This past weekend was so fun and exciting for me: almost an exact year after I began painting again, I got to exhibit a group of 19 illuminated Psalms for a weekend pop-up exhibit. I talked about it a lot on my website, Facebook, and Instagram, but not much in this space. I think that is because I chose to pursue this project at the end of January, and I had just under two months to figure out how to get it all done.
This project, like the Brahms project, stretched me. I gave myself boundaries or restrictions to aid in my discipline, including a show deadline and size restrictions (no larger than 24″x36″). I chose specific Psalms to illuminate from common lectionaries used in churches across the world. I made a list of everything I had to do, and I made sure that on studio days and non-studio days I was taking small steps toward getting everything crossed off on that list. I find that as an artist (who happens to be mostly Type A), I thrive with these kinds of constraints or discipline. It forces me to work, even when I don’t feel like it, and I find that for me, I make new discoveries about myself as an artist or am even forced to use what I have or what I might have abandoned. For example, below, you see a painting under the brushes that I thought was too bright, or too something, to use.
It wasn’t as calm as I had originally intended when approaching Psalm 23. But because I had limited time, I decided to try working with it. And what came out of it really worked – in fact, it was one of the first paintings to sell in the show, and it provided me with some of my favorite scriptural reflections of the Lenten season:
In the first stanza of Psalm 23, we get a glimpse of how it was supposed to be for us:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.”
In that stanza, we see a glimpse of Eden. A glimpse of what it must have been like to commune with God in rhythm, walking in the garden in the cool of the day. To be comforted, to be lead, to be restored, to be filled to the brim: all of it by him, all of it for him.
We see that kind of joy in glimpses throughout the Psalms. David, a man who lived with little peace in his life both by his own choices and by his circumstances, still felt that kind of rest. He still lived in that joy, even though he found himself east of Eden.
Lent offers us a window into the total reliance upon God through fasting and prayer. Why would we give up a type of food, social media, or another practice? Is it to show our absolute willpower? Is it to think we can bear some of the suffering that Christ bore on the cross? No. It is to open the door to deeper communion with God. It is to pursue fulfillment in God instead of those things that come into our hearts when our lips say ‘God is enough for me,’ and our hearts whisper, ‘as long as I get to keep this one thing.’ And the act of fasting is not to make ourselves great or have someone marvel at our discipline, but instead to point to him: look at this God, this God who can fulfill me more than any earthly comfort.
Last summer, I created five days a week in studio and I had plenty of time to work through things at a slow pace. But now I get two and a half to three days in the studio per week, and I have to make my time there count. The discipline of consistent painting, even if I am not in a creative mood, has led me to develop stronger, more layered, more interesting paintings.
Illuminating Psalms is a tradition that goes back to the 6th Century, and it typically involved painting elaborate letters and ornaments to go along with the psalms, often using gold leaf and very expensive pigments and parchment. You can still see many of these illuminated manuscripts and Psalters in museums and churches around the world.
When I started painting abstract work last year, my very first painting was a visual exploration of Psalm 32:
It was like this little spark ignited inside of me and I heard God whispering, fanning that flame: you could illuminate the Psalms. You could create a modern-day Psalter, filled with colors and impressions that will help you to lean into and be changed by God’s living word in a way you’ve never expected.
That idea was very scary to me back then, because it just seemed so large and unattainable, but I still made lists and dreamed and opened my hands and asked God to show me what was possible.
Out of that place, God has been with me as I’ve laid brush and pigment to paper on so many works, now including a collection of these Lenten Psalms. And next year I will get to create another set of Psalms to be viewed daily by nuns in a Benedictine Monastery (more on that later….!!!!).
And I still dream of creating an illuminated book of Psalms, maybe in four volumes just like the Psalms are in four books. One can only keep dreaming, but for now I’m going to savor the moment and be grateful for these 19 little paintings that have brought me so close to God in this lean and dark winter, effectively giving birth to spring in my heart.