Today on the Stories blog, Carrie Cates, a second-year Master of Divinity student, joins the ongoing conversation about life as an artist at The Seattle School. Here Carrie reflects on worrying about Art, dry-bone valleys, and the animating inspiration of the breath of God. In case you missed them, check out previous entries from Kelly Pastori and Allyson Arendsee.
An actor who is truly heroic reveals the divine that passes through him, that aspect of himself that he does not own and cannot control. The control and the artistry of the heroic actor is in service to his soul.
Don’t act for money. You’ll start to feel dead and bitter.
Don’t act for glory. You’ll start to feel dead, fat, and fearful.
Act from the depth of your feeling imagination. Act for celebration, for search, for grieving, for worship, to express that desolate sensation of wandering through the howling wilderness. Don’t worry about Art. Do these things, and it will be Art.
-John Patrick Shanley
I have worried a lot about Art.
I have worried that Art is something that only people who don’t occupy my skin can create. I have worried that my Art is really art just pretending, that my Art is not good enough (mostly for the unappeasable critic of myself), that my Art is unwelcome, that my Art is unnecessary—that not even I need it.
But worrying about Art is a little like worrying about breathing.
The ancient Greeks used the concept of inspiration in their theater festivals as a means of invoking Dionysus, the Muses, and the other gods for whom they performed their works. Inspiration here is related to invocation, respiration, and animation. To be inspired by the gods meant to be in some sense indwelt by them, filled up as with breath, in order to create most fully and beautifully the Art that was their worship.
This is sounding familiar.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22, RSV)
Art can’t happen if there’s no inspiration—that is, if there’s no breathing in of the divine. And breathing is pretty straightforward. You’re either doing it or you’re not, and if not, a) you’ll know pretty quickly, and b) something is very, very wrong.
And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, thou knowest.” Again he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them … Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37:3-6, RSV)
If you’re not breathing, or to follow my analogy here, if you’re not creating Art, but maybe something more like art—or even creating nothing—there is probably a good reason that you’re deep in a grave of dry bones. I find myself here time and time again. It is a powerful thing to be an Artist; we are called to the staggering glory that is being a creator, one who calls to the deep parts of the world to draw out its stories and dreams. Think how high we can go into this calling. Then consider that there is a corresponding depth to which we can too easily fall, whether by way of trauma or idolatry or worry or hatred of our own beauty, and there’s your valley.
If there is resurrection from this place, how will it come? Not with our clawing our own way up out of the grave, but with that freshest breath of new life from this very tender, very present, creating God who has a penchant for hovering over broken and undone things.
Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7, RSV)
The animating inspiration that calls us into life, the God’s-breath or ruah Elohim or pneuma or hevel or whatever you want to call it, is offered freely as a gift of love. It won’t be coerced, won’t be coaxed or cajoled out of a begrudging Creator. It is free and plentiful, refreshing and exhilarating, and I have to believe that God delights in giving it, or creation simply would not exist.
Resurrection is God’s work, but the Artist is called to respond to the gift of the ruah Elohim. The first and most difficult response is to yield to the unbearable love in the resurrecting breath. If God chooses to call us to life, then God must love us. Moreover, God, who knows and who crafted our particularity and our calling, must love—really love, in a gut-wrenching, heart-pounding way—that we are Artists. God must want us to be Artists who care about making Art because we are made in the image of the one who hovers over chaos and blossoms it into creation. If this love is true, then we are compelled to do the difficult work of agreeing with God that we are a good and beautiful creation ourselves and that our Art is one of our highest and holiest forms of worship, and a high and holy way of living.
The second response follows hard on the heels of the first. If God loves us, then it is entirely possible that God also likes us. Loving is one thing—I can get onboard with the deep holy stuff of worship and resurrection. But if God likes me, and specifically likes that I am an Artist, then God’s resurrecting breath might be used as much for whistling and laughter and the out-of-breathness of play as anything else. And that brings a new dimension to my Art-making. If I am allowed to play with a very kind God and with God’s world through Art, it would seem that I am invited to have some more kindness with myself as an Artist. I might feel a little less, as Shanley put it, dead, fat, and fearful. Indeed, I might be able to worry less about Art and just do more of it with full ownership of my identity as an Artist.
Huh. These rattly old bones might decide to get up after all.