Sumi Painting, Chi, Creativity and the Spirit

 

In the past year or two I have been digging into my artistic side by taking watercolor classes. Last fall, I signed up for a workshop called “Sumi and Soul” by Yuming Zhu, a professional artist who was born in China and currently lives in Seattle, Washington. I received so much from the experience that I signed up for another two-day workshop this spring with the same teacher.

Artist Yuming Zhu at Sumi painting workshop, 2011, Bloomington, MN--photo by Julie McCarty

Painting in the Chinese or Japanese way is quite different from the European style. In sumi painting, one holds the brush differently, and uses materials that more closely resemble ink and tissue paper than oils and canvas. Rather than painting with just your hand or arm, it is more as if your whole body is painting, from your own “center of gravity” someplace deep in your body. The philosophical or spiritual underpinnings are different as well, something the teacher mentioned in a gentle way, here and there, without harping or preaching.

Julie trying out Sumi painting at Yuming Zhu's workshop at the Bloomington Art Center in Minnesota--2011

My experience of the workshops with Yuming was very positive. As a writer, I am often too tense or perfectionist, which blocks the flow of words onto the paper. The Sumi workshop helped me to view my writing in a different way, to open up myself to letting the creativity flow more freely without fear of making “mistakes.” This fear is a real block to creativity, and “Mary Francis” (what I call the “good little Catholic girl” inside me) needs to let go of these fears.

 One of the many things I learned about in this workshop was the Chinese concept of chi, a word that means something like “energy” or “life force” in English. Here’s what About.com says about chi:

Ch’i (also spelled Chi or Qi) is a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy and culture. Found in Chinese traditional religion but especially Taoism, Ch’i literally means “air” or “breath,” but as a concept it refers to the energy flow or life force that is said to pervade all things. (Read more here or also here.)

On the second day of Yuming Zhu's workshop, students arrived with energy--photo by Julie McCarty, 2011

The concept of chi intrigues me. Because I follow Christ, the idea of chi made me think of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit moves, creates, and breathes in us. In fact, in the original bible languages, the word “spirit” is the same is the word “breath.” It was “spirit” that God “breathed” into the first human in one biblical Creation story.

 
Too often, Christians think of God as rigid, stable, unchanging–and I’m sure there is certainly the element of stability and permanence in the best sense in the Divine Being we Westerners call “God.” I don’t deny that truth. However, on the other hand, the Spirit is called Creator Spiritus, the divine Spirit that Genesis tells us “hovered over the waters” during the creation of the cosmos. This Spirit of God is alive, dynamic, moving, active. Jesus compared the Spirit to the wind: you do not see it, or where it is going, but you know it it there.
Yuming Zhu's painting demo, Bloomington Art Center workshop, Spring, 2011--photo by Julie McCarty
I wonder what would happen if Christians of today took Creator Spirit seriously, that person of God known for movement, action, creativity, and breath. Would the Creative Spirit bring about something new? Something beautiful? Something prophetic, that is revealing truth and compassion?

I wonder, dear reader, what good things might the chi within you or me, our inner energy, want to create today? What newness of life might the Spirit of God want us to bring to birth this week, this year? How might we live the Resurrection of Christ, that image of energy, bursting out of the tomb, right here, right now in this moment?

Note: To view artwork by Yuming Zhu or find workshops, visit his website http://www.yumingfineart.com/about.htm  or on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/mypainting

The Veil Torn in Two–Removing Obstacles in the Spiritual Life

After the long winter, it was good to see the ground again, even if the grass was flat and brown. One recent Saturday, when the only snow left was a couple of mountains near our driveway, my husband Terry spread the snow out across the lawn to speed up the melting. He said he wanted the exercise of shoveling and, after all, it felt good to get outside in the fresh spring air.

Secretly, I thought it wasn’t necessary, but I understood well the desire to be done with winter. Besides, I knew there were flower bulbs underneath that giant snow pile by the mailbox, and I thought perhaps we might see some blossoms a little bit sooner if the thick veil of snow was removed.

We were in for a big surprise: the very next morning, little shoots were peeking out of the soil. I still can’t get over it. How can a bulb that is several inches beneath the surface, and just the day before also beneath a couple feet of snow, push its way to the surface in less than 24 hours?

This experience made me think of the many obstacles, like mountains of snow, that sometimes block spiritual growth or the deepening of our relationship with God. We may have certain behaviors in our lives that are sinful, or bad habits that keep us from our maximum potential. Soft addictions (see my March 24 post) may keep us occupied in ways that prevent us from having the time for more productive activities or more attentive prayer lives.

But it is not God’s desire that anything keep us apart from the divine presence. In upcoming days, Christians throughout the world will be meditating on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We read in Matthew’s gospel that at the moment when Jesus released his spirit and died upon the cross

 . . . the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised(Matthew 27:51-52).

This curtain was the veil that hung between the general worship space of the temple and the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments was kept. The Holy of Holies was the place in which God dwelt in a special way–so special that only the High Priest could enter this sacred room, and then only on one day each year, on the Day of Atonement.

Some Scripture commentators write that the tearing of the veil of the temple at the time of Jesus’ death symbolizes the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant. Another interpretation–the one I like best–is that Christ’s sacrificial death transformed the way we humans relate to God. Christ removes the obstacles between God and us.

Christ is our high priest whose own sacrifice “tears the veil away,” making it possible for us to approach God directly in prayer. Christ removes the many obstacles in our lives that keep us from growing in love and service.

The more these obstacles are removed, the more the light of God will shine on us, so that each of us will grow into creations as beautiful as the flowers that bloom in spring.

Until next time, Amen!

P.S. If you are receiving this in e-mail subscription, it is always allowable to forward it to a friend. –Julie McCarty, author of the Spiritual Drawing Board, https://spiritualdrawingboard.wordpress.com

Behind the Boss’ Back: Prayer in the Workplace

Pray during the workday without disturbing others

Is there a way to pray in the workplace, without neglecting your job or infringing on the rights of others? A way to keep in touch with God while running a grocery store checkout, managing a daycare, answering phones, or meeting with clients? Or is prayer something restricted to that little Sunday box on your calendar?

A lot depends on how you define prayer. Praying the rosary while interviewing a new hire or meditating in a lotus position while running a backhoe certainly won’t work. Your boss won’t be a happy camper if you tell him or her that you missed a critical staff meeting because you were in a deep mystical ecstasy.

I suspect that few of us have ever thought about taking God with us to the workplace—but God is already there. After all, God is everywhere. Merely recalling God’s presence is itself one type of prayer. Simple? Yes, but difficult to remember to do. Here are some ways to prompt yourself to pray inwardly during your work day:

1. Place little reminders of God around your work area. If your office doesn’t allow religious symbols, use ordinary objects, like family photos, a personal book with a spiritual cover, or notes posted inside your briefcase to remind you of the spiritual dimension of your work, writes Gregory F. A. Pierce in  Spirituality at Work (Loyola Press). Writing a Scripture verse in your planner or selecting a gorgeous nature scene for your computer’s desktop wallpaper are other examples of unobtrusive ways to draw your heart to God without forcing your views on others.

2. Use your coffee break for a rendezvous with God. Reading little reflection booklets with lectionary readings or other devotions takes only a few minutes, but helps one enter into God’s presence.

3. Group with others for prayer time. In New York City, Muslims, committed to praying five times a day, meet in small groups during lunch or break times to recite the opening of the Koran and pray with bows, kneeling, and prostrations, writes Joseph Berger in the New York Times. He also reports that observant Jews similarly gather for minyan (prayer group of at least ten) in at least 180 places in busy Manhattan. People of other faiths might consider forming a small prayer group to meet at a nearby food court or coffee shop during a weekly lunch.

4. Set aside distracting thoughts. Just as you set aside distracting thoughts during prayer time, gently let go of distracting thoughts when a co-worker is speaking to you. Listen carefully to him or her—you might just hear the Spirit of God in something that is said.

5. Bring more silence into the work environment. God speaks to us in silence. You can invite a higher intelligence into your office meeting without saying it in so many words, suggests Dr. Deborah Savage, adjunct faculty of theology and business at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota [now Clinical Faculty member at the Saint Paul Seminary at St. Thomas]. Prof. Savage says God’s grace is constantly present to us, but we need to slow down in order to notice it. For example, one business she heard about instituted a company-wide policy that allotted one specific hour each day for sacred work time: no meetings, no phoning, no interaction, just sitting at your desk to do your work.

6. Practice awareness of the present moment. Prof. Savage also observes that we often mistakenly imagine the soul as one little compartment of who we are, when really our soul is “larger” than our body and connects us to God. You can’t very well leave your soul at home when you drive to work in the morning—it’s the spiritual thread that runs through every moment of our lives, she says.

Prayer is really more about be-ing, than do-ing, Dr. Savage reminds us, so it’s good to practice being attune to everything in the present moment: our feelings, our sensory perceptions, our thoughts, etc. Everything we are actually exists within the presence of God. As chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles declares, in God “we live and move and have our being.” God is always with us—even in the busy workplace.

Note: This article is a slightly revised version of a column I wrote that appeared in several Catholic diocesan newspapers around the country a few years ago. It is reprinted here because it is one of the most requested articles on my author website.

Copyright 2011 — Julie McCarty, Eagan, Minnesota.

New Page about Spiritual Direction

Yesterday I learned how to add a whole new sticky page to the Spiritual Drawing Board. The page I created tells about the time-honored practice of spiritual direction, often called “spiritual companioning” today.

(You can access this new page by clicking on the tab labeled spiritual direction above the sunrise photo. If you are receiving this post via e-mail subscription, you can click to my blog or else just google “Spiritual Drawing Board.”)

If you are looking for a safe place to explore your own spiritual life, to wrestle with soul questions, to learn about prayer in a one-with-one setting, think about finding a spiritual director. If you live near Eagan, Minnesota, and feel you might like to work with me, my contact info is on the Spiritual Direction page. You can locate other spiritual directors by asking church staff, spirituality or retreat centers, or searching on the website of Spiritual Directors International.

By the way, Spiritual Directors International website has some great YouTube videos of people talking about their experience with spiritual direction.  

Hope your Lent is proving fruitful–and if not, it’s not too late to delve into a good spiritual book, take a soul walk,  or turn to prayer. 

Until next time, Amen! 

P.S. If you are receiving this in e-mail, feel free to pass it on to others who might be interested in spiritual direction. (It is always okay to forward my Spiritual Drawing Board posts!)

 

Lent, Soft Addictions, and Detachment

Router on Julie's desk--photo by Julie McCarty 2011I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but do the very thing I hate.     –St. Paul in Romans 7:15

I was awakened the other day by a little scratchy sound in the next room. Was it a mouse? No…maybe my husband was hauling out spring clothes? No, it was taking too long for that… Was he cleaning the house? . . . REALLY? At five in the morning?! 

When I dragged myself out of bed, I discovered the internet wasn’t working and Terry was trying to get the web up and running by unplugging and resetting various cords. 

After he left for work, I kept trying to fix it, without success. Eventually, I told myself it didn’t matter–I’m a writer for goodness sake: get to work!

But, try as I might, I was restless and jittery. How could I work without checking e-mail and reading the morning news online? I kept looking at the little red light on the router, flashing at me.

I was like a little baby who has had her milk bottle wrenched away, mid-sip. I want! I want! I want e-mail! I want to blog! I want to revise my website! Waaaaaahhh!

(So far I don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, and you can see why these options may not be good for me.)

While I was sitting at my desk, having mental internet withdrawal symptoms, I remembered a phrase from old-time spirituality books:  “inordinate attachments.” These are things in life that we cling to in a way that is excessive or beyond what is spiritually healthy.

Attachments are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but sometimes they keep us from focusing on the really important things in life. For example, using the internet to do scholarly research is a good thing, but it might be an attachment if I simply cannot pull myself away to fix my family dinner.

While few people today speak of “inordinate attachments,” modern author Judith Wright communicates a similar idea when she speaks of “soft addictions.” As she describes in an interview with WebMD, “Soft addictions are those seemingly harmless habits like watching too much television, over-shopping, surfing the Internet, gossiping — the things we overdo but we don’t realize it. . . It seems like normal behavior, but that’s simply because everyone is doing it, too.” (To read the full article, click here.)

Lent is a good time to step back from our busyness and take stock of our lives. Are we too attached to some things? Do soft addictions keep us from having any time for prayer? Are there relationships in our lives that push us into doing things we know are bad for us? Do we find our attachments growing into bad habits that may evolve into the type of sin that hurts others or ourselves?

In spirituality, the opposite of attachment is detachment, the ability to let go of things. This letting go is done for the sake of a greater good. A person might detach from her fondness for eating in restaurants during Lent so she can use the money saved to feed starving children. A student who finds his schoolwork is not getting done “lets go” of chatty texting in order to succeed in his studies.

Practicing detachment is one way to open ourselves more fully to the action of grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We find the ultimate detachment in Jesus, who, while on the cross, opened his hands wide and let go of his life with the words, “Father, into Your hands I entrust my spirit.”

Waiting for Spring

Waiting for Spring 2 -- Photo by Julie McCarty 2011

 

I took this photo a couple of weeks ago in Lebanon Hills Regional Park, a place not far from my home in Eagan, Minnesota. We’ve had more snow than usual this year, and on this day, the sun was out (on and off!) and there was a temporary thaw underway.

It may be difficult for people in warmer climates to imagine the joy I felt walking outside in weather like this, but it was exhilarating. The milder temperatures of the day allowed me to take deep breaths and walk freely across the crunch, crunch, crunch under my feet. Lebanon Hills is such a huge area of woods, meadows and lakes that I felt the wonder and happiness I often feel when submerged in a nature walk.

The canoes in the picture, the little naked patch of land, and the water sitting on top of the frozen lake remind me that spring is coming–even if it seems like winter lasts forever. Little by little, the daylight hours are growing longer, something that gives me renewed energy.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the church season called “Lent,” a word that comes from the English word for “spring,” the time of year when the days lengthen (Lent, lengthen). Just as the warmer temperatures melt the snow, we allow God to melt the places in our hearts that are harsh, icy, or cold. We focus more intentionally on spiritual things to make room for whatever growth the Spirit wants for us. We die to sin in order to be ready for the springtime of resurrection.

On this day, I wish you a good Ash Wednesday and a very blessed Lent. Until next time, Amen!

P.S. If you want to see a larger version of the photo for your own meditation, try clicking on the picture.

A Personal Focus for Lent

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there. . . . Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  (Exodus 24:12, 18)

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights. . .     (Matthew 4:1-2)

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner, and I’m wondering what spiritual practice I might do for Lent. If you are like me, you have experienced various Lenten penances related to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving over the course of your life. Some of my experiences produced quality spiritual growth. Other times I failed to follow through or had results that were, um, a little “silly” (such as the time I gave up potato chips and ate so many chocolate chip cookies that I actually gained weight during Lent).

Waiting for Spring -- Photo by Julie McCarty 2011

One spiritual practice that has been meaningful for me is reflecting on a single word, phrase, or bible verse for the whole 40 days. For example, one year I focused on the virtue of patience. I read about patience and pondered what patience is and what patience is not (laziness or procrastination). I asked God in prayer to help me be patient. When life brought me annoying moments, I tried to be patient.

One possible pitfall of this theme approach is that I might forget to follow through for the entire 40 days, but I have found ways around that. I can post my theme in places I’ll see it, such as the bathroom mirror, refrigerator, computer screen saver or cell phone banner. I can find a book on the topic and spend a few minutes each day reading about it. I can make it a point to weave my theme into prayer time and the routine of daily living. On occasion, I’ve asked spiritual people what they think about the topic.

When making plans for Lent, it’s important—as always—to ask the Holy Spirit to inspire your choices. (Why do I always think of this tip last? It should be first!) The “theme approach” may not be for everyone.   Think about what will build your relationship with God, and what will deeper your love for others.      

May all we do glorify God and build bonds of love throughout the earth. Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics for Lent

   If focusing on a theme doesn’t appeal to you, here are 13 other ideas:                 

  • Volunteer at a food pantry, homeless shelter, or other charitable organization.
  • Plan quality time with your children: eat together, use discussion starters, read together.
  • Organize recycling in your home in order to take care of God’s creation.
  • Visit a lonely or homebound person.
  • Reduce the amount of time spent with television, social networking, internet surfing, or video gaming.
  • Listen to inspiring, spiritual music while commuting to work.
  • Care for the body God gave you by increasing your sleep or exercise.
  • Read one book of the bible or other spiritual book slowly and reflectively. 
  • Sort out closets and donate clothing to those who need it. 
  • Teach your children a new prayer and pray it together when you gather for meals.
  • Be kind to someone you often ignore. Pray each day for him or her. Smile genuinely and listen respectfully to this person.
  • Fast from shopping for clothes (or books, electronic gadgets, makeup, etc.)
  • Visit a retreat center. If you cannot go away on a retreat just now, make arrangements to go on retreat later this year.

Skillful Speech–Part 2: Insights from Buddhism

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.                –Fourth Mindfulness Training*

In “Brutally Yours, Bob Hartley,” an old episode of The Bob Newhart Show, psychologist Bob Hartley urges clients Mr. Carlin and Michelle to be more honest and open with their feelings. During the conversation, Bob hides his true feelings about his secretary leaving work early and the clients challenge him to practice what he preaches. As the show progresses, Mr. Carlin and Michelle make a game out of hurling insults at other people, while at home Bob nearly ruins a budding friendship in his overzealous quest for total honesty. In the end, it is agreed by all that some things are better left unsaid.

The episode illustrates in a humorous manner just how difficult it can be to be truthful and yet do it in a way that does not unnecessarily hurt another. In my last post, I wrote a few things that Jesus had to say about the right use of speech. This week, I’ve been reading about the idea of Right Speech in Buddhism. (I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t know much about the Buddhist path, but I think that Buddhism offers some insights on the topic of how to speak and listen with compassion.)  

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh devotes an entire chapter to Right Speech. Here are some of my notes from reading his explanation of Right Speech:   

  • Being truthful is basic to Right Speech.
  • Much suffering is caused in this world by people who are simply not paying attention to what they say and how they say it. Our words have the potential to add to the suffering of others, or to alleviate their pain. (The Buddhist practitioner seeks to alleviate the suffering of others.)
  • Right Speech means “not speaking with a forked tongue.” That is, do not tell one person one thing and another person a different thing. It is fine to use different words, examples, or images in explaining something to help others understand, but it is not truthful to invent different “truths” for various people.
  • Right Speech means not speaking cruelly. “We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred.” This can be challenging even for people of good will, he writes, but because words are powerful, we must avoid vicious speech.
  • Right Speech also means that we should not exaggerate or embellish what we have seen or heard. “We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that he is furious.”
  • Right speech involves deep listening, something very needed today. When we listen with an open heart, calmly and without judging others, we may actually reduce their suffering. (What a great gift to give another!)
  •  Hanh writes: “Letter writing is a form of speech. A letter can sometimes be safer than speaking, because there is time for you to read what you have written before sending it. . . If any phrase can be misunderstood or upsetting [to the other person], rewrite it.”  This can be adapted in our own time for the social media by using the “save the draft” feature and reviewing what we have written at a later time, when we aren’t angry or upset, before hitting “send.”

 When it comes to integrating Right Speech into our everyday lives, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a gatha (meditation verse):

Words can travel thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gems,
as lovely as flowers.  (page 92)
 

The author suggests writing this saying on paper and placing it by the telephone, to recite just before making a phone call. Today, we can adapt this practice by putting this verse near our computer screens as a reminder of the ways of Right Speech.  

There is much more that could be explored about Right Speech, but I will leave you to ponder these ideas for now. If you are like me, there is plenty in just these few points to challenge my own ways of communicating with others.

One final thought: May someone shower you today with compassionate words and empathetic listening, and may you find a skillful way to do the same for someone else. Until next time, Amen!  

(Skillful Speech, Part One contains insights from Christ about right speech.)

_________

*Quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (NY: Broadway Books, 1999), page 84.

Making Choices: What’s the next step?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
            Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu
  

A number of years ago, while discussing an issue with my spiritual director, I suddenly burst out, “I wish God would just give me a recipe for my life.”           

To this, the saintly elder nun replied, “What kind of God would that be?”  

This answer caught me off guard, and since then I have pondered its meaning many times. Certainly God gives us various guidelines for the spiritual journey, but God also gives us the free will to choose the many ways in which we can express our love.  

Would I really wish that God decided everything for me? Wouldn’t that make me a puppet on a string or a computer that was just programmed to act in a predetermined manner?

 If one believes, with Saint John the Apostle, that God is love, or at least believes in living according to the ways of compassion, then it follows that we are given freedom in order to choose the many ways in which to express a healthy love for God, self, and one another.  

 What’s the next step? 

When I feel a little “stuck” in a project or indecisive about something, I consider a question I first heard about in a spiritual direction training course: What’s the next step?   

Retreat leader Pierre Wolff describes this method in his book Discernment: The Art of Choosing Well (Liguori, Revised edition, 2003, pages 27-30).  Focusing on just one step forward in love can help us keep from giving up a seemingly monumental project before we even begin. One step at a time also keeps us from expecting ourselves to have everything figured out and the decision completed within an unreasonable time frame.  

I also find that simply taking one simple step helps me keep from putting off something indefinitely. I can sort one pile of clutter rather than set myself up to clear out all the cobwebs of my house in a day (an unreasonable goal that is destined for failure). If I am feeling “stuck” in a writing project, I can ask myself, what is the one thing I could do today to move it along? If I’m experiencing a strained relationship, I can select one little way to reach out to the person with compassion.           

 A journey of a thousand miles. . .

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This wise saying is attributed to Lao-Tzu, a major spiritual figure in Taoism. (Some say that the saying originated with Confucius.)  

I believe that it is true that the little tasks we do, the little decisions to love, the day-to-day ways we treat each other, gradually add up to something tremendous, as Mother Teresa was fond of saying, “something beautiful for God.”

However, there is another meaning to this saying that is not readily apparent in the English translation. According to the website Quotationspage.com, the original Chinese proverb can also be translated into English in this way: “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet,” or “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand.” It is explained that this translation means that actions are best when they arise out of stillness.  

That means, when you are thinking about a choice, or doing some action, stop to think about it first. Take a walk alone to think it over, meditate, mull it over a bit in your journal, or spend some time praying about it. Listen to where the Spirit is moving in your heart.  

Hmmm… Isn’t that what Jesus did when he went out in the desert to pray, before beginning his public ministry, before selecting his ministry companions?  

Just for today, let us ask ourselves, with the attitude of compassion, what’s the next step?   

For reflection: What do you find helps you make good decisions?