“I don’t know what a prayer is / but I do know how to pay attention.” —Mary Oliver
“I think art has something to do with the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” —Saul Bellow
There’s a moment in the movie Garden State that has stuck with me, even though it’s pretty silly. Natalie Portman’s character, Samantha, is frustrated with herself, and she stands up abruptly, moves in a brief, quirky dance, and makes an odd, whimsical noise. Zach Braff’s character, Andrew, is a bit taken aback, but Samantha explains that whenever she feels unoriginal, she does something she feels certain no one else has done before. A quirky moment, but stay with me here—it’s a helpful example for something I’ve been thinking about lately.
The other day, I journaled about a similar idea. When I feel low or lonely, I wrote, the best thing I can do is drop everything and create something of beauty. Preferably something that requires a minimal amount of thinking, i.e. cooking, or drawing, maybe a quick word picture, maybe photography. This is my best way of connecting to something bigger than myself, of showing faith in, and gratitude for, a Greater Goodness.
In my essay in From the Pews in the Back, I talk quite a bit about how art, particularly poetry, is an important aspect of my spiritual expression. When one is doing art, as the quote by Saul Bellows asserts, one is engaging fully in the present moment. Which, to my mind, seems a very fine line—if any—from meditation. But it is more than this. When creating art, one is contemplating beauty. And beauty is a very physical, and arresting, manifestation of the divine.
I believe this touches on two distinct aspects of prayer. One is being fully present in the moment—listening and paying attention to reality as it is. The other is reflecting and expressing gratitude for the goodness and life force and beauty that one perceives. The aesthetic of the Catholic Mass—the music, the candles, the majestic space of a sanctuary—is a way of doing these things. But for me, a more fully engaged spirituality is one that finds ways to make one’s mode of prayer personal. This requires real attention, and openness to creativity. If we are open, I believe prayer will manifest for each of us in a unique and highly personal way.
Kate Lucas is a writer in Minneapolis, MN. She took a drawing class this spring that taught her a great deal about the creative process.