Art as prayer

Rosy Kandathil, OSB A Benedictine Sojourner's Journey, Living in Community, Monastic Life Leave a Comment

 “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all powerful word leaped from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed … .”     — Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15 

2013 Christmas card art by Rosy Kandathil

I’ve heard it said that “writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.” So when I was asked to offer a reflection on a painting that I created to accompany poet Michael Belongie’s 2013 Christmas sonnet, We Await a Great Light—I struggled to find something, anything to say. [see below for the full text of this poem by Michael Belongie, friend of the community and regular volunteer at Holy Wisdom Monastery]

Over the years, art-making has come to be a way of prayer for me. Creative expression is where the deep, wordless longings of my heart find release, a tangible escape. To tell the truth, I don’t often know what I am setting out to create when I pick up a paintbrush and put it to a surface. Most of the time, I feel lucky to produce a few rude sketches of what I dimly “see” with my heart. However, with time (and some training and experience), I’ve come to trust my hands more and more to give expression to what I cannot yet say or understand.

In many ways, art-making is a mystery to me, a holy on-going conversation between my spirit and the Spirit of God. It’s a strange and gentle collaboration. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul talks of prayer in this way: “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groans that cannot be expressed in words, and God who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us in harmony with God’s own will.” This intimate spiritual cooperation in the mutual knowing and un-knowing of prayer resonates with my experience of art-making.

Oftentimes, I am surprised by what turns out when I start the creative process from a posture of prayer. Initially when I read Michael’s sonnet, I found it difficult to penetrate. There was so much theology in each line that I had to first wait into a “stillness [that] awakens soulfulness” before I could connect my own experience to the poem. When I finally did, I recognized myself in the “diaspora led by Moses.” Born in an immigrant Indian family and raised in New York City, I could picture my own footprints in the sand joining so many others before me in our long, stumbling journey of faith. In the glorious panoramic light of Advent, we are all in transit: pilgrims, refugees, sojourners searching for Home.

Being at Holy Wisdom Monastery in this season of prayer has been a gift. In the Liturgy of the Hours, the songs, images and words of the prophets fill the space with longing and anticipation for the coming of the Promised One.  Nowhere, and at no other time in my life has this sense of the tapestry of time and history felt so tangible. Never have I felt myself so much a daily participant in the unfolding surprise of Incarnation.

Suddenly I could imagine “Wisdom’s scribe”—Mary, the Mother of the Christ, quietly keeping watch over our desert procession. The whole plan of history seemed to leap open before me for one breath-taking moment.  My own pilgrimage as a Benedictine Sojourner at the monastery was briefly illuminated in a great light that showed a perfect whole, with not one thing lost. A stream flowed in the desert.  There at Mary’s feet lay a vague shape. Was it the manger, the ark of the covenant or the basket of reeds that floated a baby Moses into Pharoah’s courts? I couldn’t tell. The night sky seemed to fill with starlight as the whole line of pilgrims surged on in the sand with renewed hope.

In the end, I wanted the painting to capture a moment of prayer. Words feel inadequate to the task. There’s a part of me that hopes the painting can “pray” for itself.

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We Await a Great Light

 “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all powerful word leaped from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed … .”   — Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15

Stillness awakens soulfulness, opens the eternal present;
diaspora led by Moses, its ebb and flow, parted sea
in arid landscapes. Mideast sands, fluid contours drift
amidst Egyptian sojourn, harkening promised return.

Wisdom’s scribe, open to the divine, enunciates;
our human genome, its synaptic arching, electric charge
for body and soul. Bounty and birth commingle
with pain and plague in this forty-year sojourn.

In doubt and darkness of flight from Egypt, Abraham’s
chosen stumble and bump about, await, falter; willful
disobedience and idols raised provoke Moses
to rend the tablets in despair.

Dispossessed, the hieroglyphics await a great light:
Jahweh’s salvo: unwarranted mercy, a Son’s immolation.

— Michael E. Belongie, 2013

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Thank you to Rosy Kandathil and Michael Belongie for this wonderful artistic collaboration, and to Rosy for her struggles to put into words that which is beyond words for a visual artist.

Follow this link to read Rosy’s earlier posts:  Living in Community – A Benedictine Sojourner’s Journey

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