“Remember that all things which happen
To you are raw materials
Endlessly yielding of thought that could change
Your life and go on doing so forever.”
– Ben Okri
Take a look at the first image: it may be familiar to you as I have used it twice already. This is the Anastasis icon, the traditional Orthodox icon for Holy Saturday, that uncertain and unfamiliar time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday; the in between time, the time of waiting. Look again, however, and we see that even this picture of the unknown holds hope. Although the icon is about the ‘descent into hell’, it is also about a triumph in the darkness over the darkness. The Christ figure is surrounded by a dark halo, but he is also helping humanity, as represented by a man and a woman, to escape the grave, and he is surrounded by a support network of dead prophets and kings –his ancestral figures.
This is my last art meditation for Leeds Methodist Mission and I’m feeling the weight of the last word. What do I write, to conclude this strange, challenging, sad and hopeful period of human experience? I am, of course, also aware that this is no conclusion – Covid19 is still around. I am also aware that, like the Christ figure in the icon, I am surrounded by a support network, my ‘ancestral figures’; the collected wisdom of so many who have been through much worse than anything I could know, which I have drawn on in my offerings to you.
I have just had Covid. It feels ironic at this stage to have finally fallen prey to the virus and I have been through a plethora of feelings from anger to shame to depression over the last three weeks. And, like the world in general, I’m not ‘clear’ yet: despite being out of isolation, I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus. In the early stages, stuck in my room and going slightly mad, I remembered the many people over the world who have been incarcerated in solitary confinement for whatever reason. People like Brian Keenan, who described his time as a hostage like being ‘in a tomb’, or the pastor Richard Wurmbrand:
“Out of fourteen years in jail under the Communists in Rumania, I spent three years alone in a cell thirty feet below ground, never seeing sun, moon or stars, flowers or snow, never seeing another man except for the guards and interrogators who beat and tortured me. I seldom heard a noise in that prison. The guards had felt soled shoes and I did not hear their approach. I had no Bible, nor any other book. I had no paper on which to write my thoughts. The only things we were expected to write were statements accusing ourselves and others.” (excerpt from “Sermon’s in Solitary Confinement”.)
Richard’s response was to manage this extremely stressful situation by composing a sermon every night, committing it to memory and delivering it. His book ‘Sermons in Solitary Confinement’ is a deeply honest monument to faith and resilience.
In his powerful introduction to the book, Wurmbrand writes
“Accept your thoughts of despair and of faith, your doubts and their solution, your moments of madness and their passing away. Allow it all to happen to you. You imagine that you are thinking. ln fact, you are being thought.”
A friend who lives with a chronic illness, and so knows what it is to have to isolate even in non-pandemic times, sent me the following text by Leyla Aylin, which perhaps echoes with this:
“I want to celebrate those brave enough to cease all doing, even for a second, and sit with the ache in their hearts. A task many find harder than summiting the highest peak. I want to make heroes of those who honour their limitations. Who are unable to keep up with the busy-ness of our times, yet show up to each profound, necessary moment. Truly, it is an act of courage and rebellion to do any such thing”.
I am not for one minute suggesting that self-isolation was anything approaching the experiences of Wurmbrand, Keenan and so many others, but I am aware that these people have got through such extreme conditions by somehow going into partnership with them. Like the Anastasis icon, where Christ overcomes ‘hell’ for himself and so many others by embracing that darkness and being surrounded by it.
Take a look at the second image. This is called Is-o- lat-ed by Andreas Anastasis. I wonder what the image makes you think of. A shroud? Angels’ clothes? Bedsheets? Talking about the piece, Anastasis says: “…with most artists dark times are moments of reflection, and creativity is a way of getting through it, being isolated and cut off opened a whole new level of raw consciousness, having endless days and weeks to just create and work with different materials and textures, In this case plaster cloth on canvas.” Here, again, someone is going into partnership with what life is throwing at them to make something new.
And so, in conclusion, I invite us all, myself included, to take on this partnership and to make something new from all that we have experienced, both the light and the dark. I conclude with more words from one of my many ‘ancestors’, Ben Okri:
“Never forget to pray and be thankful
For all things good or bad on the rich road;
For everything is changeable
So long as you live while you are alive.”
Take another look at the pictures:
- Where are you in the darkness? Where is the light?
- Who are your ‘ancestors’?
- What new things can you create from your experiences of the last two years?
This was our very first meditative action and worth a revisit. The circles represent the ‘aura’, the darkness that surrounds Christ in the image of the icon. They could also be seen as our ‘spheres’ – our own isolations and our interactions with others. You will need a series of circular objects from small to large, pencil, paper, felt tips if you have them or other way of colouring (pencil, biro etc)
- draw around your largest round object with the pencil, then place the next largest object inside it and draw around it. Keep going inwards until you have draw around all your circular objects.
Now colour each circle as you wish, thinking about the aura of darkness and light. You may wish to make two versions, one with dark in the centre going out to light and vice versa. What darkness do you see in the world we live in? And what darkness do you find within? What hope/light do you find outside in the world we live in? And what hope do you find within yourself? If you are a person of faith you may like to invite or find God into the darkness and the light.