ART: Window One — The Spiritual Exercises, Art as the Soul’s Expression by Michael Sullivan

A Lenten Journey of Stories and Art

windows into the light spiritual exercises

From: Windows Into the Light

The spiritual exercises that follow each narrative provide an opportunity to open the windows toward God’s light.  These exercises use various artistic methods to surprise the soul with new awareness and hope.  They create bridges between what you read and your own life, a way to jump from the light in another person’s life into your own.  These exercises are easy to follow and require no artistic experience or expertise.  You don’t need expensive supplies or a studio.  All you need is an open heart and mind – a willingness to engage God’s journey with you as your discover your life.

Art opens our experience to newness in our prayers.  Most of us use far too much of our left brain in daily life; the side that processes rational, linear thought drives most of what we do.  The creative, metaphorical part of our brain, the right side, begins to slumber.  The richness of the sacred story, an art form in itself, is not perceived when we read because we haven’t nurtured this creative side of our creation.  To get back into the narrative of God’s love for us, to jump back into all the possibilities of grace and mercy, we must find a way to awaken this creativity.

Because art relies almost exclusively on this creative, encompassing side of the brain, it’s the perfect way to bring our whole being back into the sacred story: By using a right-brain activity such as collage, our senses experience the depth contained within the narrative.  It’s as if the art gives us permission to enter into the drama of God’s redemption anew, just as if we’re seeing God on stage with us in the day-to-day experiences of our lives.

  • You are already the masterpiece, so don’t worry about what you create.  The old saying, God don’t make no junk, is the first law of our spiritual life.  We’ll take more time to work with this theme later, but know that you are the masterpiece and that the art you create, while good, is not the focus.  You are.
  • Technique is not as important as willingness, for willingness to engage the process is central to the journey. When I lead art workshops, time and time again one or two participants get stuck.  Instead of jumping into the expression of the soul, they get caught up in the red herring of, How do I do this?  How do I do that?  After years of using the left brain, they are stuck there, going from point a to point b: linear, rational, cerebral the whole way.  It’s not their fault at all; they are just doing what they’ve been trained to do.

In the end, techniques aren’t important at all.  We’re trying to get to an artistic place of openness where we can express our complete selves on the spiritual canvases of life so that we can expose the richness of who we were created to be.  Stick with the method and let the creative process take a life of its own.  But just in case you need to know more about art, how to uninstall all the linear, left-brain thoughts, and what you can do to bridge the gap to your right brain, here are some simple techniques that usually work.

All you needed to know about art you knew when you were three years old.  When we were young, we were uninhibited.  Because we didn’t know that there was a “right” way or a “beautiful” way, we just colored, drew, and scribbled to our heart’s content.  In such a place, our inner thoughts and feelings were freely displayed upon the paper and canvases we employed.  We didn’t have to try – it just happened.  Later, when we discovered high art, especially realism, our inhibitions came front and center and expressions of the heart became more difficult.  Without the freedom of childhood, we became fearful and anxious.

The exercises in the book build upon each other.  The methodology is constructed to take you back to a place of freedom and openness – the same place you had when you were in kindergarten coloring away without a care in the world.  If you follow the instructions, inhibitions will slowly fall away and you will find a place to be more honest and open in your expression along the journey.

Working quickly is the fastest way back to childhood.  With all the fears of doing it right, we slow down and painstakingly try to mimic the great art forms instilled through galleries and images all around us.  We take our time with each line, every curve, and the precise color.  But if we take away the time for reflection on the method, the right side of the brain, the more creative, free side, takes over.  By working as quickly as possible, we trick our minds into creativity and open our beings to a place of freedom few of us usually tap.

In most of the exercises, you’ll note an instruction about working without reflection.  It’ll probably take time to embrace this concept fully but, with practice, you’ll find a place of “unknowing” where you’ll gain the freedom to work creatively.  Ironically, when you engage this place of freedom, you’ll express the clearest picture of who you are and what you need to present to God in your spiritual life.  By going to this place of emptiness, where you’re mindful only of the task before you, the inhibitions of the brain let go and the soul takes flight.

Collage is the basic method of most meditations.  Collage is our basic method because it allows us to work quickly and without reflection.  By cutting or tearing images from magazines and other print media, we’re able to respond immediately to any image that claims us.  We don’t need to reflect why – we just tear it from the page.  If an image grabs our attention, we take it from the page and know that we can use it later.  If part of an image speaks to us, we take only that part and need not worry about the other form left behind.  Because we don’t need to draw or color the form ourselves, we’re able to work quickly and effectively, relying on the images others have created but that speak to us.  This technique gets us into the metaphorical life quickly and frees us from lack of artistic experience.  Expression comes in the arrangement of the collage, and in later exercises, mixed media is also employed for those who wish to be more expressive or technical in their work.

If you are drawing or doodling as a part of the exercise, try using your nondominant hand.  Just as collage fools our brain into creativity, using your nondominant hand for some exercises will as well.  If you are right-handed and use your right hand to draw a picture, the same part of your brain that processes information on a daily basis is employed.  But when you use your nondominant hand, you force the brain to use the more creative side.  By asking your body to employ a part you rarely use, it’s as if that part goes back to the three-year-old way of doing things – if for no other reason than it has not caught up to the other side’s way of doing something.

When doing a collage, try assembling it upside down.  Working quickly and using your nondominant hand are two tricks of the trade often employed to increase creativity.  One used less often, but sometimes with amazing results, is working with the paper or canvas upside down.  When creating an image upside down, the brain cannot as readily see relationships.  Because seeing things right side up is the norm, the brain becomes so accustomed to the orderly arrangement of images that it cannot process them in the same way when inverted.  Fear of doing things wrong eases.  Because we are not able to process it as readily, a collage or other art form created upside down can reveal deeper creativity, and thus, expose the soul’s journey more readily.  The mind makes uninhibited, free associations between images as they are pasted together.  We’ll use this method after working with collage several times, but if you feel you’re ready for it early on, try it to see what happens.

Don’t purchase expensive supplies.  These exercises may produce great art you want to keep for many years.  But don’t worry about breaking the bank to do so.  Most of the exercises will use old magazines easily obtained from neighbors, friends, or even from the recycle bin of your local library, as well as other everyday materials.

You might also look for mixed media supplies such as yarns, old greeting cards, natural objects, and daily items you no longer need.  In early chapters, you’ll probably stick to the instructions given.  But as you gain confidence, you might incorporate other objects to provide depth and three-dimensional effect.  When we use markers or paints, the most inexpensive variety will do.  Any local store will be a perfect supplier.

Create a gallery in your home to see your progress along the journey.  As you create the collages in the exercises, keep them.  If you can, find a place to display them.  By creating your own gallery, you will not only see the progress of your journey, you will acknowledge its integrity and authenticity.

Some people enjoy keeping a portfolio of their work, a kind of journal.  Although such a process will limit the size of your creations, it does provide a chronicle of your spiritual journey.  I like this practice for those who are seasoned with the discipline of daily prayer and are looking for a new way to journal.  I usually don’t recommend it to those just beginning their journey.  Having a smaller space, as required by a portfolio or large sketchbook, can be too limiting for any person just beginning to express the longings of the heart.  On the other hand, some beginners desire the privacy such a portfolio provides.  I leave it up to you.

If you follow these simple suggestions, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll find new meaning in the exercises.  The artistic method really does open the process quickly and provides the way to move to the sills and thresholds of life.  But enough with our process and method; it’s time for the journey.

2 Comments on ART: Window One — The Spiritual Exercises, Art as the Soul’s Expression by Michael Sullivan

  1. Art helped me heal after a major traumatic event. It helps release is so we can be free to express ourselves. Enjoyed reading this.


    • I found so much solace in doing a forgiveness exercise through art during Lent. And today I am beginning to make coloring prayers. I also want to make some prayer collages. I have a notebook all ready to go. I am glad that you enjoyed the series.


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