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Valerie Quinlivan

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All religions share the power of story, a narrative that shapes our understanding of ourselves and our relations with our creator. Christians look to the same Holy Book as do the other two Abrahamic religions, the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis, recounts:

 In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Now the earth was a formless void, and there was darkness over the deep, with the Spirit of God sweeping over the waters. [Genesis 1-2]

We do not understand this account of creation as scientific, and we certainly do not take it as historical fact. It points to not how but why God created the universe and humankind.

God created the universe and, we see later in Genesis, ‘He saw that it was good’.  He created male and female, to be like him; in his image. God gave our legendary ancestors, Adam and Eve the power of choice. In striking imagery, which has had impact on human belief and imagination over thousands of years, we learn how choice allowed defects to creep in. Egoism, ambition, jealousy and murder are depicted early on in the story. These sins caused alienation to compete with the desire to ‘walk with God’. The whole wonderful narrative of God’s chosen people over time, is one of yearning to be one with their Lord but constantly swerving away again, only to be drawn once more towards their Creator through leaders and prophets. God created the universe so that humankind would choose to be one with him and his wonderful creation.

Christian thinking sees God continuously involving himself in his creation. This is predominantly seen in the human figure of Jesus Christ. Jesus means God saves in Hebrew and Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah.

Genesis says: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. God said, Let there be light. His Word was the word of creation. In the Christian Gospels, the apostle and evangelist, St John, writes, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. [John 1:14] The divine spark, latent in every one of us dwells fully in one man. This belief in the Incarnation of God is the central tenet of Christian faith and, as St Paul states, God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself. [2 Cor 5:19] … the whole of creation groaning and travailing [Romans 8:22] until that moment. God, who has always been present in history, now, without any diminishment, empties himself to become a human part of that history.

In Christian thinking, the Creator calls on us to be involved in his creation; with our fellow-human beings, we are now invited to be one with Christ, other living beings and the physical world, with all its wonders.

In Genesis 1, the story reflects a highly credible order of cosmic events in the stages of creation: order from the void, darkness and light, the stars and planets, our earth in its movement causing day and night, living creatures emerging from the waters, animals, and plants. The culmination of God’s creation was humankind.

The second Book of Genesis is as intimate and beautiful as the first is majestic. Having created the beauty of Eden, God fashions man from clay, from dust, and breathes the breath of life into him. God is the supreme craftsman, the master potter and man is made from the very clay of the earth. And he places Adam and then his wife and companion, Eve, in the most beautiful of gardens.

Although God gave our first ancestors ‘mastery’ over nature, they were settled in this garden to cultivate and take care of it. They were also bid to creatively name all the birds and beasts and by that personal involvement, nurture the earth, their mother, and be faithful stewards.

Creation of the universe and of humankind is a wonderful expression of love in God; the love that not only unifies the Father and Son through the Spirit but also enables the universe and humankind to have a relationship with their creator.

If creation is an expression of love and an enabler of relationship with God, then relationship itself is a loving form of creativity. And this is my central point. God’s loving creativity calls forth a loving response from men and women.

A sense of wonder and mystery is nature active in us. The movement from nature to spirit is expressed as aspiration. In the poet Browning’s words, ‘Ah, but man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s heaven for’. [Robert Browning 1812-89 ‘Andrea del Sarto’ 1855]  Sometimes this is directly recognised as being a reach towardsGod. (e.g. the mystics) and sometimes this creative energy directs itself into the fields of science, engineering, a will to heal, a will to cultivate and nurture, a will to create directly in the arts.

 

 

The same is true in relationships between human beings and the natural world. Conservation of the wild, care of the earth’s resources, agriculture, animal husbandry - all call forth the creative intelligence.

This loving creativity is the basis of the Christian message, ‘Love one another’, which means we should also love the natural world which nurtures us. There is a sense of wonder at the natural world – and a sense of oneness with it – which is the basis of much creativity – with that wonder properly directed through nature to nature’s creator.Wonder and awe seem planted in the human heart. Atheist scientist, Stephen Hawking, Look up at the sky, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder what makes the universe exist. [Speech at opening of 2012 Olympic Games]

Daniel O’Leary, Catholic priest and spiritual writer, remembers his first real look at the sky at night, and how he stood in amazed wonder, saying, There is a curious bond, a sacramental intimacy, between the universe of our heart and the heart of our universe, as they spin around each other in a web of wonder. [Tablet, May 2013]

And this wonder is in no way lessened by our scientific discoveries, such as the great advances in particle physics. The discovery of the so-called ‘God particle’, the Higgs-Boson, does not lessen our awe at God’s creation any more than belief in the Creator lessons our admiration for his gifts of brilliant scientific minds.

Many Christian mystics and saints have responded to God’s creation with their own creativity, poured out in poetrySt Francis in the 13th century praised sun and moon and earth, and the other elements, and even sister death, as gift and creative forces:

(Slide 1 text of verse)

     Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour,
Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.
 

Francis was no pantheist. He continues in the Canticle to praise God through God’s creations of sun and moon, earth, air, water and fire. His praise of death was recognition of what we all must come to, but in coming to death, we also come to God, the created becomes one with the Creator.

Francis saw himself as one love-centre in a universal brotherhood and sisterhood - a tremendously simple belief, the grace of brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ, which is given to every creature. And because the potency to love all creation is in every one of us, so too is the power to create. [Eric  Doyle OFM St Francis and the Song of Brotherhood 1987]

Some hundreds of years earlier, the Celtic hermits of the early Christian church sang in Gaelic of their love of solitude and their bonds withnature. This monk also speaks of the Holy Spirit, the creative force ofenergy between the Father and Jesus, who ‘breathed upon the waters’, at the beginning of creation, who is the divine power in the deepest heart of each person and of this earthly world. This power is the graced centre of creation. [Karl Rahner]

 I wish, oh Son of the living God,
O ancient and eternal King,
For a little hidden hut in the wilderness
That it may be my dwelling,

And an all-grey lithe little lark
To be by its side,
A clear pool to wash away sins
Through the grace of the Holy Spirit. (slide 2 text of verse)

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While their brother monks in their monasteries copied the scriptures in beautiful penmanship and colour:  (slide 3- Book of Kells) [The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD, intermixed with readings from the earlier Old Latin translation; end of 7thC]

On this illuminated cover, made of vellum or calf-skin, we see the symbols of the four evangelists, the writers of the Gospels, and apostles of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are depicted as man, lion, calf and eagle – symbols taken from the prophet Ezekiel (1:10) and St John’s Book of Revelation (4:7). Around them is rich Celtic patterning. Within the book, each initial letter is illuminated with flowering foliage and mythical creatures, and the script, the calligraphy is itself a creative work of art to honour the scriptures. The monks also felt that writing on calfskin brought them into contact with the animal world as well as with God.

This impulse to co-operate in God’s creation, not through procreation alone, has continued over the centuries. Towards the end of the 19th C the Jesuit priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, delighted in the natural world. He celebrates the lavishness of harvest:

Hurrahing in harvest

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love's greeting of realer, of rounder replies(Slide 6 text of verse) 

At such moments when rapture at God’s creation translates itself into human creativity, we know instinctively that all is one, that relationship defines the very core of life itself. For Christians, it is the knowledge that this kingdom of God, which is within us, is one with the cosmic Christ, the Word who was in the beginning of all creation and still permeates the created world.

Humanity is creation become conscious of itself. The human voice, therefore, speaks on behalf of all creation. But individuals, who only turn this consciousness on themselves, create just masks. For the Christian, God is a being in relationship, with the Son, through the Spirit and with all creation. Perhaps the most God-like aspect of man’s creativity is in relationship with fellow human beings: when relationship is expressed as love - between parents and child; between lovers, spouses, between brothers and sisters and friends; between the caring teacher and pupils; between leader and people; between healer and healed. And we see that when these relationships are not loving the result is not creativity but destructiveness: the creativity expresses itself in cruel and sadistic ways, torture, warfare and oppression.

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Depiction of this can also lead to creativity – a cry against what man can do to man. Islamic art and architecture moves me deeply with the purity of its design and calligraphy. The development of the post-Reformation Christian church within the original mosque at Cordoba seems an intrusion with its gory 17thC statues. But within Christian art, the ugly is not avoided. The Crucifixion of Christ, so often depicted, appals; and the iconography associated with the vulnerable and suffering Christ – Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’, is used by many artists as protest against horror. The Columbian, Botero’s, series of paintings on the American treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghriab is a brutal echo: Slide 7

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Even the Russian Jewish artist, Chagall, draws on crucifixion as a symbol to depict the suffering of his people in the pogroms, and the suffering of all humanity. Slide 8

Artists have depicted loving relationships in ways which can move us deeply.  But also show the love emanating from the crucified Christ and the endurance, courage and the loyalty of the figures usually shown beneath it and the sorrow, love and compassion of the aftermath. Slide 9

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This Crucifixion, by Dalí, shows Christ on the Cross bending over the whole world – it is all of creation he has reconciled to God. He shows the world infused with Christ victorious. Although, often presented in terms of earlier scripture’s language of ransom and temple sacrifice, Christ here presents himself as the Holy One who will not retaliate. He gathers all malice and torment to himself but seeks to call down no vengeance on his persecutors. Father forgive them.

This is kenosis– the self-emptying of God. It is a terrible thing to contemplate and we Christians become too used to the images. This why the Christian Church, as with other faiths, has creative liturgies of readings, prayers and music, memorials to mark the event which is so central to our faith – the response through art and music over the centuries has been blessedly creative, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Passionmoves us to tears and praise. The vulnerable and compassionate Mary in Michelangelo’s Pietá does the same. (slide 10)

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The artist also must be vulnerable. Vulnerability feeds creativity and allows for a loving and creative response in art.

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Tender human passions show creative relationships in art.  This renaissance painting of an old man and a young boy, his grandson, by Ghirlandaio, shows a love untainted by fear of the ugly disease which disfigures the man.  (slide11). [ Ghirlandaio 1490 An Old Man and his Grandson]

Love and trust abound between the two; the flowof creativerelationship is almost palpable. Love reveals the beautiful even in things and people that don’t strike us as beautiful at first. Such loving energy reflects that of God towards us, and we towards him, channelled through his creatures.

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Madonna and Child images are universal icons of ideal mother love and child response, even if the infant is as yet unaware of any response except the satisfaction of needs being met. (slide 12)

Children themselves are creative in their play and in their laughter. Laughter is often in short supply when we talk of faith and God. Yet I believe it is written, He deserves paradise who makes his companions laugh.Hyperbole – exaggeration for the sake of effect is used to create awe and reverence in the Hebrew Scriptures. Although one can certainly smile at the story of Jonah – resistant and angry against God, and complaining of his treatment. God gives him the shade of a fast-growing caster-oil plant for shade and to soothe his ill-humour, but then causes it to wither and die to teach his recalcitrant servant a lesson. Some of Jesus’ metaphors and teaching can only have been said with a sense ofhumour. Jesus, the teacher, uses down to earth imagery familiar to his listeners and sometimes familiar stories with an unfamiliar twist in a question at the end.

The example of the judgemental man concerned with  getting rid of the speck of dust in his brother’s eye, when he has a whole plank in his own; the pun of the camel going through the eye of a needle – ‘it is more difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven than the camel to go through the eye of a needle’; –and wry humour,  asking for a coin of the realm, when pressed to say if it were fitting for a Jew to pay tribute to Caesar: showing Caesar’s face on the coin, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’. There is a smile in that soft answer that invites smiles and laughter in return.

Telling stories gives shape to teaching, and to life. All cultures have traditional stories which embody their beliefs and their moral outlook. I particularly love the Persian version of the English opening, ‘Once upon a time’. I won’t attempt to pronounce the Farsi but one of my students wrote it for me: There was one. There was none. There was God. He was the only one.What a wonderful story opening and what a lovely rendering of Once upon a time…Jesus started his stories, in the English version, There was once…a man with two sons…a very poor widow…a very strict householder   So there familiar drew his listeners in, and the final questions sent them away wondering.

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Jesus also said,unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Of course he was speaking of simplicity and innocence of spirit. But innocent laughter, making other people smile with warmth is a creative activity. I was reminded of this, this summer. In my town in England, the 50th anniversary of the zoo was being celebrated. The town had constructed 111 giraffes, some 2.5 metres tall, decorated by both artists and school children. There was a trail to follow to find them all; with an app you could download. I have never seen such good humour in the town; parents and children on the trail, and you’d be hard put not to smile as you passed these creatures, now being sold for charity.  (slide 13)


Stand Tall for Giraffes has been celebrating the 50th birthday of Colchester Zoo and culminates on Thursday 19th September when all the 2.5 metre giraffes will be auctioned to raise funds for conservation through Colchester Zoo's charity Action for the Wild. Stand Tall will celebrate Colchester’s creativity with a safari of 2.5 metre giraffes – with 29 designs inspired by African colours; local history and characters together with 82 school giraffes, reflecting the extraordinary talent of young people

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More sophisticated play was seen in Edinburgh this year when tiny and exquisite paper sculptures were left anonymously in different venues, galleries, museums and libraries, with a note thanking the institutions for their support of art and letters. What a spirit of generosity in the artist!

(slide 15 )(slide 16) Each sculpture was made from a book appropriate to the subject. With both these examples, I felt my heart overflow, both with laughter and with gratitude for the spirit of creativity and delight which they evoked. There’s a minute echo of God’s delight in his creation and a sense of heavenly laughter when ‘He saw that it was good’.

The creativity in nature, art, poetry… this is reflected in the books and teaching Christians hold sacred. The Hebrew Scriptures formed Jesus and were his inheritance. Christians hold them dear and need to engage with them to understand their own faith. They make much use of narrative and poetry – the Jewish chronicle is expressed in wonderful stories and the characters, trials and triumphs of God’s people come vividly alive. The psalms and metaphors sing to us. Jesus drew on this tradition to illustrate his teaching with parables and hyperbole and which come down to us in the Gospels.

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Perhaps the most creative moment in the gospels is when Jesus sits with his disciples at the last supper before his death. This has produced great art as well as more modern versions

  (Last Supper. Slide 17)

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Christ’s Eucharist, or Thanksgiving, is the central prayer of most Christians and all Catholics. It is a loving prayer of gratitude and union, which embraces the entire cosmos and thus honouring the divine.

People of other faiths will recognise the pattern of sacramental prayer, by which we try to create proper response to the Creator: abasing oneself before the creator and giving thanks and praise in his presence and going forth to share and serve. This is a creative enactment of all we are called to do.

Humans have struggled over the ages to find a right mode of prayer as a response to their creator. Most faith traditions will recognise the two main types of prayer: the mystical tradition, where you purge yourself of all that is attractive in creation because you may be too drawn to the world; it is a meditative way, a way of self-emptying in order to be filled with the presence of God, to be drawn into the Divine. It is the Via Negativa. The problem with this is that it can lead to a rejection of the created world, a contempt of the body and an indifference to our fellow creatures; it can become narcissistic.

The other main tradition of prayer affirms the world in everything and worships God with an outpouring of vocal prayer, song and, sometimes, dance. This wholehearted affirmation raises the problem of how to cope with sin and corruption, which assuredly exist and have to be faced.

Our great Christian mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, wrote of their experience of the Meditative Way and many of the early monks practised it. However, they held contemplation of God and service to the world in tension. They often had massive responsibilities to their orders, to teaching and in service to the poor and sick. They also wrote beautiful journals, music and poetry filled with images from the natural world – and art, as we have seen with the Book of Kells. In this way, they opened the door of their heart – to God, in a one to one relationship of mystical prayer, and then out to spread the fruits of that in a relationship of service and love to others.

The consequences of searching for God in prayer releases our creative energy. So we see that by loving we create. Love is a creative encounter with God; selfless love a contemplative union with God. Loving the physical world and, indeed the depth of the universe,  scientist or poet, or man or woman in the street, must overcome the human desire to ‘hold’, to possess – which leads to exploitation and the destruction of the overflowing fecundity of creation. Our place in this vast and expanding universe is determined by our interconnectedness to one another and the world in which we live, the mutuality and respect we have for all of God’s creatures and creation.

A sense of wonder is at the heart of adoration of god. A sense of wonder and mystery is implanted in us and demands a response of praise and prayer and creativity, even though we cannot fathom all that God has done or know the mind of the Divine. As, the Book of Ecclesiastes ( 3:11) says in the Hebrew Scriptures,

He has made everything beautiful in its time.
He has also set eternity in the hearts of people,
yet they cannot fathom
what God has done from beginning to end.”    (Slide  19)

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