An Artist Looks at Prayer

Liturgical Art Installation - By: Jill Lawrence

Date

In early 2016, nearly twenty years after first hearing an Aramaic translation of The Lord’s Prayer, I began creating visual representations for each petition.  Aramaic is the language Jesus spoke. It is a language of rich imagery. The process started by writing the prayer on a large chalkboard in my studio.  The Aramaic words were written first, then beneath, the more familiar English words. I imaged The Lord’s Prayer as having seven petitions. Here are the petitions starting with the first petition. 

“Crab Nebula” – The First Petition

O Creator, the One who gave birth to the universe,
you are the sacred source of our being.

Our Father Who art in heaven

Heaven is translated in Aramaic as the universe.  Creating a visual representation of the first petition involved a process of layering.  Using photographs taken by NASA’s Hubble Telescope as a guide, I stretched raw white silk on a frame. Hand dying and then painting the silk, I created an artistic representation using the color descriptions provided by NASA. “Crab Nebula” images in a mosaic style a six- light –year wide expanding remnant of a star’s supernova explosion.

The colors in the image indicate the different elements that were expelled during the explosion.  The color blue in the outer part of the nebula represents neutral oxygen, green is singly ionized sulfur, red indicates doubly ionized oxygen, and the orange slender thread-like trails are the tattered remains of the supernova explosion.  The rapidly spinning neutron star, embedded in the center of the nebula, is powering the interior bluish glow.

Seeing and understanding God as the Creator of the universe and as the sacred source of my being opened a spiritual door within me. I then experienced praying in creative and expanded ways.

Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine Abbess (1098-1179), defined prayer eight centuries ago as “breathing in and breathing out the one breath of the universe.” As I visualized a star’s expansion and explosion within the Crab Nebula I felt the breath of the universe. The Crab Nebula is located in the Milky Way Galaxy. Our planet is also located in that galaxy. The “breath of the universe” is what I feel when I am outside looking at the night sky imagining the immensity of the cosmos.

“As a Beacon” – Second Petition

Focus your light within us, make it useful,
as the rays of a beacon show the way.

Hallowed be Thy name

One way to create an inner altar where God’s name is holy is by keeping an inward sacred silence. The second petition is asking for the Creator’s help in forming this place within us. The petition asks for light, the same light that was spread throughout the universe in creation, to now be focused within us where God’s name is holy.

Images of light flooded my imagination: lighthouse beacons guiding ships to safe harbor, Northern Lights illuminating the horizon, a simple candle burning in a dark room, a campfire burning in a dark forest, and car headlights on a dark road. The abstract oil painting “As a Beacon” is meant to encompass light that comes into darkness and reveals “a way”. It is a way through, a way over, a way beyond, a way to be, a way of prayer.

“Your Purpose, Our Lives”- Third Petition

Make us useful for your purposes here on earth,
so that your desire and our lives become one.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.

The Aramaic translation of the third petition bears a sense of readiness and potential for action in concert with God’s desire. I remembered an image I’d seen of a woman springing from the ground, her arms outstretched, and her body strong and full of purpose. In Greek mythology the goddess Iris acted as a link between heaven and earth. I painted this woman as a representation of Iris.

“Your Purpose, Our Lives” is an oil painting depicting the connection between God’s desire and our lives. The woman, leaping from an unknown source, tosses iris blooms into the heavens to fall to earth. (The iris is said to symbolize faith, hope, and wisdom.) She connects heaven and earth with all the possibilities of creation. 

“Daily Bread” - Fourth Petition

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Grant what we need each day in bread and insight,
subsistence for the call of growing life.

Give us this day our daily bread.

The Aramaic understanding of subsistence includes both bread for physical life and insight for spiritual life. “Our Daily Bread” is a batik painting of a heron. Watching herons hunt for food is a lesson in single mindedness. They scan the water intensely focused on their goal. Herons move slowly, if at all, for long periods of time waiting for the opportune moment to catch a meal. They are symbols of focus and purpose.

Another aspect of heron behavior is illustrative here. Herons have a certain way of grooming their feathers. They curve their long necks inward toward their bodies their beaks searching for what needs to be cleaned. This grooming I see as a metaphor for seeking and accepting the insight needed to live each day. 

“Loosen the Cords” – Fifth Petition

Loosen the cords of mistakes binding us,
as we release the strands we hold of others guilt.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Visually, for me, the Aramaic translation of the fifth petition contains the most powerful words of the Lord’s Prayer. Pondering this petition I pictured lives full of complex relationships, tangled knots of past experiences, and tombs of un-forgiven offenses. These knots and tombs profoundly affect every heart and every relationship including our relationship with God and our relationship with the earth.  We are bound by knots and tangles that become so intertwined they have the potential to be impossible to understand, recognize, or unravel.

In my mind’s eye I saw unreachable tangles of knots embedded in my spirit. These tangled knots are like brain neurons with billions of connections that produce conscious and unconscious thought.  When I choose to hold onto old hurts, mistakes, frustrated hopes, and failures, it affects my thinking and then has the potential to affect my actions.

“Loosen the Cords” is a mixed media visual representation of the cords wrapped around our neck like a noose slowly choking breath. The lightning bolts flash like brain neurons firing rapidly repeated messages like an assault rifle into our conscious and unconscious thought.

The towers are tomb-like edifices growing unimpeded and unrestrained. Often our knots and tangles have a pleasing appearance; after all, our psyche has bought into the idea that presentation and branding are important. All these cords and strands are very difficult to sort, untangle, and unknot.

The prayer of releasing (release the strands we hold of others guilt) is a call that forgiveness needs to be a consistent and regular part of our spiritual life. The fifth petition reminds me there is no other option. Choosing to be in a nurturing relationship with myself, others, and God, forces me to pray the fifth petition.

I found myself cycling back to this petition throughout the process of imaging all of the petitions.  Unless I was willing to face the entanglements of my relationships, the Lord’s Prayer was only memorized words.

“Migration” - Sixth Petition

Do not let surface things delude us, snare us,
and lead us away from you and your purpose.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Surface is a noun defined as the outer or topmost boundary of an object, the superficial or external aspect. When we pray “do not let surface things delude us” we are asking to not be deceived by the way something might appear at first glance. This petition asks us to be deeply thoughtful and deeply receptive in prayer. Be willing to go below the surface of appearances.

I am aware of how often fear leads us to prayer. I realize when I pray from a place of fearfulness; it leads me into wanting a fast answer, and quick relief, because being fearful is a difficult place to be. An acrostic is a poem, or word puzzle, in which certain letters in each line form a word. An acrostic for fear is:

F-false          E-evidence that          A-appears          R-real

The Aramaic translation of the sixth petition helps me understand the importance of staying in prayer beyond the entry of fear.  It helps me keep awareness of the whole of the Lord’s Prayer in my prayer life.

The image “Migration” is one of nature. I stretched raw silk on a frame, dyed and painted it. The silk was then cut apart, sewn together in a quilt like fashion, embellished, and mounted on canvas. I thought of the sun which is not distracted from its course…ever. I thought of birds migrating and hunting for food with singularity of purpose. The universe has its way, its understanding, and its purpose. In appearance nature can have a beautiful simple presentation. But the complexities of nature proceed deeply and consistently; sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, sometimes creative, and sometimes destructive.

The image, “Migration,” suggests that beneath surface appearances are complex layers of systems. If we only see the surface of nature we are not getting the whole picture. If we only see the surface of ourselves or others we do not understand the depths and complexities of the human experience. Surfaces appear real but often give false evidence; or at best, only rudimentary knowledge.

“Kingdom” – Seventh Petition

But free us from what holds us back, give us
power to live as you intended and created us to live.

Ameyn

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

Amen.

In the time this prayer originated Ameyn was a solemn oath that sealed agreements and guaranteed the honoring of promises made. The image of the seventh petition “Kingdom” is a batik painting picturing a grove of trees, strongly rooted in the earth, yet dancing in the wind with the joy of being. I learned from a TED talk by Suzanne Simard that a stand of trees communicates by their massive root systems. The trees in “Kingdom” are connecting both what is below and what is above as they communicate with each other.

The grove is placed in a circle forming a mandala. Mandala, a Sanskrit word meaning circle, is an important symbol in many world religions. Religious and non-religious disciplines alike believe mandalas are meant to hold spiritual or psychological significance. At the corners of “Kingdom”are pockets honoring the four directions; north, south, east, and west. Many Native American peoples use the mandala form in medicine wheels, or sacred hoops. These circular forms often embody and honor the four directions. The directions can symbolize stages of life, seasons of the year, elements of nature, or aspects of life.

Black Elk, an Ogala Sioux (1863-1950), composed this prayer:

“Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round, like a ball, and so are the stars. The wind in its great power whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always coming back to where they were. 

The life of a man (sic) is a circle, from childhood, to adulthood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”

We enter a collaborative relationship with the Creator when we pray and live the Lord’s Prayer. I realized that our journey and relationship with ourselves, the earth, others, and God, grows and changes every time we pray and live this prayer.

The circle that is formed by all the petitions is a life affirming mandala. “Kingdom” is an image of the circle that gives power to “free us from what holds us back”. The seventh petition completes this collaborative prayer. The ending Amenyn calls forth energy, both divine and human, to honor the intention of the Lord’s Prayer.

Conclusion

We live in a world today that is filled to the brim with fear. Fear of war, fear of death, fear of terrorism, fear of disease, fear of poverty, and fear of the unknown, to name a few. We long for answers to complicated questions, we want to know why situations are the way they are, and what, if anything, we can do to change them. The outward circumstances and fears, that were present in the time the Lord’s Prayer was written, may be different, but the spirit of the prayer reflects ageless universal conditions.

It is an almost universal human response, to any tragedy or joy in life, to pray. We often respond to circumstances of tragedy by saying, my thoughts and prayers are with you. We often respond to circumstances of joy with a tremendous feeling of thankfulness and gratitude. It makes no difference what religion we believe in, or what creeds we ascribe to. We offer our prayers.

For me, the Aramaic words (translation) of The Lord’s Prayer, and the creation of the images for the petitions, transformed my continuing journey of prayer. It is my prayer they will do the same for you.

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