Over the past few weeks, I've been pondering especially what it means for me, as a priest, to be a "sacred artist". What kind of art should I be producing? How can I become an artist who is distinctively Christian in outlook and what does that mean for the works that I produce? Much of my time since I set out on this particular path has been spent in exploring new techniques, learning about new media and experimenting with different approaches to laying paint down, to mark-making and to compositional elements. Yet, if I am honest, part of me has felt guilty for this kind of creative "fun", as if everything I produce should be worthy of my priesthood (and my training as an iconographer). I know, rationally, that this is not correct but it was making me reflect nonetheless. Then, just as I was wondering whether I was doing the "right thing", a commission came unexpectedly to affirm me in this artistic calling.
The commission, which of necessity needed to be completed within a week, was to create a contemporary piece based around John 21 and Peter's breakfast encounter with Christ on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius. I knew instinctively that the focus of the design should be the words of Scripture themselves. The design around them takes us from the fire in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house where Peter denied Christ; to the shores where he hauls in that great catch of fish; and back to the fire, this time with the risen Christ. The Trinity knot, from Celtic understanding, represents knowledge, strength and compassion, which are there in abundance in Peter's encounter with Jesus. The Greek text is, specifically, John 21.17, as Peter responds to Christ for the third time:
“Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
Now, I'm guessing that no one would question that this is "sacred art" and, from the moment that this commission came to me, and throughout the process, I could sense God's hand in it all. I've also been working on the preparatory stages for another icon commission of St Brigid. Icons are, perhaps, the epitome of sacred art and the roles of priest and iconographer sit happily together. Yet, what of my other work and my "practice pieces" which still take up my time and energy?
An answer came in the book that I have been reading, "Art for God's Sake" by Philip Graham Ryken. In this short volume, a call to recover the arts in the life of the church, the author highlights God's calling in the Old Testament of craftspeople to construct the Tabernacle. He encourages all artists within God's church to exercise their gifts in producing that which is good, that which is true and that which is beautiful. In doing so, the book reminded me that the calling is simply to use the gifts we have been given to God's glory. That does not mean that everything created needs to be profoundly Scriptural; it does not need to be evangelistic or overtly Christian in that sense. Being inspired by God's creation, painting from the world around me, honouring the gifts I have been given, and doing so with the intention of glorifying God - this is enough.
"All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory; God... is the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty." (US theologian, Jonathan Edwards quoted ibid p.54)
So I am trying to embrace a new freedom. I am a priest and that does not change. And I am an artist who has much to learn and to practise. I am being called simply to trust, knowing that my intention in pursuing an artistic path is to glorify God. And you don't need to be an artist or to have specifically creative gifts for this to apply. In all of our lives, we are called to be the people whom God created us to be, with our particular gifts and vocations. Whatever your daily tasks, whatever your line of work, however you live your life, your spiritual journey shapes how you do that. We all follow a sacred path wherever we are by pursuing that which is good, that which is true and that which is beautiful. Above all, whatever we do, our aim should be to do it all for the glory of God.
"So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10.31)