The Artist’s Way as Spiritual Exercises for All of Us

Over the past few weeks I’ve been immersed in The Artist’s Way, leading a group in the shared experience of reconnecting with our creative lives. Each week brings a different focus, but in general we practice making space in our days for things that bring true joy and delight. We learn, or relearn, to trust those sparks of life. They are the source of divine encouragement and inspiration.

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The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is presented as a program for people blocked in their creative work, but it is actually a spiritual practice that enhances the life and the work of anyone who wants to live more fully.  It offers a way of recovering the “something more” that we long for, which empowers us to bring creativity to our lives in all kinds of ways. It helps us open to new possibilities rather than remain in the constricted space that we long ago decided was safe.

In the sixteenth century Ignatius of Loyola developed The Spiritual Exercises, which the Jesuits (the order to which Pope Francis belongs) have used since then as a guide for spiritual formation. The exercises are grounded in the gospel stories, and are undertaken by those seeking a meaningful and even transformative spiritual experience. They can be the focus of an intense thirty-day retreat, or worked through by setting aside regular time in everyday life for a few weeks. If you’re interested in a simple version of the exercises, an excellent book is Moment by Moment: A Retreat in Everyday Life by Carol Ann Smith, SHCJ and Eugene FR. Merz, SJ.

I have come to see The Artist’s Way as a practice of comparable value. It marks the trail of an authentic spiritual journey, tailored for the culture in which we live. It is not a specifically Christian path, though it makes reference to ideas and occasionally quotations from the gospels. It is very much a God-centered path, inviting us to think of God and to find God in new ways. Working through the twelve weeks of The Artist’s Way is a transformative experience for many people, both within and outside of the church.

The readings and practices create an opening for the Spirit. The discipline of The Artist’s Way helps clear away the debris that covers over the clear spring of our creativity. We open ourselves to the flow of life, of energy, of creativity, of delight, of hope, of optimism, of generosity, of abundance, through taking on some simple practices. We gain a better sense of the spiritual path and the creative work that we are uniquely called to.  We allow what is most essential, most alive, most truly ourselves, to find an outlet in our lives.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it. Write out your answers to the questions this book poses. Take on the practices of morning pages and artist dates. See what happens. You don’t have to buy into new beliefs or set aside old ones—although you might find yourself considering new ideas. For an investment of thirty minutes to an hour a day to work through a chapter a week, you might find your life infused with new energy.

In my experience, and that of many others, The Artist’s Way can be an opening to the creative Spirit that hovers over the waters of Genesis. Its practices blow gently on the ember of the divine in each of us, and helps rekindle the creative fire at the heart of a life fully lived. Right now our group is finishing up Week 6, and I’m excited to see what emerges in the second half of the journey.

 

 

Creative Wandering

To step away from daily obligations and wander without a particular purpose is hard to justify. We don’t often grant ourselves permission to be aimless wanderers, and the world doesn’t much encourage it, either. The very meaning of those two things—permission and wandering—pull against each other.

One is about boundaries, authority, accountability, productivity. The other resists those means of imposing order and goes exploring, looking to find what’s out there, experiencing unfamiliar situations, sometimes discovering new aspects of the world and of ourselves. Wandering seems irrelevant to the work at hand, the life to maintain, the deadlines to meet, the goals to reach, the responsibilities to live up to, the expectations to fulfill. Wandering doesn’t get any of those things done, at least not in any predictable way.

 

And yet. To step outside the boundaries of what is required is to enlarge the world. To go where there is no reason to go can mean finding a connection that changes everything. The seeker and the artist have much in common. They fulfill their role by resisting the constant pull of their communities, by not being entirely caught up in day-to-day life, by cultivating the perspective that allows them to offer something of unique value.

But what does it take to slip away, beyond the fence, for no good reason we can name? Is it strength? The strong rarely say so. It’s only recognized as strength when we return with something worthwhile. Is it a sense of calling? Only one that is recognized after the journey has served someone else. Is it laziness? It might look that way when tasks are left undone, though the effort to roam those distant hills requires dedication and perseverance. Is it rejection of the people in our lives? It sometimes looks like that when we require time spent separate from those we care about. Is it selfishness? It looks like that, too, though we spend ourselves on pursuits that have chosen us and not vice-versa, endeavors that may never serve how the world sees us at all. We wander, searching, hoping our work serves something higher than ourselves, and rarely being sure.

In India there are roaming sannyasis, pilgrims who have left home and family to travel to holy sites or live as spiritual seekers in the forest. They are familiar, they are tolerated, by some they are understood and affirmed, or even envied by those who wait their turn for the freedom to make the same renouncements. What do the sannyasis look like in our culture? Do we recognize them? How can we learn from their search, and benefit from their wisdom? Can we learn to be just a little bit like them?

Work is Love Made Visible

Years ago, when I was doing a lot of calligraphy, I lettered a gift for my son’s elementary school teacher. It was a line from Kahlil Gibran: Work is love made visible. As an at-home mother doing unpaid work, I found encouragement in those words. They also spoke to the way this wonderful teacher gave so much of herself to her students. She brought out the best in them, and inspired me as well.

My Calligraphy Tool Drawer

I happened to see her last week at the gym, where she told me that she still keeps that piece of calligraphy on her desk. I’m touched that she still values it after all these years. The idea of work and love being connected remains meaningful to me, though I think about it in broader ways now that my children are grown.

Gibran not only speaks of where the best work originates, but offers a different way of understanding the purpose of work. His is a world view that values the heart more than remuneration. It views life as more than a market exchange, and sees work as an offering, not a commodity.

This perspective is a lifeline when we’re trying to create something new. In a world that measures the value of work by the price it brings in the marketplace, creative effort with no guarantee of reward can look like a waste of time and energy. Showing up to work when there’s no certainty of the outcome requires ignoring the clamor of the buying and selling, and placing ourselves in the service of something else. It can feel pretty risky.

Gibran understands that submitting to the work we are called to do is an act of devotion. We manifest love of life, of other people, of art, and of the divine spark in creation, when we undertake our work. What I’m realizing these days is that an artist’s work, too, is love made visible.

In Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Materialistic priorities get in the way of seeking a rich spiritual life, or what he calls the kingdom of God. Over and over, he tries to get people to see that through dwelling more fully in the spirit we find not only our truest self, but the essence of life, and joy, and meaning.

His teachings help us focus on the work in front of us, apart from its material reward: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  We can’t make the world praise or even accept our work; we can’t expect the market to validate our efforts. We can only do our best at the effort we’re making today.

We’re all asked to look at the world with love, to listen for the ways it calls us, and to respond as best we can. That call and response depends on where we meet the world, on our gifts and circumstances. It can take unlimited forms.

But in whatever way we respond, answering that call becomes more meaningful, and perhaps somewhat easier, in remembering that we are trying to manifest a spark of the divine—to find a way of making love visible.

Happy Mothers Day

I thought I’d share with you the bouquet that’s brightening this rainy morning.

Have a wonderful Mothers Day!

And if you’re interested in reading about keeping sourdough starter, as well as a creative life alive, I have a new post up at the KaBooM Writers Notebook. It’s called “Creative Starter.”

 

Art and Sanctuary

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing a folk music performance that happened to be given in a church sanctuary. The setting had me thinking about the idea of sanctuary and how it is created—or at least invited. Even more, as the evening progressed I was able to experience the mysterious arrival of that sense of sanctuary as it permeated the room.

I didn’t know the music of Iris Dement before I saw her perform, but I was immediately charmed by how she connected with her audience. She shared how vulnerable she felt coming out from behind her piano to face the crowd with only a microphone stand and a guitar to “hide” behind. And when she mused aloud about her songwriting prowess, asking “What is the opposite of prolific? Because whatever that word is, that’s me,” I was taken by both her understanding and her acceptance of herself.

The venue was the historic downtown First Presbyterian Church, where stained glass and ornate wood carvings spoke of the long traditions that shape Christian worship. “This pretty room,” Iris Dement called it, in a way that appreciated her surroundings even as she resisted their traditional gravity.

She spoke of her family, and the songs she shared about them honored those lives who so clearly informed her own. She alluded to her spiritual journey, remarking that in reading back through the stories in the Bible, “I found that I didn’t love them as I used to” except for the one she wrote about: the parable of the good Samaritan.

In sharing so much of herself as well as her music, she drew her audience close. She exuded both humility and strength, presenting herself simply as she is. I don’t know her story, but I know that kind of firmly rooted stance is hard-won.

The architecture and design of the space we were in brought forward the idea of sanctuary, a word that sets out the spiritual aspirations for the place. It’s meant to offer a respite from the clamoring world, a place where we can hear the still, small voice that reminds us who we are and where we can find the heart of life.

But on that evening, the experience of a sacred space apart from the world was ushered in by this talented musician whose maturity as a person as well as an artist enabled something rare and wonderful to happen in that setting.

Art at its best creates sanctuary. An artist who grapples with what matters most, then brings skill and dedication to expressing what she encounters, offers work that can elevate our lives. Art in all of its forms invites us into a space apart from the schedules we keep and the demands we meet, where we can be refreshed by the encounter with another soul. It brings the renewal of spirit we sorely need to live our lives the best we are able.

Worship at its best works this way, too. It’s an art form in itself, enriched by architecture, music, language, and dramatic ritual. Good worship depends on good art. Meaningful worship, like meaningful art, is soul work. The encounter that happens through that work, whatever the setting may be, is where we find sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a gift. We invite its presence by the deepest human work we do, but when the spirit of sanctuary descends, with the peace that passes understanding, it is a gift of grace. May we find those spaces in our lives that quiet our minds and soften our hearts. May we know sanctuary.

Something Old, Something New

Lately I’ve been perusing local antique markets, flea markets, estate sales, garage sales, and second hand shops, looking at vintage costume jewelry. I’ve been having a great time exploring local places that have been in business for years, but hidden in plain sight from me until the antique bug bit. It’s a whole new world of old things.

The variety of beads and stones, charms and chains, colors and designs, are endlessly compelling. Some connect me to the past, reminding me of a pin I remember my grandmother wearing or beads for playing dress-up from my mother’s jewelry box. A cluster of beads on a clip earring or an elaborate rhinestone brooch evoke another era, while a strand of glowing pearls holds timeless allure.

Many of these pieces, separated from the women who once owned and wore them, are too lovely to be abandoned. So I find myself looking for ways to recreate and place them into the stream of life once again. They usually need cleaning up, and sometimes more—beads restrung, stones replaced. Some of the pieces ask to be worn as is, but more often they need re-visioning. The link from a bracelet can become an interesting element on its own, a single earring can be incorporated into a unique necklace, a pin can become part of a pendant. The amazing designs in these old pieces can find new life when they’re separated and combined in new ways. A worthwhile element from the past retains a sense of that era, even as it is fitted to live on in a new context.

One of the things I love about costume jewelry is its accessibility. I would hesitate to alter a valuable piece of jewelry, even if it were something I wouldn’t want to wear in its original state. The sense that what is valuable is untouchable is strong, like the childhood admonition to look but don’t touch. But such items, when they are no longer relevant, tend to be set aside. When objects or designs fall out of favor or use, they’re put away and may or may not be found again. The pieces that remain relevant to the lives we lead are ultimately the ones we’re able to keep track of.

The best of our ideas are like this. Our values, our faith, our commitments are not rarified notions kept apart from everyday life, untouched by our experiences. They are rather the things we take up every day, acquiring the patina of time and use, occasionally refitted to remain relevant to the life we currently live.

Fine jewelry, like a fine idea, enhances life only if we wear it. Those things we actually wear are part of how we’re remembered, and become part of who we are.

What kind of jewelry do you like to wear?

 

Time Suspended

Paging through the WSJ Magazine today, I happened upon this charming piece. It seems that the people at Hermès have been thinking about time and longing, expressed in a limited edition watch design celebrating the company’s 174th anniversary. Part of the Arceau collection, it’s called Le Temps Suspendu, or “Time Suspended.”

The slant of the numerals suggests the ceaseless motion of hours and minutes on the watch face, but these 174 specially made timepieces offer something to counter that momentum. They include a feature designed to evoke the sense of stepping outside of time. Press a button and the hands stop their motion to strike an impossible pose (from a timekeeping perspective), holding the “12” between them. Something like prayer position, perhaps. The date pointer hides away beneath a raised level of the face.

Voilá. If time hasn’t actually stopped, it has at least become irrelevant for the time being, which is much the same thing.

And since the time we can allow for not measuring time is limited, the wearer is reassured that a hidden timekeeper within continues to keep track. Press the button again and the watch returns to the correct time. There’s no mention of an alarm to remind you when to rejoin the scheduled world, but perhaps that would defeat the purpose.

I love the idea of a symbolic act that suspends time, shedding the schedule-driven concerns that clutter the mind and crowd the spirit. We’re at our best when we’re fully present, focusing all our skill and intuition on the thing that engages us. That timeless and exhilarating state is described beautifully by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A ritual that invites that state of mind is invaluable.

When we reach it, time’s movement and measures fall away. The passing of time neither forces nor impedes; we move effortlessly through it. Later, once again inhabiting everyday consciousness, we look around blinking, wondering how long we spent in that heightened state. When was I last aware of the time? What time is it now? How long was time stopped? Only after the fact do we realize that we experienced an escape from time.

For those of us who don’t have $36,200 to spend on a not-watch, or who aren’t among the first 174 people in line to get one, there are more pictures and musings about the watch here. But we’ll need a different ritual for setting aside time.

Simply taking off a watch is one way to have such a ritual. It’s a sign of inhabiting a different mental space, outside of ordinary time. Another way might be to turn off the phones that claim so much of our attention. They’re a door to a wonderful world, but left open all the time they invite too much interruption.

Entering a ritualized process is another possibility: making a cup of tea, digging in a garden, participating in worship, engaging the imagination. We benefit from anything we can do to set aside time in a way that allows us to live well—to enjoy a meal or a conversation, to take a walk, to lose ourselves in something we enjoy, to create something new.

What kind of ritual helps you to suspend time?

 

Integrating the Elements – Life as Art

This is the amazing sculptural screen I encountered on a recent visit to the Mercer County Public Library in Harrodsburg. (My friend Mary’s art quilt, Hollyhocks, is on the wall in the background. More pictures and a reflection on the library are at The KaBooM Writers Notebook.)

The 15-foot screen, by Erika Strecker and Tony Higdon, takes elements from the rural life of historic Mercer County and makes them into art. Tools were donated by local farm families and incorporated into the work.

The piece is beautiful, dramatic, and also inspiring. To look at this sculpture is to see the disparate elements of a life brought together to make something beautiful. The framework sectioning the screen lends strength and order; the lines, curves, and angles in each contribute life and movement as well as an emphasis on the particular tool or task.

It is a visual teaching about bringing an honored and valued history into a new context, claiming our deep roots and long-held identity while thinking about them in new ways. This piece of art, deeply connected to the place where it is installed, feels like it belongs.

Life challenges us to integrate our toil and dreams, our abilities and needs, our history and future, while living fully in the present. A piece of art that accomplishes such a task, with authenticity and grace, is somehow encouraging.

What helps you see the elements of your life together as a meaningful pattern?

 

 

Seeing the Picture

I’m remembering a dear uncle this week. Tall, gentle, and soft-spoken, his careful tamping of tobacco and patient lighting of his pipe fascinated me at family gatherings when I was a girl. Back then he was the only adult I knew who painted pictures, and I was confused when he said he didn’t think of himself as an artist.

One of his paintings was of a tree, which I remember him saying was out back of some building, in the parking lot. That was even more bewildering. How could something as special as a painting be made of something that sounded so ordinary? I would have learned an important lesson much earlier if I had been able to articulate that question, but I was a child with a thousand things I didn’t understand and no way to determine which I needed most to learn about.

Fortunately, I was able to know him long past childhood. He gave up his pipe in later years, and eventually failing eyesight took painting from him as well. But his sensibilities remained, and he appreciated the goodness of life. To talk with him was to share in a beautiful perspective on the world.

I took a break in the middle of the morning yesterday, from both the household chores I was taking care of and the writing I’ve been obsessing about for the past few days. Weary of all of it, I decided to just have a cup of coffee. Not to read or write, not to think or analyze or plan, but just to sit and look out the window and drink my coffee.

It was a beautiful day. The bright snow on the ground, the white-trimmed branches against a bright blue sky—“pretty as a picture” was the phrase that came to mind. It’s an old-fashioned idiom from a time when pictures were rare, special in a way utterly foreign to our image-flooded culture. But the phrase still evokes that sense of attention and value that comes with placing a frame around a scene. Making a picture is a way of saying this is worth noticing.

That’s what an artist can do. It’s what my uncle did when he saw something beautiful in an ordinary scene. Appreciating beauty doesn’t require a literal frame, but it helps to have some kind of reminder to pay attention. The frame could be the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. It could be a particular place to be at a regular time of day. It might take the form of a ritual, like lighting a pipe.

It might even be a conversation with someone who can help you pay attention. Talking with Uncle Guyles often helped to frame something worth noticing. I’ll miss him.

What helps you frame the things you want to notice?

Reflecting the Season’s Light

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

The most recent place I heard this question asked was in a department store, appropriately enough. It’s a conversation opener this time of year, a December version of “How are you doing?” Behind the question looms a checklist of things to accomplish for the celebration to be complete.

A friend with three children looked at her calendar a few days ago and realized that her family had so many scheduled activities there were only two nights free between now and Christmas. She wasn’t complaining, just gearing up for the pace set by the intersection of family and holidays.

Here in the Northern hemisphere the days have grown short, night falls early, and we try to keep too busy to notice. We lean into our Christmas celebrations like plants growing toward the sun. We’re drawn to outdoor displays of light, Christmas trees twinkling, and candles glowing. Ornaments and wrappings made to reflect the light shine out from every corner.

Of course we’re drawn toward warmth, light, and joy. We look forward to the gatherings, performances, and rituals of the season. They dispel the dark. We follow the star this time of year, keenly aware of our need for the Light of the World.

The liturgical year sets aside these weeks leading up to Christmas and gives the season its own name—Advent. It is a season of anticipation.

Advent is not about creating Christmas, it’s a time of preparing for something beyond our ability to bring about. In the darkest time of the year comes a new birth, the renewal of life and of light. We honor it with our celebrations, but that spirit of new beginnings is more powerful than anything we can make. It’s the gift of life and growth, which begins in the depths beneath the surface of the earth, or of our lives.

Our celebrations are like the ornaments reflecting light. We can make the world brighter, better, even more merry. But it’s not up to us to generate the light. It’s good to remember that we only have to reflect Christmas; it’s not our job to create it. Knowing that makes it easier to lighten up.

What brings the season’s light to you?