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Author Interview

Interview with Michael Sullivan
Author of Windows into the Soul:
Art as Spiritual Expression

Don't we have enough “how to” books on prayer?
Absolutely not. None of us really has any idea how to pray. We know what we've been taught, and we know what the churches we attend insist is correct. But very few of us have actually taken the time to discover the life of prayer for ourselves—to jump into relationship with God. We need poking and prodding into prayer, and for most of us, we need all the help we can get. Books on prayer illumine the pathways that others have discovered, and in turn, help us find our prayerful journey with God.

But why a book on art and prayer?
Truth is, there just aren't that many people who have written about the relationship between art and prayer in a way that is accessible for the average person. The books that are available, while some of the best I have read, are for the serious artist attempting to find more creativity amidst the spiritual life—prayer isn't the focus. In Windows into the Soul , art becomes the avenue to a life of prayer. I present exercises that anyone can do whether an artist or not. These exercises take us to a place where we let go of our assumptions about prayer and enter into a new sphere where we empty ourselves and let God start praying in us.

What are the exercises like?
The exercises are all led meditations with detailed explanations. Step by step instructions are provided for everything from the materials used to the process itself. In an early chapter the theme of “letting God have it,” or turning all things over to God, is followed by a word collage. In that exercise, the meditation presents a series of questions that the reader answers as quickly as possible by writing each word that comes to mind when the question is presented. By addressing each question, the reader embarks on a journey of discovery—a journey to discover where he or she is with God in that moment. At the close of each exercise, I present Soul Questions for reflecting on the process. I also present Tools for the Journey, things that can build upon the themes explored in the chapter.

Does the book have an underlying theme of prayer?
Yes indeed: the life of prayer is God's love affair with us. When we jump into openness and honesty with God, we discover that we're the beloved—the one that God is always welcoming home, always preparing a feast for, always saying “I love you” to. The point of prayer is living in that wonderful Good News and letting it form who we are and how we live. If we could just accept that we are the beloved in the heart of God—can you imagine!

This sounds like a challenging book.
The stories are real-life stories of the twists and turns we all face as we walk this earth. I think it's challenging because it pushes us to deal with things that we often hide from God. While I realize we don't really cover anything from our Creator, I also know that I'm foolish enough to think that I'm in control. All of us hold on tight to things and don't give them to God. Being pushed through right-brain, creative exercises to admit the things that we hold on to is challenging, and even upsetting, for it causes us to take a hard look at where we are in our spiritual lives.

If we're honest in the exercises, my guess is that this is a hard book for most people. But one that is essential to a deeper relationship with God.

How long have you been working with art and prayer and how have people responded?
I've been doing workshops for around 10 years. What I hear again and again is that the process of using art liberates the soul to express itself in ways too deep for words. People come into workshops a little skeptical and usually leave saying that they have discovered a new way to get at prayer. Typically, there's at least one man in most groups that leaves saying something like “I would've never believed that this worked, but it does!” People are just amazed to see their lives in scraps of paper, scribbles of crayon, and shapes of clay.

Why is that? Why do you think it's time for this method of art and prayer?
I think there are several reasons. First, our modern lives are too full. We don't take the time to sit, reflect, and just be. We're constantly engaged in activity and the heart and soul have lost the ability to rest in God because of it. I believe that many, many people are awaking to this realization and seeking a new life in prayer. They desire a return to the spiritual life where the heart, mind and body are all engaged in relationship with God. To me, art engages the spirit through the right side of the brain and restores balance to the spiritual life. Instead of being just another activity added to the plate, it actually depends on disconnecting from all that tries to claim us—to let go and let God.

Second, the relationship between religion and art has been lost in much of the Church. Long the greatest patron of art, the Church has increasingly sequestered itself from the creative soul searching for answers. Our religion has become too systematic and in the process the creativity of the soul has been lost for many generations within Christianity. In some parts of our tradition, creativity is now demonized or antithetical to our relationship in and through Christ. And while the tradition of art continues in some churches, the freedom that once punctuated the great guilds of Cathedrals is now filled with cookie-cutter forms of stained glass, marble, and silk where everything looks the same. We've replaced creativity with a few accepted norms.

Many people are realizing that the loss of creativity in Christianity has created idols. It's sort of ironic that the parts that don't trust art are often the very ones that make graven images of the Bible, the cross and other accepted norms. We've got to reclaim the creative tradition to experience the diverse ways in which we discover God—otherwise, we end up with a small group's definition of what God looks like—a golden calf in our midst.

Is there anything you hope people take from reading this book?
I hope people discover a pathway to prayer—a window into their soul that lets the light of God's love and grace shine through. If they can find something in art that opens them to a new honesty before God, and more importantly, a relationship with God, then the book has been worth the effort.


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