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

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?