Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Little More about Painting Flowers

A couple of months ago while visiting a recent exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art, I was swept off my feet before I even got to the third painting among the dozens of still life paintings, drawings, and collages that made up the exhibit. But it wasn't even a work of art that stunned me; it was the written text that accompanied a 16th century Flemish (I think) painting. I know I took out pen and paper and wrote the quote down, but I've not been able to find where I wrote it, so this is from memory.

The text said that the painter of the particular, very detailed still life had been a monk in a Flemish monastery. (I just had to look up Flemish--I was feeling unsure whether it was another word for Belgian or for Dutch--in fact it refers to the people, language, etc. of Flanders. It is in fact the Dutch language spoken in Belgium, one of Belgium's two official languages. The other language I believe is French, because my college boyfriend and I were once given a ride in the Loire valley by a Belgian couple in their tiny Citroen. We managed to converse via my French, but they spoke Flemish to one another, while Jeff and I of course spoke English. I am certain that their knowledge of English was far better than our knowledge of Flemish.)

But I do digress, rather far. Back to the text with the painting at the museum.

It said something about how the close observation and rendering of flowers was seen to be an aid to the contemplation of God. Well, that got my attention! Not that I haven't felt or experienced that myself, but to read that some male religious authority, even a whole religious order or institution believed and declared that four centuries ago, and even supported it (read on)--that felt different to me! 

I wonder if I was staring at part of the divide between Catholic and Protestant spiritualities, or the chasm between the pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment relationship between science and religion, particularly Christianity (as well as Islam and Judaism). Science, one expression of the close observation of nature, was for centuries seen as a companion of religion, and all pathways of deeper knowledge about the world we live in--botany, astronomy, medicine, even mathematics!--were honored as ways of knowing the ultimately Unknowable. Art also has a stronger, more honored place in Christianity before the Reformation, with some forms of Protestantism so suspicious of imagery, music, and the like. (Think Chartres Cathedral vs. a plain white-walled Congregational meeting house.)

Without going too far down this path this morning, I will only say that human love and contemplation of the created world has not always enjoyed a central place in Christian theology, liturgy or practice, particularly in its American expressions. In my experience, love and contemplation of the created world have usually gotten a kind of a sideways nod--"Well, yes, dear, that's all very nice, but...what does it have to do with Jesus? what does it have to do with the cross and salvation? What does it have to do with this week's Scripture lessons?" (We might ask, what does it have to do with the oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and begin to get somewhere.)

When I still had a practice of going on silent retreats, the best part for me usually had to do with being outside, talking to trees and sometimes even "dancing" with them, drawing ferns and wildflowers, wandering in woods and meadows, conversing with birds. But somehow that's now what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be having three sustained "prayer periods" a day, or meditating on some passage of Scripture and letting it illuminate some heavy issue in my life. 

"Have you asked Jesus about that?" a retreat director might say. And I would shrink inside, crumple with a little more guilt and shame. "No," would have been the honest answer. "Why would I?" No wonder I stopped going on "directed retreats" and started "directing" myself--hanging out in the silence and the natural world, sometimes with art supplies. But always with a nagging sense that I was supposed to be doing my retreats some other way. Not trusting myself. And certainly not trusting delight.

To be fair and balanced, I did once long ago, when still a very new priest, tell my bishop that I had talked to and danced with some spruce trees while on a retreat. And he confessed his own "closet pantheism" in reply. I remember leaving that official meeting with effervescent joy and buying an ice cream cone on the way home to celebrate.

But I do digress again.

I didn't think about all of that while standing in the museum. I only registered viscerally that that little piece of text and what followed were chipping away at something in me, maybe even blasting holes in some armor of mine, or at some sort of wall.

The text continued by saying that the painter of the painting had been "employed by the monastery as a painter of flowers." 

"No way!" I thought.  "What a deal! Sign me up! I want to be employed as an observer and painter of flowers!" 

A whole cascade of similar sentiments tumbled through my mind and body. I felt breathless, dumbfounded. I had "glimpsed myself" in a piece of text on a museum wall--a bit of print I can imagine lots of viewers passed right over. 

I have been a close observer and a delighter in the close observation of flowers, fruits and vegetables, plants in general, for a long long time. In that sense it has been an "occupation" of mine. But it has not been a primary source of income for me, has not been my paid employment. A primary, though perhaps largely unacknowledged, source of sustenance and of great joy, yes; a natural way of getting out of my head and into a more focused, present attention; and an avenue for being "a bride married to amazement" to use Mary Oliver's lovely phrase.

To imagine that such an occupation was once upon a time truly honored as a way of contemplating God and was supported with financial reward (meaning, I assume, that the selling of the monk's paintings was a source of income for the monastery that fed, housed, and clothed him)--well, that just set me humming. 

And the humming continues. 


Anonymous said...

It's so wonderful when we get a glimpse of ourselves at a time or in a place or through a person we would never have anticipated. Like bumping into your Self as you turn a corner!

De-light-ful piece. Pun intended.

Cori Lynn Berg said...

Thank you Suki. Yes.. this is me too! I feel like that, "Yes, but what does it have to do with Jesus?" rings through my head all the time. It's funny.. cause I call my blog Sacred Arts, because to me contemplating the connection to our world and each other, is an act of connecting to God. Sometimes I use blatantly religious wording in my writing, but very rarely straightforward religious symbols. It's hard for people to see that as religious art. Guess that's the use I have for my seminary degree, ha ha, to be allowed to use the word sacred...

Sukie Curtis said...

Yes, both humorous and sad--"to be allowed to use the word sacred" it might seem we need to have gone to seminary. And my response is still, for the time being, to prefer largely to avoid words like sacred, holy, and spiritual. Unless I am backing them up with something utterly concrete, physical, sensuous, embodied, and lived. As if I am bending over backwards to avoid being misunderstood as speaking of something disconnected from this world and this life.

Thank you both for your comments!

Jeannette said...

Many flowers have lovely fine lines in them...I think if one worships the creation itself then pantheism is one's creed..but if one marvel's at the creation earnestly seeking to be touched and know of the Creator...why that has everything to do with Jesus.
If the rocks can cry out, if need be, the flowers surely have something to say in the meantime...

May you paint the flowers ( or radishes)as if it is your primary tongue. And if by painting you are listening, how fortunate is that?

Jeanne Quereau, MA, LPC said...

Hi, Suki,

I saw your post on "Awaken Your Entrepreneur," and came to your site. Such beautiful art and writing! What serendipity to find you and your work. I love this aspect of our times!

Jeanne Quereau

Jan said...

I love those electric jolts of realization. By coincidence, someone this morning on Facebook posted this NY Times story about the measurable healing power of trees:

Also, A.S. Byatt wrote a magnificent short story about the Spanish painter Velasquez. I'll dig it up and send you a copy.