose the work and elsewhere, you lose someone’s attention. When my blood sugar drops, I have to be careful, for I lose my receptiveness to the subtle movements of color and form. If I can no longer hear the work speaking to me,I know I need to stop and come back later.
The next day, I crunched about in the snow for about fifteen minutes, but under the fluff is ice, so I didn’t stay out long. My cozy condo is a better choice. I repainted most of the warm colors with cool blues and pinks, and highlighted the leaf shapes in the “forested area.” We have two large condominium projects near the lakeside and a large highway near the right side of the image. The rest of our landscape is snow covered trees. Once those odd warm areas calmed down, then I could hear again the brighter notes of red and gold against the violets and grays. The hard edges where the fabric joins together follows along the roadways for the most part.
After I completed this work, I hung it on the wall and compared it to one I’d done prior to this which has all the boathouses around our lakeshore area. I decided to repaint the water with the colors of the clouds of the sky. Now I’m happier with the painting because the same families of colors float over both the land and the water areas. It’s more unified.
The good news is while I may not perfect my vision during my lifetime, for I’ll always see more I can do and my hand will surely fail to capture what my imagination can conceive, I’ll always have the assurance of God’s love:
“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” ~~ 1 John 4:16-19
The Greeks have a proverb: “The heart that loves is always young.” On this Valentine’s Day, and every day, may our hearts be always young. In art class this week, we had a pop up project making Valentine’s cards with mixed media. We brought photographs, glue, leftover scrapbooking materials, and assorted fabric scraps. If this were a pizza parlor, the menu item was “sweep the kitchen.” Eat it before it goes bad has been the source of many a recipe at Cornie’s Kitchen.
Gail brought her grandchildren for their art enrichment opportunity, Lauralei also showed up, and even Brother Russ made an appearance. Mike had court duty and was making his mark at home. Almost all this group is able to manage on their own, with just some technical advice on the best use of the media selected or how to use a tool better. Giving people free reign to let their creative energies come out allows them to discover what’s on their heart.
The Bible uses the word “heart” primarily to refer to the ruling center of the whole person, the spring of all desires. The heart is the seat of the will, intellect and feelings. “Character,” “personality,” and “mind” are approximate modern terms for the Bible’s meaning of heart. Emotions are in the belly or bowels in the ancient worldview.
Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We can relate to these various vices, for such is the stuff of the nightly news and the entertainment industry. The more lurid life gets, the more eyes and clicks a story gets. A normal story has to get a “click bait” headline just to get readers, whore then disappointed and angry their worst desires weren’t fulfilled. Some days I think we’re on a madcap race to the bottom of a cesspool, but I can’t let this thought corrupt my own heart and life. As my mama used to say, “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another in return. You have to be better than that.”
My people were Methodists. Our favorite Wesleyan standard for Entire Sanctification, “a heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else exists,” is a goal we pursue, even as our Buddhist friends seek enlightenment.
“Only one book is worth reading: the heart,” said the Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher of the 20th century. He taught with stories, as the great wisdom teachers often do.
“There are so many people looking for merit. Sooner or later they’ll have to start looking for a way out of wrongdoing. But not many people are interested in this. The teaching of the Buddha is so brief, but most people just pass it by, just like they pass through Wat Pah Pong (a monastery in Thailand). For most people that’s what the Dhamma is, a stop-over point. (Dhamma is the teachings of Buddha to overcome dissatisfaction or suffering.)
Only three lines, hardly anything to it: Sabba-pāpassa akaranam: refraining from all wrongdoing. That’s the teaching of all Buddhas. This is the heart of Buddhism. But people keep jumping over it, they don’t want this one. The renunciation of all wrongdoing, great and small, from bodily, verbal and mental actions… this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
If we were to dye a piece of cloth we’d have to wash it first. But most people don’t do that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dying it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Dying a dirty old rag, would that look good?
You see? This is how Buddhism teaches, but most people just pass it by. They just want to perform good works, but they don’t want to give up wrongdoing. It’s just like saying ”the hole is too deep.” Everybody says the hole is too deep, nobody says their arm is too short. We have to come back to ourselves. With this teaching you have to take a step back and look at yourself.”
Like many of these wisdom teachings, they appear to focus on what we Christians call “works righteousness,” or an ethical way of living. The ancient proverbs remind us, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (21:3). The original works were animal sacrifices, not the good works which flowed from a heart full of love’s desire to serve God and neighbor.
Another story from the same teacher:
“The Buddha taught that at this present moment, the Dhamma exists here in front of us. The Buddha sits facing us right here and now! At what other time or place are you going to look?
If we don’t think rightly, if we don’t practice rightly, we will fall back to being animals or creatures in Hell or hungry ghosts or demons. How is this? Just look in your mind. When anger arises, what is it? There it is, just look! When delusion arises, what is it? That’s it, right there! When greed arises, what is it? Look at it right there!
By not recognizing and clearly understanding these mental states, the mind changes from being that of a human being. All conditions are in the state of becoming. Becoming gives rise to birth or existence as determined by the present conditions. Thus we become and exist as our minds condition us.”
In art, we have a practice of first seeing things as they are. Once we know the world for what it is, we can create a visual representation of it (realism), or make a different take (abstraction). We can even ignore the world and only play with shapes and colors. Whatever route we choose, we still have to deal with the reality of the work under our hands. Any move we make has consequences, just as in real life our words and deeds affect the outcomes of the next shoes to fall. When we’re first working in a medium, we sometimes get carried away and lose the beauty. This is part of the learning process, for we have to know when to stop. This gives rise to the old adage “Less is more” in art, but not in love, for as the song says, “More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee.”
Our rock and roll musicians keep cranking out love songs because love never dies. Here’s part of the chorus of Van Morrison’s “I Forgot That Love Existed” (2017):
“If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel,
I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.”
Perhaps we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day more often, or realize we’re a people created in the image of a loving God, so we should love not just our chosen beloveds, but also the other humans of God’s world, as well as God’s creation. We’re merely stewards of this green and blue planet for the generations to follow us. Our love for our progeny means we’ll want to hand over an inheritance we can be proud of and will allow them to nourish and care for generations afterwards.
Let’s leave with a blessing from the bard of our age, Bob Dylan:
Every blade of grass outside is a uniform tan, for winter’s pale light has sucked the life and green from its living cells. Each colder breeze separates yet another straggling leaf from a sleeping stick attached to the limbs of a hibernating tree. The sap won’t rise until mid February, when the days are warmer and the nights are still freezing. The ornamental pear trees lining the entry to my condo are beginning to bud, so I’m sure they’ll be covered with snow before Easter. I’m almost wishing for a good snow to change up the colors outside, to cause some excitement of a bread aisle clearing stampede, and the joy of eating pancakes at every meal “just because it’s a snow day.”
Instead, I’ve brightened my interior spaces with fresh flowers. This is an early reminder to all you lovers out there: Sunday, February 14 is Valentine’s Day. Be sweet to the special person in your life by bringing something beautiful or joyful into their life. Our art class has been working with the palette knife instead of the brush lately. This is a different tool to get the paint on the canvas. With the brush, we can make lines and broad strokes, as well as dots or blobs. With the knife, we have to pick up colors on the metal end, push and press with varied strength and wrist twists to get the paint to go where we want it and to mix at the same time.
How does this happen? It’s magic! Or luck, or practice until you figure out how the paint feels under your hands. I can best describe it as being willing to do finger painting, but with a palette knife. We also have to let our adult mind go sit in the corner, while we let our five year old come out and play. Another way to think of this is to compare religion and faith. Religion has rules and boundaries for how to “do it right.” We spend most of our lives in this mode, trying to measure up to a severe standard, rather like the older brother to the prodigal son. In faith, we trust we’re enough and God’s mercy and grace are sufficient for us, so we yearn to please God even more. What we can do in love, for love’s sake, will bring the world into the love of God.
This is why no one copies my art work, but goes on their own journey to find their own way of seeing. This is one of the hardest parts of making a painting, to isolate the primary forms and shapes, and then to set them in a space. As we look at a three dimensional world, we have to come up with our own visual language to write on a two dimensional surface. As we invent our own language, we’re creating a new vocabulary, grammar, and conjugations, which take some time for us and the world to understand. We don’t worry if we’re “good,” for we are painting these to grow our minds, stretch our boundaries, and by learning new skills, building new brain connections and endorphins. We get joy from our work, so it gets us through the doldrums of winter.
There’s a wonderful poem by Robert Frost, of a bouquet of flowers, and two birds in winter:
Wind and Window Flower
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the cagèd yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
“Wind and Window Flower,” a poem written by Robert Frost, speaks of how we can sometimes love someone who can’t leave either the safety of their window sill or the prison of their cage. With this in mind, it’s best for the bird to fly on by in order to find true love or purpose somewhere else. Some of us will watch the cold world from a safe distance as it goes by, while others will leave our cozy homes and go out into the cold, sharp winds to seek another path. We may regret leaving the caged bird behind, but we have to go and find our highest purpose in life. I often wonder about the bird left behind, if the cage ever got too small or if security was more important. The fresh flowers won’t ever know the outcome of this story, for they’ll be gone before the week is out.
Even these small and insignificant works of the creator are not outside the care and concern of a loving God. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:26-33—
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
In 1938, Jung had the opportunity, in the monastery of Bhutia Busty, near Darjeeling, of talking with a Lamaic rimpoche, Lingdam Gomchen by name, about the khilkor or mandala. He told the famous psychologist , “the true mandala is always an inner image, which is gradually built up through (active) imagination, at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed or when a thought cannot be found and must be sought for, because it is not contained in holy doctrine.” (Psychology and Alchemy, Princeton University Press, 1993, paragraph 123.)
Today, in 2021, over eighty years later, a lot of folks must have their psychic equilibriums out of kilter. They look for certainty in an uncertain world. They seek a savior in a frail human being. They make war to bring about their peace. Whatever angers and fears stir their soul, they act on them, to the detriment of the common good. They are like unbridled, runaway horses, stampeding to a cliff edge without awareness of the consequences of the fall.
The mandala is a graphical representation of the center or the Self. It is unique to each person and would be different from day to day. Jung believed the circle invited conflicting parts of our nature to appear and allowed for the unification of opposites in order to represent the sum of who we are. He found this sense of wholeness was reflected in the lives of his patients, as he was able to trace the progression of an individual’s psychological recovery by correlating it with the coherence of the mandalas they drew. Jung believed making the mandalas over time would help a person gain insight into their Totality or their Wholeness, or “True Self,” as we say today. Totality or Wholeness is the psychic stage in which the union of the unconscious with the consciousness has been achieved. It is the final aim of Jung’s psychotherapy.
The Self was a term coined by Jung and reflected the Hindu Upanishads and its depiction of the higher personality, or atman. It’s considered to be the central archetype of the collective unconscious and serves as the organizing principle of the individual personality. The most familiar way the Self can make its presence known in Jungian work is through dream imagery, but this isn’t the only way. Another possibility, and one which had a particular fascination for Jung is the mandala.
For Jung, the individual consciousness is only the flower and fruit of a season that grows out of the perennial rhizome under the earth, and it finds itself better attuned to the truth when it takes the existence of the rhizome into account, for the root system is the mother of all.” This imagery begins to unfold in the mandala imagery. We can imagine a half circle below the earth, where the seed is planted just below the ground, and another half circle above the ground, where the flower will blossom, and then recall the Christian symbolism in the parable of the fertile soil in Luke 8:1-15, which states at the end of this section, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.”
In art class, we worked for several weeks at the beginning of the year on our personal mandalas. Since each of us have unique personalities and come from different experiences, we each create a different design. After all, as the Psalmist says to God in 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” Gail designed her mandala in the form of a Passion Flower, a wild vine of various colors, with a circular crown in the center. This form suits her background and service in the national parks system. She has an affinity for nature.
Jung knew he needed to maintain a balance between his inner and outer worlds by whatever means, whether it was by painstaking anamnesis (the remembering of things from a supposed past existence), creative activity, and yoga activities or by any other means. He knew his family and patients depended on him, so even though he was in personal crisis, with an unconscious that could have “driven him out of his wits,” he maintained through his obligations of the here and now. Jung was also aware of the possibility of being whirled around by “the winds of the sprit”, since he had observed his colleague, Nietzsche, who “lost ground under his feet because he possessed nothing more than his inner thoughts.” Jung described Nietzsche as being possessed by it, rather than him possessing it, and so succumbed to exaggeration and unreality. To Jung this was horrible state, for he aimed for this life and this world.
Of the things that kept his balance, creative activity, which would manifest in his active fantasies and paintings, allowed Jung to become certain he had to delve into these primordial experiences himself, in order to be able to help his patients. If he had gone through it, he may be able to bring the light of understanding to the existential darkness that his patients experience. He could be a spiritual guide, so to speak. This is why he spent time creating the mandalas from his own experience.
Mike’s mandala was created from his inner imagination. His legal work is with persons who are either in trouble with the legal system or need the legal system to bring justice to their cause. Sometimes this is an all day marathon in the courthouse. Keeping all these people, their situations, and the details of the law organized might require a lot of psychic energy. Mike went with a free form design, a choice that might have been a very relaxing and refreshing change from his daily life.
Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, but it’s a very special kind of circle. As a magic circle, it encompasses the circumference (perimeter) and the center, but not just ordinary space. The mandala has become a word that is synonymous with sacred space. The very presence of mandalas in the world remind the viewer of the sacred in the universe and in oneself. In some of India’s earliest and most important pre-Buddhist philosophical texts, the mandala already signifies a sacred enclosure and is at times understood to mean a place created for the performance of a particular ritual or practice, or for the use of a great teacher or mystic.
Structurally, the mandala is a combination of a circle and a squared form, usually a variation on a cross. Designs that integrate the circle and a four pointed theme, or one in which the circle is squared represent a mandalic space, or a geometric symbol of life. The four points can symbolize time and space, the equinoxes and solstices, or the four seasonal turning points in the year. In terms of space, it is the four directions. The circle with no beginning and no end is a symbol for the eternal whole which contains time and space. Jung stated that the mandala is the archetype of wholeness, relating it to the Self. He thought a mandala revealed “the center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.” Others have stated, a mandala ‘‘expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between (a person) and the whole of nature.”
Therefore, the mandala is one of the image archetypes that often emerges spontaneously when people are in the healing process, either in artwork, or in dreams. Creating mandalas has been found to help the physical healing process as well when they are used in conjunction with meditation. In dreams, mandalas show up in many ways in imagery that shares its geometry or meaning, such as a flower, a square in a village or town, or a fountain. Jung encountered several common symbols when he or his patients drew and interpreted mandalas. These included circular or egg-shaped formations, flowers or wheels, circles within a square or squares within circles. He frequently saw the number four or its multiples in mandalas, which was often represented by squares, crosses or suns or stars with four or eight rays.
Mandala work is very useful in therapy. Art therapists generally simply draw a circle, or have the client draw a circle, and use that as the start of the mandala. This creates an inner and an outer space. If we remember the principle of balance and repetition when we begin to add the shapes to our mandala, we’ll discover its power to unify and center our own energies. In spiritual traditions throughout the world, mandalas focus and reflect the spiritual content of the psyche for both the creator and the viewer. Jung believed that creating mandalas offered a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness,”providing a sacred space into which we can invite the Self. He also noticed that creating mandalas had a calming, focusing effect on his patients’ psychological states.
We also see examples of mandala in all the ancient cultures, even in Christianity in designs with animal images representing apostles (and the zodiac), such as the small Chapel of St. Zeno, off the right aisle of the Basilica of Santa Prassede, which was built as a mausoleum for Paschal’s mother Theodora. It’s the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics. It is an extraordinary sight, as this chapel has the only 9th century Byzantine mosaics in Rome.
For Christians, the Self is a a complicated and mostly negative notion. We usually use the notion in a negative sense, as in “selfish, thinking of our personal needs, rather than the good of the community.” As Philippians 2:3-4 reminds us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This doesn’t wipe out our individual needs, however, for we’re also called to “Love our neighbor as our self.” How can we love our neighbors if we can’t honor and love our Self?
This is why we Christian believers can find benefits from introspection and spiritual guidance with the help of a trained person. We shouldn’t take this journey alone, for we need someone with experience who can help us to “test the spirits,” as it were. Above all we should remember the words from Colossians 3:9-11—
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Our search for the True Self is a quest to be renewed in the image of God and conformed to the nature of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:12-14)
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
A mandala is easy to draw. All you need is a circle and a straight edge, if you’re into perfection. You can do the work freehand if you like. The mandala doesn’t force you into any forms. You make the mandala from your own gut. It will change from day to day and week to week. This too is part of the mandala experience. You can cut it out of paper, use crayons, pencils, ink, or even make it on your computer. If you want to doodle the design on the side of a page, consider it a sketch from your inner spirit, responding to the Holy Spirit, who is calling out to you.
David Miller, Ph.D.: MANDALA SYMBOLISM IN PSYCHOTHERAPY: THE POTENTIAL UTILITY OF THE LOWENFELD MOSAIC TECHNIQUE FOR ENHANCING THE INDIVIDUATION PROCESS, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2005, Vol. 37, No. 2 http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-37-02-164.pdf
The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it. It’s different from an actual maze, which may have multiple paths intricately linked. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan labrys or ‘double axe’, which is the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete. The actual word is Lydian in origin and most likely came to Crete from Anatolia (Asia Minor) through trade. Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India among others.
Labyrinths or mazes may have served to help the ones who walked them to find their spiritual path by purposefully removing them from their common understanding of linear time and direction between two points. As one traveled through the labyrinth, one would become increasingly lost in reference to the world outside and, in doing so, might unexpectedly discover one’s true path in life.
On New Year’s Day, I was reading my Twitter feed and came across this image of a seaside labyrinth. The comment was, “My #oneword for 2021 is downwind. After walking the labyrinth today with turns both against & with strong wind, I realized how limitless 2021 can be with the help of those who push me forward and not the wind pushing against me. This year, I’ll ride the momentum downwind.”
The theme of the labyrinth leading to one’s destiny is intricately linked to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived at the heart of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, whose king required the people of Athens to send a tribute of fourteen youths annually. Once they entered the Minotaur ‘s labyrinth, they never returned. Theseus defeats the beast and saves his people, but loses his father to suicide because he fails to remember to change the color of his sails on his return trip as a sign of his victory. There’s even more dysfunctional family relationships, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the ancient gods were wont to interfere with the lives of arrogant humans who failed to defer to the gods and instead acted as if they were masters of their own destiny.
Greek tragedy deals with the sweeping themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between humanity and the gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy committed some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant she or he had been. After slowly realizing the error, the world crumbles around the hero. The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good. The fall of a scoundrel or villain evokes applause rather than pity. Audiences cheer when the bad guy goes down. We feel compassion for someone we admire when that character is in a difficult situation. The nobler and more admirable the person is, the greater our anxiety or grief at his or her downfall.
This idea survives to this day in the proverb, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” In the 5th C BCE, in the founding work of history known as the Histories of Herodotus, we find the statement: “It is the gods’ custom to bring low all things of surpassing greatness.” An earlier expression, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is found in the Proverbs (16:18). These date from 700 BCE to the fourth century BCE (1:1-9:18).
In a true tragedy, the hero’s demise must come as a result of some personal error or decision. The tragic or fatal error, or fatal flaw of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe is known as hamartia, or missing the mark. It’s a metaphor from archery, and literally refers to a shot that misses the bullseye. There’s no such thing as an innocent victim in a tragedy, nor can a genuinely tragic downfall ever be purely a matter of blind accident or bad luck. The tragic hero must always bear at least some responsibility for his or her own doom. In Greek tragedy, the gods may interfere, but they don’t determine our destiny. Likewise, human events and actors may put detours across our path, but though the gods may intervene on our behalf, we can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a true Greek tragedy.
The labyrinth is a symbol for change, for it’s the place of transformation. In the myth, Theseus must enter a maze no one knows how to navigate, slay a flesh eating monster, and return to the world above. Theseus accomplishes this, but still retains his youthful flaws until he is changed by his father’s death and he’s forced to grow up and assume adult responsibility. His experience in the labyrinth offered him an opportunity to change and grow but, like many people, Theseus resisted until change was forced upon him.
The medieval labyrinth is a unicursal labyrinth, with a single, circuitous but clearly delineated path. It’s an image encompassing both shared and individual experience, for we don’t walk the path alone, but we share it with fellow travelers. The unicursal labyrinth is distinguished from a multicursal labyrinth (or maze) by having only a single (though winding) path to its center. While a maze may have little or no symmetry and may not even have a center, a medieval labyrinth usually has both. The great medieval labyrinth on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral is one of the most famous unicursal labyrinths.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, saw the similarity between medieval, Christ-centered mandalas in manuscripts and rose windows, the mandalas of his patients, and the mandalas he created. Jung believed his own mandalas “helped him maintain his psychic equilibrium” and believed “everything points toward the center,”so that he found “stability” and “inner peace” even during the war era.
Medieval labyrinths, and all their variations, including the classical design of which the medieval style is an outgrowth, now appear across the United States in settings ranging from churches and parks to hospitals and museums; they may be painted, tiled, paved, woven into a carpet, constructed of canvas, or cut into a lawn. They’re usually designed to be walked on. Over the last quarter century, the medieval labyrinth has entered public consciousness as a “blueprint for transformation” rather than “an oddity,” as it was at one time. I can remember at least one of my fellow clergy asking if “this wasn’t so kind of new age hooey I was getting into.” Moreover, labyrinths aren’t limited to meditative and ritual use; they also appear in secular and recreational settings and are often noteworthy for their ornamental or artistic value.
While each one of us walks the same path, no one has the same experience on the labyrinth. We’re all on the same journey, but we’re traveling on a different part of the path. We entered at a different time, or we came to the labyrinthine journey at a different period of our spiritual journey. Some of us will move slowly, while others will hustle along the way. If we came with troubles and worries, we may have been looking for THE ANSWER. The labyrinth isn’t a one armed bandit. We don’t put our money in, pull the handle, and get a payout. The walking is instead an opportunity for reflection, a time to give our selves to the service of God, and set aside our pride.
I’ve walked on the labyrinth on different occasions and had different experiences, since I’ve been “residing in different inns along my spiritual journey” during the years as I make my rounds about the sun while I live on this planet earth. I’ve been to the holy land twice, and been to Greece and Turkey to walk in the footsteps of Paul to see the churches he planted across the Mediterranean. I spent a summer in Italy during art school, while living in a small town and taking field trips to see the historic sites nearby. I took an interterm during graduate school to visit London and visit all the museums I could devour in that short time, along with some excursions to the seaside. Still, I’ve yet to see Stonehenge, and I’ve not seen Paris.
The question is, do we walk the labyrinth as a tourist going to a destination, expecting to stamp our passports, bring back photos, and buy souvenirs, or do we go expecting to meet Christ along the way? On the tour groups, folks sort themselves fairly soon into subgroups. The ones who want to go quickly to the site, give it a once over, take a few photos, and hit the souvenir shops before they have a coffee or a drink, will find each other and share their daily haul as they relax and wait for the stragglers to roll in. The stragglers come in two groups: the ones who took their time, and the ones who took the wrong turn and got lost. Thankfully, I didn’t get lost as I often do here at home! My notorious ability to take the wrong turn and my poor map reading skills are legend. The virtue of group travel is we leave no one behind.
While each person enters the labyrinth alone, others may also be on the path also. When we meet another, we perform a silent dance of giving way, first one to another, then the other to the one. Two can’t be in the same lane at the same time, but we can “dosie do” to let one another pass on by. This is life in community, where we share the spaces and the journey. When we walk the path of the Labyrinth, we enter a space/time/continuum. This is where up/down, left/right, and forward/backward all exist in one time dimension. Time passes differently inside the Labyrinth, for the twisting path appears to take us first directly toward the center, but just as we approach it, we are forced to follow the path directly away from the center instead. Then we wander around the outer edges of the labyrinth until suddenly, we arrive at the center. If we think we’ll never reach the promised land, we’ll find ourselves suddenly cast upon its shores as a Jonah spewed from the belly of a big fish. What seems like three days of darkness in a labyrinth may only be thirty minutes. Clock time gives way to God time on the journey.
Thus we enter into the timeless paths of all the pilgrims walking before us, those who never made their way to the holy land, but found the holy in the land in which they lived. The labyrinth has a way of uniting all the time of the past, the future, and the now into one dimension. In this way, when we walk the labyrinth, we enter into the kairos time of God, as opposed to the chronos time of humanity. No longer are “on the clock,” but we walk in the appointed and opportune time for us to experience the holy.
If we’re surprised, and emotionally disconcerted as we walk these twisting paths, it’s because we discovered we had no control over how soon we could get to our destination. We can stay in the center and be humbled by this awareness, but often we act like tourists instead. We get our passports stamped after an appropriate rest, and head back home. As heroes who’ve been to the center, we journey back to the outer world as changed people, ready to bring new truths and understanding back to the world. If we are like the Greek heroes of old, however, our tragic flaw will be living for ourselves only and forgetting to do good to all.
The energies of the labyrinth aren’t self-contained to the paths or to those who walk it. It is a holy space, so like the energies of space time, in which space and time are relative, observations depend on the viewer’s speed. If we rush through the labyrinth, we don’t have the same opportunity to meet Christ on the road to Damascus, as Paul did, and have an opportunity to change our lives. We need to drag our feet a bit, as the grieving disciples did on the road to Emmaus, so we might have the privilege of recognizing Christ in the central act of blessing the bread when they invited him to stay with them at the end of the journey.
The hurried life isn’t for the contemplative person, so even those whose lives are given over to getting many things done can benefit from a quiet time now and then. Otherwise, we can become the heroic Theseus who depends upon his own power, rather than giving credit to the powers of the gods, for all his great deeds. This is why his arrogance and pride is his undoing, even though he had a transformative experience in the labyrinth. Not until much later did he process this experience and grow from it.
When I began my painting, I started out with the actual forms, in homage to the many walks I’d participated in over the years. Soon I thought of burying the image, and uncovering parts of it, as if it were an archeological dig in process, but I only buried the outer edges. Then the idea of energies of the innumerable pilgrim walks percolated up into my consciousness and I began to paint the intersecting colored arcs. While I lost the paths, I was painting my emotional experience of the walking. I’ve been on quite a journey this past year, even though I’ve gone nowhere, due to the covid pandemic. Confined to home, I’ve longed to journey elsewhere, but the labyrinth is a journey anyone can take safely without fear of a monster who devours human tributes. I’m looking forward to the new year and new works, and perhaps some actual journeys. God bless everyone. Thanks for reading this.
I was cleaning up my condo Sunday afternoon because the Pandemic restrictions have caused my housekeeping to need some intensive care. Between all the various projects I’ve done and my new paintings, plus the seasonal change requiring my closet revamp, I realized I haven’t seen the top of my table in months. Since I’m not receiving visitors, I really don’t have to worry about this, but even I can only live with so much disorder and clutter.
When I was in seminary, my roommate and I would make a pact: no cleaning during exam week and ice cream runs every night. Amazingly, some compacts are easily kept, and studying for finals was less stressful because of our sweet rewards. A little chaos for a short period of time isn’t a problem, but months or years of confusion and neglect can bring about disaster.
I realize chaos is the norm for many people during the holidays, even if we’re not attending parties at work, or visiting with relatives or friends. We still have other rituals to indulge, especially if we have children. One year I stopped to list out all the experiences I remember which make up an ideal Christmas. I never imagined the list would be so long, or that my parents worked so hard to make the season wonderful for us children. As you read this list, feel free to add your own traditions to the list.
Writing Santa a letter
Traveling to Natchitoches to see the Christmas lights
Pizza and Car trip to see the Christmas lights in town
Hanging Christmas lights on the house
Finding the perfect Christmas tree
Decorating the Christmas tree
Making Christmas decorations
Making popcorn and cranberry strings for the tree
Watching the bubble lights
Hanging the Christmas stockings
The brass Angel chimes
Finding a thorn bush for a gumdrop tree
Eating ribbon candy from the jar at my nanny’s home
Candy lifesavers in a book
Special foods, such as Ham and yam, and the green bean thing
Christmas breakfast of biscuits and strawberry jam
Drinking from the Santa mug
Christmas plates and mugs
Making fruitcake cookies and cakes
Wrapping and hiding presents
Dreaming while reading the Sears catalog
Visit to Santa Claus
Gifts from Santa, rather than from the parents
Christmas candlelight service at church
Children’s Christmas pageant and choir concert
Staying up late to assemble toys
Never enough batteries
New red robe or pajamas
Christmas letters from all our friends
A vain hope for snow
Wreath on the door
Wrapping paper everywhere
Handing out presents
Making a Christmas list
Candles in the window to guide the wise men
Advent wreath candles
Caroling from house to house, mostly off key
Christmas clothes and Sox
Garish Christmas sweaters
At this rate, I’d have to accomplish 1.7 per day to get all 50 done in between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Like any big project, no one does it all at once. We always divided it up into smaller, achievable experiences, some of which extended over the whole season, and others we did once a week. How we managed to cram a dozen of these into each one of the four weeks before Christmas is beyond me. These days my work ethic is on furlough and if it ever returns, I’ll probably send it on vacation rather than let it clock back into work. I do lead a simpler life now.
Any month of 30 days can be converted to one of these units:
4 weeks and 2 days or
8.20% of a standard year
These past nine months of COVID, with its quarantines, terrible toilet paper, and bad haircuts have been exacerbated by the illnesses and deaths of friends and family we’ve known and loved. With over 3,000 Americans dying from this disease daily, celebrating a real Christmas as we once did, seems unconscionable. Those of us who’ve lost a loved one look for any light in these dark days. Like Frodo, we might say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring).
When I think of my life of seven decades plus, I remember when I was a child, every one of those two and a half million seconds before Christmas seemed to stretch out to eternity. Just as the three months of summer flew by like an icicle on a hot stovetop, the one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas moved slowly, as if I were watching a stalactite grow imperceptibly across the centuries. Maybe this is why my parents organized this magnificent list of projects to keep us children from whining over and over, “Is it Christmas yet?”
I’ve never understood how they managed to teach us deferred gratification. After all, every single day in the month prior to Christmas had some sort of activity, and some of those projects extended over the whole season. One year mother decided to bead a skirt for the tree. She bought a “Twelve Days of Christmas” kit, which contained the white felt skirt, a green fringe, and multi colored felt squares imprinted with the patterns. As we worked each night, we filled each design with brightly colored sequins. Some of these early days were so heavy they had no fabric showing. As Christmas came closer and our project was as yet unfinished, we began to limit our decorating. We also were running out of colored beads and sequins by this time.
Another year mother made new stockings for us kids, with our names on them. She also sewed a small bell on these so our early arising would wake her up. For the first grandchild, she had more time on her hands. That stocking was fully embroidered and had no warning bell. Of course, it hung at my home, so mother and daddy didn’t have to worry about any early bird interrupting their beauty sleep.
My parents did have a rule that we kids needed to wait until the crack of dawn before we entered the room where the tree was. If we got up earlier, and we almost always did, we took our pillows and covers into the dining room. Our old house had French doors separating the dining room from the living room. We’d pile our bedding down close to these doors and look through the bottom window into the magic darkness of the corner where the Christmas tree stood guard over mysterious packages wrapped in seasonal colors.
“What do you think that big one is?” My brother would whisper. “It’s probably clothes,” I’d reply, “you know those rectangular packages are usually pajamas or pants.” “Gross!” I’d giggle and he’d elbow me in the ribs.
All three of us would strain and crain to see the indistinct shapes back under the lower branches of the fir tree. Until the first light came into the window beside the tree, we could only imagine the treasure hidden there. In our eager efforts and earnest desire to meet the rising sun, we often fell back asleep dreaming of Christmas morning. We’d awaken when our parents began their morning coffee ritual, which usually happened in bed, but on Christmas, they drank their caffeine on the couch and watched our joy, as we unwrapped the presents from Santa Claus.
None of us children were ever hungry on Christmas morning, at least not until we’d discovered the answer to all the questions we’d asked in the dark of night. Once those were revealed and our curiosity satisfied, we could turn our appetites to breakfast. Someone always gave daddy a good jam and biscuit gift in a wooden tub, so it was our go to meal for breakfast. We didn’t eat biscuits often, so they were a treat with huge dripping globs of melting butter. We’d go to one of the grandparents’ homes for lunch soon afterwards, so we didn’t need a big meal.
As I think back on these 1950’s Christmas memories, I was too young to know about the hunger and poverty of others. I do remember the poliovirus and the vaccine in my arm. There was the nuclear threat of the Cold War era and I lived in the time of the McCarthy Hearings and the John Birch Society. This is also the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. My parents may have instituted all these seasonal home grown activities not only for us children, but also for themselves. If they were busy with “Christmas,” then they were focused on a spiritual journey and not on the chaos of the world.
When my daughter was small, I began buying her Christmas in August, because that’s when I got my first paycheck as a schoolteacher. I bought one little thing at a time, and put aside a little more money on a couple of larger gifts in layaway. I wasn’t going to buy anything for myself, but the choir at my church gave me a ham and a little love offering so I could have a bright red blouse for Christmas. I recalled the year after my marriage, my husband gave away some of our wedding gifts as Christmas presents “to keep up appearances.” We shouldn’t have to lie to the ones we love, especially at Christmas, but not everyone can live with the truth. Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give to one another, but about the gift God gave to humankind.
Sometimes it seems like our world has gone mad, and folks can’t tell a truth from a lie. My daddy used to say there were folks who’d say the sun was shining even when it was pitch black outside. I’d shake my head in disbelief, but I hadn’t been out in the world as much as he had. Even if we now live in a world gone crazy, we can take comfort in these true words from the gospel of John (1:1-5)—
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.
The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.
Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.
Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.
I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.
When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.
Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.
I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).
I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.
Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.
This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.
Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.
Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.
Leonardo da Vinci is the ideal Renaissance man: a supremely gifted painter, scientist, inventor and polymath. Da Vinci has been widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest minds, whose extraordinary talents included painting, mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany, sculpture, and human biology. He once said,
There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.
When small children draw, they first make experiments with whatever medium they have in hand. They’ll put their whole body into it, cover the entire page, and sometimes even eat the materials. Even though they’ve been given a limited arena to explore, such as a sheet of paper, if you turn your back, kids will want to see how the crayons or paint work on a wall, on their bodies, or on the family pet. Parents think of this as more cleanup work, but it’s just another learning experience for the children. The pandemic may have brought this lesson home to roost in more than one home.
Later on, children make symbols for the objects in their world. This is why all early grammar school art looks very similar: the blue line across the paper’s top represents the sky, the yellow sun blazes in an upper corner, a house has exactly one door and two windows, and the ground is green grass. Once a child is 9 to 11 years old, they begin to draw realistically, and over the next few years a child will develop their eye for accurate color and detail.
Sometimes children get the idea they have no artistic ability, and develop a bad case of the “I can’t do this-itis.” When I taught art, I had kindergartners cry when they couldn’t cut out a snowman perfectly on the fold. “Oh, sweetie, no one cuts it perfect the very first time! The first time is just for practice. Let’s see what you were doing that got you two pieces instead of one.”
I knew they were holding the cut side, rather than the folded side, when they made made their cut, but they needed hands on instructions to get the lesson. “Oh, look, you need to hold the fold in your hand, and cut on the flappy sides. That’ll give you the whole piece. Try that while I watch.”
It’s just amazing what happens when the scales fall off their little eyes! In the book of Acts (9:17-18), Ananias laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. When we find the magic key to unlock the storehouse of hidden knowledge, all the possibilities of the world beyond us seem to be close at hand. It only takes a few successes to gain confidence.
Once young people get up to middle school age, they begin to sort themselves into “groups.” Those who think they’re Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s heir apparents often think they only need to do a minimum of work, since their native abilities exceed the best efforts of the less talented students. In mandatory art classes, everyone needs to work under the same grading system. Otherwise systemic structures would always prefer and rank higher those students who had the benefit of prior training, cultural experiences, and native talent.
I always leveled the playing field by grading on heavily on the work ethic, the amount of improvement, and then gave the finished product only 25% of the overall total. This meant if Michelangelo goofed off, but dashed off a winning project, he’d most likely fail the first grading period. His parents would get his mind straight and then his art works would begin to improve by leaps and bounds.
Likewise, the students who never had a chance at succeeding in art class could give their best efforts, seek to solve the assignments, and discover they could improve! It was as easy as A—B—C—Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences. If we began with a positive attitude, we made positive actions, and got good grades and improving art works. Plus we began to feel good about ourselves. If we kept a negative attitude, we wouldn’t try, we’d goof off, be slow to improve, and get a bad grade. Why feel bad about yourself when everyone else was having a good time in art?
The fancy name for this process is brain plasticity. Our brains can form new information and structures, not only when we’re young, but also as we age. The brain is a muscle, which we can exercise. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we don’t just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. You might ask, “How often must I practice tennis, guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” This is the question about brain plasticity, since you’re asking how frequently you must practice an activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another. The simple word for this is “Use it or lose it.”
Today we live in a world in which many children don’t get to explore a wide variety of interests. Some of this is because our schools have focused on teaching just the basics, so art and music get shuffled off to the outermost edges, or dropped if finances get tight. We live in a more structured world than fifty years ago, so children don’t often interact with their environment unless they’re camping or on a field trip. Many don’t play sports because teams are competitive, time consuming, and don’t allow children to have outside interests. I’m not sure why we want children to become professionals too early in life, when they could be exploring the world in all its vast wonder instead.
Maybe this is why as adults we come back to discover our true selves and take up a hobby we never thought we’d ever try. We have to drop our preconceived notion that our abilities and success in one area of our lives will mean we’ll quickly progress in a new field. Some have said we need 10,000 hours of practice to attain excellence, but others say it depends on the field. Deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. In tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. If we were to start up a brand new business , we might need to break some of the rules.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook, “Shadows which you see with difficulty, and whose boundaries you cannot define… these you should not represent as finished or sharply defined, for the result would be that your work would seem wooden.”
We sometimes see with difficulty, and our hand isn’t yet fully connected to our eye, so the boundaries of our shapes don’t match what we see, but we find joy in the act of painting. We keep looking ever more closely, increasing our powers of observation, and training our hand to follow our eye. Some of this is keeping a memory in our mind long enough to put the image on the surface, and the other part is to still the mind of extraneous thoughts so we can hold that thought for the few seconds it takes to make the line.
We do this for our mental health, to keep our neurons fresh and our brains challenged by the problems of representing color, shadows, light, and space. We approach our art work as if we’re little children eager to discover a new way to describe our world. Each time we set brush to canvas, we grow, if only in humility.
Gail brought us some beauty berry bushes. Unlike nearly every other fruiting shrub in North America, beauty berry flowers and fruits in clusters along its stem at the leaf joints, rather than on a separate fruiting stem. Flowers are clustered sprays of pinkish-white tiny blossoms that appear in mid to late summer. Berries are a bright, intense purple, tightly packed in balls of fruit along the stem. The berries are edible when they’re deep purple, but they require lemon juice and sugar to make a good jelly.
The leaves can be used in nearly every way to fight insects: you can crush them and rub them on yourself for a quick fix, you can make an infusion and dip your clothes in it, you can distill out the essential oils and combine them with other plants to make a bug spray… it all works. And it’s not just folklore, either. In 2006, scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service working at the University of Mississippi isolated three chemical compounds from beauty berry leaves— callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. All three proved highly effective as repellents for mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, fleas, and other pests. Later studies confirmed their findings, and actually proved callicarpenal to be more effective than DEET at repelling insects, without the harsh side effects. The last hurdle is making the process financially feasible.
I brought another of my antique 1930’s glass vases from my grandmother’s house. Filled with water, the stems appear distorted underwater and don’t line up with the stems above water. This proved more difficult to paint, so I suggested to Gail a way to simplify the leaves. If the basic yellow shape were filled in first, then the shades of green could go next, leaving thin streaks of yellow for the veins. This is easier than painting a thin yellow line. A thin red edge could highlight certain areas to get the shadow. This takes a steady hand and controlled breathing. Hurrying to get somewhere fast won’t get it done. She paid close attention to the berries and their highlights.
Mike had an errand of mercy to attend to, so he made an appearance and left to help someone who was in trouble. Trouble is just another word for the opportunity to be the hands of Christ in the world. Anytime I had interruptions in my daily plans, I always knew God’s plans were superseding my well planned calendar.
My little still-life has all the autumn colors. Gail brought in a variety of branches and a red sumac also. We only have about 90 minutes to paint after I show some examples and have time to cleanup afterwards. Therefore, I choose to simplify the subject before me. I decide what is most important and necessary to convey the image, to set it into the space, to give it a mood, and to let it speak. If there’s an air of sadness about it, it’s because I painted it on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. If there’s a mood of mystery within it, the changing season is one of harvest and celebration. The earth gives forth its bounty, then goes into a form of rest, until it rebirths itself in the springtime.
If we’re going to paint not only the subject before us, but also share our true selves in the finished work, we need to become as little children who put their whole selves into their work. Although I’d hope we would have learned by now not to eat the paint.
Next Friday we’re going to make decorations for the harvest season. Mike is bringing in leaves, branches, and spray paint. I’m bringing a drill, glue guns, wire cutters, and wire. If you’re coming to make a wreath or mantle piece, bring your “autumn stuff,” as well as a wreath or log. Please wear a mask.
Nearly a century ago, no one had “Pandemic Shuts Down Halloween “ on their bingo card. The Great Influenza Pandemic griped the nation back in 1918, so most Halloween celebrations were cancelled due to quarantines. At least 195,000 people had died of this novel disease in America by October, 1918. The CDC estimates about 500 million people—or a third of the world’s population—had come down with this killer virus. By the1920’s, at the end of the Pandemic, at least 50 million people died, with 675,000 victims in the United States alone.
At the time, we had no vaccines to protect against influenza and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. Many doctors and nurses were serving in World War I, so the civilian medical professionals around the world tried to control infections with nonpharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, masks, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings. An interesting side note is all the flu pandemics which have happened since — 1957, 1968, 2009 — are derivatives of the 1918 flu, according to scientists at the National Institutes of Health.
The world back then was falling apart on two fronts from the first world war and disease. People at home were dropping like flies. Bodies were stacking up like cordwood and were placed in mass graves. Then, as now, we rabbits, like people, can only take so much stress before we need to release it. Many of us are pots with tight fitting lids: as soon as we reach the boiling point, our lid begins to rattle and clatter. If the cook doesn’t remove the lid and stir down the goo inside, we’ll be an over flowing volcanic mess, much like my morning oatmeal I’ve neglected when I’ve had too little coffee. Then Halloween, with its ghouls, goblins, witches, and other demons of the dark, arrives like Washington Irving’s ghost of the Headless Horseman, which we meet in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written in 1820.
Flu Pandemic Inspired Fiction
H. P. Lovecraft was one of the great horror writers, famous for his zombies, which may have been inspired by the grisly experiences of the influenza pandemic. Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft’s hometown, wasn’t spared the pandemic’s ghastly atmosphere.
As one local witness remembered, “all around me people were dying… [and] funeral directors worked with fear… . Many graves were fashioned by long trenches, bodies were placed side by side.” The pandemic, the witness laments, was “leaving in its wake countless dead, and the living stunned at their loss” (letter by Russell Booth; Collier Archives, Imperial War Museum, London).
Lovecraft channeled this existential horror into his stories of the period, producing corpse-filled tales with infectious atmospheres from which sprang lurching, flesh-eating invaders who left bloody corpses in their wake.
In his 1922 story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” Lovecraft created a ghoulish doctor intent on reanimating newly dead corpses. A pandemic arrives that offers him fresh specimens. This echoes the flu scenes of mass graves, overworked doctors and piles of bodies. When the head doctor of the hospital dies in the outbreak, Dr. West reanimates him, producing a proto-zombie figure that escapes to wreak havoc on the town. The living dead doctor lurches from house to house, ravaging bodies and spreading destruction, a monstrous, visible version of what the flu virus had done worldwide. Lovecraft wrote about a zombie super-spreader even before we knew such a thing existed. Who says “life sometimes doesn’t imitate art?”
Infection, Prejudice and the Viral Zombies
In other episodes and stories, Lovecraft’s proto-zombies suggest an additional thread of prejudice that runs through the zombie tradition, one fueled by widespread fears of contagion during the pandemic. Even before the outbreak, Lovecraft believed that foreign hordes were infecting the Aryan race generally, weakening the bloodlines. These xenophobic anxieties weave their way into his stories, as contagion and pandemic-soaked atmospheres blend into racist fears of immigrants and nonwhite invaders. We hear these same themes repeated today in our pandemic times by white supremacists and far right groups who want a sovereign nation within the land of the free.
Indeed, many of Lovecraft’s stories are unwitting templates for how prejudicial fears may be problematically amplified at moments of crisis. Such fears are evoked and often critiqued in later depictions of viral zombie hordes, such as the infectious monsters of Romero’s 1968 movie, “Night of the Living Dead” and the film’s subtle commentary on race, as when the white police force mistakes the main African American character for a viral zombie. Amazing how systemic racism persists in making “walking while black equate to viral zombie” even today.
Small Rabbits Fear Large Monsters
Lovecraft’s proto-zombies also provided a strange compensation for some of the pandemic’s worst memories. Like the covid-19 virus of today and the flu of the last century, these monsters consumed the flesh of the living, spread blood and violence, and acted without cause or explanation. Lovecraft assures his readers that these monsters are far worse than anything they saw in World War I or in the pandemic, the twin defining tragedies of his era. Unlike the virus, though, these literary monsters could be seen, stopped, killed, and reburied. Every decade seems to need its own monster or zombie, and Lovecraft offered his readers a version that spoke deeply to the anxieties of his moment.
Modern Fears Birth Modern Monsters
Our modern monsters are more in tune with the unimaginable horrors of our present world. In the 1950’s we had nuclear terrors, so our monsters were Godzilla and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. In the 1990’s, cloning was a scientific advance we knew could go amiss, so we had dinosaurs run amuck in Jurassic Park. Aliens have always been the most foreign of foreigners, so whether it’s the Thing from Outer Space or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we can scream into our popcorn all afternoon long. If we don’t scream, everyone will know we’re one of the “pod people.” Even before cinema took over entertainment, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds caused mass panic among listeners who believed Earth really had been invaded by Martians on October 30, 1938.
Dangers of Dualistic Thinking
Maybe this is why we rabbits need structured experiences which bring us up to the edge of fear, but in a safe environment. We need to learn to deal with our feelings and emotions as they threaten to overwhelm us. We need reassurance we can handle the frightening experience. We don’t need to be thrown off a cliff, but tested appropriately. If we don’t deal with our inner fears, we’ll see a ghoul in every dark shadow. This is why movies today have ratings for age groups.
When I was young, I was certain monsters lived under my bed and in my closet. I couldn’t sleep unless my closet door was shut. I was in art school before I could leave that door open. Something clicked in my mind, or I realized I was now at the age of responsibility. If this were so, I needed to give up this childish fear of invisible monsters. It was time for me to be the monster slayer in real life.
My daddy had a fear of monsters all his life—he called them communists. As a member of the now discredited John Birch Society, he claimed there was a “commie in every breadbox.” We’re no different today, for we rabbits seem to need our own monsters in the world beyond us. If we can’t deal with the brokenness or fears within us, we’ll project it outward onto an outside “other” group. Just as we too often put certain rabbits on a pedestal and are shocked when they fall, we also put some rabbits in a pit and wonder why they can’t get out of it. We tell ourselves “they don’t try hard enough” or “they aren’t worthy enough,” but neither of these statements are true. People are individuals, so we can’t make conclusions about them as a group.
Mischief Abounds All Night
By the 1920s, Halloween in America had become synonymous with mischief, which young people used as an excuse to break windows or damage property. Mischief comes from the Middle English word meschief, or “misfortune,” which itself derives from the Old French meschever, “to end up badly.” In the U.S., mischief has a legal definition: “Criminal mischief” includes true vandalism, such as the defacement or destruction of property, but also includes fully reversible pranks, like toilet-papering a house. In some states, it covers even vanishingly minor annoyances, like ding-dong-ditch, or ringing the doorbell and running off before the homeowner can answer the door. In 1923, the police chief commissioner in Omaha, Nebraska, went so far as to designate the “city’s worst boys” as junior police officers on October 31 and relied on them to report criminal behavior in an attempt to curb vandalism.
I met two of my young students dressed in black garbage bags as my daughter and I returned from trick or treating one Halloween night. Their too guilty grins as they said hello and hid their hands underneath their costumes was a dead giveaway they were the likely culprits for the artistically draped toilet paper on my giant live oak tree. I let them pass on by and got my car keys to go visit their home, which was just up the street. After a drink and a chat with the parents, we agreed the boys would clean up my tree. My parents also were visited with this “sign of endearment” more than they liked when I was young. I imagine it’s still going on today.
Reflections on a Non Traditional Halloween
While we grownup rabbits think our little bunnies are going to miss Halloween traditions, the smallest ones don’t know what is tradition yet and the older ones can understand why this year will be different. Trick or treating began in the USA after WWII, as a way to discourage mischief, for if the kids get candy, they’ll be less likely to wreck havoc. As far as long term memories go, I’ve stretched mine, and can remember only one neighborhood walk about. I was slowed by my Carmine Miranda costume, while my brothers ran two houses ahead. I was delayed by holding my fruited headdress on my head.
Another Halloween we had a party at home with apple bobbing, snack making, and games. This was probably due to a fear of poison or pins in candy bars. This fear comes around every year, but it seems to be an urban legend. I also remember attending a school haunted house and walking through the dark and spooky cloakroom. There I touched all sorts of icky, gooey substances purporting to be “brains, eyeballs, and assorted body parts.” I do remember I did everything I could to not be banished to that same cloakroom for bad behavior the rest of year. No sense tempting fate, for sure, my eight year old mind reasoned.
If this holiday is for four year olds to twelve year olds, I can only remember one third of the years. In the short run it seems important, but in the long life of a person, only a few extraordinary moments will rise to peak memory. If this isn’t a year for house to house galavanting, or trunk to trunk acquisitions of treasure, then we’ll use our creativity to make it special, for that’s what we do.
This Is Not the Apocalypse
We rabbits live in a world of apocalyptic scenarios, yet we have safer, healthier, and longer lives than people in any other point in history. Still we constantly imagine our whole world could all fall apart in a heartbeat. We take our worries and translate a lot of our anxiety into fears about our children. If we listen to the new or hang out on social media, we might get caught up in “doom scrolling.” This is the internet version of rubbernecking at a gory traffic accident. Halloween began as the dark and terrifying compliment to the following bright and glorious All Saints Day celebration of November 1st, when the faithful remembered the saints, martyrs, and ordinary believers who have touched the lives of all the living.
The World of the Living and the Dead Meet
In both these festivals, the world of the living and the dead is permeable and fluid. These two days help us meet our fears about death, the uncertainty of our world, and our inability to control the seeming chaos of a world spinning out of control. We look to fallible individuals today for the change we seek, forgetting that we ourselves need to become the change we want to happen. Moreover, we forget the power of faith and the purpose of our combined faith communities called to work for a just and better world, which reflects the heavenly world to come.
The prophet Isaiah (65:17-18) speaks of God’s glorious new creation:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
The promises for the Hebrew people in exile belong also to us today, for we find ourselves living in “exile from the life we once knew.” If we live in the past, we’ll always live in exile from the present. Perhaps we should choose to live in hope for a better future and spend our time in this now making that promise come true.
Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.
The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.
It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.
When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.
Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.
Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.
Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.
This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.