A Christian painter explains his vocation
As a teenager I was inspired and helped to pray by a book called Prayers of Life by Fr Michel Quoist. This, his first and most popular book, completed at the age of 33, made him a sort of Henri Nouwen of his day.
Quoist’s father died when he was only 14 and he had to go out to work, and so became involved in the Young Christian Workers movement, eventually embracing a priestly vocation. For all of his life he remained involved in Catholic Action and social issues, becoming parish priest in a poor quarter of Le Havre.
There was a grounded quality to his published meditations which became an informative and useful corrective to my youthful, essentially escapist but sincere fantasies of would-be mysticism. His prayers modelled a way of bringing real-life experiences, and the sometimes disturbing emotions and questions they engendered, to prayer.
In the introduction Quoist makes a pitch for natural theology, saying: “If we knew how to look, all life would become a sign.” I was recently reminded of this simple invitation to contemplation when I attended an exhibition of contemporary Christian art in the parish hall at the Jesuit parish in Farm Street, Mayfair.
Some of the paintings on show were by my dear friend Francis Hoyland, who embodies my ideal of the Christian artist. Painting is for him a vocation, a way of looking at the world so as to see the inscape of the Creator’s loving thought giving form to creation. He gave a brilliant talk at the viewing, a kind of apologia for the Christian artist. It was characteristically modest and shorn of pretension, but of great profundity, and I hope it will be published in full.
“When I draw from life,” he begins, “I sit down, hold a pencil, fight with the paper, gaze at my subject. At first I am appalled by the difficulty of the situation. These things are so different: paper, pencil, my model and myself.” As he continues to gaze, he discerns a single shape and his pencil records it. Then another, connected shape follows. As much as drawing what is there, he goes on to explain that he also draws what, in a strict sense, is not there, that is, the shape between two limbs or within the curve of a limb, for example. These shapes do not exist in the way that the model exists as a form in space, and yet they are crucial to the apprehension of the form. He continues: “It is not only the model I am drawing. It is the whole sweep of space around and about her and myself.”
Already he has given the mills of my mind enough to grind away for ages. How often I approach prayer in the same way that I thought one approached drawing, which is with the sole focus of capturing a two-dimensional form to my personal satisfaction, as though prayer were merely a technical question of rendering God conceptually so as to be able to understand him: spiritual draughtsmanship.
How rarely am I humble enough to begin with that sense of how appallingly difficult the task is: the difference between subject and object and the means I have to bridge the gap. Failure to do so forces me back to the self, away from the object. I am too easily tempted to give up on the basis of the apparently insurmountable difficulty and my dissatisfaction with what I can produce.
I lower my eyes, I stop looking at the object, stop allowing it to inform what I see, and become obsessed with my image of it, or my own skill at making an image of it, because insidiously, subtly, I am less interested in facing reality and learning painfully to mirror it than I am in the fantasy of controlling it.
I find great comfort in the thought that the spaces in between are what reveal the form of the object. Prayer is so often about the spaces in between, which, like the spaces in the fold of a limb, do not exist as such; but, if I continue to gaze and persist in a humble desire to be acted upon by the apprehension of what is other, it will reveal the reality of a presence and form through absence and shadow.
“My task as an artist,” Francis reflects, “is to meditate on separate things in such a way that I sense the context in which they and everything else are held.” This is also the task of the would-be mystic, who sees God revealed in all things, even the space where He apparently is not.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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