In the dark of winter, we all turn instinctively towards symbols of rebirth, and we celebrate in our various ways the miracle of light and all that it means. Our spirits long for light, just as our bodies do. We feast on the rich delicacies of the season, but it is the candles, the images and the rituals signifying our longing and faith that feed our souls. When we light the candle or bring in the green tree, we manifest our internal prayers for life renewed, life everlasting.
At this stage of time's yearly cycle, images related to religious observance abound, but many of us think very little about their use in everyday spiritual practice. I was raised Episcopalian, a church not entirely bereft of imagery, but it was not until I first went to Italy that I fully realized the visual impoverishment of Protestant Christianity. I was blind, but now, I see. You don't have to be a believer to feel the reverence and faith that emanate from many religious-themed artworks, be they Resurrection scenes, mandalas or sand paintings. Looking beyond Christianity, you begin to see that no matter the religion, the same forces and often the same forms are visualized the world over. While I can conceive that an imageless, unornamented church could have the merit of iconoclastic purity, I tend toward a belief in the beneficence of images--representational and otherwise--in spiritual practice. Grace enters through the senses. Form and color can guide you toward peace or ecstatic cognizance of the divine just as surely as music, song, dance or the plume of incense can.
In November 1997, Carrboro textile artist Nancy Whittington attended a yoga retreat in Texas, where it was so warm that she went swimming in a quiet lake. As she floated in the water, seemingly out of nowhere a motor boat roared up. It ran over her, mutilating one leg, and roared away again without stopping.
"From the moment of the injury, I felt like I had a lot of good help," says Whittington. "I don't know what happened, but I felt grace. I felt a positive urge that my life would get better and that I didn't have to view this as a tragedy." And grace, my fears relieved ... Whittington struggled out of the lake and found help. She was helicoptered to the nearest hospital, where for two weeks she underwent several surgeries.
The night it became clear that her leg would have to be amputated, she lay alone in the dark. Through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come. Then she reached for her sketchbook and drew a shape like a wind-borne leaf, open at the stem end. For her this simple form was, she says, "a link to grace. It was open--you don't feel trapped or compressed looking at it." The next day she was airlifted to Duke Hospital for the amputation and rehabilitation. Six months later, still learning to balance and walk with her prosthesis, she was in her studio, making image after image with the shape that had come to her in the dark. 'Twas grace that brought us safe this far ...
Whittington had created a great number of small works exploring her shape, and was preparing for an exhibition of them at Page-Walker Art Center when Father Philip, the priest from the Newman Catholic Center where she is a parishioner, called with a question. As part of the Newman Center's renovations, he would be commissioning some artworks. Would she be interested, he asked, in the commission for two large hangings to go in a small chapel devoted to prayer and contemplation?
"The day Father Philip called," says Whittington, "I had a whole stack of images already matted. I told him I thought I had what he wanted." The art committee from the church came and picked two images, and Whittington began translating the design from a small work on paper to a large silk hanging. "The church really helped me by commissioning these," she says. "It's what got me working big again. But these works of art, I just couldn't have made them without going through that experience." ... And grace will lead us home.
Both pieces glow golden in the glass-walled chapel bright shining as the sun, and both use the asymmetrical, open-ended shape Whittington first drew in the hospital. The way they are arranged creates various images: Two shapes together suggest an infinity symbol; four together an opening flower or spinning wheel, with a cross form appearing in the negative spaces. Eight together link like the chain of being. The center of each hanging is a still hub, while the image both expands outward and cycles around the center.
"This combination of in, out and around is what sets the contemplation going," Whittington says. "That's the experience of being-ness within the cycle of doing. That forms the basis of everything."
The cycles of physical and spiritual life are also emphasized in the other wonderful artworks the church commissioned. Gretchen Lothrop has created, in stainless steel, a magnificent sculptural candelabra/lectern/Tree of Life and two Holy Water fonts with wave-like brackets for the sanctuary entrance, as well as a Stations of the Cross series and an altar base that echoes the organic forms of the Tree. Genevieve Cotter's commission was to show the Virgin Mary at four stages of her life. In her Annunciation scene, the Virgin is Jewish; the pregnant Virgin is white; the lactating Virgin an Indian, and the Mother of Sorrows is black. The way the pictures are hung emphasizes the ever-cycling nature of life, with sorrow and joy both within the circle.
Early Christian art often used circular or wheel-like symbols, points out Nancy Whittington. "Early on, the cross wasn't considered enough to represent God, and the circle was needed," she says. The circle remains a powerful symbol for sacred purposes in every faith. It is the most powerful representation of an amazing grace, and as we gaze in contemplation on those sacred circles, grace comes to us in the knowledge that today's long darkness will again be followed by tomorrow's light.