Monday, March 18, 2013

Art as spiritual exercise

Yesterday, March 17, I gave half of the sermon at my church, Unitarian Universalist of Indianapolis.  What follows is the text (more or less) of my sermon.

"Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece."
- Letter of Pope John Paul II to Artists

When my first husband and I were getting married, we went to couples counseling.  Since I was planning to keep a Jewish household without converting to Judaism, the rabbi asked me what I considered to be MY religion.  I was raised Catholic, but I had long since abandoned the church.  Before I could form a reply, my fiancée jumped in and said, "Art.  Her religion is ART."  I was surprised, but as I thought about it I realized it was true.  If one's faith is the search for connection with the ineffable, the sublime, the infinite, then that well describes my relationship with art, even before I articulated my desire to be an artist, at the age of 15, after seeing an exhibition of Leonardo daVinci's notebooks.  As early as I can recall I loved art, worshipped at the altar of art.

This congregation claims many artists as members.  Painters.  Writers.  Potters.  Knitters.  Actors.  Photographers.  Dancers.  Sculptors.  Musicians.  All variations of MAKERS.  I haven't done a formal poll, but I'm sure we have representation in more art forms than I can name today.  And though most of us may not think of it as our "religion", maybe we should. 

That claim, of art as religion, begs the question "What is art?"  For many people, there are rigid standards and definitions.  A Catholic standard, so to speak, and if a particular form of expression or medium doesn't meet up to all the qualifications, it is OUT.  Auf Wiedersehen

Where do you stand?  Is abstract art out and representational is in?  Or is abstract in but performance is out?  Is performance okay but functional or craft media like yarn or clay is out?  Is craft in but graffiti is OUT?  Or is all "art" a waste of time and a scam, and everyone should just collect comic books...?  Certainly there are as many viewpoints on art as there are religious sects, and the arguments over a definition can be just as bitter as the Crusades. 

Me, I subscribe to a very Unitarian Universalist viewpoint of art.  I don't decide what IS or IS NOT art.  If the maker or the viewer feels comfortable with calling something art, I consider that a valid statement.  I approach each piece of art on it's own merits, not how it adheres to the art standard.  I may not consider it great art, or even particularly GOOD art, but art is what we individually see as art.  Isn't that the UU view of religion, of the search for the sublime?  Every path to spirituality is valid, is to be respected and encouraged?  That all those paths bring us to a similar destination, even if we call it different names?

This past week another artist told me that most of the artists she knows and has known, over a multi-decade career in the arts across three continents, are not strongly religious, and many are staunchly non-religious.  She asserted the belief that where religious people pray to the divine, or meditate... artists make art. 

Like prayer, art is a way of connecting to the ineffable, to the spirit which moves within us all, which speaks in the language which has no words.  But where others speak to their gods, artists listen.  Where prayers ask, art answers. 

Artists may call it by different names.  Being in the groove. Being on a roll, listening to the muse.  When the words, colors, forms, stitches, notes, images pour out of you like water, like a swollen river, like high tide.  It's a heady feeling, and a beautiful one.

Skill, craftsmanship, media: these are merely the tools of the artist.  Do not be confused,  tools are not the art, only the vehicle.  Art happens not because the artist can turn a witty phrase of make paint take on the appearance of light.  Art happens when the artist reaches into the spirit moving within each of us and shares a fragment of it with the world, makes a bit of the ineffable tangible, whether in paint, prose, stone, dance, sound, yarn...

The most important factor is the art, the risk the artist takes in making something without always knowing how it will work out.  here we all, so many artists, right here.  And not one of us is Michelangelo, Mozart, Picasso, Hemingway.  We know we will never be those people.  But knowing this doesn't dissuade us.  None of us say, "Well, drat!  I can't ever compete with the art of those people, I should just give up painting and collect stamps!"

No.  Because art isn't a competition.  Last week I offered to teach Suzanne how to knit.  She told Jamie who said he was planning to learn it as well, and that the knitting group had also made him the same offer.  They began to banter about how each would out-knit the other, that they would see who could learn faster, who would KNIT faster.  I found myself calling after them "You can't make knitting into a competition, that's like... like ... competitive meditation!"

Seriously, do you do that?  Do you sit in an ashram and think "I am SO much better at mindlessness than that guy!  He is totally not getting it.  Poor dude.  Wait, I'm having thoughts!  I'm not doing it right.  Arg!"

So what is art?  Is it an object?  A picture?  A piece of music or storytelling?  The artist, the maker, defines the art.  The creator decides what the purpose, the spirit, is, not the public.  Perhaps you don't write or paint.  Perhaps you cook for your family.  Perhaps you knit hats for the poor and needy.  Perhaps you teach children how to read.  Are those art?  You are the one who decides.  You are the one who does it as a connection to the divine.  It is your creation.

This church, it's nothing but a building.  A building with people in it.  But just as the purpose of a cup is to hold the tea, the purpose of a sweater is to hold a person, this church is not the building, but the community we create together.

the magic yarn ball, ready to knit.  It took a lot of time to untangle!
I have an art project I'd like to make with everyone.  You may have noticed the yarn on your seats as you entered the sanctuary.  I'd like you to take your yarn and tie one end to your neighbors' yarn, one end to one end.  Please don't make a loop.  We are going to make one long piece of yarn, and we will wind it into a ball.  A magic ball.  A ball of yarn which surprises the knitter as each new piece of yarn comes into view.  This yarn that we are making will be knit into something: a blanket, or a wall-hanging for our church.  It will be here in the sanctuary each service until it is complete, and if you wish to knit on it, one stitch or many, I encourage you to do so.  Like our congregation, it will be a communal effort, a representation of our community, of the threads that singly are sparse, but together can be beautiful, can warm someone, can bring a smile or a memory.  Knitting is a simple thing, just making loops with a piece of string.  It's not the skill that is important, but the intention of the maker, or makers.  As we create a blanket, so we create our community, one stitch at a time, one connection at a time.

Like a meditation, art is a connection.  When the viewer connects to the spirit that moved in the artist then the art has come full circle.  It has fulfilled its purpose.  Let us all be artists.  Let us look within, and make art.  As a prayer, as a mitzvah, a blessing, a meditation.    Look at art as the connection, see the ineffable, the spiritual, the divine, that lives and flows within and through us all.  Share here, and everywhere.  Make your art.  


  1. What an inspiring sermon. Thanks for sharing here and on Ravelry, Cara.

  2. I love your description of the absurdity of competitive meditation. Darn, thinking about something... : ) I would like to follow your blog, but I don't see a link to do that.