Art, Learning, Letting Go, prayer, spirit

Say What?

Alice Donovan Rouse - Reykjavík, Iceland


I believe in living a poetic life, an art full life. Everything we do from the way we raise our children to the way we welcome our friends is part of a large canvas we are creating.
– Maya Angelou
In college, I filled a general ed requirement with intro 3-D design. As a lifelong lover of poetry and dance, I had appreciated visual art only from a distance. I was itching to get in closer. This queer, feminist, antiracist, tree-hugging campus agitator had Things to Say, and my art was going to say them.

Every assignment, I bent myself to the work. My dowels and glue had powerful messages to impart, but for some reason, my classmates didn’t pick up on them. Neither did the professor who gave me a whole string of barely passing grades. After the fourth bombed assignment – I hacked up a 2×4 and suspended it from wires to represent political intrusion into women’s bodily autonomy (as gruesome as you might imagine) – I slunk into the professor’s office. She gently asked me what I had been trying to do with my last piece. After my 10-minute screed on the subjugation of reproductive freedom for profit, she smiled and leaned in. “Your art doesn’t need to say everything. Just let it say one thing.”

Just let it say one thing.

Such straightforward advice could only come from someone familiar with the components and how to use them. Just grab a handful of supplies, pluck an idea from anywhere, and begin. But what about those of us who have learned to define ourselves by struggle? We come up empty when nothing fights back. The advice made me a little dizzy, yet I took the opportunity to let go of what wasn’t working and try a new approach. It turned out that playing with the materials gave my art (and my classmates) a break. Quieting and simplifying invited a much deeper immersion in the creative act. All these decades later, I can still feel in my hands the pieces that took shape during the second half of that year.

The encouragement we hear in our Unitarian Universalist congregations to cultivate spiritual practice can similarly flummox us. Do we know what materials are available? How do we hold them and put them together? When we have so many Things to Say and Do, when the world is crying out for work of justice, love and peace, how do we choose one thing?

A little bit dizzy maybe, we scrounge up some supplies and begin.

I have been trying to learn to pray. Worship services and small-group ministries have introduced me to new ways of engaging in a conversation with the divine. Friends and fellow congregants have shared rituals and practices. So many options, yet I try to remember that the form of worship I choose does not need to do everything. At the end of the day, I simply light a candle.

Some nights, my partner and I share candle time, and other nights I go it alone. Either way, knowing the candle is waiting at bedtime offers extraordinary comfort. It stays with me as I move through the demands of my days, reminding me that its light can hold gratitude, loss and hope for what we might bring to life in this world. When the wick flames awake, it loosens my voice, calling on me to extend the prayer to neighbors and friends, to fellow inhabitants of this precious, beleaguered planet. It nudges me to reach further still, to share the prayer with those who act as agents of suffering.

The candle’s comfort can also burn. Its light has a way of calling from the shadows more than I feel prepared to take in. It illuminates the privilege from which I benefit and the hurtful inequity to which I contribute. The candle has me sit in the light of universal salvation baring all this brokenness. At times it feels like the candle is asking too much, but maybe I’m making the candle hold too much? I notice that I start falling away from nightly prayer as my demands on it mount. How will this ritual advance my career? Make me a better sister, daughter, partner, mom? Does it serve a greater good? Slow the melting ice caps? Boost the 401(k)? Train the dog to quit jumping?

Just let it say one thing.

Simplify, quiet, open to it. I return to the practice. Again. And yet again. Still trying to follow the wise counsel of that art professor, I am learning to let my prayer voice the one truth revealing itself today:

Spirit of Life, may these hands find the courage, skill and willingness to serve your light and do their part, wherever they reach, to cultivate Beloved Community in this lovely, hurting world.

Friends, I invite you to use what remains of these summer days to try teasing out one thread of the divine conversation. One loving kindness spoken as you tug weeds from between the tomato plants. One friendly exchange with the fellow on the median holding the cardboard sign. One greeting at a Sunday service when a visiting minister offers a new approach to worship. One choice to listen for what the divine flame is asking of you. Even if it feels unproductive, inconvenient or impractical, trust that your practice is saying one thing. Return to that practice until you start to hear it. A truth is finding its voice, and it is listening for yours too.

Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse (Reykjavík, Iceland) on Unsplash

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