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Monk in the World guest post: Shirley Cunningham

This week in our Monk in the World guest post series we have a beautiful reflection from fellow monk Shirley Cunningham on following the creative spirit. Read on for her wisdom:

My calling in this world these days is to lean into the Creative Spirit and invite others to do the same.

I knew the call long ago but wasn’t able to name it with clarity. It started with writing. Over the years, I’d written daily filling dozens of notebooks, reflecting on my life and the meaning of events, feelings, and relationships, my struggles, joys and confusions. Gradually, my closet shelves were lined with dusty journals and childhood scrapbooks of poems and stories written on yellowing pages. I was always seeking–as Augustine said–my heart restless to discover the Beauty, Ever Ancient and Ever New.

Then when struck with breast cancer, I had a dream. It was brief and to the point. Jesus appeared. He asked only one question: “Who are you besides who you are?”

I answer, “A writer.” I am mildly disappointed. I want the answer to be “An artist,” but I say to myself, You’ve never dreamed of Jesus before. This is important. You have work to do.

I hadn’t planned it but within days, I began writing my entire life story with the urgency of a river torrentially carrying away whatever was loose in its path. This wasn’t like my old journaling! I didn’t understand, but I was resolved to keep going even though I didn’t know where the fast current was taking me.

This mystifying creative burst surprised me again and again. There were more dreams.  The mysterious and beautiful Margolis appeared, tall, dark eyes shining, wearing colorful, exotic clothes. She told me my life was changing, that I was beginning something new. I knew she was talking about my work, the writing and what was emerging — my art. Another mystery.

I’d been splattering the walls of my small, windowless ironing room for the year of my recovery from cancer. All I knew was that I was painting my way through some unknown inner world. Then, the day I learned my only son was ready to move away from home, another turning point. Of the many roles I’d lived, motherhood was especially precious and now, that role was changing.

To forestall my blues, I went into action. I now had the luxury of a spacious room with a window, Kelly’s room. I had my new art studio. I sorted the bottles of paint lined up on my desk…teal, lavender, bright pink, dark pine. I couldn’t wait to start. Hurriedly filling my water jar, I settled myself before a large sheet of watercolor paper ready for the paint to come to life. Then, suddenly, I didn’t feel like painting. Surprised and confused, I sat in my silent art room, gazing at the blank paper before me.

Then something came to me: Portraits. Do pencil portraits.

No,” I argued with the quiet thought. “I know how to do that. I can control the pencil. I want to paint. Paint gets out of control. I want to break out of fetters.”

Never mind,  the urging continued. Just draw. Do Grandma Cunningham.

The only photo I had of Florence Cunningham was Mom and Dad’s wedding picture, both sets of parents flanking the bridal couple. I loved that shot of Grandma wearing the large, lacy hat that matched her dark elegant dress. I knew exactly where to find it.

Shirley Cunningham 1The drawing that emerged amazed me. Although I hadn’t drawn a portrait in years and thought I was rusty, this vibrant drawing was possibly the best of my entire life. It spoke to me of the many drawings I’d proudly offered as a child for her unfailing praise… so long ago.

All these years that little girl who loved to draw had been locked away, neglected and languishing. Why had I allowed work to push her out of my life? As I sat studying the drawing of my dear grandmother, gratitude washed over my heartache. The little girl who loved to draw was still alive, after all. Grandma had set her free.

The dreams, the archetypal Margolis, the powerful presence of a loved ancestor….from my present vantage point, it’s easy to see why my paintings were filled with symbolism, goddesses. Then Spirit spoke to me again, this time through a painting teacher I greatly admired. “You can do anything you want.” When I heard those words, something happened inside of me. A wall fell down I hadn’t known was there. Somehow I knew then that I was free in a new way — to embrace the growing creative mystery in my life.

Shirley Cunningham 2As a working psychotherapist and spiritual director, I have long known the healing power of creativity from my own experience with writing and painting. I began to use them not only as my spiritual practices, but also with my clients. Someone once gave me a gift with the words, “I feel that every gift I have ever received is given to me for someone else.”

Shirley Cunningham 3And so, daily I learn to listen more and more to what stirs inside. At first, I often painted in a style focused on archetypes and symbols. Recently, I have trusted the exploration of abstract forms that seem to arrive of their own volition in colorful alcohol inks.  As my style changes and shifts, I sense is dynamism of the Creative Spirit which is with me at every turn.

What have I learned on this sacred journey? To take a chance. To surrender my own resistance. To trust the intuition that I am being led. To try not to judge myself, my art or my experience, but instead to simply engage in the process. To try to be true to my highest self and the guidance that is available in the silence of my art room. To continue to grow and be open as I respond to the Creative Spirit within and around me, gently releasing the observations of others, without worry. To say what is mine and remember that we all have a calling and a grounding in the Great Spirit. The seeker knows what is hers to do.

Shirley Cunningham headshotShirley Cunningham is a psychotherapist, spiritual director, author and artist living in Phoenix, Az. She is the mother of one adult son and grandmother to two girls and a boy, all under age 12. Her spiritual practices are writing, painting and going on pilgrimages—and has no plans to retire from any of it!

Click here to read all the guest posts in the Monk in the World series>>

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4 Responses

  1. Had a giggle reading my own blog introduced as ‘his.’ I know the trans-gender movement is a true phenomenon, but if I went in for discretionary surgery, it would be for above the neck…Born a female, still a female…blessings!

  2. Yes, Shirley- it’s as though you have birthed two beautiful children! Kelly, and now your artist that has been quietly incubating, waiting for the vacancy sign to declare “Open”! Thanks for his post- it is truly and deeply inspiring.

  3. Thank you Shirley. Your story inspires me…I just recently created my own “writing and art” space from my only son’s former bedroom. He is moving on in his life as an adult and I am feeling the freedom to dance my Art. Bless you for listening to your guides and for sharing your heartfelt journey. Healing and Light.