Why does a painting, reading a novel, looking at a photograph, or watching a film evoke such emotion and connection in our minds and souls? Why do we spend so much time expressing how we feel through writing symphonies and choreographing performances on stage? What can we communicate through art that we can’t say as eloquently in any other way? The deeper explanation is that it’s a God-connection.
We all have a divinely inspired impulse to create and express ourselves, whether or not we are a recognized artist like a painter, musician, dancer, or poet. As children of a Creator God, we seem hardwired to practice our own unique versions of the creative process. For example, gardeners describe their most sacred moments of connection to God as those when they plant and cultivate, engaging in the holy process of growth. Other people find it when painting, singing, writing, knitting, and shaping pottery.
As Faith Nolton, artist and author of Gardens of the Soul (Divine Arts, 2014), says, “The sacred art record of humanity—whether inscribed in cave and temple, tattoo and dance mask, or painted on drum, bark silk and canvas, or crafted in stained glass and mosaic—records and celebrates our human trails on our Mother Earth. It shows that art made with clear soul intention can bring healing and blessing for people, places, and situations.”
The Creative Process
The creative process is more important than the product or tangible result because it’s central to the journey of discovery. Creativity helps us flourish by teaching us who we are, what we love, and what we can give to the world. It’s an intentional way of thinking and doing. The creative person surrenders themselves to the process with no expectations, with a supreme act of faith, trust, and intuition.
Creativity, imagination, and innovation usually find us during moments of play. We are all clay in the hands of God, who is constantly moulding and shaping us into beautiful masterpieces. This isn’t a God who waves a magic wand from behind a protected and uncontaminated heavenly chamber while creation puts on a show outside. God got dirty first and invites us to push up our sleeves as well.
Being involved in creative arts is also an act of mindfulness. To be mindful is to be fully present. You are absorbed and yet fully involved with what you are doing. Lilian Wissink, author of The Creative Seed (Exisle Publishing, 2013), describes mindfulness as “simply being intentionally aware of the present moment in an open and gentle way. Mindfulness shifts us away from our preoccupations and worries and transports us into the aliveness of the now. This aliveness feeds our creative energy and opens up the rich and colorful world around us.”
The effects of flow are similar to meditation, says occupational therapist Victoria Schindler. The repetitive motions of knitting, for example, are calming and quiet the “fight or flight” response.
Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute in Philadelphia, says, “Flow—the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task—is a strong contributor to creativity. When in flow, the creator and the universe become one, outside distractions recede from consciousness, and one’s mind is fully open and attuned to the act of creating. There is very little self-awareness or critical self-judgement; just intrinsic joy for the task.”
Theologian Jeremy Begbie observes: “The urge to make and enjoy art seems to be universal: the impulse to scratch out images on stone walls, revel in the delight of notes strung together, shape and reshape words into patterns, and so on.”
Works of sacred art are created for devotional and contemplative purposes. They are designed to connect those who look upon them with the Divine, keeping them in touch with their spiritual center. Sacred art encompasses the extraordinary mystery of faith, which is challenging and intriguing. Throughout the centuries, Christian art has developed from images adapted from Greco-Roman culture around the Christian communities, through extraordinary eras of development in theology and technical expression where Christian aspects were culturally dominant. Egypt and Mesopotamia give us rich examples of how they developed an understanding of the divine/human connection and expressed it in artistic forms that made the invisible visible.
Nolton says sacred art “may have a final moment of birth or empowerment, with a symbolic act such as adding the dot of white in the eye of a Christian icon to ‘wake’ it, or the mantra written on the back of a Tibetan thangka, imbuing the work with a constant prayer of awareness. For sacred art is alive with its own spirit intent, an outward form of an inner meaning.”
Creativity and Spirituality
The spiritual life, like the expressive arts, is largely about process rather than product. Spirituality is a journey that evokes constant movement and progression, always unfolding and discovering. It involves integration—bringing all of ourselves and our experiences to the crafting of meaning.
Engaging in the arts as a spiritual practice means honoring this process of meaning—making, or cultivating, a relationship to mystery. Paolo Knill, one of the founders of expressive arts therapy, says, “The practice of the arts, as disciplined rituals of play in painting, sculpting, acting, dancing, making music, writing, and storytelling, is and always was a safe container—a secure vessel to meet existential themes, pathos, and mystery.”
Both spirituality and creativity are beyond the everyday experience of self, where one is transcending the ordinary and expected sense of self. There’s a sense of mystery at the heart of both creativity and spirituality. We are tuned in to our senses, which is where the transformation takes place. We don’t necessarily change but rather become more of who we already are.