This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. We are in the season of Advent and Elsa offers us a really beautiful reflection on a creative and honest way to engage spiritual practice. For more information about this series, click here.
Last week, while searching for something to inspire me for Advent 3C, I found these words on Jan Richardson’s Advent Door:
From time to time, someone will look at a piece of my art and ask, “So what does it mean?” As if meaning were the main thing. Or as if it could mean only one thing.
You can read the whole post here but I didn’t read any further. I still haven’t. Not this time anyway. I’m quite sure I did in 2009, but it didn’t fit what I needed for worship planning. I knew that I wasn’t going to be talking about paint. I was looking for something else. But, these words stayed with me. They crept into my consciousness and interrupted my novel reading on Saturday afternoon. They beckoned me away from my novel into my yet-to-be-unpacked studio and made me stand there before the bare easel and stare blankly.
Somehow, I ended up pulling out my paints and slapping on another layer to one canvas. And then a second canvas. I have been adding layers of paint to these two canvas for months. One of them is collaged with paperwork from my call process that only concluded a few months ago. Admittedly, it’s not so deep. It was a fit of rage that another church wasn’t what I had hoped. They were not the place was calling to me. I was frustrated so I ripped up their materials and pasted them to the canvas where those bulletins and church pamphlets still exist beneath layers and layers and layers of paint. On Saturday, I added another layer to the veneer.
And still, I remain unsatisfied. I would so like to believe that paint is part of my prayer language. I have been trying to realize that wish for the past several years. That may be why my painted prayers are more like fits. I get really into it and then become completely exasperated, asking myself, “What does it mean?”
Maybe I’m not supposed to ask that question. I’ve never quite figured that out about the spiritual life. Intellectually, I know that my spiritual practice encompasses everything I do and it’s not always rosy. But, Christ in a bucket. I’d really like for this to feel a little bit better. I’d like for these layers of paint to feel like they have some relationship to the hope and love that God offers me. I would really, really love it if I could finally feel like something on that canvas has real meaning. But I’m not there yet. (I’m stubborn. I believe I will get there somehow. It just hasn’t happened yet.) So, I keep painting. I keep trying to find meaning.
That’s what I really want. I want this painting — these layers of paint and my whole life — to mean something. I’m not sure that it really matters if someone else can see it. It’s not quite the gnawing question that Jan Richardson fields. Because for me it is the main thing. It might not have just one meaning. Maybe there will be many meanings, but I still haven’t figured out what that meaning is. I want it to appear in one of these layers of paint. I want that long-expected meaning to suddenly come together as one complete masterpiece. But it doesn’t happen that way. So, I guess that’s why they call this spiritual discipline thing a practice. Most of the time, it feels like I’m failing. It feels like I haven’t done anything to illuminate the divine I so need, but still, I wait. I pick up my paints and add another layer — hoping that this time, God will appear.
The Rev. Elsa A. Peters is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She currently explores her faith as the Pastor of the The United Churches of Olympia in Olympia, WA. She claims to believe in impossible things and blogs about them here.