GarThoma

The contemplative artist

Contemplative Vision

vermeerPainting

I have recently been reading the book Contemplative Vision, by Juliet Benner. It is a wonderful book of writings reflecting on works of art based upon scriptural narratives. This book was written after Benner came to see the “enormous potential of physical seeing as a gateway to spiritual seeing.” She writes from perspective of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition which use images as aid in contemplative prayer. Brenner says that these images are not ends in themselves, but rather means to end for the purpose of connecting to the Lord in prayer and discerning what He might be saying to us through contemplative looking.“As we carefully gaze on the painting,” she says, “we enter the scene it depicts—into its time and place. When we do this all time becomes present time, and we are led into the eternal presence—into the One who is ever present to us.”

The first chapter gives a wonderful apologetic for contemplative, listening prayer. It seems that, for the most part she is writing to evangelical Christians; many of which do not value the use of silent, meditative prayer, much less, gazing at images to aid prayer. Many of the evangelical Christians I know might see this kind of prayer as “new-agey”. I am a part of this evangelical tradition myself and would love to see my brothers and sisters come to see the transformational power of this kind of prayer. Bennett’s book has given me some ways to integrate these things into my own life and my own church tradition.

The rest of the book follows with chapters focusing on specific works of art that depict a narrative story or scene from scripture. Brenner encourages the reader to read the scriptural passage from which the painting is made, then spend time in silence simply gazing at the painting and reflecting what one sees there. She then begins to discuss various aspects of the painting that she picks up on. I have made it a point to not read her insights before spending some time looking, listening to and journaling about the painting myself. It is interesting to note that there were some things Benner noticed that I did not; and some that I noticed that she did not. In my mind, this proves that the Holy Spirit is definitely engaged in this process. He speaks to everyone in the place where their heart presently resides. It makes sense to me that He would use great works of art to do this.

Following is a reflection on one of my favorites in the book so far…

Jesus at the Home of Mary and Martha by Johannes Vermeer.

My initial observations:
Mary sits inactive, low, at Christ’s feet, while Martha actively stands above; Christ sits in the middle gazing at Martha with eyes of compassion as he gestures toward Mary. Mary leans forward resting her cheek upon her hand, gazing up at Jesus. Martha also looks to Jesus while he gestures toward Mary with an open inviting hand. I notice that Christ’s hand not only points and invites; it also receives.

The composition is triangular. I noticed this right away. Brenner points out that there is also a triangle within the triangle. Right in the center, where Christ gestures with his hand there is another triangle made of the white tablecloth. The triangle, Benner points out is a kind of invitation for us, the viewers, to enter into this space. The triangle also reminds me of the Trinity. I am invited into this contemplative space shaped by the trinity. I am invited to give to Christ the only thing I can truly give; my contemplative presence and attention.

Another thing Benner points out is the fact that Christ is wearing the garb of his own time and place and the sisters are wearing the garb of their own time and place. She notes that Christ comes to us in our own time and space; there is a kind of timelessness to this painting.

The major thing I noticed about the painting is the fact that Martha brings Christ bread. It is ironic to me that she would be serving bread to the “bread of life.” We cannot give to Christ what he has already made provision for in our own lives. Then I notice that the space they are in is the same color as the bread Martha is serving. The space is small and intimate and the color of the bronze freshly baked bread Martha serves. It would seem they are not only with but also surrounded by the presence of the bread of life himself.

Many of us are more willing to do things for the Lord, rather than just be with him. Even my prayers can be an attempt to “please” and “serve” the Lord. I am worried and distracted over how I form my prayers — the words I use— I somehow feel that my prayers are not sincere enough, there is not enough groaning in them. I want to just be with Christ, but find it difficult to simply be when i am so distracted by my many preparations to please him.

But, like Martha, in the painting, offering bread to the bread of life, it is absurd to think that I can give to him what he has already given me; what his is to me.

How can I just be with you, Lord, without inner dialog questioning everything I do or say or think; oh to simply be with you. I can be distracted by preparations in my mind. I often ask, what am I getting from this time of prayer; of scripture reading? when what I really desire is to simply be with God.

Interior silence; interior contemplation. When I have this I can listen to the voice of God, I can be with Christ even in the midst of noisy distraction. Mary is not worried of defensive in the painting when here sister comes to complain. She remains so focused upon Christ and responding to his invitation that she is oblivious to the complaints of her sister.

Lord, I want to come to a place in my life where I can just be with you so intensely and intimately that I do not feel a need to be defensive. I want to be like Mary in this painting; only gazing upon you, Lord.

Right now, as I write this I am sick. I have been for two days. I hate being sick. The thing I hate about being sick is being needy. I do not like to be needy. I want to be the caregiver; I want to be needed; not needy. That is the Martha spirit in me. And yet, Jesus says: “blessed are the poor in spirit…” it is the needy who Jesus says are the owners of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps this is why Jesus said Mary has chosen the best part.

Eschaton

You and I are seen

God dreamed our motion from

The stage of His mind.

He takes us from one place

To another, experimenting with thought.

We are the culmination of

His sleepless nights.

Those nights when He gets up

Pours Himself a glass of wine and

Watches TV to see

What His world is up to.

He kicks up His feet and relaxes

In the recliner

Knowing it will all turn out OK

In the end.

Accomplishment: A Blessing

It is heavier than the sun
And brighter too.
It only takes you as far

As you are willing to travel.
There is a vast distance between

You and the Garden.
The harvested fruit lasts until Kingdom Come

And feeds the masses sustenance they need

But don’t really want.
Investigation enables you to peer

Into mysteries of ages past
Which were seemingly perfect

But the water would not hold their feet.
Take the yoke upon yourself.

Is it one you would choose?
It is chosen.
May it be shared with Christ

Until all is accomplished.

Powerless

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matt. 5:3

The journey is long;

The road narrow

You take nothing with you, 
Only emptiness 
Only brokenness 
Open the hands that grasp wind

Lift up the eyes that behold darkness.
Get in the boat

Embrace passage across 

This vast sea.
Everything fails

Everything comes up empty 

Until space is made for Christ to abide; 
He is your destination.

It won’t be long now

The Kingdom doors open 

You are blessed when you arrive.  

What If

What if the river was afraid

Of the sea?

What if clouds were too lazy

To move across the sky?

What if the dirt became

Angry with the ground?

What if trees refused to bend

To the will of the wind?

What if stars got trapped behind

The night and couldn’t find their

Way in the dark?

What if the end was discouraged by

The beginning

And lost its way in the dark?

Resurrection 

Friday the birds 

      stopped singing. 

The universe inhaled all sound

     And held her breath through Saturday. 

Sunday she exhaled.

     Stars were sent reeling 

     Across the morning sky. 

Once again the birds sang “Hallelujah”

Speak From Your Art

Listen deeply to the stirrings of your art

What is it saying to you? 

How would you like it to present itself to the world?

Will it shout when it opens its mouth-

Or whisper? 

Perhaps it will give a long winded speech 

To a bored audience. 

Maybe it will keep it short and sweet

And to the point. 

It could be that your art will reveal itself 

As a silent presence. 

Does it speak clearly

Or make mysterious allusions 

To things not understood. 

How will you respond? 

Will you tell it what to say 

Or allow it to speak for itself? 

Perhaps you will take it on a journey

So it can learn to be a little more mature. 

Or will it be baptized-

Fully immersed in the purifying waters of death

And raised to newness of life?

Then it can speak healing to a diseased world. 

Prayer Brings Life

Accepting things as they are. Isn’t this the antithesis of prayer? 

Prayer is about changing things, right? 

Perhaps prayer is about coming to terms with the way things are;

Seeing things as they actually are. 

First one must learn to see; to listen. 

Prayer is the breaking of illusion.

Sometimes the result of prayer is dis-illusion. 

You come to see that the way you thought things ought to be; 

Your expectations, are shattered upon the hard ground of prayer. 

However, don’t become so “real”; so “natural” 

That you dismiss the supernatural. 

Death always precedes resurrection. 

In the end perhaps you’ll  discover that prayer does change things

It changes you;

The way you see things.

And maybe

Just maybe, your

prayer will bring life out of death. 

Hoarder

In that corner are boxes upon boxes of frustration.
One can’t get down the hallway for all the piles
Of resentment and hurt.

The kitchen reeks of rotting rejection and regret.

Unforgiveness so fills the basement, it’s pressing against the floor underneath.

Expectations so fill the attic, cracks are starting to form in the ceiling.

Resentment is strewn across the front yard,
Passers by turn their head in disgust.

But love turns into the driveway and makes herself at home

Working day and night, clearing out space
To make room for peace, joy, hope.

A Home for the Artist Heart (a benediction)

There is a place where your soul feels free
Where it is allowed to be vulnerable
To come out and dance and sing and play
Without judgment.

May you find that place.

There is a space where you can take risks
To draw the drawings that reside in your heart,
Where you can feel the living and breathing lines.
A place where you can fashion a map made of these
Beautiful, living lines.
May you be fearless to journey the roads the map points to.

When you find this place, your heart will be its creative best;
Free to roam the textured canvas
The white paper
The soft clay
The wood
The stone
The metal…

Whatever medium it chooses to communicate through.
And in this place you will be heard
And understood.

May you find this place.
May your artistic heart find home.

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