A few years ago, if anyone had asked me, “what does art have to do with monasticism,” I probably would have pondered it for a split second and said, “uh…nothing?” And, I probably would not have been alone in that response. At first glance the question seems to be like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges, or as the British put it, chalk and cheese.
But fortunately, I then had the chance to get to know some artists from the many arts programs sponsored by Spirit Center. And, for the past few years, I’ve been privileged to coordinate our Artists-in-Residence Program, inviting artists to come for up to a month, live with the sisters, and have the time and space to simply create their art. After all this I would answer the question “what does art have to do with monasticism?” quite differently.
For a while I was a vocation director for the Monastery. That meant I would talk to women who were exploring whether they wanted to enter the Monastery to become a sister. Sometimes people would ask me “so why did you become a sister?” I would occasionally say “because I had to.” I quit saying it because too many people would interpret it to mean that I was forced somehow. But that wasn’t it at all. I suspect that the reality is that becoming a sister, a monastic, is like becoming an artist. It is something you have to do if you want to become who you truly are.
I’m not an artist but in being around the artists, those who come for artist residencies or participate in our various arts programs, I am struck by the deep, profound sense of call that artists seem to exude. They seem singularly focused, disciplined, and even driven to explore something beyond themselves that is expressed through their art.
Indeed, it feels like that sense of being compelled, called if you will, is the heart of what it means to be an artist. It’s a comparable experience to those of us who are monastics and feel compelled, called by the transcendent that we call God. It is more than simply wanting to do something, it is a strong sense that this is the only way to know fulfillment, whether through artistic expression or the monastic life.
This sense of call is usually quite different than something that feels good or comfortable. To stretch the analogy even further, hobbyists may be to artists what Sunday Church goers are to monastics. The person who likes to knit in the evenings, take pictures when going on a trip, make elaborate doodles in margins is doing so for fun, relaxation, to feel good. Similarly, the person who shows up on Sunday morning, believes in God and tries to lead a good life, is often feeling good, comfortable, and reenergized. But for the artist or the monastic the motivation and experience is actually quite different. To practice art, to live the monastic life is to surrender to a calling, to go beyond the comfortable, the conventional, the easy. Monasticism and art stretch you, push you, take you beyond yourself.
Creating something new is the essence of both monasticism and art. In monastic life it is about the transformation of our essential selves, becoming the image of God we were created to be. Art is the tangible expression of something deeply personal that the artist feels compelled to create. This process of creation is not easy even if it is compelling. A popular quote erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway is: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” In monastic life Benedict requires that newcomers stand outside the gates of the monastery for several days before they are even let in to test whether they are really called.
But what happens if you sit down and bleed or come into the monastery after having to wait at the gate? Perhaps the answer is the fulfillment that comes from answering a call that comes from beyond oneself, that only by answering that call can one truly become oneself. The way of the seeker, whether artist or monastic is not easy, creating something new, a new person, a new piece of art, is slow, painful, and even terrifying. But to do it is to feel a fulfillment, that out of the struggle something beyond our limited selves has been born. The second century theologian Irenaeus famously said: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Perhaps the monastic and the artist share the experience of knowing that through the struggle comes the feeling of being fully alive.