Caroline Coggins. Art and prayer

What do we pay attention to, what do we look for? It sounds like such an innocent question, yet it is a reflection of who we are, and how we have been shaped.

I went to a Matisse exhibition when I was in London recently. What struck me was a comment the artist made as an older man, with only fourteen years of life left to him, that it was only now that he had to learnt how to ‘ see’.  And this seeing would take him on a totally other path, and would revolutionize what was considered art.

Of course artists, poets and mystics have always been involved in a kind of stripping of the layers, cleaning the windscreens of perception, of dust. Whatever we spend time thinking about and how we have chosen to live are what we will become. And this in turn will also shape our  seeing/ hearing/feeling.

Matisse would learn to see each object and give it its life.

As I live my life right now, I’m away from the familiar, live and pray in a bedroom, I have few props, and no buddies. I am interested to see what this does to me. Can I stay open and flexible, change my moods, do things because I always have?  When it comes to prayer, do I begin, do I start with those so familiar processes and what will happen then?

I hear the same things going on in my mind, and often the familiar instructions from the outside are the same. But acting on instructions is not the point as they are meant only to guide and focus the intelligence and spirit.  But subtly we can be seduced into thinking that these instructions, this knowledge, are the thing itself.

I sit at dinner parties and conversation is about things, but rarely are our fine gifts of intelligence given any room to develop and discern. We become governed by our world of thoughts and rarely do we actually get the chance to look at the thinker of the thoughts.

Of course this is what starting to contemplate is about. Yet the mind is very interested in what it has thought before, what it already knows and it is rarely interested in what it doesn’t know. It will be interested in unknown facts to increase the stockpile of facts, because this can appear as intelligence (aren’t we often impressed by people who know a lot about everything!). But are we really curious about entering into the wordless world?

Not having a formula to control our movements at this time puts us at risk as we grope blindly. We often need to invite silence to hear what is initially wordless.  Our darker places inside emerge: fear of the unknown, risk of being wrong, seen as lacking.  Yet all of these qualities keep us on the wheel that spins faster and faster as we seek to be in control.

Like Matisse, I think we are developing ourselves to become sensitive, to see from our own experience?  But the first thing is to know that we will need courage and a kind of solidarity with ourselves.  Matisse would live his whole life outside of what was acknowledged as “good art”, yet now people will queue for months to taste and see this freedom.

The trick to finding a way forward is to recognize that we are the only ones who can do this, there is no formula, the only pointer is that others have set this course and have done it before us.  Usually people we admire can show us how. But I often wonder if we want it enough for ourselves, I mean the deeper desires, those that will really satisfy us. We may not at the time be appreciated by  our fellow travellers,  but it will certainly bring aliveness and creativity.

The last part of Matisse’s statement is that in truly learning to see, we learn to love. That sounds like a good outcome.

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