I have had the pleasure of getting to know Kent Ira Groff through our mutual attendance at Spiritual Directors International conferences. We have a shared love of poetry which makes us kindred spirits. Kent teaches and writes about prayer and poetry in inviting and accessible ways and I am delighted to share his insights into becoming a monk in the world:
Behind me as I write this is Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’—so anyone meeting with me in person or via Skype sees it. The sky and the village are ablaze with lights, yet the church windows are dark. (The church architecture resembles one where his father was pastor in the Netherlands—now superimposed on a French landscape.) Van Gogh consistently painted his churches without lights. Why?
When young Vincent began ministering with the poor coal miners in Belgium, for a time some churches gave financial support, but then withdrew it, even for food and clothing. From then on he rejected institutional church religion, but never Christ. When I tell this at retreats, I say, ‘It’s up to us to put the lights back on in the churches!’ How can we do that?
One way is to link churches and the arts (visual art, pottery, poetry, drama, music, film, dance) with ongoing use of art in sermons, worship, and education. How about a preacher hold up an art object as part of the sermon (or project art on a screen)? Or break into singing, ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…?’ Or enlist folks to mime a parable of Jesus as it’s read? Or show a movie clip? Or use ‘Scripture Echo?’ These can be done simply.
A major way is to use art to connect churches with poor people all around us. Van Gogh continued to minister this way with his art—potato eaters, empty shoes, and faces of poor folks. With no worldly success, selling only one painting in his lifetime, Vincent literally lived as a monk in the world. What would that look like for you, for me?
The very best way is to become the art: ‘We are God’s work of art (poema in Greek),’ we read in Ephesians 2:10. Your life is a unique work of art. Michael Card reflects this in his moving CD, Poiema. Gandhi said, ‘My life is my message.’ Art can take the brokenness of life and transform it into beauty. Jazz makes the blues joyous. Poetry and yoga-type exercises do that for me.
After surgery for a back injury in 1974, I literally ‘backed’ into disciplined practices of meditation and prayer. Prescribed exercises have become gestures of gratitude or prayers for others. I’ve found ways to incorporate liturgical prayers, scriptures, and breathing meditations. I still go through times of intense pain. Writing creates a way to redirect the body’s pain. Recently, while teaching a writing class at Chautauqua, New York, my wife had to carry my backpack. I wrote in my journal:
Is there beneath
this pain some gain
that I might miss
if I complain?
Is there within
my complaint some
I can use to paint
to reinvent my pain
into a space for all
humanity to trace
an arc of beauty in
the dust and rain?
Portions are adapted from Kent Ira Groff, Honest to God Prayer.
Kent Ira Groff is a spiritual companion, a retreat director and a writer poet living in Denver, Colorado, USA, who describes his work as “one beggar showing other beggars where to find bread”—his take on being a monk in the world. Serving as founding mentor of Oasis Ministries in Pennsylvania, USA, he also teaches writing in prisons and is author of several books including Writing Tides and Honest to God Prayer. You can see his Weekly Reflections and resources at www.LinkYourSpirituality.com
have always loved van gogh’s starry night… had it in my hermitage and lost it when the lights went out in eviction and storage…but then the real starry night took over…and so our lives as pilgrims continue on like three kings following a star or mary and joseph basking in the light of the bethlehem star and Incarnate Light…
I did not know this story of Van Gogh. It makes me sad to read yet another story of the people of God turning the ‘lights out’ in God’s church. How strong the collective ego!
But wait! Dn’t leave! I am called, you are called, to sing…”This little light of mine…….” until the starry night is reflected in the church of our choice. There will still be darkness, for how else can one see each light? But there will be light!
I keep a van Gogh’s “The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum” on the wall of my classroom. I teach kids in jail, and I feel surrounding them in art and engaging them with art is very important. It’s a natural form of ministry, it builds mindfulness, and it transforms. Thanks for your words and the lovely poem.
I can appreciate this article, very much, especially the poem. Art is my greatest meditation – something that maintains sanity and a deeper sense of spirituality.