Liturgy of the Hours: Making Space for a Miracle
It was the fall of 2018 and I was exhausted in every sense of the word. Mother to three, trying to be true to my artistic practice, being a pastor’s wife, maintaining relationships with family and friends, volunteering in my children’s schools and on top of all that, running a small business – a brick and mortar art and poetry showroom, Studio Haiku. I was beyond drained.
Unfortunately my artistic practice had become a series of what I had deemed “difficult births.” The creative energy was present, but the joy and celebration in the arrival was waning. I felt relief and deep gratitude for a fleeting moment when I had completed something, but then the labor pains began again for the next project. I had not scheduled in any pause or rest between deadlines. So many labor pains, and less and less energy to drawn from as time went on. I cried out to the Spirit for relief, and then I would press on. Another project, another body of work…I kept pressing forward. I kept asking for rest.
In an effort to paint without the pressure of performance or a specific outcome, I arranged a painting trip to Mexico. I had been working with a gallery in San José del Cabo, Mexico, and over the years I planned each trip around a solo show or a workshop that I would be teaching. This time however, I wanted the trip to be about painting for the joy of it – no deadlines, no expectations. Nothing required of me. I would just paint, relax, enjoy the beauty of Mexico and later deliver whatever paintings I had completed to the gallery. It sounded easy, restful. No grueling labor pains or difficult births required.
That did not happen.
I work in encaustic, a beeswax and damar resin medium, which entails painting layers of medium on a birch panel in an effort to build up the surface of the painting. So to prepare for my easy going painting week in Mexico, months beforehand I prepared and primed seven large panels with many, many layers of encaustic medium in an effort to finish what can be the most time consuming portion of the process. After I had completed most of the under painting, I had the panels shipped to Mexico, where I would bring the paintings to completion.
Upon my arrival, I met the gallery owner to discuss what work I would be delivering to her at the end of my trip. She excitedly told me that the timing of my trip was perfect because many of her clients were currently in the area. She immediately asked if I would be open to doing a formal solo show the following week. I knew that meant producing a cohesive body of work, having a formal opening, and presenting my work along with an artist’s talk. As she excitedly laid out her plan, I felt a “yes” rise up from within me. What was happening? In an out-of-body moment, I agreed.
Back at the studio, I was condemning myself for agreeing to what seemed to be the stark opposite of what I actually went to Mexico for in the first place. Frustrated with myself and my weak constitution, I had nothing to do but began painting. I painted day and night, nearly eighteen hours a day. As I continued to build up the layers of paint, I trusted that something thematic would emerge, as now I had committed to showing a body of work in just ten days. I wasn’t sure how everything was going to tie together. And of course my artist’s talk would come from the theme, so I couldn’t quite work on that yet, either. I prayed, I prayed, I prayed. Painting and praying. Painting and praying. Praying and soon enough, crying.
It was just three days before the opening night of the show and still no theme, no central subject. No cohesive imagery that I could see. I had been translating a Japanese sewing art, sashiko, into many of the paintings through a drawing process, but pursuing the subject of Japanese pattern work as the theme did not settle with me, as hard as I pushed. I began to feel intense panic and was honestly scared at this point. I was crying out to God. “Why is this happening to me? Why did I say yes to this? I thought I would be able to rest! To paint without pressure. Now I’m so tired and anxious and my back is against the wall. Why did I say yes to this??” I berated myself. What to do now?
I had finished five paintings. I could see no common thread between them apart from each painting containing elements of nature. Five paintings were not enough for a full show and I knew it. But how could I pull them together and add more work in just a few days? How would I talk about them? Where was my theme? All I could think about was how scared I felt with the threat of failure and embarrassment so near, and how physically tired I was from all the late nights. My thinking was clouded by the stress.
All I wanted was to rest. To lay my tired body and heart down, and to not get up again. I walked out of the studio with my books and journals, found a chair in the sun overlooking the Sea of Cortez and crumpled into a teary ball. I was so frustrated with myself. I opened a book I was working through, called The Artist’s Rule, by Christine Valters Paintner. I turned to the chapter I had just begun, entitled “Sacred Rhythms for Creative Renewal.” The chapter opened up with a quote by Linda Leonard, reading,
“A major obstacle to creativity is in wanting to be in the peak season of growth and generation at all times…but if we see the soul’s journey as cyclical, like the seasons…then we can accept the reality that periods of despair or fallowness are like winter – a resting time that offers us a period of creative hibernation, purification and regeneration that prepares us for the births of spring.”
The words stung. The chapter was all about creating space for rest and renewal. I rolled my eyes bitterly and thought, “This isn’t helping me right now! I don’t have time to rest! I already know I need to, but I am in panic mode!”
I read on and a quote from J. Phillip Newell was another uncomfortable exposure of my weakened heart.
“If we fail to establish regular practices of stillness and rest, our creativity will be either exhausted or shallow. Our countenance, instead of reflecting a vitality of fresh creative energy that is sustained by the restorative depths of stillness, will be listless or frenetic. This is as true collectively as it is individually, and applies as much to human creativity as it does to the earth’s fruitfulness. Creativity without rest, and productivity without renewal, leads to an exhaustion of our inner resources.”
As I read on, the chapter expounded on seasons of rest and offered wonderful prescriptives for resting in God and creating space for pause throughout each day. One such recommendation by Valters Paintner was the “…ancient tradition of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, with its seven holy pauses.” This ancient call to pray and praise seven times throughout the day is based on Psalms 119:164. The Liturgy of the Hours begins in the pre-dark dawn, and ends in the dark of night. It is a rhythm of pausing, and a gratuitous invitation to rest throughout our day.
My mind was contemplating the invitation, but still threaten by my immediate circumstances. I continued to read the author’s wisdom,
“Creativity depends on the waning times for restoration…In cultivating our creativity, times of rest are essential. Pushing ourselves to the edge of exhaustion does not nurture the creative process in the long run.”
“Very funny!” I said angrily to God. “I’ve been telling you how tired I am, and now you’re again inviting me to rest and that’s the last thing I have time for right now! Why did I say yes to this? I am up against the wall, I am panicking, I have no idea how to pull this all together, and I I have two days to do it all in. I NEED YOU. I need you to show up for me right now. I know I need to rest and be still, but I don’t know how to actually do that right now.” I was confused. I was blaming myself for getting into a tight spot again, a bad habit for which I didn’t know how to break. But I still had enough hope and belief in God’s goodness to ask Him to make a way for me. He had shown up for me before, and I believed he would do it again. I tried to push aside the crippling worry and continued to pray for a way to be made.
I walked back into my studio area and surveyed the five completed paintings. What I saw before me brought me to my knees. Unseen by me until that very moment, each painting was of a different time of day. There was a painting of pre-dawn, complete with a dark and starry sky, with just enough light to see a field of grasses beginning to awaken. There was dawn, a sliver of gold sun peeking over the horizon. There was a high-noon piece with a full and beautiful Japanese-red sun, hanging bold over the bright and active sea. There was a painting of the dark night, which would become Compline, complete with a warm glowing moon rising above the flora and fauna of Mexico. And Vespers, the evening pause near twilight, had a sliver of moon at the top of the painting. I added a sliver of a setting sun to the bottom and it was perfectly complete – the in between time contained visually. Each of the five completed paintings fit perfectly into the times set for the Liturgy of the Hours. These paintings had come into completion before I read about the Liturgy of the Hours! I was absolutely aghast. The two other times of day left to paint, None (afternoon) and Terce (morning), were left for me to begin with the fresh and miraculous joy of what had just transpired. I would no longer be creating out of exhaustion and anxiousness, but from the knowledge of a holy partnership and miracle I was experiencing. God was with me. We had been painting in partnership. I could rest, knowing He was at my creative helm. The shame of my saying “yes” melted away as I saw God at work amidst my weakness.
I was undone. I’m not exactly sure how to communicate what transpired in my heart at that point, but it was one of the holiest moments I had ever experienced. The God of the Universe met me, met my needs, met my anxious heart, met me in the most tangible way, with the most miraculous and generous gift. My work was to rest in Him, trusting in the co-creation I had just witnessed.
Though I still needed to pull an all-nighter to finish the last two pieces by opening night, I was carried by the grace of God. The show’s theme was clearly the Liturgy of the Hours. Seven large paintings to reflect the seven holy pauses. The unfolding experience made the most amazing artist talk on opening night, as I told the gallery attendants just exactly what had happened. On a warm Baja night, the invitation to rest was before each of us – profound and holy, a visible manifestation of the miraculous power of a loving God, who meets us, who creates with us, beyond generously, in our time of need.
Three years later and I am still learning how to rest. For me, the “exhaustion of inner resources” comes quickly when I insist on drawing from my own strength, from creating out of my own silo of being and from dwelling in false shame. Since that experience in the Baja, I discover daily that rest is trust. I can trust that I am co-creating with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rest is also knowing that truly, my weaknesses make room for God’s glory. My weakness makes space for a miracle. That is a hard one to believe, but it is true. When I’m in the studio I remind myself that we are making things together and I can trust that. Then I’m gifted a restful spirit, because trust is rest; the doorway into true creative partnership with the Spirit.
This experience also opened up the door for me to accept that my very own winter season was coming. God made a way and in the spring of 2020 I closed my business and studio. I would take the next year off. I could “see the soul’s journey as cyclical, like the seasons” and was given much courage to embrace the fallowness that would soon arrive. Just before God would ask me to close the studio, I created a series of encaustic and Japanese paper vases that held dried winter grasses and plants, entitled Nature at Rest. It was a prophetic co-creation that made the closing of the studio less painful. I knew from those small sculptures and dried winter botanicals that a fallow season was an essential part of life and quite beautiful in its own way. Again, the generosity and provision of God was astounding!
It’s now October of 2021 and We are working on a show with a deadline that looms very near. I am holding these reflections tightly as I am invited once again to walk though this doorway of rest and trust, believing that God will once again have ample space amidst my weakness. May these invitations be yours as well.
Rest and trust be yours,
Please visit https://abbeyofthearts.com to learn more about author and artist and online abbess, Christine Valters Paintner.
P.S. Images of the Liturgy of the Hours series can be found here
and you can read in more detail about the closing of the studio and the artwork that accompanied that decision here: Studio Haiku to close and a diorama to remind
Kent LarsonNovember 15, 2021
Natalie this is such a powerful story! I love how you write, the passion, the vulnerability, the wonder and the delight in your creative process and your deep, authentic dialogue with GOD. Thank you! Your artwork is brilliant and your story is moving, inclusive and vibrant.