“I define religion at its best as a positive and effective means of relating to the mysteries that define our lives: love, death, birth, illness, marriage, and work, to name a few . . . . A twenty-first century religion sanctifies them with sacraments, rituals, sacred stories, and sometimes guardian spirits. The arts serve this kind of religion by giving us strong images of contemplation, for reflecting on life-defining mysteries, and for educating ourselves so we can live them out more creatively.”
— Thomas Moore, quoted in The Artist’s Rule: nurturing your creative soul with monastic wisdom.
“I deeply appreciate the idea of religion as a means to relate to the mysteries that define and give meaning to our lives,” says Christine Valters Paintner in The Artist’s Rule. “I imagine that many readers of this book have had struggles with the institutional church and some may even have stepped outside the traditional borders.” I struggled to gain traction, studying this book last summer, but re-started a few weeks ago. It seems apropos to this season of my life. “An icon artist I know,” continues Paintner, “once described her work as ‘serving the mysteries’. I was entranced by that image, because for me the spiritual and creative journeys are not so much about growing in certainty — in many ways it is about growing less certain — as they are about learning how to move more deeply into the heart of mystery, into the great unknowing” (Paintner, 2011; pg30).
One object of contemplation is the anchor pendant I wear. My cousin’s four-year-old pointed at the space atop my sternum and declared, “you drive boats!” Systems of meaning hang from the end of my chain, conjured of others’ understandings. My therapist interrogated that same space: “You’re wearing your anchor necklace again; you had stopped wearing it, when your job ended. Why do you suppose you’re wearing it again, on your first day of graduate school?” Signs dangle all around, with or without reference to my interpretations (or intentional lack thereof).
People ask what the anchor means: friends, strangers; honestly, I intended to explore the symbol months ago. At first I forbade myself to wear it until I defined it. After a few weeks, I wore it whenever possible so that people would keep asking, forcing me to improvise answers. I stumble over myself, over competing images and stories as well, in search of the best entry-point. Once again, a classmate asked me just a minute before our course in “Global & Multicultural Education”. Demurring subtly, I said it was a long story. Though my precise words are forgotten, I made vague allusions to a universal humanism, something with the fragrance of non-committal agnosticism. At about that time, our professor called the class to order… and passed around boxes of crayons. She wanted us to sketch a symbol to represent ourselves — in hindsight, an object that contemplates identity. Identity is a major theme of this course, surely of my nebulous career aspirations as well, and the weekly dialogue journals I completed for this class opened an unexpected space for my own interrogations of the spaces over, beneath, and around that anchor pendant. My classmate and I made eye-contact; she smiled.
“Well, we already know what I’m going to do…” I whispered, then laughed softly. Brandishing a purple crayon, I began by weaving the curves of a treble-clef onto my blank sheet. I threaded an Arabic word through the top loop of my G-clef to form a cross-bar, then hung two curving arms and flukes, like a sea-anchor, from the clef’s tail — below its invisible staff-lines. It was a semiotic chimera. As our time expired, I began to draw a bright light atop of my personal symbol in yellow crayon…