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Lent 3: The Creative Process

19 March 2006
Exodus 20: 1-17, John 2: 13-22, Psalm 19, 7-14

Rabindranath Tagore said God respects me when I work, but he loves me when I sing and surely the luckiest people on earth are those whose work it is to sing, whether literally or metaphorically, as Robert Bridges describes:

'I love all beauteous things, I seek and adore them;
God hath no better praise and Man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them. I too will something make
And joy in the making altho' tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream remembered on waking.'

Beauty is important. Most artists - even in this postmodern age- are trying to create a work of beauty, and Mother Teresa called her missionary work in Calcutta: Doing something beautiful for God.

Buckminster Fuller said:
When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

Keats put it more elegantly:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know
.

Think of those who built the great medieval cathedrals throughout Europe; the sculpture and painting, the poetry and music, all inspired by Christianity. I have found only one biblical reference to using one's creative ability to the greater glory of God - Then I was the craftsman at His side: I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in His presence: Proverbs 8:30 -, but we would all recognise this outpouring of artistic expression as individual acts of worship.

There is also a sense in which all art is a manifestation of a spiritual process:

If they are any good, all works of art stimulate and affect both the artist and his audience. It doesn't seem to matter if the stimulated feeling is joyful or sorrowful. Often it is the shared experience that seems to inspire us...it is when we feel the pleasure of this inseparable bond with something or someone else that we feel a spiritual connection. The artist is an expert in responding to the subtle inner process [which the ancients called] the Muses but could also be called the unfolding and development of one's soul, for this inner journey is spiritual work. 'Beginning the Way of the Arts',Donald Matthews

An artist's description of the creative process sounds very like a Christian's description of attempts to develop a relationship with God. If the two paths are not identical, they are surely parallel, and images taken from the world of artistic endeavour can illuminate the pilgrim's progress. The first requirements of both are a lively imagination and a space free from other stimulus in which to be still and know. As Gauguin said: I shut my eyes in order to see.

Karl Weschke came to Britain as a prisoner of war and settled in Cornwall, near Land's End. The view from his studio was over the desolate moors, to the long rollers of the Atlantic. He loved and respected the sea, and painted it in many moods. But, when asked whether it was the beautiful Cornish light that had inspired him to live where he did, he snorted dismissively:
Cornish light? I've got a 60-watt light-bulb and I keep the curtains closed.

Many have made André Gide's point:
Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.

The Urdu poet Iqbal describes this collaboration:

Thou didst create night, and I made the lamp;
Thou didst create clay, and I made the cup;
Thou didst create the deserts, the mountains and the forests;
And I produced the orchards, the gardens and the groves.

Of course, this is all fine when the spiritual connection is working, but most artists go through periods of aridity, very like the periods in a metaphorical desert also suffered and described by many of the saints, and which we think about particularly in Lent. St Thérèse of Lisieux wrote:

Do not think that I am overwhelmed with consolations. Far from it! My joy consists in being deprived of all joy here on earth. Jesus does not guide me openly: I neither see nor hear Him.

St John of the Cross gave a detailed analysis of this aridity, and God's purpose behind it.

St Isaac the Syrian, a Christian Orthodox monk, had this to say:
Though there is joy and sweetness in prayer as a rule, yet doubtless to everyone there come times when God seems far away. Prayer seems to be from the lips only and the heart an arid desert where never a flower bloomed nor refreshing spring babbled forth. All is empty, cold and still. But why such dryness? Maybe He would have you long for Him, because longing strengthens the affections of the heart. He wants you to taste a little of what life would be without Him, so that you may the more appreciate Him. At such a time, do not cease to pray. Do not think that God does not hear because he does not bless you. Wrestle with Him, tell Him of your love more earnestly. That is what He loves to hear. But if you then receive no returns of His love, leave the matter with Him. Let not your faith falter: now is the time to pray and not to faint.

Virginia Woolf gives a briskly practical description of the creative process:
Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Whether Christians describing their feelings of separation from God, or writers describing their writers' block, the one metaphor that is used again and again is dryness in contrast to flowing water. The Muses lived in springs of pure mountain water; we talk about the wellspring of our creative inspiration, which bubbled for Virginia Woolf; and we began by singing:
Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow.

But an inescapable part of both processes is work and effort, without waiting for inspiration to strike: The artist and composer John Cage said:
I think people who are not artists often feel that artists are inspired. But if you work at your art you don't have time to be inspired. Out of the work comes the work.

Chekhov had a day job as a doctor, and Trollope worked for the Post Office, at the same time writing some of the most popular novels of his day. Rising at 5:30, he would write until 8:30, producing a given number of words before going off to work. This discipline resulted in an output of 49 novels over a period of 35 years. He urged his method on all writers:

Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,-as men have sat, or said that they have sat.

Paul Cézanne claimed: I advance all of my canvas at one time, which implies a slow but carefully maintained momentum (and Corot would say the same). But he was a perfectionist, often taking as many as five hundred sittings to complete a portrait. After the dealer Ambroise Vollard had sat for him a hundred and fifteen times, he said: I am not entirely displeased with the shirt front but as the rest of the portrait seemed deficient, he threw it out.

Such perfectionism is, for most of us, a snare and a delusion. We may never be able to paint like Cézanne, or match the religious devotion of the saints, so we need to accept that our best is truly good enough. If you remember Milton's question: Doth God exact day labour, light denied?, you probably also remember his answer: They also serve who only stand and wait.


Grateful thanks to Donald Matthews for permission to quote him as above