Reluctant Mysticism

Sharing shifting faith in community, in private, & on nights when nothing but brownies & ice cream will do

A beautiful expression of the Autumnal Equinox…

Tadhg Talks...

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It’s Alban, Elfed, the autumn equinox, that great time of balance; the time of equal day lengths and night. Balance is a great word, but how do we apply it to our daily lives? Here’s a thought.

I know some men and women of action, but with little prayer and ritual. They achieve good things and I greatly admire them.They are always busy, but in some way they seem ‘disconnected’ from the Source, exhausted, ‘drained’, ‘energyless’.

I know some other men and women, who are great people of prayer and ritual and I greatly admire them, too. But, little action. To them, the goal of action may seem too remote, or they maybe, they have assumed it’s the ‘calling’ of others do’, and not there’s. They seem ‘disconnected’ from interaction with the local and wider community, almost recluse.

I am only speaking in generalisations, and it’s not for me to…

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Have you ever had moments when you realize you are moving through pure colour?

I have.

About 13 years ago I was hiking in Banff with a couple of friends. We reached a small isolated mountain tarn. It was like a cross between a deep sapphire and a turquoise. We emerged from the forest, but across the waters were steep slopes of scree and a few glacial chips.

It was an understatement to say that the pool was cold!

Still, my friend and I ventured inwards, powered through the chill, and reveled in the remarkable experience of moving through nearly perfectly clear water while swimming in colour. On our hike back down, my friend hung back with her boyfriend while I went on ahead for a spell. I came to the lake watering the valley floor. It was larger and longer than the tarn at the top, but no less jewel-like or stunning.

I shucked off my shoes once more (and few clothes since I was alone, praying my friends wouldn’t catch up too soon) and dove in. The sun was lower in the sky by this time, so I turned my face to the west and felt its warmth on my skin as my body adjusted to the watery chill.

I was suspended between heaven and earth in a nearly perfect bathing of colour.

I dove, did somersaults, swam as deep as my lungs would allow, and then burst through the surface as high as I could manage. It seemed to me that the colours themselves were Gilead balms soothing a battered life which, back then, was struggling just to survive daily life.

It was a prismatic baptism of renewal.

Autumn is just such a season in the same way for me — renewal, restoration.

Every day I follow my walking route. Part of that route has me trekking along a short unmarked trail across the lakefront. I am towered over by poplars, willows, and other colouring deciduous trees; there are spruces and mosses that spurt final a final brilliance of green before winter comes; leaves turn red, yellow, gold, and orange. All around me, from tree top to forest floor, I am surrounded by vibrant colour that sings, smells, and speaks of life.

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Many of us know and understand what Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is. Even people who aren’t formally diagnosed know and feel the impacts of the short days and long nights in our northern climates. When we aren’t exposed to enough sunlight our moods struggle, our appetites change, our sleep cycles are disturbed, and we battle with depression and anxiety. Even getting out of bed in the morning is a war because all we see is darkness: we get up in the darkness, and it’s dark even before most of us leave work in the afternoon. Life becomes even harder when we have stretches of cloudy or snowy weather, or when the sunny weather is just too frigid for human beings to be out of doors for more than a minute or two.

As I was wandering through my autumnal sanctuary yesterday, I had a strange thought: what if autumn is one of God’s ways of restoring us before the darkness comes? What if all of this colour, a sign of death and dying and sleep in many respects, is also a sign of life? Colour gives lift to the spirit, muse to the imagination, and energy to dreary moments. When we are literally suspended in these places bursting with colour, how can we not absorb the power of all this crazy, last-ditch energy around us? How can we not be transformed by these colours?

Well first of all, we have to notice them. Perhaps even before that, we have to want to notice them. We have to remember to notice them. In our scurrying around with back-to-school frenzies and preparations for winter, even the most brilliant of falls can be all too easily missed.

Once we’ve noticed how alive and vibrant our world has become in this special way that only autumn can offer, we can start to reach out a bit. We sniff the air and pick up the pungent scent of wood smoke, and the sweet emissions of sap as trees prepare for a wintry sleep; we are drawn to the flaming red leaves contrasted with the bright green moss and the deep blue of the lake, even if we aren’t sure why; we think of cavernous temples and sanctuaries as poplar trees tower over us with their boughs heavy-laden with golden leaves; and we become almost giddy with adventure as we walk down well-worn paths now carpeted with fallen leaves and petals. As these fallen discards of spring swirl around our feet, suddenly we’re hit with an unannounced rush of “Anything is possible! ANYTHING!”

Walking through colours.

This wonder, this delight, this perfectly-logical-yet-topsy-turvy season of God draws us in so that we, like bears who forage for berries before their winter hibernation, can prepare for the dark times ahead. Anyone who’s experienced deep depression knows that we can’t simply call up a beautiful autumn when we’re in the midst of the darkest part of the darkness. That’s an impossible call. We’re blind. We can’t see anything, much less have energy to even try.

But…

…as we schlep through those dark nights of the soul, we have flashes. It’s during those flashes of relief, of comfort, and hope that we can learn to call up these autumnal spaces — these sacred spaces that suspend us in colour — and realize that these aren’t just nice memories. We walk (or swim) through these living scenes of colour because they bring healing for us, both in the moment and for times later on when the wilderness takes over.

So if you find yourself walking by a lake, a path, a lane in your city park, and it happens to be extra colourful at this time of year, STOP.

Stop.

Drop your bag, park your bike, park your car.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Look for the veins in the leaves; look for the contrasts; look for God in the details. Be overwhelmed. Move slowly, run like hell through all the colour (because you can), raise your arms, sit down, twirl, sit on the side of a bridge and mull it all out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Take in all you can of autumnal colour. It is healing. It is wonder. It is God’s reservoir, preparing us for the darker seasons to come.

But we don’t need to think of the darker seasons right now. Or right here.

For now, the reality that we are moving in pure colour is more than enough to excite and delight us. These alone bring healing and remind us of how loved we are.

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Over the past few years, I’ve developed a personal habit during my spiritual disciplines:

I go barefoot.

On the surface, it doesn’t sound cataclysmic at all. It’s pretty simple, really. And that’s part of the core of the practice: simplicity. When I was at seminary last week, I had quite a few people ask me “Why?” after leading a morning prayer service without shoes.

Afterwards I was asked to put my shoes back on for our school’s Opening Night of Worship. It was a more formal setting with more people attending the service. I was the cross bearer (in the front of the processional), and it my feet would have right there in front with me. Could my bare feet have shocked some people? Perhaps. Was it a reason to cover up? I don’t believe so.

So instead of trying to answer the many individual questions as to why I deliberately go barefoot in communal worship spaces, I’m offering a response here for you to read at your leisure. You may agree, disagree, or fall anywhere in-between. That’s okay. Blogs are conversation starters rather than finishers.

  1. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”

    Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:2-5). I believe all ground is sacred ground; all space is created space; all ground and all space are inhabited by God. Thus all ground and space for all time is holy. God is present with me continually. Like Moses, I am called to display reverence, awe, wonder, and sometimes dread by removing my shoes while participating in worship. Here the worship of God is largely individual (just God and Moses), but I believe there are aspects to God’s character (holiness, awe-fullness, transcendence) that apply to all of us whether together or apart. I remove my shoes to express my smallness and insignificance before such divine power.

  2. Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table,[a] took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.

    Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” (Luke 13:3-5). Here we find Jesus, the supposed Savior and Redeemer of the world, interrupting a formal worship service (the Passover) in order to perform the act normally relegated to slaves. Unlike the scene with Moses where removing shoes is a sign of our very human place before the Almighty God, we see here the removal of shoes and the washing of feet by God as a symbol of God raising us up to who we were meant to be in Christ. As I said, formal ceremony is deliberately interrupted in order for Jesus to intentionally share this new and unheard of thing. He comes close to his friends, he becomes intimate, he expresses love in a degrading and humbling way and invites us to do likewise. Removing my shoes during formal communal worship is my sign of Who’s path I have chosen to walk, the example I have chosen to follow. Jesus’ act was meant to disrupt and disturb just as much as it was to express love and closeness. If people feel uncomfortable at first with my bare feet, they aren’t alone. The disciples were pretty shocked too.

  3. There are numerous mystical traditions and sects from all sorts of religions that hold simplicity as a core virtue. Choosing to try and live a similar lifestyle of simplicity is a way for me to connect with these clouds of witnesses, to ground my entire being in creation, and connect on a physical level with God.
  4. Historically, slaves, prisoners, people in poverty, and other oppressed groups had their footwear removed by force. These groups also were not welcome in churches. They were untouchables, subhuman, and certainly not creatures God could love. Baring my feet declares that Jesus wanted/wants nothing to do with such false teachings or behaviour. Walking barefoot to the altar shows the Christ of the Scars, Christ of the Wounds, Christ of all People wants all people in all times and places to enter into worship together. By choosing to remove footwear, I am identifying the places where I have not been received into worship and breaking down those barriers by coming with Christ to Christ; I am also affirming the countless times and places where others have been refused communal worship, and declaring that rich or poor, gay or straight or trans, of whatever ability, of whatever skin colour: COME. Bare feet, in this instance, is a sign of beckoning welcome that breaks down dividing walls of hostility. This simple act together declares that oppression must flee before Love. We are all desired in worship, we are all called to come, we are all welcome. Yet so many have been refused welcome, sometimes literally for having no shoes.
  5. There are millions of people in this world who do not choose to go barefoot but must do so anyway. I remove my footwear as a sign that I do not need even a fraction of what I own. This would be an empty gesture if I simply donned my shoes afterward and headed straight for the first Doc Martens store. But as an extension of worship, I am learning to purchase only what I need when I need it.

But what if someone who’s faith is weaker is offended?

Good question.

The people who attended our service that evening, by and large, were long-time church-goers and supporters of the school. I highly doubt I would have shaken anyone’s faith. I might have offended some sensibilities or formalities, but this is where I cease to care very much. When the Apostle Paul speaks of being careful of those with weaker faiths, he was speaking to mature Christians in regards to infantile Christians with deep questions about new life.

If someone approached me and said that they could not worship at all because my bare feet were causing them to question their relationship of God, I would welcome a beautiful discussion about how I could support that person’s faith walk.

If someone approached me and said that I was being impolite or improper or shocking during what’s meant to be a sacred worship service, I would probably say: “Good! And here’s why…” I’m a servant, but I don’t believe coddling outdated social conventions is the same as addressing a shaken faith. Not in the least.

I am not deliberately trying to antagonize authorities nor am I trying to jump on a bandwagon to create some kind of pastoral image. I have given 5 very good reasons, I believe, as to why I practice communal worship as I do. I have addressed the primary concern people have about bare feet in a communal setting; and it’s my understanding that it is largely long time church-goers that have the biggest issues. Let me be clear: they’re faith is NOT at stake in this circumstance. It is their sense of propriety and what it socially decent. And as I have already mentioned, our social codes around shoes are largely embedded in privilege and segregation – declaring who was fit to enter church and who was not.

What about hospitals or places of safety?

I do recognize sensitive areas, such as hospital wards, where safety and hygiene are heightened issues. I will wear footwear in places where bare feet might put patients at risk for infection or transmission.

Any other questions out there? I welcome an and all. Hopefully l will be able to answer them to your satisfaction. As I said, this is a conversation starter rather than an ender’s game.

Thanks, all, for hearing me out. Peace.

 

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I don’t “birthday” well.

Erin Thomas: b. September 08, 1978

Jean Vanier: b. September 10, 1928

We are nearly a perfectly golden fifty years apart.

You have spent the majority of your life celebrating people who have been left uncelebrated and unloved. Today, we celebrate you as a wise, humble man who submitted himself to the love of God through people born with conditions the world chose to look upon with disdain. You have spent nearly every waking hour celebrating people — rich and poor, strong and weak, loving and unloving, smart in all sorts of ways.

How do you like to be celebrated?

Are you a multi-tiered cake kind of guy, who likes to have a goofy clown with confetti and a noisemaker explode out of the top? (Dear lord, I hope not! Nothing against cake; everything against clowns)

Are you a “come one, come all!” type of person, entertaining as many folks as possible at one time?

Are you an experience sort of fellow who much prefers to go somewhere special on his birthday?

Are you someone who would much rather be around the home kitchen table with good friends and family, sipping fine wine and enjoying laughter and warmth?

Are you someone who would rather appreciate the birthday greetings from people, and then close the library door, pick up a favourite dusty book, find your favourite armchair, don the spectacles, and pass the hours in silence with a hot cup of tea?

“Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.” – Jean Vanier, Becoming Human

You know more than anyone that yes, everyone needs to be celebrated. But with people coming into L’Arche who have such specific needs and personalities, how do you celebrate those people? I can imagine someone with Down Syndrome being open and affectionate with others, but I can’t imagine that every single individual with Down Syndrome possessing the same level of desire for personal attention on their birthday.

I can imagine someone with autism pushing the world away for their important multi-faceted reasons, but I can’t imagine that person being perfectly content inside themselves without being celebrated somehow. Perhaps they haven’t found their way to communicate how they would love to be celebrated, and perhaps we haven’t found a way yet to understand, but a way there is. I’m sure of it.

I turned 38 this year. The 8th wasn’t a good day.

I tried giving myself the guilt trips about the millions of people around the world who would give their right arms to be celebrated on any day, much less their birthdays. I tried downplaying the hours to “it’s just another day”. I tried reframing all of what happened or didn’t happen into something positive (and if you knew me, you’d know that this was a huge undertaking).

None of these things really seemed to work.

I don’t birthday well. I never have.

It took me years to understand, but I don’t like having so much attention directed at me in such a concentrated form. I don’t like being sung to (unless it’s from my small nephews, but that’s an understandable exception), I don’t like confetti or clowns (ugh, CLOWNS!), and I don’t like surprises.

Maybe my expectations rise too high, thinking people buying gifts know just who I am or what I like. But I tend to open gifts and feel… let down. Then the inevitable guilt follows, because the person in front of me has just purchased a present for me. The logic, to me, is: if it really is the thought that counts, I wouldn’t be holding a gift bag of make up. So, logically, someone was thinking ABOUT me but not really OF me.

This sounds selfish, no? But if I were to poll people around the world who feel like they have to pretend gratitude on their birthdays under all of that attention and pressure, I think we’d find I’m only expressing what multitudes of others struggle with.

I have to work on being grateful for what others’ offer me. I do! I admit it.

But I also have to accept that I much prefer spending planned quality time with the very few people whom I’ve allowed into my inner circle (no hints here: NO SURPRISES). The flip side to this preference is that I have a small, tight capacity for a few close people to be this close to me. I can’t handle anymore than that. It’s how I’m wired. But that really shrinks the pool in terms of who is feasibly able to be around on my birthday to be close to.

I could have had 1000 Facebook well wishes (some from people I didn’t even know I was friends with), and it wouldn’t have made up for the gap of loneliness. I didn’t feel I had the power to call someone else to fill in that gap, because… why? Why would I want a substitute for the people I truly loved? I would just have to fake having a good time with the substitute. Why would I put myself (or anyone else) through that?

I’m beginning to sound like a tired child, am I not?

Yes. And no.

If I was to count me being officially “single” from the time I turned 18 — legal age — then I have been single and without attachment for 20 years. So let’s frame all of what I’ve shared in that context. 20 years are a lot of years to feel scared that I’m going to be forgotten again but really, really, really wishing that I would be forgotten. 20 years are a lot of years to want to be seen-but-not-seen.

And 20 years is a lot of time to realize that I’m not going to be a mother.

(tick-tock, tick-tock, Woman, tick-tock)

Perhaps hormonal life affects men a little differently, I’m not sure; but when a woman reaches a certain age just before mid-life she realizes that one of her lifelong dreams — that of becoming a mother — is never going to happen. When there’s no spouse to share that private grief with on such a glaring day of attention and ‘celebration’, what’s a woman to do but find a secret place by the lake and cry out to God?

20 years.

I had planned to marry. I had planned to have 4 children (a boy, a girl, and a set of twins boy/girl). I planned to have written and published at least 5 books by now. I didn’t plan on a lot of fame and definitely not fortune, but I did plan on becoming an adult in the way most adults do.

None of it happened.

Okay, the book thing might have been somewhat unrealistic. But the desire for marriage and family is certainly not unrealistic.

So when my body and my soul whisper back to me: “These things aren’t going to happen” after 20 years, it’s no wonder that I don’t birthday well. It’s only a day of profound loneliness.

Sure, people have said “You were meant for other things!” That’s just a way for parents and friends to gloss over the reality that parenthood has been elevated to the gold standard in our culture, and that nothing is harder or more important than raising children. How can I delight in any other purpose when that purpose is vastly inferior to mommy-hood?

As a lifelong single person, are you able to hear the echo in my words?

These kinds of posts are precarious to write because I can so easily come off as: 1) ungrateful for the gifts that do come my way, 2) a “poor me” rant, or 3) a post that overshares beyond what readers really want to know. I assure you my intent is none of these.

I’m trying to look for the small gifts that fill my soul on my birthday. But I’m also trying to be more gentle on myself, knowing that I can’t handle all eyes on me without panic or tears setting in (it’s definitely not celebratory for me). It’s not easy. The expectation is that I WILL be grateful at all costs. So many years the cost seems to come at the expense of my peace of mind.

But there are still a few select eyes I wish would be around me on this supposed celebratory day. When they aren’t there, the empty space is enormous.

And the guilt returns: it’s like asking everyone to turn around and not look except for… you, you, and you. That’s IT. That puts a lot of pressure on those three folks to be there every year because I can’t handle birthdays otherwise. A lot of pressure. So heap on the guilt with the loneliness. I get why birthdays for a lot of people, celebrated or not, become fearsome enemies over the years.

How often do we celebrate people, with good intentions, in ways that scare them? Overwhelm them? Hurt them? Or really, at the end of the day, forget them?

How often do we celebrate in ways we adore celebrating, and forget to celebrate the person in front of us? I’ve done it. I know I have. My celebration ideas are fabulous! How could the other person NOT love the idea?

After 20 years, I get it…

Many of us don’t birthday well.

We all need to be celebrated, Jean, I agree.

But how can we celebrate one other in our weaknesses and downfalls? How can we do this in humility, knowing that celebrations bubble forward pain and sorrow as much as appreciation?

Clearly I’m still learning.

Until next time (and a beautiful, blessed Happy Birthday however you need to be celebrated),
Love,
Erin

 

Water and light are powerful themes for me personally on my own journey. Autumn is my favourite time of year. If you haven’t checked out TadhgTalks yet, click on his blog & engage in some beautiful expression of the Celtic Christian journey. More on that later…
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In a few weeks it will be the Autumn equinox – that great season when the length of the day and the night are the same, that great time of balance. The compass point associated with the Autum…

Source: Essential Celt: Liturgy For Alban Elfed, The Autumn Equinox

love languages chart

We’ve all probably heard about or have had some firsthand experience with Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages. Aside from our apparent addiction with personality tests and all their variants, I will agree that Chapman’s work has been helpful for many people trying to understand how to cultivate important relationships in their lives.

I have some questions about the quiz itself, however. I’m hoping you readers will give me some feedback about your experiences walking through the questions. If my working hypothesis is correct, we all may be missing vital information possibly skewing the results of the quiz, thereby what we’re teaching ourselves or our children about who they are and what they need to thrive.

My Love Languages, as of 10:30am MST today, are:
1. Quality Time — 11
2. Physical Touch — 8
3. Words of Affirmation — 6
4. Receiving Gifts — 3
5. Acts of Service — 2

Having taken this specific quiz before, it came as no surprise that quality time remained at the top of the list. However, physical touch blew me over because it swapped places with acts of service. Words of affirmation dropped a little bit, but was usually tied with acts of service. Receiving gifts has always been lower for me.

So I began to ask some questions:

  1. As someone who has been clinically identified to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, how does physical touch speak a love language to me?
  2. As an introvert, how do all of these languages speak to me, for me, about me, and through me? I can’t imagine the kind of quality time I need from a loved one is the same as an extrovert’s needs.
  3. What if the capacity to give or receive ANY of these languages is systemically absent from my community or culture?

The Experience

As I walked through the quiz again, I began to take notice of a few things:

  1. The quiz is heteronormative. That is, it automatically assumes a person is straight. Even in registering for the quiz, one has to identify as “male” or “female”. The wording of the questions lends subtle support to the reality that this quiz assumes everyone is straight. As someone who identifies as bisexual & demisexual, I started becoming uncomfortable with how I was being led to understand love. How would the results change if LGBTQ+ people were included in designing the actual questions? Would the results change at all?
  2. The quiz assumes a good deal of white privilege. Like many North Americans, the writer assumes that everyone taking the quiz will see the questions largely through a white Euro-centric lens. If this quiz was designed to include people of colour, how would the questions change (or would they)? Would we discover more/less love languages than have been presented here? In oppressed communities where messages of “you are subhuman”, “you have no right to exist”, or “you are lazy”, how are these love languages measured? If a small child has a great need for physical touch, but is born into a community that has learned through oppression that touch is evil and thus does not readily express that love, how does that child gain what they need? Do the parameters of these languages expand? Contract? Become redefined? Demand freedom? I didn’t have to think about how my skin colour/community would shape my answers to this quiz because this quiz speaks my language (grammar, tone, shared experiences, etc). What about people for whom these experiences are foreign or denied?
  3. As I already mentioned, how are these love languages expressed through introversion, extraversion, or ambiversion? Physical touch may have grown higher on my list, but there’s no way on earth I’m letting just anyone give me a touch on the shoulder. And, as far as it’s slipped down on the list, I will start clearing the table at a dinner or be the social gathering photographer or look after the kids while the adults chat because they give me ways to control my extreme discomfort in social situations. Would I be the person to offer someone a ride home? Only if I’m the last resort. Giving a ride implies small talk. Small talk = death.
  4. The quiz, while not replete with Christian-ese, is still decidedly Christian. Is that bad? No. But it does have the potential to exclude people of other faiths or no faith traditions who might not understand the language of the Love Languages Quiz. Even if people of different traditions have similar, if not the same, ideas about love, the quiz’s very words have the potential to create confusion.

I don’t think Chapman was intending for his small quiz to be the be-all, end-all of how we express love and affection for one another. However that absence of intention only exposes privilege. He didn’t have to think about how his questions would affect LGBTQ+ children or adults because he doesn’t identify as LGBTQ+. He’s straight. Likewise, he didn’t have to think about how his questions might not factor in race and ethnicity. He didn’t have to, because he’s white. That’s privilege right there. It’s not that his intentions or questions were wrong per se; only incomplete.

If we were to ask these questions in a community where men of colour are free to hold hands, kiss each other on the cheek, walk down the street arm in arm, the perspective on physical touch (I believe) would have radical implications on the quiz’s answers.

If we were to include people of other faith traditions with questions of their own, or to perform original research about love languages, how would the categories change? Would the Christian aspect of the quiz feel threatened by the added ideas? Would we be welcoming of different love languages we have never seen before because they have not been present in our traditions?

So, my friends, what are your thoughts? Love and affection between people, within ourselves, and with God is a most powerful aspect to our lives on earth. Yet if we categorize love in such ways that still exclude how love is expressed or received in other people, how can these categories be stretched or reimagined? Or could they?

By way of context, this post is gearing up for a more central one asking about gifts and passions. We hear a lot about gifts — what we seem to be made to do or be in the world — and about passions — the things we love to do and the people we love to be/be with. The curious thing is: the two rarely match up, despite words to the contrary. What happens when we love math, but really, really suck at it?

What happens when we’re terrified/drained/frustrated with people but we’re called (“gifted”) into a vocation that is almost 100% people-exclusive? (ding! ding! ding! Seminarian, right here!)

My starting point is to question our starting points. We have this helpful little quiz about how we express and receive love between ourselves. But how helpful is it amongst the diverse populations growing in our communities?

Maybe we need to look at expanding our language.

Love, being the Infinite Source of all of who we are, has no end of expression. Of that, I am certain.

art l'arche

“Painting is the song of the heart.” – Jean Vanier

Dear Jean,

I’m sitting here in front of my computer on a cool drizzly day supposedly writing my final arts therapy paper. If I’m honest, I have managed to format my paper, type a working title, eek out an introduction, and…

…stop everything else and write to you.

Clearly I need a break from an academic look at art, and I need to gain some perspective. Isn’t that what art helps us do? Gain perspective? (We can talk about the ulterior motive of procrastination later.)

I’m watching the video and I’m seeing L’Arche members creating all sorts of art — visual, tactile, culinary, and relational art — and it is watching worship in action. God is interacting with and through us in paint, colour, food, creation, laughter, and friendship.

Mimi Farrelly-Hansen writes that “art making is inherently spiritual” (Spirituality and Art Therapy: Living the Connection, 2001, p.17). Our desire and ability to create reflects God as Creator. We take joy in it, we take pleasure in it; we find healing in it, we find transformation; we discover new aspects of ourselves, others, and God; and we create community, large and small, in the participation of art-making.

We are not always with people when we make art — whether we paint, sculpt, strum guitar, carve, mold, bead, or write poetry — but the presence of that art as an external expression of who we are existing apart from ourselves impacts community. That is, the act of writing could be considered at its core a solitary act; but in a beautiful extension of that aloneness in art-making, reading is often likewise a solo act. The community becomes a connection between one and one, whether the one and one ever meet in person or not.

I see more studio art in L’Arche: paint spattered everywhere, food all over the place, people together with brushes, pies, gardens, and glue. The process of creation flows out of the beauty of each person within the community, rather than academic prowess or polished artistic technique.

I’m not saying we ought not to strive to craft our art. Not at all! Rather, I’m saying that watching people with intellectual, physical, and mental disabilities create art for the sake of creation and friendship has rooted me in humbler place filled with wonder and desire.

“Don’t eliminate people because we want to eliminate suffering.”
-Jean Vanier, L’Arche Video (see below)

Someone with a severe disability might splotch finger paint over a piece of paper, and to the world it looks like a kindergarten child’s mess. But when we actually accept the place from which that glob came from — pure joy, pure pleasure, pure participation with God — that glob becomes greater than anything Rembrandt could have come up with.

Too often we assume a posture of being The Healers or The Helpers by creating art spaces for struggling people. We think we’re going to help the helpless. And, in some ways, we are just that by creating spaces for art-making to happen.

But when it comes down to bristles and clay, we discover quickly that we are only GateKeepers. We unlock the door, provide materials, keep the space safe, but then we are pushed aside to witness all of this joy, pleasure, and participation with God that’s been present all along. The best prophets and poets of our age (or any age) are those people who have known systemic and repeated rejection and neglect.

And yet the people in the L’Arche video seem to have greater innate capacities to turn that horrible abuse into rainbows, prisms, smells, and textures. Not only that, but they turn around and share all of this divine bounty with the rest of us GateKeepers.

How unworthy are we?

How could I have been so blind?

Here is the Mystery: God laughing with tempera paint and paper without thought of competition, rising the ladder, or agenda. Art for art’s sake. Creation for creation’s sake, reflecting our Creator. Joy in both the process (self and the art) and the communion (community and the art). God is in it all: people, process, and partaking.

How mysterious indeed.

What I wouldn’t give to have a slice of…was that pecan pie I saw?…right now on this chilly late-summer day. Both the pie and the people look absolutely…divine.

Until next time, Jean,
Erin

Hey readers, check out L’Arche’s 50th Jubilee Year Art Exhibition. Take some time, meditate, contemplate, and pray as you peruse art pieces from L’Arche community members submitted from around the world. You won’t regret it!