Painting With Prayer and the Fire of Passion
Magdala Prayer Service of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati
Office of Peace, Justice and Care for Creation
It is an honor to be here, sharing with all of you this beautiful spiritual experience. I want to thank the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnatti and Debbie Weber for their invitation and their loving trust. And I want to thank the readers, for their beautiful presence. And all of you for making this an unforgettable day.
Painting is my prayer and I paint Mary Magdalene in the hope that this act will help bring more love, peace and joy into our world. I wrote these words in 2010 as I finished a statement about a painting titled Mary Magdalene of the Tears, the last in a series of paintings I created as part of a project titled Song of the Magdalene, in honor of Mary Magdalene.
I had become interested in Mary Magdalene in 2005. Like many other people, when on vacation in Puerto Rico, I read The Da Vinci Code. It's a fun read, but I was more interested in where the author found the information. I began reading everything I could about Mary Magdalene. This was the beginning of my journey with Mary of Magdala.
Who was Mary of Magdala? The human Magdalene, the being in search of truth and wisdom? Who was this woman whose name appears so many times in the New Testament, the woman who seemed to have no husband and sought spiritual healing and enlightenment; the woman who was healed by Jesus of seven demons and who walked with him, and had ears to hear? This woman was independent, she loved to learn, and had the passion to recognize and pursue wisdom.
Mary Magdalene spoke to me as a saint and as a woman who seemed to be a normal human being with struggles and challenges who had achieved transformation. She was not the prostitute of the popular imagination and old paintings. The more I read, the more she began looking like what I wanted to be: someone who chose to learn, grow and transform into the best version of herself that she could be.
Mary of Magdala walked with Jesus, was healed by him, and was a faithful disciple who remained near throughout Jesus’ passion and death. She was with Jesus at all the most important moments. She was there during the Crucifixion, at the tomb, and she was there at the moment that defined Christianity, the Resurrection. Jesus chose her to bring the good news of his return. Her name was mentioned in the Bible more often than most of Jesus’ disciples. Her presence is impossible to erase even when it remains a mystery.
At the time of presenting the paintings of Mary Magdalene for the first time, I had been painting her for about 5 years and had already experienced her guidance. One of these instances of guidance was meeting a Catholic priest, Father Frank, who gathers artists in the city of New York with a mission: that the connections between creativity and transcendence foster critical conversations that have the potential to unite individuals across cultural divides. This encounter was very important for me both because there seemed to be a place for someone like me in the world of spirituality and because, at the time, I was in search of an answer. I felt that, as I painted, I was engaging in something more than just creating an image with canvas and paint. Time ceased, ideas flowed, and peace enveloped me. A friend had told me with conviction: Painting is not meditation. And she was correct, because Father Frank then told me, without any hesitation, that painting is prayer.
And as my prayer I had chosen to paint Mary Magdalene dressed in the red of passion, illuminated by the yellow of wisdom, holding metaphors and attributes that told about who she was and what she was. One of these attributes, Fire, appears in the heart of Mary Magdalene in my paintings: Fire as a metaphor of transformation and transcendence, fire burning within and turning experience and thoughts and perception into wisdom. Mary Magdalene, a saint, a guide, a loving presence lights the way towards Infinite love, the Infinite Love that is God.
I did not begin this journey out of faith. In fact, faith only grew out of the process of learning through Mary of Magdala’s character about the many spiritual ideas that surrounded her, and distilling these ideas into images through which I try to find a space of purity where the human soul can rest and be nourished. Some find this space in religion or in traditional prayer or in meditation or through other spiritual means, but for me, the daughter of atheists whose only spiritual influence during her childhood was her Catholic grandmother, it was difficult to find a way to communicate with God. Yet when I was painting I knew I felt the way the mystics describe ecstasy: a state of love, connection, and pure joy.
This process was complemented by reading, and the more I learned about Mary Magdalene, the more I wanted to paint her. Looking back, this was the only way for my mind to begin softening and moving toward a less rigid view of reality in which the world of the spirit is as present and real as the world of the mind and the body. I was exposing myself to different spiritual ideas, and many of these ideas were found within a Christian context, both familiar and strange, because my exposure to religion was limited.
Through learning about Mary of Magdala I learned about love from the perspective of compassion. When Jesus took seven demons out of her, when he defended her and loved her as she was, we see the love of a person for another without prejudice and without guilt, without the need to remind her of the past or look into the future. He loved her because she was part of creation, and all that appeared wrong with her did not belong in her. It could be cast out and she could be whole.
Jesus helped Mary Magdalene transform into a "fully human" being, the anthropos that is mentioned in The Gospel of Mary, the apocryphal text attributed to her. It tells her story after Jesus’ resurrection and why he had chosen her as an apostle and inheritor of the Church. Anthropos is the notion that we are not complete until all that we are —body, mind, soul and spirit— is aligned and balanced.
The Anthropos stands in the center between the created being and the creative being, and is composed of a soul, a mind and a body, which are all aligned and animated by Spirit.
When the two realms of being, the created and the creative, become harmonized, we become normal, healthy, saved human beings. This is what Mary Magdalene achieved by following Jesus and learning from him and through him. And this is what we can become if we too encounter the metaphorical fire that she offers when we accept her guidance.
Part of lighting this fire of wisdom and transcendence is learning about the gifts we bring with us when we are born—and also about learning to see every experience as a potential gift. By bringing these gifts forth in a way that is compassionate to others as well as to the self, we perform an act of faith.
This is when we lose our faith. Created and creative are no longer in harmony, we become ill, we die inside. Gifts are meant to be passed on. When we keep them in without sharing them they become the metaphorical seven demons that take hold of our being.
Many of us live lives of unrealized potential because we fear that which makes us feel enlightened and alive. We fail to recognize that this feeling is the fire that Jesus lighted in Mary Magdalene when he healed her.
But like the Magdalene, we can choose to become enlightened and learn to recognize that, beyond this limited reality, there is Love. We can choose compassion and faith. Compassion for all that is part of creation. Faith that we can continue sharing the gifts that we all bring into our world. And faith that every part of creation is a gift to be cherished. We can choose to love by doing, by working, by accepting every opportunity to learn and evolve into the best versions of ourselves. We can choose to live prayerfully and gratefully.
I would like to share with you the most important part of beginning a painting. Imagine for a moment that you have canvas, paint, brushes, water, a napkin, and even an easel and an apron. You have an idea. You are the painter ready to create, ready to put all of your fire, the light within you that is enlivened like the fire of Mary of Magdala. You are in front of your own potential creation, and you begin. You begin with a prayer. A prayer that, in your own words, those words given to you by a precious person, your grandmother, your friend, your spiritual advisor, your dad, your mom... You say those words in your mind, you ask, you feel, you give your entire being in your prayer. You feel your heart light up, and you smile as you feel. You are ready to begin.
This moment of prayer, which for me comes before I paint Mary Magdalene, and for you may come as you practice your own gift in your own way, is the first step in letting your fire grow and live. The second and the third steps are a little easier because now you have the light of Christ lighting the way.