During retreats, Ignatius of Loyola asks the one who is praying to keep sight of the larger picture. With that in mind, I begin with a quote from Mary Oliver:
When life is over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
As a young boy, I became excited about history and geography projects because I was able to devote time to drawing maps. To my astonishment, years later I found out my grandfather was a map-maker in World War I.
I enjoyed arts and crafts, but I had an older brother who received great acclaim for his drawings. He won awards and was good, so I never even bothered to spend any time developing my artistic skills because the family already had its artist. I had to find another purpose, so I devoted myself to intellectual pursuits, which I found fascinating, but I was not creating through art. I found new ways to create. I decided for myself that I would never be good enough as an artist. I gave myself poor advice and I listened to it.
I became a successful manager of technology projects at Eastern Bank, where I received affirmation upon affirmation, awards upon awards. I was mostly happy that the trajectory of my career was unfolding admirably, but I kept trying to find something deeper, something that would provide the proverbial cherry of meaning on the top of an ice cream sundae, what we call the magis, in my work.
Christ continued to speak to me to say: Come along. Let’s take a detour on this path. Mary Oliver again captures it well is this poem from West Wind:
Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives --
tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging
from the branches of the young locust trees, in early morning, feel like?
Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?
Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark acorn of your heart!
No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
that something is missing from your life!
Something was missing from my life. Entering the Jesuits was a crucial step for my life’s purpose and greater meaning because I received the privilege of entering into the long black branches of other lives, and I learned how to behold the person before me the way that God does. I continue to find my soul’s fulfillment as a Jesuit priest to give my life in service to others, but a funny thing happened along the way.
As Catholics, we are both a “now and not yet” people, meaning that we live fully for today but in realization of the world that is to come, and we are also a “both and” people. Choices do not have to be mutually exclusive. Christ showed me this during my ministry as pastor to the English-speaking people of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Since I was in a foreign land and I wanted something familiar, I sought out a chorus since I sang in the United States. I wanted to maintain work-life balance by finding a singing group that was English and Arabic. My attempts to find something was frustrating, so I asked a parishioner if she knew of any places that taught oil painting, an idea I had never entertained previously. What was I seeking?: a way to express my real self. I was in an unfamiliar culture and my ability to relate to others well was going to take some time, however, my art interests were about helping me relate to myself. I was challenged by demands all around me, but I was intrigued. I thought of the continuation of the quote from Mary Oliver.
Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot
in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself continually?
Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed
with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone?
Well, there is time left -- fields everywhere invite you into them.
And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?
Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!
I had to leave my desk and my adventure was just to begin. My priesthood has always been about hospitality and moving the Gospel outwards to those who doubt that God has any time for them. Partially, this is developed because my older sister was born with profound mental retardation and I always sought to have her voice heard. She deserved to be loved as a person just as you and I deserve to be honored and respected. Because of what she taught me, I want my priesthood, through my artwork, to help convey something meaningful. Art is real when it is attached to meaningfulness within our souls.
An Iraqi art teacher gave me drawing lessons, and after a short while he demanded that I learn to paint. Dipping my brush into oil paint felt real. I was part of a co-creating process, though I had no skills or knowledge. It was secretly fun and a little scary. Why scary? Because art exposes a person’s soul, just like a solo singer cannot hide from his or her voice. In the end, it is all you’ve got. Art communicates something essential and fundamental about a person’s perspective and vision. Art is truth, beauty, and it is real. Art is personal. An artist cannot hide from his or her work.
As I applied my first brush strokes to a blank canvas, I also stepped onto a theatre’s stage for the first time. Priest’s are typically reserved about they physical world, but I was asked to sing and to dance and to act on stage. This was more than I was seeking. I wanted to hide within a chorus.
Instead, I sang the Messiah in Arabic and I spent nights training my ear to listen to Arabic so I could perform in an improvised musical performance with a dreaded microphone taped to my mouth. The show, which was performed before a live audience a dozen times, was to be aired on Roya’ TV to be shown year after year. As a Catholic, I was part of a group that brought the first Christmas musical to the Muslim nation; we sang Hallelujah at Christ’s birth in a language similar to his native language – to a nation that never heard it performed before on its own soil – the very same soil where Our Lord walked, healed, and prayed.
You cannot run from art.
Art seeks the true self. You, like the Arts, have to find that true self. Only then can you be given and received as gifts. Ignatian spirituality teaches us that we are gifts to ourselves, gifts that are to be shared fully.
I discovered that being a priest and artist are entirely compatible. The theme of my priesthood is to celebrate what is right in the world. As a photographer, my camera captures the beauty I find in the common parts of our day, even in places of neglect and disregarded places. Everything has inherent beauty and the smallest details, the most overlooked parts, have a story to communicate. Sometimes I will go on a photo shoot with friends and when we share our photos, they ask, “Were we on the same walk? I don’t recognize anything about what you captured? Why did I not see this beauty?”
Whatever art we produce, it has to communicate a greater meaning. It is terrific to show a beautiful flower, but does it tell a larger story? If not, then it is merely a beautiful image, but it becomes art when it communicates a mood, a theme, when it makes people wonder, when it is given a title, when a tiny nearly-undiscovered detail brings meaning to a person’s consciousness, which causes them to say, “I want this.”
God speaks to us through our physical senses, which touches our heart and mind, which invigorates the imagination that gives meaning to our experiences. How do I choose? How does my art reveal my fundamental way I see the world? Can my pursuit of art express my vision of God’s world as richly as possible?
My new art career is taking me to places I never thought possible. I teach art and theology at Creighton University in Omaha, and in two weeks I am giving a creativity retreat in Stockholm, Sweden to those who want their prayer life to be enhanced from their traditional prayer devotions. The world is about unfolding who you are – gently, slowly, patiently, and letting the world behold you.
Parents, you have already blessed your sons by supporting their creative endeavors. You are launching them well. Do not forget to invest in yourself, for it is not too late. Come on a photo shoot with us, let’s plan a night of painting or making zen-tangles, join a local chorus, and watch how you discover a new gift. It is frightening. I’ve been asked to sing a solo and a duet for a Mendelssohn concert and it terrifies me, and what an exciting feeling that is. Let yourself feel once again. God may be inviting you on a new adventure. Give yourself over to it, and your life will be enriched.
I’ll conclude with another portion of Mary Oliver’s poems, called “A Summer Day.”
I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?