Greening Power

My first attempt at painting the landscape in Sacred Bond resulted in failure.  I painted it “realistically” and filled it with a variety of trees and bushes, plants and grasses.  It felt too complicated; the wealth of detail was too distracting.  I simplified it, but it still didn’t feel quite right.  Then insight into my uneasiness came.  The grass around the Mother and Child looked freshly mowed and glowed with the lush, radiant green of a well-tended golf course at a country club!  At first I thought I would have to change it again. Then a memory surfaced that led me to leave it as is. 


I was twenty-six in the summer of 1974 and had just finished my first year of theological studies.  I joined two other Jesuits in giving personally directed retreats at Cranwell Prep, a Jesuit boarding school in Lenox, Massachusetts near the Berkshire mountains. 


Before I began accompanying others on their retreats, I made my own silent eight-day retreat in which I shared my experience of prayer each day with one of the Jesuits on the team.  About halfway through the retreat I was meditating on the story of the Annunciation.  I read Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, “Rejoice, so highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”  I sat quietly with those words and... nothing happened.  No insights, no feelings.  I waited…still nothing. Eventually I moved on to Mary’s response described in the next line.  “She was deeply troubled by these words...”  Suddenly, I was the one who was “deeply troubled.” I began to weep and sob for several minutes with no idea what was happening.  When the tears finally subsided, I felt a sense of peace and tender love well up from deep inside me.  These feelings felt like the manifestation of a Divine Presence, a distinctly feminine Presence.  I remained there quietly savoring that Presence till the hour of prayer came to an end.


I went outside and walked a path that bordered the upscale, private golf course adjacent to the Cranwell campus. The green fairways seemed infused with the same gentle, all-encompassing feminine Presence that had overflowed inside me during the hour of prayer.  The landscape glowed with a diffuse green light that appeared to emanate from within the grass itself.  The intensity of the experience gradually began to fade, but not entirely.  For the next six weeks of my stay at Cranwell the inner radiance inside and around me remained.  The simplified green “golf-course landscape” of Sacred Bond feels to me like an expression of what I experienced that summer forty-four years ago.


The same Presence surfaced in another form that summer.  When my two Jesuit companions and I prayed together each day we would often sing a hymn called, “Sing of Mary,” a song of very simple words and melody that speaks of Mary as “pure and lowly” in the first verse. I remember being touched by those words over and over again that summer.  The Annunciation experience had somehow opened me to an appreciation of those particular spiritual qualities, not just as concepts or abstract moral virtues, but as mysteriously attractive attributes of the Presence I was experiencing.  The image of the Virgin Mary, the simplicity of the words and melody of the song, and the qualities of purity and lowliness all seemed to give expression of the encompassing feminine Presence I felt around me and within me.  I understood from the inside why devotion to Mary, both “little Mary,” the housewife of Nazareth and “Cosmic Mary” the Queen of Heaven and Earth, could have such enduring appeal over nearly two thousand years of Christian tradition. 


Several years later I came across the quotation below from St. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, visionary, musical composer, and healer in 12th century Germany.  Hildegard perceived nature as the living garment of the Holy Spirit.  She gives voice to that radiant Spirit in nature in this remarkable passage:

 I am that supreme and fiery force that sends forth all the sparks of life. Death has no part in me, yet I do allow it. Wherefore I am girt with wisdom as with wings. I am that living and fiery essence of the Divine Substance that glows in the beauty of the fields. I shine in the water, I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars. Mine is that mysterious force of the invisible wind.  I sustain the breath of all the living. I breathe in the grass and in the flowers, and when the waters flow like living things, … I am life! 


Phrases like “the Divine Substance that glows in the beauty of the fields” and “I breathe in the grass and in the flowers” captured something of what I experienced during that summer at Cranwell, though the intensity of Hildegard’s experience and the poetic beauty of her words far exceeded what I had felt or could express.


Elsewhere in her writings Hildegard speaks of this immanent Divine Spirit in nature as “viriditas.” It is a Latin word that literally means “greenness,” but has also been translated as freshness, vitality, fertility, fecundity, fruitfulness, verdure, or growth.  For Hildegard it is a central metaphor for spiritual and physical health. For example, she writes of the “exquisite greening of trees and grass—earth’s lush greening.” But this natural vitality is sometimes associated with love and healing when she describes the “greening love that hastens to the aid of all…” or “healing is the return of greening power and moistness.”  She goes so far as to call Jesus “greenness incarnate.”


Hildegard’s images help to develop the idea I introduced in the blog post of April 18th where I explored approaching the earth as a person rather than an object.  Greening Power is more than simply a life-force in nature. It also suggests a personal loving and healing Presence that we can come to experience in and through nature.  Psychiatrist and spiritual guide Gerald May expressed a similar union of life-force and Divine love in his book Will and Spirit: Contemplative Psychology:

 …the fundamental life-force of creation is an expression of divine love, and divine love is realized most directly in the immediate appreciation of that life-force.


The green fields of Sacred Bond are, for me, an expression of that Life-Force, the Greening Power and Divine Love present in nature. That same force is incarnate in each of us as human beings.  When those inner and outer forces connect a sacred bond is forged with both God and nature.

Women and the Earth

The vision of kinship with the earth described in last week’s post, “Our Sister, Mother Earth,” leaves open the question of what such a vision might actually look like in practical terms.  Helena Im, a Dominican sister from California whom I met while she was studying theology in Berkeley gave me a clue in an email last January.  When her studies were complete, Helena was sent by her community to the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico to serve the Mayan people there.  Her ministry over the last several years involved not just the spiritual needs of the people, but also education of young women, community health programs, formation of candidates for her community, and creative approaches to sustainable agriculture.  In all these projects Helena took a collaborative approach--listening, learning and sharing decision-making processes with the people. 


Helena’s email included a draft of a proposal titled, “As Sisters – Women and the Earth” addressed to a confederation of Dominican sisters of Latin America and the Caribbean which called for these sisters and the women they serve to begin a wide-ranging dialogue on gender equality and sustainable care for the earth. The proposal notes that across Latin America an important structural barrier to gender equality is the systemic denial of women’s right to land.  This issue is seen as a key to fighting other issues such as global poverty, violence against women, food insecurity, and unjust economic, political and social structures that bar equal participation of women. 


The proposal is after more than structural change.  It is based on the idea that local experiences of intimate relationship with the Land can give birth to a deep spirituality of the Land and a fundamental paradigm shift in how women, the Land, and larger social concerns are understood and experienced.  This vision is grounded in the experience of local women who have been led to a spiritual vision of the Land as a subject rather than a utilitarian object to be exploited simply for human purposes.  Put another way, these local women have learned to approach the Land as someone rather than something in much the same way as Francis of Assisi did.  They see the Land as having her own distinct voice, needs, gifts, and limits that are to be respected and worked with in a collaborative way.  It’s not just a question of human beings deciding what to do with the Land.  The Land has her own say as part of a dialogue. 


Helena shares two examples in the proposal of how local women came to fresh insights from working with the Land in this new way:

 “We opted for a process of reflecting on our actual experiences with the Land and preaching sustainable practices by witness. As we successfully grow carrots and other vegetables, our Mayan sisters take the seeds to their families, increasing options for food and nutrition, possibly impacting favorably on the health of their families. Teaching against the use of pesticides becomes unnecessary as they taste vegetables grown with companioning plants and in rotation.  Insights brought to us by working directly with the Land form our hearts and inform our ways of relating.

Our Mayan sisters’ practice of letting every seedling and every fruit on a tree live instead of pruning for a selective few has led us to reflect on the economy of solidarity. Coming to know the Land as a subject with her own process for life is inviting us to reassess our identity, relationships and tasks in life. It makes us live, not by dominance, but through mutual support for each other’s capacity, freedom and responsibility to promote life.”


In a recent email Helena shared an example of the spiritual fruits that can emerge from this approach:

“Working in our garden, touching the earth, caring for life in her is consoling.  At one of the reflections, Martha said that if she had used organic fertilizers before in order to get more out of the land, now she realizes that she wants to give good food for Mother Earth out of love for her.  Isn’t this change of perception - Earth as a utilitarian object to a subject of loving relationship - wonderful?”


The ultimate aim of the proposal is to bring the wisdom of local communities from across Latin America and the Caribbean into dialogue with each other in the service of justice:

“Our vision and commitment go beyond sustainable agricultural practices. Our intuitive hope is that through webs of dialogue as women, our solitary local efforts, garnered together, can become a viable force for our commonly desired systemic change.” 

By weaving webs of dialogue these women hope to strengthen their sacred bonds of love with one another and with Mother earth, a love that bears fruit in justice at many levels of society and across wide expanses of the earth.

Our Sister, Mother Earth

One of the most striking features of Sacred Bond is the shawl draped over the mother’s shoulders.  The green leaves, the varieties of purple fruit and flowers, and the squiggly lines that border these images offer a feast of rich colors and patterns.  The shawl covering the mother and child looks like a pair of large, folded wings that shelter both of them from the chill night air just before dawn in the mountains.  The green leaves and deep blue spaces of the shawl mirror the green landscape and the dark blue mountain tops emerging like islands from the sea of fog in the valleys. These correspondences visually link the mother’s shawl to the beauty and fertility of the landscape in the background. There is a kinship, a sacred bond, between the shawl and the land.


As I reflected on what this mirroring of landscape and shawl might mean, I recalled a verse from the Canticle of Creatures by Francis of Assisi: “Be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Mother Earth, who feeds us and cares for us and produces such variety of fruit, colored flowers and herbs!”

The poetic images of the Canticle reveal another layer of meaning to the sacred bond between mother and child, shawl and landscape.  Francis extends the bond between mother and child to the earth itself “who feeds and cares for us” like a mother.  In the Canticle that care is concretely symbolized by “such variety of fruit, colored flowers and herbs.”  Mother Earth feeds our bodies with her fruits, delights our souls with the beauty of colored flowers, and heals us with her medicinal herbs. The images on the shawl picture the same triad of fruit, flowers and herbs.  The specific symbolic expressions of motherly care in both the Canticle and Sacred Bond are identical.


Sacred Bond adds further expressions of the mother’s care. The child is wrapped carefully in a warm blanket and held securely in a pouch gently supported by the mother’s strong hands. The child’s head is covered by a knit cap, and the mother’s shawl draped over the child’s head offers further protection from the wind and cold.


Perhaps the most profound expression of her care is her serene and compassionate gaze. Children need more than food and warmth to survive and thrive. They need the love communicated in the smile and loving gaze of a mother and father.  In the moment captured in the painting the mother and child are not looking directly at one another. The child has tilted his or her head back just a bit to gaze in wonder at the stars. The mother seems to be looking inward in thought or contemplation.  When children feel secure in love they have the freedom to explore the environment beyond immediate presence to the mother knowing that she will be there when they return. 


In both the Canticle and Sacred Bond Mother Earth is not simply something that meets our physical needs. She is someone who loves and cares.  In Sacred Bond the someone behind the shawl of fruit, flowers and herbs is our sister, Mother Earth, with whom we can enter into a loving relationship.  By calling Earth our sister Francis is pointing to the fact that the Earth is a creature like us.  All created things share a bond as brothers and sisters who owe their existence to a Divine Creator. This is beautifully expressed in Laudate Si: On Care for our Common Home, the letter written to the world by Pope Francis:

“…as part of the universe, all of us, called into being by one Father, are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.” #89.


In both the Canticle and Sacred Bond there is no unbridgeable chasm between Creator and creature. Communing with Mother Earth and communing with God in and through Mother Earth are integral to one another.  Earth and the whole Cosmos are seen as holy, suffused with Spirit. As human beings we are linked with all creatures by unseen sacred bonds of deep affection and humble respect.   

Evolution of Compassion

One early viewer of Sacred Bond described the mother as “an icon of compassion.”  I believe he was responding to the mother’s tender care for her child who is warmly wrapped in a blanket, wearing a purple knit cap, covered by the mother’s shawl, and securely, yet gently, held in her arms.   Her loving attention to the child’s needs speaks to her compassionate care and deep bond of love with her child. The development of that bond is not confined just to infancy or to our individual lives.  As Charlene Spretnak explains in her book, Missing Mary, the bond of compassion between mother and child has deep evolutionary roots and a potentially universal scope that has yet to be fulfilled:  


Compassion as an evolutionary achievement can be traced in the story of life on earth.  The bond between mother and child, which first emerged, in mammals, some 200 million years ago, was a new power in the unfolding story.  Natural selection favored this power, in that offspring that bonded with their mother had a better chance of survival.  The bond of compassionate behavior then surfaced between animal siblings.  Eventually it emerged within kin groups, although fighting still took place with other kin groups.  All of these developments were favored by evolutionary dynamics and continued into the human species.  Mary the Compassionate Mother may be seen as the culmination of this progression because no one is outside the embrace of her outstretched arms or beyond the reach of her bountiful grace, visited upon the whole world and the entire cosmos.”  (p. 99)


Spretnak’s vision reveals the depth and breadth of the sacred bond between mother and child.  On the one hand, it originates deep in our genetic heritage, extending beyond our own species to ancient mammalian ancestors on our evolutionary tree.  That bond eventually grew beyond the individual mother-child relationship to include siblings, kin groups, tribes and whole nations.  Seen in this larger context the worldwide immigration crisis and the growing threat of climate change to vast numbers of species can be seen as urgent challenges to develop ever wider, more inclusive kinship bonds not just with our own species, but with all life on earth and ultimately with the cosmos itself. 

The image of the Compassionate Mother directs our attention towards this reality of interconnection at all levels of the cosmos. These interconnections already exist, though we remain largely unaware of them.  Our challenge is to awaken to the truth of the Universal Sacred Bond of love and compassion and embody it in our fractured world.

The Mayan mother in the painting can be seen, then, as a symbol that points simultaneously to several dimensions of reality.  At one level she is simply an ordinary mother from somewhere in Central America walking on a mountain path. On another she represents the leading edge of an ancient path of genetic and cultural development that has gradually extended the sacred bond of kinship to family, tribe and national groups. She can also represent the Compassionate Mother’s truly universal sacred bond of love that extends to the entire human race and the earth itself with all its creatures.  

There are still more dimensions to the image of the mother. As a poor, indigenous woman the Mayan mother can be seen as a symbol of those who have historically been excluded from full human community. But she is also a symbol of action toward a more just and inclusive world.  She and her child seem to be stepping out of the painting and “crossing the border” into our space. We as viewers are faced with the challenge of how we will respond to them, not just as painted images, but as living symbols of immigrants around the world.

Such “moments of truth” are being enacted globally as immigrants cross borders and step into the space of nations that face the challenge of how to respond to them. Will they simply react in fear and protect “their” space?  Or will they embrace the invitation to extend their sense of kinship to the “others” and collaborate with them in creating a more just world in which “no one is outside the embrace of her [the Compassionate Mother’s] outstretched arms or beyond the reach of her bountiful grace, visited upon the whole world and the entire cosmos”?

Tearing at the Sacred Bond

In June, 2018 I spent about three weeks painting the faces of the mother and child.  June was also the month in which the policy of separating parents from children at the border became public, though the policy had actually gone into effect six months earlier.

Even before Sacred Bond was complete people began to comment that the painting was a timely response to what was happening at the border. The mother’s facial features and her traditional Mayan clothing linked her to communities of indigenous people in Central America, especially Guatemala which was the origin of many of the recent immigrants. The painting depicts a mother’s night journey along a lonely mountain path holding her precious child. Some viewers saw the mother and child as immigrants seeking asylum due to dangerous or oppressive conditions in their home country.  Others made the link between their journey and the Gospel story of the desperate flight of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents. 

In June I was searching for a title for the painting.  One morning I read in the newspaper the words of a ruling by federal judge Dana Sabraw on the immigration policy of separating parents from children.  He wrote that allegations brought against the policy "describe government conduct that arbitrarily tears at the sacred bond between parent and child."  His words inspired me to choose “Sacred Bond” as the title of the painting.

I was also struck at the time that all five living ‘first ladies” took a strong, non-partisan stand condemning the separation policy.  They described that policy with powerful words like “cruel, immoral, heart-breaking, disgraceful and shameful.”  They pointed to the need to transcend partisan divides and respond to the humanitarian crisis with the “heart” and not just the “law.” They spoke from experience as mothers who knew the importance of the bond between parents and children and the harmful consequences of arbitrarily tearing at that bond. Their passionate condemnations implicitly affirmed that a “sacred bond” was involved. A higher morality, a sense of compassion and recognition of our common humanity was essential to address the full dimensions of the crisis.

Sacred Bond invites us to cultivate that level of compassionate response by taking a long, loving look at the faces of the mother and child. If we take time to really see the mother and child with open eyes and open heart we may come to a deeper personal recognition of their individuality, humanity, and identity as images of God. Gazing at their faces can help us move beyond abstractions to a visceral feeling of their unique value as persons and the sacredness of the bond between them. 

Contemplative vision and a sense of compassion naturally move toward fulfillment in daily life when we begin to transfer the “heart-seeing” we practice in contemplation to the immigrant parents and children suffering now in their homelands and at our borders. The heart-seeing becomes the kind of “touchstone of discernment” described in the blog post of March 15th. When we test possible responses and courses of action related to the crisis against the contemplative wisdom and compassion of the heart what happens? What path forward begins to reveal itself?

Dream Work with a Sacred Image

I received a letter recently from a life-long contemplative who described a dream she had shortly after receiving a print of Sacred Bond. “I’ve been pondering a frame [for Sacred Bond] and last night in a dream I saw her in a dream catcher.  The icon was within the dream catcher.”  Her image of “the icon within the dream catcher” suggested to me that perhaps “dream work” could be a way to enter more deeply into the meaning of Sacred Bond. 

This intuition was supported by my experience of painting which was similar to a “waking dream.” I had an initial plan for the painting, but as the creative process unfolded, I made changes to the night sky, landscape, and faces of the Mother and Child as my imagination fashioned new images that transformed the plan in unexpected ways. I was “dreaming the image onward” as I painted, “catching” intuitions, images and feelings as they emerged from my psyche and then making changes in the painting that some of those inner inspirations suggested. 

As this process continued day dreams and stories began to emerge.  I began to wonder: Why are the mother and child were on the road before daybreak?  Where are they coming from?  Where are they going?  The path behind them disappeared as it descended into a valley blanketed in thick fog.  What was beneath that fog?  A village?  Their home?  Many possible answers presented themselves.

Similar questions emerged as I imagined their future: Where are they headed?  Since they stood in the forefront of the painting, I could see nothing in front of them.  There were no visual hints as to where the path was leading.  Are they leaving home? Are they on the road as immigrants?  Later, I had the thought that what was in front of them was the room in which I kept the painting.  Were the mother and child visiting me? Were they about to step into my space? Why? What was the purpose of such a visit?

More interior questions also presented themselves: What are the mother and child feeling at this moment on the journey?  Can I read their feelings from their faces?  How different the faces of the mother and child are!  What are these faces saying to me? Again, many possibilities presented themselves.

This approach does not attempt to analyze or interpret the painting, but to enter into it through imagination, to allow the feelings, intuitions and fantasies evoked by the images of the painting to lead the way.  Dreaming the painting onward creates an inner space for meanings and feelings to emerge that are uniquely personal to each individual. 

I invite you to experiment with this process.  See where it takes you.  After each “dreaming it onward” meditation take time to record in writing, drawing or some other medium what came up for you.  Sit with it for a while.  Feel free in future meditations to pursue themes that feel unfinished or that appear to hold further possibilities.

Images of the Soul and Touchstones of Discernment

In the previous post I explored the experience of communion with an icon in which one steps through the door of the icon into the spiritual presence which it represents.  I shift from looking at the icon to looking out from the icon at the world.  I see the world with the eyes and love the world with the heart of the holy person pictured in the icon.  In Sacred Bond, for example, I felt I was beginning to share in the wonder and awe of the Child’s vision and the love and care of the Mother’s heart.  I remember saying to myself, “This is what it’s like at my core. This is a picture of my soul.”  I resonated with the words a friend wrote about the Mother in Sacred Bond: “She is in touch with the depth of her soul” and “her heart is connecting with the immediacy of her deep self.”  The process of painting and contemplating Sacred Bond was for me like a long retreat which forged a connection with my unique self which knows itself as integrally connected in compassion and love with the whole world and the Divine Presence which encompasses all.   

When such a connection is made it forms a touchstone for spiritual discernment.  I discover a sense of myself and the world not only as unconditionally loved by God, but also as participating now in Divine Love.  In the story of the baptism of Jesus this moment of discovery is expressed in the image of the Spirit descending like a dove upon him as his deep self is affirmed as the beloved child of the Father by a voice from heaven. These are symbolic ways of expressing a reality hidden from our ordinary senses.  In Sacred Bond a similar truth is conveyed visually through the image of a Mother embracing her Child with loving care.  Both the Baptism story and Sacred Bond point beyond themselves to an identity rooted in an experience of unconditional love—in the Baptism story by a Divine Father and in Sacred Bond by a Holy Mother.

Once I know who I am that identity is put to the test.  The question becomes: How do I stay true to my deep self in the everyday demands and difficult decisions of life?  There is no method or formula that can answer that question with certainty, but regularly spending time with a sacred image that opened the door to the Divine Presence is a practice that has helped me.  The image is not just a visual reminder of a past experience.  It puts me in touch with an unfolding process deep in my soul and in the world around me.  The relationship with the sacred image deepens a felt connection not with the outer form of the image, but with the living Presence that is embodied in the image and seems to shine through it.  

I test the choices I meet in everyday life against the evolving sense of who I am and who God is for me. Are the choices I face consonant with that unique identity in God and compassion for the world around me?  Are my choices transparent to the Divine light within me?  Often these questions do not have quick or easy answers.  I need to live into them before the way forward becomes clear enough for a choice to be made.  Even then some uncertainty and a sense of mystery often remain.  The goal, however, is not certainty, but integrity, trust and deeper self-knowledge.  Even mistakes and failures along the way can further deepen compassion, love, humility and freedom if I continue to look and listen for Divine Life and Love unfolding in me and around me.

Icon Gazing: Communion in Wonder and Love

In the last few posts I have been exploring ways that icons can reveal the Divine Presence.  In one post I described how spontaneous verbal conversations can arise when viewing an icon.  Words surface in awareness unbidden.  Sometimes these words seem to come from us.  They express our deep desires, fears and hopes.  At other times the words feel like they come from beyond us, from the Divine Presence itself or from the person in the icon who mediates that Presence.  This kind of inner dialogue through words and images unfolds gradually, perhaps interspersed with silent pauses of various lengths. 

In another post I described how a conversation can take place through feelings and forces evoked by the icon. These internal impulses and movements of emotion and will sometimes involve words and symbols that help carry the feeling. At other times the impulses are felt directly with little verbal or symbolic expression. I gave the example from my own life of how the dynamic starry sky in Sacred Bond evoked and mirrored powerful feelings and forces in my life as I painted it.  Wrestling with these powers in my life and in the painting over several months began to work changes in my thinking and feeling at a depth I did not fully understand or control. Eventually, the wrestling led to new insight and a sense of balance and integration.

In this post I want to move a step further and describe what can happen when conversation transforms into silent union in wonder and love.  For me this transformation began to take place when I painted the faces of the Mother and Child.  It took about three weeks to capture the quality of wonder and awe on the Child’s face and the grounded presence and inward gaze of the Mother’s eyes.  When I moved on to paint other parts of Sacred Bond I came back frequently to simply gaze without words at these two luminous faces. The Mother’s face drew me into a sense of peace and calm.  She seemed absorbed in an invisible Reality and grounded solidly in her true self as she walked and held her child. There was no separation in her between contemplation and her loving care for her child.  At times I felt I was not so much looking at her as communing with her in a deep and mysterious interior space we both shared.  

Similarly, I felt I shared the wide-eyed awe and wonder of the Child when I, too, would get lost in wonder at the starry sky.  Communion was happening.  I was not looking at the Child, but gazing at the Cosmos with the Child’s eyes and responding with the Child’s feelings of awe and wonder.

I felt I was stepping into the inner worlds of both Mother and Child, or that they were stepping into my inner world.  Just as they were bonded to one another in a deep and intimate way, I felt bonded with both of them at a level beyond words and feelings.  In those moments I was no longer seeking the Divine Presence but simply leaning back into a Presence that already supported me, just as the Child leans back in trust into the Mother’s arms. There is no method or technique involved at this level, just surrender in trust to a grace that already supports us. We let go of effort and simply rest in a stillness surrounded by silence.

Icon Gazing Part Three: A Conversation through Feelings

When we gaze at an icon there is more going on than a conversation through words and thoughts.  Feelings and impulses deeper than words can emerge that range from subtle, barely conscious stirrings to strong, emotionally intense eruptions.  A “conversation” with an icon can take place through these spontaneous movements of feeling.  Visual images have the capacity to bypass the verbal mind and touch this affective level directly.  For example, several people reported that they were touched, stunned, even moved to tears, when they first saw Sacred Bond. Their attention was immediately grabbed and held by a compelling power.  Only later could they begin to put words to these spontaneous felt responses. 

When I began to paint Sacred Bond I was involved in a similar conversation through feelings and forces deeper than words. A line from the poet Auden came to me which described my state:  “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.”  I felt there were internal and external “powers” at work related to a health crisis in my family that were radically changing my everyday life. This upheaval led me to choose a portion of the Milky Way as a background for the painting. The dynamic night sky expressed for me the feeling of being “lived” by deep and mysterious forces that I could neither understand nor control. 

As I worked on the stars I slowly began to discern differences between the two halves of the sky. The left half had brighter light and the stars were more tightly knit. The light seemed to pulse upward in distinct bursts.  The right half was darker and its patterns seemed to be breaking apart, falling down and away. The black background of infinite space was visible through large cracks between clusters of stars.  This living night sky spoke to my experience of searching for patterns and meaning in the crisis I faced. Sometimes I glimpsed light and order only to have that order break apart and insight slide into darkness again.  The alternation of darkness and light, order and chaos, hope and discouragement, joy and sadness, played itself out over several months. Gradually I began to sense a larger purpose at work that was transforming my life through these movements.  It was no longer a question of choosing one force over the other, but learning to walk a middle path between the forces, letting each one work on me as a greater and more inclusive whole began to form.

One does not need to be in crisis to experience such alternations of feeling while contemplating an icon.  For example, the initial feeling response to the tender intimacy between mother and child in Sacred Bond might be love and  joy, a sense of hope, sweet memories and tears of gratitude for being loved by God and others. These feelings may continue to bring nourishment for days or weeks.  Then, unexpectedly, other feelings surface. Memories of not being loved by family members, lovers, friends, or mentors in one’s life emerge.  Feelings about sacred bonds that have been broken through betrayal, estrangement or death return.  Anger, hurt, and tears of grief for losses long buried arise unbidden.  Wordless longings for healing are felt deep within one’s soul.  Paradoxically, the beautiful image of a sacred bond of love has evoked both joy and sorrow, hope and discouragement, peace and distress.  The spiritual challenge is to stay with these alternations and let this conversation of feelings and forces continue until they gradually impart a wisdom deeper than words and a peace which surpasses understanding.

The next post will explore what it means to move beyond conversation with an icon to “Communion in Wonder and Love” with the Divine Presence mediated by the icon.

Icon Gazing Part Two: A Conversation in Words

In this post I’d like to give some examples of how a “conversation in words” can take place in gazing at an icon. That conversation can take place at many levels, from simply paying attention to words and thoughts that arise as we contemplate an icon all the way to transformative, inspired encounters in which our lives are deeply changed.

Let’s start with “ordinary” conversations. In quietly gazing at an icon we may find ourselves aware that words are spontaneously arising in our consciousness: “Please help me!” or “Thank you!” or “So-and-so is in need of your healing.” Words from a familiar prayer like the Lord’s Prayer or Hail Mary may come to us with a new sense of conviction. “Hail Mary, full of grace…” may seem deeply true. “Yes, you are full of grace…and you’ve shared that grace with me!” Whatever way they arise such words can become part of an ongoing conversation that can over time establish an intimate relationship with the person represented in the icon.

Author David Richo in his book, When Mary Becomes Cosmic, gives two examples of conversations that occurred while he was gazing at images of Mary. The first involved a painting of the Madonna holding the infant Jesus and smiling at him. Richo writes, “I felt her warmth in that moment and was so touched that I spontaneously prayed to Mary, ‘Hold me that way.’ I think it’s the best prayer I ever said to her.” Those four words, “Hold me that way,” expressed a deep desire in David’s heart evoked by the painting. There is an ancient Christian saying, “Short prayer pierces heaven.” This is surely an example of such prayer.

David describes a second encounter with a statue of Mary in Rome. He was part of a large crowd passing by the statue and could not stop to contemplate it. As he glanced back after he had passed by, he heard a voice speaking clearly inside him: “Imagine, that presence is what is inside each of us, something that beautiful, powerful, and perfect.” David comments that he felt he was hearing Mary speak to him through these words. “It was the immortal feminine revealing itself in mortal words.” The depth and quality of inspiration felt like it was clearly beyond his ordinary mind. Though such powerful experiences are relatively uncommon they represent another way in which a conversation with an image can take place.

Another powerful example of a conversation with an image through words happened recently when I sent a digital photo of Sacred Bond to Rita Kowats who had contacted me about an article I had written. Rita wrote back a day or two later: “When I opened Sacred Bond, these words rushed in, ‘I see you.’" When I invited Rita to say more, she responded, “Not wanting intellect to get in the way, I opened her up again and just wrote stream of consciousness, as though speaking directly to her: “I see you.  I see the whole you.  I see the you for which there are no words.  I see the spaces where your spirit lives- spaces connected and spaces waiting for connection. I see you not IN the universe, but AS the universe.” Rita wondered how this conversation might continue to change and develop with further viewings of the image. Her experience is an example of how a conversation can unfold spontaneously over time. The conversation started with three simple words, “I see you.” When she stayed with these words and opened herself to what might arise, more words began to flow revealing new depths of meaning as she gazed at the image a second time.

In the next post I want to move beyond “conversation in words” to explore “conversations through feelings and forces” that can occur while gazing at an icon.

Icon Gazing as a Spiritual Practice: Part One

On the website page “An Icon for Our Times” I wrote that icons, both ancient and new in style, aim to be windows on the Divine either through traditional religious imagery or through the radiance and vibrancy of their color as Van Gogh expressed it. But how do we go about looking through that window?

A first step is to find an image that captures your attention, touches or moves you in some way. Perhaps you feel a sense of harmony and beauty that is attractive to you. Or the image evokes a sense of wonder and fascination. Perhaps you feel a bit disturbed, as if the image is touching a vulnerable place that you are not so sure you want to explore. Whatever the “hook” is, it is saying, “Pay attention! There is something here for you to explore.” You may have a pretty good sense of what that is, or you may feel completely in the dark.

Whatever grabs your attention in the picture is a link to something in your heart. In that sense, it can feel like the picture is choosing you as much or more than you are choosing it. Since imagery is the language of feeling, it reaches beyond thought to deeper layers of your being not easily put into words.

Let’s say Sacred Bond has caught your attention and stirred a felt response. How might you explore that spontaneous response more deeply? One way is to simply spend regular time with the image in a relaxed, attentive way. It’s helpful if you can do this for 10 or 15 minutes a day, though that time may increase as you begin to “bond” with the image more deeply. It also helps if you are relatively undisturbed during the time you set aside. You’re not trying to accomplish anything in particular except to be open and receptive as you might be with a friend who stops by for a visit. Usually such friendly encounters don’t have an agenda. Each person just shares what’s on their mind and heart as the other listens. At some point the roles switch. The conversation continues to follow its own spontaneous course

So it is with gazing at a sacred image. Be open to what the image is “saying” to you in its nonverbal language of color, form and symbol. What feeling does the picture as a whole convey to you? What do its various parts convey? In Sacred Bond, for example, you might focus on the mother’s face as a window on her soul. What does she seem to be feeling? At some point you may notice that her quality of feeling touches and evokes feelings, images and memories of your own. You may want to simply receive and note these quietly in yourself. Or you may feel moved to express them to the Mother silently or aloud. After a time you can return to simply gaze at her interlaced hands to receive what they might communicate or stir in you. And then listen for your own response. Let the dialogue unfold in its own way and in its own time.

To be continued…