RETREATS RELATED TO THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION.
When in 1984 the Art Ashram was initiated, the idea emerged that the Ashram could offer
‘Art retreats’ based on the prophetic imagination as we find it articulated in Holy Scripture. The Bible as a textual document of the Word of God, as received by Prophets and visionaries,
is full of many images. Often the Prophet is asked to write down what he or she received from the mouth of God, so that others can read about what the Prophet has heard and seen. It is important to remember that the Divine Word is not only something “heard”, but has also been “seen”. The Word is instruction, but also action—it is the embodiment of a Divine Will that
communicates with human thought processes. We are familiar with thought as communicated through utterance—that is, through the spoken word. But the image is also ‘thought made
visible’. In a way the image goes beyond sound, speaking to the mind through silence. The image is non-verbal thought, and could be understood as lying closer to action. It is in that sense that we speak of the image as a ‘work’ of the imagination. It carries the sense of being an oracle, for an image-symbol is a word that becomes visible in deed. The image points towards a future, through a process of becoming, whereas the written text encapsulates the experience of a past, through a process of assimilation, and documentation.
The symbol is strictly speaking thought that has become visible, because it is embodied in a sign that has been made tangible through the human power of the imagination. The visible symbol can be felt, or touched by the individual conscious person.The symbol speaks not only to the mind, but also to the whole embodied being including the psyche, and even very physical feelings. The visible image connects us with the psychic domain of what we call the memory—something re-membered, in the sense that it is also embodied. The Word is ‘pneuma’ or spirit. But the visible symbol is part of a phenomenal world that the physical senses can experience. Of course even in the act of hearing, the Word is already being embodied into sound waves, and the rhythm of speech. The listener receives the Word into his heart, making the Word part of
his or her own life. It is in this way that the Word goes beyond thewritten text, becoming part of a lived reality in the present. Through meditating on the Word, we try to embody the message of the Word into our daily lives.
The Holy Book itself takes on the significance of an Image, which we can touch and read in a respectful way. The Book is not only composed of letters, for it has been decorated or ‘illuminated’ with pictures. These pictures that accompany the text, help us to absorb the spoken Word into our hearts. We might tend to forget that the Bible is a visible, tangible book, which is also a visible symbol, because we often become unaware of the way that even human language has arisen out of a mytho-poetic world of the imagination. When we read the Bible or any Sacred
Scripture, images are evoked in our minds and hearts. Without these images, the words would not be intelligible to us. Often we might think of the written word as more spiritual than visible and tangible images. The Spiritual Word seems to contain pure meaning, whereas images that we see are sometimes hard to understand in a deeper more metaphorical way. Word and image, however, always need to accompany each other, for there is no word that exists alone, without an image linked to it. This image may be a mental image, but even then the
idea is always taking shape in our consciousness in a manner that corresponds to the way the imagination follows a process of giving to an idea a visible realizeable form. The Word needs to be born, incarnated into our physical world.
There is an inherent danger in the written text that it often tends to become too ‘wordy’, and too fixed in a literary tradition that limits its meaning to the way it has been understood in the past. In that way the Divine Word can loose its creative force, and just becomes a meaningless formula without application to our present concerns and needs. The Word should be something that we contemplate in stillness, and in that process relate to our present, and also to our hopes for the future. It is this contemplative dimension of the Word of God that the imagination wants to explore. This is only possible if we give time to reflecting on the Word in silence, and allowing the word to evoke new images in our hearts and minds. The Word needs to become part of our reverie, our capacity to dream imaginatively. It is in this spirit of reverie that the contemplative souls in every generation have received the Divine Word into their hearts. This contemplative and spiritual approach to the Divine Word is called ‘Lectio Divina’.
The Art Retreat is a form of Lectio Divina, which not only contemplates the inner meaning of the Word, but also expresses the Word through visible signs and symbols whose meaning helps us to explore the inner significance of what Sacred Scripture is trying to reveal to us.
‘Lectio Divina’ lies at the heart of what we might term a Biblical Spirituality. It is listening to the
Word of God in such a way that it is interiorized. The disciples who were accompanied by the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus said “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Sriptures?” (Luke 24.32) It is this burning heart which not only opens the scriptures, but also the eyes of the disciples when they recognized the Lord in the “Breaking of Bread”. It is this sense of the ‘burning heart’ that leads the attentive listener to the Divine Word from symbol to silence, from the outer phenomena perceived by the senses, to the inner spirit as apprehended by the enlightened mind. ‘Lectio Divina’ could be understood as a way of seeing. While reading Sacred Scripture, we begin to look at the world in which we
live in a different light. As the psalm puts it metaphorically: ‘Let your Word be a lamp for my path’. The Word reveals reality, it illumines what we daily see, but never think consciously about, never ponder its deeper significance.
In the Art Retreat, participants are invited to experience the Word of God as embodied in the heart of the disciple. What we are looking for is not skill in representation. Participants are not required to be professional artists, in the sense of being trained and equipped to render their feelings and ideas through cleverly constructed images. What is important is not what is produced, but rather the contemplative process that uses images, and the feelings that they evoke, as a way of understanding the Sacred Scripture. This approach to art forms could be termed “demonstrative”, in that it shows what is being recalled, both as a memory, and also as a reflection on what could be projected into the future. Lectio Divina in this context is like a pilgrimage, a walking with the Lord while listening to the words of Holy Scripture in the silence of the heart. Images make this process of thought into a visible and tangible reality. Reverie, in the sense of reflective and imaginative thought, becomes a dream which has the transforming power of a sacrament. Remembering is not just a turning to what is past, but a recreating of a new vision. Imags give a form to the feelings that the Divine Word evokes in the heart of the pilgrim. Words themselves make present the Lord who is also sacramentaly embodied in the community of those who journey together on the same spiritual way, but also in the hospitality of that life
sustaining food that gives physical strength to those who walk together and work towards creating a new future.
The art retreat is thus a dialogue that takes place through the shared presence that brings together pilgrims on the spiritual path, and makes present the Lord who embodies the Word
in the world as we experience it today. I feel it is important to understand art as a dialogue, not only between people who have a common spiritual search, but also a dialogue with this sense of the Presence of God, manifest in Sacred Scripture. In Sacred Scripture, the Word of God speaks to us personally, and the process of ‘Lectio Divina’ includes an inner conversation that we have with God through the text that we read. Reading becomes a way of carrying on a dialogue with God in the depths of one’s heart.
In this sense, I would also suggest that there can be a dialogue which reaches beyond one particular religious tradition, to build bridges between people of different Faiths. What links followers of different spiritual paths, is a common belief that the Word of God is accessible to people of all religious traditions. What divides believers is not a respect for different Sacred Scriptures, but rather the way that these scriptures are interpreted. Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists can read the Gospels and find in the Bible words that speak to their own hearts, addressing each individual’s search for the Truth. In the same way a Christian can also find spiritual food in Sacred Scriptures outside the Biblical tradition. It is this dialogue in the presence of the Word of God as revealed to all human beings, which can give a new significance to art works that draw their inspiration from the imaginative riches that are found in Sacred Scriptures. I have often found that one of the best ways to dialogue with someone of another Faith, is through sharing Sacred Scripture. Together we can listen to the Word of God as revealed to us in each other’s scriptures.
The Bible is a rich storehouse of images, in which we can find a rich feast to sustain our world of the imagination. It is the purpose of the art retreat to explore this image or symbol world of the Bible by creatively working together with the prophetic signs that help us to interpret the world in which we live, and find hope for the future. Written scriptures become for us the embodiment
of the “Angel of History”, revealing both old things and new. The spirit of ‘Lectio Divina’ guides us to discover the meaning of Holy Scripture for our daily lives, so that the Divine Word is not just something that we read, or hear about, but informs our reality, in the historical, cultural and geographic conditions that give shape to our lives.
As an Indian artist working in close collaboration with the National Biblical, Catechetical and Liturgical Centre (N.B.C.L.C.) since 1970, I would like to develop this idea of art as informed by a Biblical Spirituality. This reflective approach to Sacred Scripture, as embodying the Presence of the Divine Word, reaches out to share insights to be found in all Sacred Scriptures, that express spiritual Truth. I do believe that the Divine Word crosses all cultural and religious boundaries, revealed in the wisdom that we find in many different spiritual traditions. In fact, the Bible itself draws images and insights from the different Wisdom traditions of surrounding cultures and nations. One can read the Bible as providing the bridge that helps in our understanding of many diverse spiritualities, for the Divine Word has been present for all peoples who search for Truth, and in the whole of Creation. When reflecting about what we might understand to be Christian Art in the Indian context, it has been important to recognize that many artists who are not professing Christians, have drawn inspiration from Biblicall images. In fact it is often very helpful to see the Bible as a Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim might understand it imaginatively. A Hindu by the name of P.C.Mazoomdar wrote a book in the 19th Cent. Entitled “The Oriental Christ”. In this work he presents the Word incarnate as he encountered Him in the Gospels—a Christ who spoke to the heart of a Hindu.
I hope that with the cooperation of the N.B.C.L.C and also the Biblical Secretariat of the C.C.B.I, it will be possible to extend this understanding of the Biblical Apostolate and spirituality to give a new impetus to what has been called the process of ‘inculturation.’. The concept of ‘Art as
Dialogue helps’ to focus on the pilgrim nature of art processes. Prophetic art is concerned not so much with the static cultural traditions embedded in national and regional identities, but rather draws inspiration from the Word of God present in different cultures of the world. We are trying to understand what the Spirit is saying to us today, in our multi cultural and religiously diverse
historical situation. It is this prophetic voice of Holy Scripture that needs to be interpreted in the light of present human concerns. For example, the search for Peace, and a just future on this planet earth, is enshrined in the signs and symbols that are to be found in all Holy Scriptures. Art forms have a function to speak as modern oracles, to all peoples who are concerned about the future, and are searching for a more just and equitable distribution of the riches of the earth’s resources. A prophetic art stands in judgement against what has been narrow, and unjust in the religious traditions that have wrongly interpreted the word of God in different Scriptures. Holy Scriptures have often been abused by those who have used the Word of God to further limited, sectarian and divisive aims.
Art is prophetic in so far as it unfolds a Divine intention, present in all forms of creative expression that manifests a spirit working through each one of us, to bring about a new Heaven and a new Earth.