No Ordinary Time
Reporting on the progress of a practice-led inquiry into the relationship between mundane flourishing and transcendence
On 4th June 2017, I began a research project funded by a Field Development Grant from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. https://faith.yale.edu/joy/about
As the liturgical season of Ordinary Time began, I began an ordinary but systematic and disciplined practice of making art in both public worship and the privacy of my studio. My goal was to inquire into the nature of transcendence within my experience of these two ordinary spiritual practices, throughout Ordinary time. I was interested to know more about the distance that I navigate in the spiritual journey between public worship and my private studio practice. I wondered how these spiritual practices work together or separately to create opportunities for me to flourish. I was eager to see how being aware of these things in the making might shape the images that were created throughout this time.
In the 26 weeks that followed the work that emerged in my practice awakened me not only to the passing of the liturgical season called Ordinary Time, but also in many ways to the limitations of my own capacity as I watched and waited for transcendence. As this season of Ordinary Time gave way to Advent, it was safe to say that the weeks and months that have passed since Pentecost 2017, have been in many ways No Ordinary Time at all.
Rowan Williams has said that “You cannot paint a picture of a simple act of God…You can only show the effect of God’s action” (Williams, 2003). With this in mind I have been drawing, painting and etching my way through Ordinary Time, recording my experience of God’s action in my own embodied response to worship amongst the people of God and in the places where I have spent this season of time. Reading Williams’ recent work, ‘Being Disciples’ , I have been drawn to consider the possibility that making, being with and seeing art is a way of paying attention, that is in fact the essence of discipleship. Williams describes discipleship as a state of awareness that is characterised by expectancy (Williams, 2016). To be a disciple is to live in such a way that we are watching and waiting for God to do something amongst us. The practice of making, being with and seeing art throughout ordinary time has enabled me to live in this awareness, with my eyes sufficiently open and my mind both relaxed and attentive enough to see God amongst us (Williams, 2016). The embodied experience of creating in this state of awareness has routinely awakened me to the extra-ordinary possibility of transcendence in the most ordinary of moments of being with and beholding the other, particularly in my relationships with other people, with nature and with art.
A response to seeing Kader Attia, Ghost, 2017. MCA: Sydney, Australia.
Throughout this time I was surprised by how often a confluence of seemingly disparate events resulted in the illumination of a transcendent truth; an opportunity to acknowledge both difference and what is shared in our human experience of seeking God. In the discipline of drawing each week in the midst of public worship, there were times when I experienced the frustration of reaching my own limits. Sometimes my drawings found the frayed edges of my own understanding and I was keenly aware of feeling alone in a large community. It was in those moments that art helped me to accept and embrace my own limitations, and in doing so, recognise the difference that existed between me and the other. Art became a place between the edges of my-self and the presence of the other. It was in this place that I discovered what Gadamer (1975) has described as a fusion of horizons. The experience of drawing offered a heightened and embodied sense of awareness to the cultural, psychological and theological lenses that informed my limited experience and ultimately helped me to make sense of the work. These were indeed moments when art irradiated a horizontal human experience with the conviction of transcendent truth (Dissanayake, 2000).
Throughout this Ordinary Time my art making practice drew my awareness to a broad range of bodily and emotional experiences in different places. I was sometimes in pain as my hands have ached in response to the pace and intensity of a drawing that acknowledged the truth of my spiritual experience in worship. Alone in the studio I found relief as paint has flowed freely in response to movements in my body, my felt sense (Gendlin, 1981) of God’s action in the world. There were some AHA moments of joy…when an etching rolled off the press and I saw for the first time, what is real, present and lived in my experience of the Divine.
In the months ahead I will be sitting with the artwork I have made and the notes that have been taken, making sense of the insights that are now contained within the images I have created. I look forward to presenting this work at the Pivot Conference in 2018 and sharing some key theological insights about the nature of the relationship between flourishing and transcendence in this particular Ordinary Time and place with other members of the Yale TJGL Conference.
Dissanayake, E. (2000). Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Gadamer, H. G. (1975). Truth and Method. London: Sheed & Ward.
Gendlin, E. (1981). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.
Williams, R. (2003). The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with the Icons of Christ. Norwich: The Canterbury Press.
Williams, R. (2016). Being Disciples. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Fig.1. Libby Byrne, (2017). Faith, Hope and Love, Drawing on rag paper, 297 x 420 mm, Melbourne.
The key findings from this inquiry have been published in an article titled, ‘Drawing in-church and drawing-in to joy’, in Practical Theology. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1756073X.2019.1678861
This paper explores what can be learned about the possibilities for joy when the private practice of drawing is located in public experience of Sunday worship. A case study identifies distinct phases of making, being with and seeing art, all integral to the process of aesthetic theological inquiry, as mechanisms for drawing in both artist and viewer to participate in creative conversation. In the immanence of honesty, the experience of making and seeing art in church offers an experience of joy characterised by an embodied experience of ‘emotional attunement between the self and the world’ (Volf 2015). Whilst the experience of drawing in-church extends our capacity to see God at work when it happens, the emerging work of art is drawing-in (the) church, inviting us to participate in a process of honest reflection that transforms the way we understand what it means to belong in a life of faith.