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Art for the Soul

by Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow is a Century editor at large and a member of the faculty at Princeton University. This article is adapted from Wuthnow's new book All in Sync: How Music and Art Are Revitalizing American Religion, published by the University of California Press. © 2003 by the Regents of the University of California. It appeared in The Christian Century, May 3, 2003, pp. 24-29. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Surveys show that 30 percent of Americans claim to be very interested in "learning more about spiritual direction," and another 32 percent say they are fairly interested. People of all ages appear to be interested in spiritual direction, a fact that is notable since churchgoing, prayer and many other forms of religious participation draw more heavily from older rather than younger segments of the population. Women are more likely than men to express interest in spiritual direction, but interest cuts across all levels of education. Church members are considerably more likely to be interested than nonmembers; indeed, the fact that more than four church members in ten express serious interest in learning about spiritual direction suggests that there is a huge opportunity for churches to do more to fulfill this interest.

The data also suggest that interest in the arts is one of the factors reinforcing interest in spiritual direction. Among those at the high end of the Artistic Interest Scale, nearly half say they are very interested in learning about spiritual direction, whereas at the low end only one in eight says he or she is interested in spiritual direction.

The relationship between artistic interests and spiritual direction is not coincidental. Spiritual direction is usually understood as a matter of the heart, rather than one strictly of the mind. Directees are encouraged to clear their minds of intrusive thoughts that prevent them from experiencing the presence of God in their lives. Breathing techniques are often part of the cleansing process. The bodyís connection with mind, heart and soul is usually emphasized. Art, music, poetry, and participation in the arts through pottery, weaving, chanting or creative writing are often included in programs concerned with spiritual direction.

Pendle Hill is a Quaker center for study and contemplation in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1930, it was conceived as a kind of seminary for laypeople interested in understanding more about the Quaker tradition and in ministering through their own lives and work. Today Pendle Hill offers weekend conferences and retreats, five-day courses, and a resident study program consisting of three ten-week terms each year. Sally Palmer directs many of the activities at Pendle Hill that connect the arts with spirituality. Through an acquaintance, she joined a weekly meditation group at Shalem Institute outside Washington, D.C., in the 1970s and has been meditating regularly ever since.

"The whole practice of meditation and of silence was very foreign to me, having grown up in mainline Protestant churches. Silence in those days often meant 20 seconds of the choir singing ĎSweet Hour of Prayer,í and the minister and everybody else fidgeting. So sitting in stillness, in silence, was totally new to me." At first, meditation seemed bizarre because it was so unfamiliar. "But I was in a covenant relationship with this meditation group and found that although the sitting was very difficult for me and the practice itself took real discipline, it seemed to be impacting the rest of my life in significant ways. In that sense it was reminiscent of my experience as a jogger. I used to jog and hated the jogging itself, but it made a big difference in my life. The group that I met with was primarily clergy and some Roman Catholic sisters. I was one of two laypeople. The sharing of life experiences, our faith journeys, and what was happening in our meditation times was very important and moving to me."

Since 1975 Palmer has lived at Pendle Hill, taught classes, counseled spiritual seekers and headed its art program (except for the years between 1985 and 1990 when she lived and taught at a Benedictine monastery and ecumenical retreat center in Wisconsin). One of her favorite courses teaches students to explore creativity, playfulness and prayerfulness by working with clay; another is titled "Weaving as a Spiritual Pathway." She encourages her students to use "pottery, weaving, or whatever weíre working with as metaphors for their own spiritual journeys."

Typically, the class begins with a period of silence, followed by a quotation connecting weaving to the spiritual journey, and several minutes of silent worship. "I try to let go and ask that the Spirit move through me and work with us in the class. I see all of my students as potential teachers as well as learners and try to create a space where they can teach and offer the wisdom that they bring from their own life experience.í

Weaving and working with clay give students who are otherwise preoccupied with thoughts about their work, their families and personal issues an opportunity to focus their attention elsewhere. The rhythm of the loom or of the potterís wheel and the tactile sensation of the yarn or clay break through the cycle of ordinary concerns. Sally hopes the students will experience some of the transformation that she experienced when she first started working with clay: "I would sit down at the potters wheel and be lost for hours. I felt a deep connection to an unnamable within me. It was very much a centering process, and I still, when I need to get centered, go to the studio and throw pots. The clay and the earth remind me of my connection with Godís creation, with materials, with the fluidity of clay. Itís very beautiful."

For some students, weaving or working with clay becomes a time of prayer and may even substitute for more traditional forms. Palmer thinks it is still important to pray intentionally, rather than letting artistic practices take its place. She attends daily meetings for worship with the community and helps lead a weekly service of intercessory prayer involving staff and resident participants at Pendle Hill. Over the years. she feels, her understanding of prayer has grown. Yet she believes firmly that prayer ultimately defies understanding. "Itís a mystery to me! Thatís part of my fascination, I think. I know that connection is extremely important to me and yet sometimes it seems very elusive."

The trouble with prayer, when traditionally understood as talking with God, is that it too often becomes a purely mental or verbal activity, leaving the body, as it were, in a poor second place compared to the spirit. This is why Palmer believes the physical aspects of artistic work are so important. Weaving and working with clay involve bodily movement. To bring movement even closer to the foreground, she often includes dance and motion in her workshops.

"My work with movement has been an effort to connect with my body and to connect body and spirituality. I sometimes become disembodied in terms of my work with spirituality, but we are given bodies. Furthermore, my faith is incarnational. So the more connection I can make, the better I am in terms of my own spiritual growth. We do shed our bodies eventually, but weíve got to live with them, and most of the time I do try to honor my body and its needs."

Discipline is a recurring word among spiritual directors and directees. To get anywhere in oneís spiritual life, they insist, requires focusing oneís efforts, perhaps over a period of many years and through times when results seem all too infrequent. Palmer says she took up weaving because it was a way to learn this kind of discipline: "I remember defining it as my spiritual discipline because I found it very difficult. Iím not a natural weaver. Thereís a discipline to it that I rail against. Thereís a tedium to setting up a loom, and I saw it as a kind of spiritual discipline to engage in this process, and I still do. There is a kind of mantra in the rhythm of throwing the shuttle in the loom, in the setting up of the loom. Itís one step at a time. There s no way you can push it."

The rhythm becomes its own discipline, providing a method for getting from one step to the next, just like the discipline involved in daily prayers, chants, meditation or devotional reading. For Palmer, doing something that does not come naturally puts her in touch with her own limitations and thus with her need for God. Weaving itself becomes a kind of metaphor for her relationship to God: "All of this is very relevant to my own spiritual journey, and Iíve learned a lot about myself by watching myself in the studio, Iím impatient, and yet there is a step-at-a-time discipline in weaving: the weaving of the fabric of life and the interconnection of the thread. Somebody once spoke of how the warp is really the given of oneís life, the pieces weíre given to work with, But what we can do with it is the woof, the design that we weave. All of those are metaphors and images important in recognizing our connectedness: in recognizing that we are given a set of givens, but that we can work with those givens in a kind of co-creation."

Discipline is one of those perplexing ideas that is perhaps best captured in metaphors and images. It is expressed better through the act of writing than as something that one writes about. Knowledge of discipline comes from the struggle, from engaging in the daily grind, more than from theorizing about the nature of discipline. This is why artists themselves provide some of the most valuable insights about spiritual discipline. Whether they have tried to teach others spiritual discipline through the arts, as Palmer has, or have simply found their own artistic endeavors to be a lesson in spiritual discipline, they show that devotional life is not so much about prayer or meditation as isolated attempts to reach God, but about devotion itself as a mode of life, an orientation to the sacred.

Monica Armstrong is a painter who lives in Germantown, Pennsylvania. A devout Roman Catholic, she has been studying spiritual direction for the past few years at Chestnut Hill College. She sees a strong connection between the discipline it takes to be an artist and growth in her spiritual life. "First of all, Iíve got to show up. Set aside a special time thatís regular. Donít allow interferences. Have whatever it is you need in terms of supplies, whether itís reading or music or space to move in or whatever it is that you need to open yourself up."

She says the key to showing up is remembering that the responsibility to do so ultimately falls on you: "Nobody can do your art work. You can only do your own. If you donít balance your checkbook, the bank will do it or your husband will do it or you just go out of business. But if you donít do your art work, thatís your life undone. The level of commitment thatís necessary to survive as a professional artist is so profound." She sees a direct parallel with her spiritual life: "Thereís a way that you can do art and thereís a way you can do spirituality where you can get people to tell you what to do, but itís their way. If youíre going to do your own life, your own work, your own spirituality, youíre on your own path. You have to do it."

This notion of doing things her own way is not just an abstract idea. Over the years, she has learned that some things help her to pray, just as they help her to do her painting, and others interfere: "I have to have music, I have to do movement. I have to exercise at least four times a week for an hour, or my body gets so tight that I canít be open spiritually. I hate exercise, but itís a discipline I have to do."

Michael Eade, a painter in New York, explains the connections among art, spirituality and discipline this way: "I see the daily discipline of making art as a practice, and like the practice of a belief system, I feel bad if I donít do it. Iím always working on some project. It could be in my thought processes that Iím painting and getting ready for the next day. It is very disciplined. In all artists [who] achieve some level of completeness in their work, thereís a lot of discipline."

An actress who lives in New York cautions that one should not get carried away with the idea of spiritual discipline. "God loves you all the time, and he doesnít love you more when you pray than he did before." Still, she argues, it takes discipline to grow. "You change if you show up a lot. You canít expect to meet the cute guy who works at the library if you never go there. You have to keep going there. Prayer is like that: you have to do it a lot. You learn to listen and understand and hear the cues. Acting is like that, too. It isnít all just standing up on the stage and emoting. Itís listening, learning to listen to each other, watching body stuff, showing up, having the discipline, trying again and again and again and again."

Most of the people we talked to echoed this idea that discipline implies a commitment to hard work, and that hard work is necessary to grow spiritually, just as it is to develop oneís artistic talents. But some of the artists we talked to recognized that this view of discipline is limiting. It focuses too much on the struggle to master techniques and not enough on the desire that propels a person toward painting or sculptureóor prayeróand the fulfillment that comes from pursuing this desire.

One of the best illustrations of this larger view of discipline comes from Jack Stagliano, professor of studio art at Villanova University. As an Augustinian friar, he has had ample opportunity to reflect on the relationships between spirituality and the arts. "Almost all of the art that really engages me comes from the Roman Catholic tradition," he explains, "especially the medieval Latin hymns. Doing and making are acts of faith. I see the process of doing and making as a spiritual exercise. It can be gardening. It can be cooking. It just happens that for me itís putting paint on canvas.

When asked about discipline, Staglianoís first impulse is to quote an elderly friar who used to insist that "thereís no growth without struggle." To his ear, this idea reflected the Catholic tradition of mortifying the flesh in order to grow spiritually. Something about it has never seemed quite right He uses his experience as an artist as an example: "Iím not sure whether discipline means punishing yourself by being in the studio a certain number of hours and slaving over a hot painting, or whether it means something else. For me, I would think itís almost more about finding the time to do the thing, the painting. But the act of the painting may not be a discipline at all. In other words it may be choreographing the rest of your life to allow yourself the three hours of time that you need. That might be the more disciplined part of it." In a similar way, the discipline required to have a rich devotional life may not involve doing something for 15 minutes a day that proves to be painful. The actual time spent communing with God may be quite enjoyable. But to achieve this rewarding time, it is probably necessary to structure the rest of oneís schedule, and that may take discipline.

He believes, too, that discipline, ironically, may consist of getting to the place where one no longer tries to control everything. Artistry requires a certain amount of spontaneity, and there may be a spiritual lesson to be learned from reflecting on this need for spontaneity. Stagliano puts it this way: "I think initially in the spiritual life and initially as an artist one is concerned with what we call Ďformal issues,í with understanding color theory, understanding how to use line forms, color, design and shapes. In the early spiritual life, discipline means not having your mind wander if you are trying to meditate, or learning to recite prayers from a book. But I think one of the major wisdoms of spiritual growth is essentially learning to let go. I think thatís probably one of the wisdoms of the spiritual life. In my painting, thereís also that need to let a more spontaneous thing occur. Iím sure youíve heard the story of a Japanese calligrapher who spent his whole life doing calligraphy and finally said, ĎI donít do the lettering any more. I just hold the brush and the brush does the lettering.í I would like to think that thatís the direction one moves toward as one grows older in spiritual life, just as in the arts"

The other word that frequently comes up when artists talk about discipline is attentiveness. Learning to sculpt requires being attentive to the configuration of the stone. Becoming skilled as a painter involves being attentive to the colors on ones palette and paying close attention to the details of the model or object or the effect of oneís own brush strokes. Similarly, a meaningful devotional life depends on concentrating oneís attention for a period of time on the act of praying. Attention to oneís desires is important, and perhaps even more important is the attention one pays to focusing on God.

Jack Stagliano learned attentiveness as a student, but it is also an idea that has become more meaningful to his spiritual journey as he has matured: "Attentiveness is perhaps an Eastern idea, although it certainly can be found in the West both in Protestant and Catholic writers. One of the things that I was taught even as a novice by one of our very elderly friars was ĎDo what youíre doing.í That was a primary thing for us as students. When you were in the chapel, you were to be praying. When you were playing basketball, you were to be playing basketball. When you were doing laundry or scrubbing toilets, you were supposed to be doing laundry or scrubbing toilets. Attentiveness to what you are doing at the moment is most certainly a key to spiritual growth."

These examples make it abundantly clear that not all varieties of music, art and literature are likely to be included as part of peopleís devotional activity. In conversations with hundreds of people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and regions, not a single person mentioned that his devotional life had been enriched by Snoop Doggy Dogg or Motley Crüe. We may have missed someone upon whom these musicians have had a positive spiritual impact, of course. But it is much more common for people to mention classical music or lyrics with explicit Christian content, icons and pictures of biblical characters, or poetry that focuses specifically on spiritual themes.

The variety of music, art and literature that contributes to Americansí devotional lives is nevertheless considerable. If some prefer to pray with Bach or Beethoven playing in the background, others opt for Amy Grant, Enya, or an old recording of Elvis singing gospel hymns. Poetry from the Bible takes its places alongside selections from Annie Dillard and Maya Angelou.

This materialóthese songs and pottery classes and poetryóare sufficiently available in the wider culture that virtually everyone is in some way exposed to them. Entertainment conglomerates know that there is a market for gospel and New Age music, and for English choir performances and meditative classical recordings. The same is true of publishing giants that know it is possible to sell 20,000 to 50,000 copies of an inspirational book by Mary Oliver or Kathleen Norris. Congregations are often the places where people learn about these resources, either by hearing a poet mentioned from the pulpit, by singing something that stays with them during the week, or by participating in a small group whose members share tips about favorite authors, new CDs or retreat centers. Yet it is not the congregations that produce or market most of the art and music to which Americans turn in their devotional lives. The artists and publishers, the musicians and recording companies, are industries that extend well beyond congregations or denominations. Moreover, most people who talk about the role of music and art in their devotional lives also mention that their musical and artistic interests have been encouraged by the wider exposure to the arts that they received in school and continue to maintain by attending concerts, visiting galleries and purchasing CDs and paintings.

Because music and art are organized on a scale that far exceeds the control of religious organizations, it can legitimately be asked whether this influence is subverting that of the churches. Our study suggests that this concern is largely unfounded. Americans are, as they have always been, a religious peopleógenerally not noted for the depth of their spirituality, but broadly oriented toward spirituality nevertheless. When they turn in their devotional lives, as a growing number of Americans appear to he doing, to music and poetry and art, they are guided by instincts that were nurtured by their religious upbringing and that are still oriented toward deepening their relationship with God.

The role of music and art in devotional life is also shaped by the pervasive conviction that it is possible to somehow feel the presence of God. Most Americans intuitively sense that prayer should be different from reading the newspaper or studying for a science test. Mood and ambience matter. Oneís mind should be quiet. The space and time in which one prays should be set apart, sacralized in a way that differentiates them from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Not all prayer need be this way (certainly not the brief utterances that people squeeze in their workaday routine), but some of it must be the 15 minutes in the morning or evening that people with the most serious interest in spirituality point to as the core of their devotional lives. In these times, one expects to hear from God as one prays Ė perhaps not audibly, but at least by feeling more comforted, secure or serene. Music and art help. They set the mood, bringing oneís feelings and even oneís body into a state that seems more in tune with the divine.


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