“When it comes to spiritual experience, words are often woefully inadequate. For that matter, neither do images or any of the arts fully convey the Great Mystery. Even so, there are some practices that improve our chances. When we open ourselves to the intrinsic value of art—its vast array of styles and techniques—we open ourselves to being met by the Holy One who speaks in unexpected ways.” —Lois Huey-Heck and Jim Kalnin, The Spirituality of Art1
According to Robert Wuthnow and others who study the life of congregations, parishes that are vibrant and growing are making use of the arts in many forms to revitalize and strengthen their faith communities.2 The hope of this article is that churches might be willing to risk new practices, to continue to expand the ways in which people can appropriate the symbols and practices of worship, and to provide additional ways through which members can share their faith. The arts invite response, reflection, and attentiveness. Creativity and imagination affect church systems, including our worship.
Not so long ago, a parish I served in a community near Boston was transformed, and so was I, when we chose to embrace a model of what C. Kirk Hadaway calls “transformational community,” a faith system that is open-ended, permission giving, nurturing and growing, and one that embodies its purpose, transforming its people.3 This model moves people into new ways of seeing themselves, each other, and God. Undergirding the transformative work we undertook based on this model were several beliefs that form the basis for my consulting work and ministry: I believe in the priesthood of all believers, in a shared power through our baptisms. I believe that we are called to offer the gifts we bring in a spiritual democracy marked by radical welcome and open hospitality. I believe that the liturgy is the work of the people of God and that the whole space is a container for the sacred. And I believe the arts offer us a way to make a spacious container for difference.
Creativity demands, or perhaps implies, an attitude of openness to discovering new things, experimentation, imagining new possibilities, and taking risks. The opposite pattern can maintain tradition, safety, and conservative patterns. A creative approach allows conflict as a healthy part of congregational life when it exposes difference; the other works to avoid it. As a small Episcopal parish, we wanted to embrace mission and a future, not maintenance and a holding onto just our past. We imagined what God might be yearning to call forth in our midst. We had grown and our growth included many of the rich and complex demographics of a Boston suburb; we wanted to find ways to deepen our level of community within the richness of our diversity.
We chose art as a means for our transformation, discovering that creativity and imagination, the gifts of the people of God, impacted our systems—our ways of doing the business of the church. The new projects we undertook changed our understandings of racism and multiculturalism, moved us toward new vehicles for healing, developed deep community, and helped us reshape our liturgies.
“I believe that creativity includes the art of life itself. It is about the way we live and work, what we risk and why,” writes Ted Loder in his book The Haunt of Grace: Responses to the Mystery of God’s Presence.4 I agree with this statement and I believe in the power of this artful way of life to move me. I was amazed, however, at the changes this work brought forth in us as individuals and as a congregation.
These changes did not happen overnight, of course. We began slowly, learning to do mosaic depictions of church symbols as our first project. Our leader for these workshops provided the patterns and we chose the symbols that were meaningful to us, such as the boat on the sea of Galilee or the dove representing the Holy Spirit. One woman designed her own symbol, a combination of symbols representing her Buddhist and Christian household. People were delighted with the projects and expressed their individuality in terms of color and balance. We hung their mosaics in the worship space for a season and were pleased to hear the comments: “You made those? When is there another workshop? They add some brightness to the space.”
Next we transferred the mosaic style to the Easter side of a large five- by eight-foot cross on which we had placed an icon for Good Friday. Those who worked on the icon portion were only five in number, but the Easter mosaic involved the whole parish on Sunday mornings; even the youngest child could add some tiles. Comments from participants included thoughts of being more a part of the Holy Week events. “I thought of my own life as I added those pieces of tile, what was it about me and Easter in this place.” The children in particular could hardly wait for the turning of the cross from the Good Friday to the Easter side at the Easter Vigil.
The Good Friday/Easter cross became an important part of our worship after September 11th and at funerals too. What began as a simple task to replace a short cross that was too small for our space and our proclamations became resymbolized for us; we had a hand in this work as God also has a hand in our lives. Those who laid the cross on their shoulders for the Good Friday liturgy were joined to it in an embodied way. Those who helped me turn the cross on Holy Saturday remembered times when their lives had turned around as well.
Next we began a series of art credo projects—projects reflecting the artists’ beliefs—in which parishioners were invited to depict their faith through a variety of artistic mediums. For the majority of the credo projects, I supplied the 18-inch-square wood panels on which members of the congregation created their works of art. Once the subject for reflection was decided upon and announced, everyone in the parish was invited and encouraged to sign up for one of the boards. We had placed some nails in the walls on the sides and at the back of the church, which gave us a reasonable number of places to hang the work.
Our first project involved depicting the traditional stations of the cross. I wanted to extend the Holy Week experiences into the worship space, into the nave. The large cross we had made the previous year was situated near the altar. In placing these stations close to the congregation, on the walls near the pews in which the congregation sat, I hoped that the experience of the events of that week would come closer to my people. I wanted to know how they made connections in their own lives, placing their own stories next to the stories of the text. I was in awe of what came forth. And, I think, so were the artists as they reflected on what was going on within themselves, in their faith worlds, in each other, and in the world beyond the doors of the church. The variety of expression, both individually and in common faith, was an important part of this transformative process for those who made, received, and reflected upon the art. We gained insights into each others’ lives that we would not have gained without the visual forms.
For example, the mother of an adolescent placed the cry of the forsaken one (Jesus) in a graffiti city street with the words, “Why have you forsaken me?” (see image below). In the reflection time when the artists gathered, she spoke about why she had chosen this station and what it meant in her own life. She said that as she walked to work through the city’s streets she noticed and was affected by street youth and the graffiti on buildings, which, she said, invited notice and response. Some, in response to her work, suggested that we neglect our youth.
Another artist, an adolescent young woman, pondered the fashion industry and its pattern of masking and unmasking our bodies in the station she chose, Jesus being stripped of his garments. He
r work was a combination of images drawn from fashion magazines aimed at young women (see image, page 31).
A lawyer, reflecting on the then-current debate in the state legislature about the death penalty, drew a courthouse and created a collage of newspaper headlines about the debate for his station, Jesus being condemned to death (see image, page 32).
As we took these images in, we began to look at what others thought and prayed about, and these images began to accompany us in worship. They reshaped our prayers, inviting the congregation to think more deeply about the concerns that are living in others. And, since the images remained in our space for a time, the concerns remained as opportunities for reflection and action.
As a communal social act, the liturgy must be in touch with both the lives of its individuals and with the wider sorrows and joys of the world. The mediator of these worlds is often the priest, but artists can stand in the liminal place as interpreters too. If we welcome artists and encourage those who can offer their own creativity, if the use of imagination is freely encouraged, our parishes may experience liberation, releasing the yearning and longing for a new humanity and even a new way of being a community of faith.
Perhaps if we can acknowledge that we have made words a central beauty in our prayer books and that rationalism and the dissection model of coming to the texts is our norm, then we will be able to admit that we have lost the contemplative gaze, the mystery of God that comes through images and through each one of us, that is expansive and a wonder. Through sharing the work of our hands in a new way, we deepened our community. This was a new form or recovery of the offertory action, a handing over of ourselves in the midst of the gathered faithful.
Our present worship service patterns do not include much time for reflection. At my church we would acknowledge that our Eucharistic worship moves us steadily toward communal action and we have little opportunity for changing the scripts or the forms. In this parish, we initially impacted our gazing, our noticing, as we began to move the signals for the liturgical seasons toward the community, over their heads or on the wall, not just in new colors for vestments or altar. By inviting parishioners to create art for each of the liturgical seasons, the work of the community became the signal for each rotation. Hundreds of peace cranes were suspended overhead when Pentecost inside met war in the world, and a tree branch invited us to think about the tree of life. Placed near our baptismal font, it reminded us of the roots and branches of the community of faith. One year I handed the Advent gospels to a creative couple. “I need for you to find a way to embody these texts for us each week,” I told them. “Can you give me some figures? A man and a woman?” Advent one had the figures they created, life-sized and made of flexible aluminum tubing, at the entrance of the church, one with a candle in hand and the other pointing toward the altar. Week two had them seated in the pews with their hands over their ears as John the Baptist shouted to the brood of vipers. Week three found them suspended overhead from the beams, the scrolls of the prophets hanging from their arms. “Go tell John what you see—the blind receive their sight, the lame leap for joy… .” Week four found them approaching the altar, and on Christmas Eve they had an infant in their arms and all had stars as halos. Initially the figures were greeted with surprise and some confusion; as they were present each week they became more a part of us. This movement of the figures in the space encouraged people to get their heads out of the books and to look around and see what they might have been missing. One of the biblical texts for the season said, “Keep watch.” In using the Advent figures, we made room for another new expression of the gospel texts.
A letter from one visitor made this evidently clear. “As a recent visitor to the Church of Our Saviour, I’ve had what I would consider one of the most uplifting liturgical experiences I have had in quite some time,” she wrote. “It is the very first time I have been in a church where I noticed all of the art is ‘homemade’ and not produced by a religious products company… . First, they are the living signs of the community, life manifested by the Word. Your stations, as well as other artwork, spoke volumes to me about the kind of community the Church of Our Saviour is, a community filled with joy and care and a commitment to another’s well being. You truly see yourselves as gifts to one another. Second, they are objects made by your loving, human hands and the presence of the Holy Spirit… . As a visitor I have been transformed by them as well… . Lastly, I found them to be signs of your call to a shared journey of faith. And I am grateful to have been in their midst, to have been witness to your call.”
“When I came through the door and saw all the art, I knew that something was happening here, that this parish was alive,” another visitor commented. I was stunned to realize that so many of my people had lots to say and not much opportunity in community worship to say it. So the credo projects continued. We learned from the “stations of vocation” about each other’s satisfactions and struggles at work. We commissioned a set of multicultural banners to reflect the increasing diversity in our congregation and in the connections with others in our neighborhood and in the world. Our nearest elementary school had over 30 languages spoken in the homes of its families and we, too, had more to represent than a white Jesus with white children in a pastoral scene complete with sheep. Initially, our parish had no imagery of welcome in the multicultural neighborhood. Twelve watercolor-on-silk angel banners of various ethnicities helped us reflect on infrequent depictions of the location of the Holy (see image, page 28).
After the completion of each project, I gathered the artists together in a small group where they could share their stories of faith, why they chose the particular images and sentiments, and how doing the art was a prayerful act for them. I found these reflections to be so helpful that I began sharing them in the parish newsletter, at sermon time, and in notebooks accompanying the seasonal art offerings.
The images and mutual reflections also helped me as priest and preacher to attend to the concerns of my parish through my sermons. I opened up the sermon time for comments and questions from the congregation, and sometimes I incorporated the art in my preaching, having been inspired by it. All of us were affected by these offerings.
Clergy play a primary role in encouraging the arts in church settlings, especially in visual forms. Our forms may vary, but we are continually invited to go deeper, explore more, connect with something and someone different than ourselves, and risk transformation. Through our art we made room for difference, for faith to be met in a variety of color, shape, and form. We made an expansive container for our worship.
1. Lois Huey-Heck and Jim Kalnin, The Spirituality of Art (Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada: Northstone Publishing, 2006).
2. Robert Wuthnow, All in Sync: How Music and Art are Revitalizing American Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
3. C. Kirk Hadaway, Behold I Do a New Thing: Transforming Communities of Faith (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001).
4. Ted Loder, The Haunt of Grace: Responses to the Mystery of God’s Presence (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2002).
The Rev. Linda Fisher Privitera is the former rector of the Church of Our Saviour in Arlington, Massachusetts, where the spiritual practices in visual theology described in this article are still ongoing.