I have tossed out several drafts since my last post. The words that come are sometimes a surprise to me, and I am still wrestling with the question I posed last time: Which word would I choose (to replace "spiritual" or "god" or "soul")? I am unable to replace them, but the word near returns. Everything I write feels inadequate, but that word near gives me a feeling of recognition. When I feel near– to my soul, my paint brush, the still small voice, the god within and without, and even my mistakes– I am free from concern about what happens next. Free from fear. Near is no longer a sense of proximity to something as much as it is a welcome home– the grace of fully inhabiting, or being inhabited.
Sometimes it seems like a lot of work to get back to near. I am home from a ten day solitary retreat. It makes me aware of how much I depend on all the ways of connecting with other people– some of which elevate, and others a form of the pervasive "virtuous busyness"* in our culture, that I collude in. The only humans I spoke with on retreat were at the office, checking in, and at the end, when the gallery director and one of the monks came to look at my work. In between this time, I adjusted to not only being physically alone, but also rarely in any kind of contact with faraway friends or family. It was as if the world left me alone.
Each morning I walked downhill on a path through the woods, past the stations of the cross, past the geese on the partly frozen pond, to my studio. This abbey used to be a working farm, and where I paint was the old slaughter house. It has a tall ceiling, concrete walls and big windows looking out to red farmhouses and the winter bare branches. I discovered once again that time in the studio expands when I am slower getting there. At the end of each day I found my way back in the dark. (This may sound bleak to some of you, but I love wandering in the night of the natural world).
There are many inner stations and landscapes that I visit with this much time alone. There were days when I felt like I accomplished nothing except ruining the paintings I had worked on so far. There were mornings when I came in to the studio rejecting what I thought I liked the day before. There was one day that I left the studio early, giving up on being able to make anything worthwhile.
There were also moments that felt like pure joy of discovery– as if the old rutted habits of my mind finally loosened and expanded, and all the air was charged. I looked down, as if from a distance, and saw my hands operating on their own, reaching in and pulling out an image and putting it down. My hands were free from my willful supervision! This was only a rare, timeless moment– but it is the culmination and anchor for everything else that happened in those ten days. It is these moments that strengthen my desire to create and expand the structure for nearness.
To build a structure for time apart is so important- otherwise the "white noise of anxiety"* can become the depleting fuel of one day blurring into the next. Rarely interrupted busyness withers the soul, and cultivates anxiety and depression– even if what we are busy with feels admirable. I was delighted to discover that T. S. Eliot's psychological struggle that kept him from being able to write, was finally broken through by a "kind compassionate therapist" who gave him this instruction:
Find those words that make you glad, and repeat them.
I find words that resonate and repeat them aloud– there is something about the spoken word that evokes a deeper connection. I also recite the phrase in writing. I have only recently discovered that this practice is similar to the ancient monastic practice of sacred reading.
This, I feel certain, is what prayer, mantras and poetry are for– a natural way to take us out of ourselves and connect with being a part of this Immensity. Or a way of letting the immensity in. A simple phrase or poem can provide structure and return your ability to focus. Here is one I have worked with:
Draw us near
Oh bind us tight
All your children here
In our rags of light.
– Leonard Cohen
Do you have a phrase or a poem? What draws you near? I'd love to hear from you.
* I have been reading My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman. He is a beautiful writer of prose and poetry.