Prayer and the Creative Flow

by Paul Fromberg

I began college in 1979 at Abilene Christian University. If you've never been to Abilene, Texas, I can describe it simply: it is a pure environment. I'm talking about West Texas pure-vast sky, piercing sunlight, severe vistas. There is also a purity and severity of character in Abilene. When I attended school, there were no liquor stores in the county. Not that it mattered much: A.C.U. is a Church of Christ college, so besides a prohibition on consuming alcohol, there was to be no dancing, no smoking, no sex, no shorts. Purity of life was prescribed for each student.

Yet Abilene was also the place where I learned how to paint. I began college as an art major, and it was through painting that I learned how to survive in a place of severe purity.

I only lasted 18 months in Abilene. Depressed spiritually and physically, I dropped out in the fall of 1980. I might not have made it at all if it had not been for the spiritual discipline of painting. It was in that peculiar process of applying paint to board and canvas that I came to a mature understanding of my relationship to God in prayer. It is not too much of a stretch to say that painting taught me how to pray.

Before I began painting, I'd always had trouble praying. Prayer-at least as I heard people speak of it-was never an easy discipline for me. Something about the empty space required for prayer filled me with a combination of dread and fatigue. It was as if I'd be judged on the quality of my praying even before the substance of my prayer had formed in my mind. It was a frustrating state of affairs.

But then I learned a way of praying that made sense to me. Prayer was in the creative process. I discovered that when I painted, I was freed inwardly to be in the presence of God. There was nothing in this space but me and paint and God. I was at once completely present in the moment and completely unconscious of myself.

People who paint or who take on some other physical discipline describe this state as "flow consciousness." One enters a flow state when one is fully absorbed in an activity during which one loses the sense of time and has a feeling of great satisfaction. When I painted, I became completely involved in the process and found that my ego-the self I display publicly-would fall away. Time flew by. Every action, every brushstroke, every movement of hand and arm and body seemed to follow inevitably from the previous action, and I discovered stillness.

As I found my vocation shifting from the visual arts to the priestly arts, I have continued my creative work. Although less of my time is taken up with painting, I manage to pray this way using other media, namely icon painting and large-scale installation. In moving from the studio to the "pastor's study," taking time for creative process keeps my praying alive.

I discovered that when I painted, I was freed inwardly to be in the presence of God. There was nothing in this space but me and paint and God.

On the surface, icon painting and large-scale installation could not be more different. Icon painting is about smallness and perfection of line, more akin to making jewelry than to painting a canvas. Installation art is about largeness and immediacy, more akin to printing a billboard than to painting a canvas. Yet working in both media I experience the same sense of prayerful attention that I learned so long ago in Abilene.

When I am at work on an icon, I am aware of two modes of prayer. The first is the familiar sense of "flow consciousness." Gilding a halo or floating paint on a face may take an hour of intense concentration, yet time does not seem important. Whether I work for five minutes or five hours, I am aware of being present in a moment that is out of time. Sitting before an evolving holy image, my attention is concentrated, but I do not sense fatigue or restlessness. My hand, my arm, and my body are controlled but not stupefied or dulled.

The second mode is much more subtle. The tradition teaches that when one paints an icon, one is not just objectifying the person; rather, one is in communion with the person being represented. In fact, the icon painter is encouraged to stay in communion with the subject continuously through the creative process. I have found that this communion continues after I leave the image. It is not at all unusual for me to dream of painting while working on an icon.

When I am at work on an installation piece, my prayer is quite different. My first major piece-a 10-by-20-foot banner printed on sheer fabric-was commissioned by the Spirituality Conference of Trinity Institute, an outreach of Trinity Episcopal Church in New York. In 2002 the conference met at Camp Allen, outside Houston, holding services in a huge space that was essentially devoid of large-scale art. Since the purpose of the conference was to learn about spiritual practice in community I chose an image that would serve as both a devotional focus for a large group and a metaphor for the spiritual life of each participant. Later, in the summer of 2003, it was installed at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Deisis, 2004. By Paul Fromberg. Banner printed on sheer fabric, 10' x 20', installation at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

I named the piece Deisis, after the original image it reproduced a section of a mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul's vast and ancient Byzantine church. It is a word that points to the intercessory nature of prayer, and the image tells us that we are intercessors with Christ, praying for the well-being of the universe. Although in the banner I used only the central figure from the mosaic, in its original setting two other figures are visible: Mary and St. John the Baptist. Each stands in orientation to the central figure of Christ and is in prayerful dialogue with Christ, who in turn is in dialogue with the viewer and with the Divine Father. Thus the viewer is invited to come with her or his prayers before these saints, who continually pray to God.

Since I chose to focus on the Christ figure, I used the medium to help convey the metaphor. The sheer fabric allows one to view the piece from either side; light passes through it freely. Just as light passes through the image, so our prayers are presented transparently to God. In addition, my representation of the Deisis is divided into four fields of color, reminding us that we all pray to God in our own way. Each of the four panels composing the banner is separated by an 18-inch-wide strip of black netting, giving the impression that each panel floats independently of the others. And although the image is divided into four parts, it is still a unity held together by the image of Christ.

My prayer during the creation of this piece was much more frantic than the prayer I experience in icon painting. In painting an icon I am patterning my technique on one perfected centuries ago. I am consulting with an individual and working with naturally sublime materials. With Deisis I was inventing the creative process as I went along. I was working with a large group of people, wrestling with computers and inkjet printers and sewing machines.

And yet, even in the frantic, extroverted creation of Deisis I found that I was doing what I did not know I could do. Without knowing how to create this work of art, and quite beyond my own perceived abilities, I found resources of energy and insight that guided me in the creative process. And when it was finally installed high above the altar at Grace Cathedral, I understood something about prayer that I had not experienced before. Prayer is about the ability to release anxiety and frenetic energy to the God who is sovereign over both.

My life of prayer and my life in creative process are far from their conclusion. I know that I will continue to learn more about prayer, and about the One to whom my prayer is directed, as I use my gifts of creative ingenuity, power, and skill mindfully and passionately. And no matter where life will take me, I know that I will be able to pray.

Paul Fromberg, B.A., M.Div., C.I.T.S., is director of Youth and Family Ministry at St. Gregory's and has been a friend of the congregation since 1998. He is passionate about leading diverse people in spiritual formation. When he was a kid, Paul wanted to be a chef; later he wanted to be an artist. He finally settled on studying marriage and family therapy and working as a pastor, preacher, and teacher.

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