Saturday, December 03, 2011

Art, vocation and holiness

(Warning: another ridiculously long, boring post on art, writing, vocation and the Meaning of Life. Cringeworthy sharing ahead. I don't know what value all this could be to others, but for me to write about this is really just a means of thinking out loud. If you are like me and despise the sharing thing, go here.)

I think the post I did a few days ago about art, writing and vocation, has given rise to a number of erroneous assumptions on the part of several readers.

I appreciate the pep-talks and advice (particularly the ones from Steve J. and Ted and Audrey), but that wasn't what I was looking for. I suppose it may have seemed somewhat gloomy, but I don't actually feel particularly gloomy. I have my little moments when it all seems to hit me at once and I kind of freak out, and there are people around standing ready with the frying pan for such moments.

Gloomy comes and goes and I'll admit to being pretty scared by some of the prospects in front of me, but mostly what I feel is eager to get on with things. To get The Bad Scary done with so I can hurry up and get to the rest of it. However, it is extremely likely that I do have a prospect in front of me, which is itself a huge thing.

The medical things are big and serious, and it is true that there is a real chance that my life expectancy has been shortened. But it is going to carry on, at least for a while, so the crucial question becomes how best to spend it given what I've got now.

A lot of the time, we're tempted to think that we'll start doing whatever thing we're supposed to be doing once all the proper pieces are lined up, when all the resources are in place and things are properly prepared. But I've realised recently that for a lot of us, there isn't going to be any more auspicious a situation. What I've got now is all I'm going to have to work with, and the time has come to move forward.

And that was the point of that post. I'm not in despair, and I'm don't think my life up to this point has been a waste. Not sure how people got that idea, but it ain't so.

But I have definitely been thinking Big Life Thoughts: work, vocation, the pursuit of God's will in the here and now. Cancer, and I suppose other big life-threatening health crises, has a way of making you focus your attention inward. It makes you do a lot of re-evaluating, and re-examining. In general, the results of this have been positive. I feel I'm in the right place, am going the right way, generally pointing in the right direction. Now, on with things. Do more of what I was doing. More and better, more involved work. More art. More museums. More Italy. More more more. For various reasons, I have held back. I don't want to change anything, but to grasp the things I've already got in life less timidly.

With that troublesome post, what I really wanted to do was initiate a discussion on the nature of art, whether from the point of view of the spiritual life it a thing worthy of a person's whole and undivided attention, whether it has the potential to be a sanctifying occupation. Whether it might be considered a *kind of* substitute for a particular vocation, that is, for a vowed state in life. Of course, I knew the answer when I asked the question, but I thought it worth thinking and talking about anyway.

A lot of the difficulty in talking about these things is the confusion of terms. In general colloquial English, the word 'vocation' has come to be used very loosely, as in "a thing you do that is very important to you and to which you seem naturally suited". When we talk about vocation, we really just mean a job that is terribly important, either to you personally or to the world at large.

We usually also mean for it to be something that is itself a good thing, something of benefit to others and something for which one needs a certain amount of innate talent (whatever that is) or at least for which one has a natural aptitude. It is probably most often applied in this sense to the medical professions. To some people, (and I may be among these) writing is thought of as a vocation. But to others, any work that is particularly loved is their 'vocation'.

I once asked a class of young Catholics preparing for their Confirmation what they wanted to do with their lives. Nearly all of them said they wanted to go to university. Upon further questioning, not one of these had any notion at all what he wanted to study. None of them had any particular interest in any academic subject. The goal was simply "to go to university". Only one kid said he wanted to be a plumber. I asked him why, and he said that it was what his dad did and he thought it was fun and interesting and would make him a good living. I told the class that this kid was the most likely to be happy of any of them. It could be suggested that this kid's vocation was plumbing, but only if you were using the term in its modern, secular and loosey goosey way.

But we know by this time that I don't use language that way. Precision is good. If I were talking about those subjects, it would be an error to use the term 'vocation'. Properly speaking this is 'occupation,' work, one of the three cornerstones of a balanced life (the others being family and the spiritual life).

But vocation is something very specific. A vowed state in life specifically for the pursuit of holiness in a special way following the Evangelical Counsels or withing marriage vows. A vocation is something that gives your work its context and to some degree at least, its direction. It forms the framework in which you do the work you do, whatever it is. It is very common among Christians to make the mistake of thinking that "vocation" means the same thing as "work" or occupation.

This error, the conflating of work with vocation, by the way, has been the core of the disaster in the Religious Life in the Church since the '60s. Women who wanted to do a particular work went into religious life. This helped them to mash the two things together, a vocation and the work done within it. One does not have a vocation to be a teacher or a nurse, but to the religious life, a state of perpetual celibacy under the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Technically, your marriage and your family are your vocation, the state in life to which you were called by God and for which you undertook vows. Two things by definition that can't be vocations are work and the single life: no vows for either. The "single life" that the NewChurchy types like to talk about is really no state at all, it is the condition out of which one is called.

I don't propose that God is "calling" me or anyone to painting or writing as a substitute for a genuine vocation, or as a consolation prize for a failed vocation, for having dithered too long.

I recounted the details of my medical condition and prospects merely to update readers and impress upon them that the question is no longer abstract and academic for me. I wrote below that the seriousness of cancer, the physical consequences of chemotherapy, total hysterectomy and premature menopause and its long-term treatment, are prompting me to think more pointedly about the value of what I am doing and want to do, what I am hoping to do and what I wish I could do and fear I don't have time for.

The question, "What do I want to be doing when I die?" has, until now, been totally abstract, something to be discussed with a few friends late in the evening somewhere between the after-dinner Amaro to the middle of the first bottle of grappa. Catholic spiritual writers, including many of the saints, have always exhorted their disciples to keep the awful reality of death immediately before their eyes. The question is one that all Christians are supposed to ask themselves seriously all the time. Christ Himself put it at the centre of much of His own teaching. Don't be caught napping, partying or goofing off when the Master of the house comes calling. Don't be fussing over building new grain towers to house all your bumper harvests... "Thou fool, this night..."

I want to be clear that I consider it to have been a grace to have been so forthrightly and inarguably forced to re-evaluate. I also consider it to have been Providential that I started studying art in at least a semi-serious way before the cancer thing descended. It has opened up something new and unexpected in my life.

We know there are some occupations that are more ordered towards contemplation, though of course, there is no reason to think that a plumber could not be a saint. I am also not making the mistake that artists are necessarily more holy or "spiritual" than ordinary mortals. (A quick look at this man's work and this man's life, should be enough to dispel this idea.) But there are aspects to art (and here I am using the term more broadly to include writing) that seem to point to it being naturally ordered to the contemplative life. For one thing, both painting and writing can only be pursued in solitude. You can't write when someone is nattering at you. But the visual arts of painting and drawing, I believe, are naturally and uniquely more outward-seeking than writing and it is this outward gaze that I think makes visual art more innately similar to the pursuit of God in the contemplative life.

I mean that when I'm drawing a subject, I am necessarily concentrating on something totally outside myself, something that is only useful as a subject by being completely itself and not subject to change by me. Drawing is an inherently other-oriented pursuit, much more so than writing.

It has the flavour of obedience about it. When you are drawing a subject, you are in a way giving up the pursuit of your own will and passing it over to follow a reality outside your will or desires. The thing you are drawing is itself; your goal is merely to reflect or depict it accurately for others.

Betty Edwards, of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain fame, has observed what happens to a person's brain while he is in the act of drawing an external subject. She notes, and I have observed this myself, that it is difficult to talk while you are drawing. That is, while you are actually in the process of looking at a subject and deciding where to put a mark on the paper. It is also difficult to understand what others are saying while your brain is in its drawing state. You have to stop and shake your brain a bit and ask the person to repeat what he has said.

I think that drawing and religious contemplation are related somehow, and that there might be something in the act of drawing that is perhaps even related to a state of ecstasy in which the person is swept up out of this world entirely, and out of all self-involvement for a few moments, a state of perfect, self-forgetting contemplation of the Total Other.

There is a terrible trap into which solitary people can fall, to have your life become the pursuit of personal whims, to orient it towards the self. Human beings need a social context, we need to be accountable to others. We need to have other people around to bump up against, to learn where the boundaries of self are. So of course, there is this about painting and writing that tend to cause problems.

I've had people in various venues, here and elsewhere, say "But what's wrong with what you're doing now?" and of course, the answer is, nothing whatever. But one's work is not a vocation; it can only have the scope of an occupation. No work is never going to be enough by itself to sustain a person spiritually and it cannot form the whole framework of a life.

I know that I am not capable of being a "monk in the world". In fact, the nature of what I do, the actual stuff I write about, is such that, left to itself, it can be morally and spiritually crushing.

At the risk of sounding like I'm issuing a rabbity disclaimer, I do want to say that I am tremendously fortunate. Throughout my childhood, I had assumed that I would make my living writing. My mother started teaching me the mechanics of it when she was herself still a school teacher, when I was about six. But as I got older, I began to realise that this is a difficult thing to achieve.

There really are not many people in the world who can say they make their a living at writing, nor at an occupation that is so obviously ordered towards the good. My "day job" is to work towards the restoration of all that is good, true and noble in Christian society using writing, a skill for which I've been trained since childhood. I can't imagine giving it up, it has become so much a part of who I am.

But occupation and vocation, while they overlap, are two separate issues. My work can only be part of the picture, and without a true vocation, without the greater context and framework, it has to be balanced somehow.

A vocation encompasses the entire person, including work. And it is this framework that I have found missing. I think I remember the moment when I finally decided against the religious life and for what I am doing now. This is what I mean when I suggest that mine was what was once called a "failed" vocation.

What does God offer to people who turn down His best gifts? Not marriage, it seems. So, a life lived alone, without the context of a community of others, whether family or a religious community... how to live in such a situation in a way that pleases God. This is what is exercising my mind at the moment, apart from medical concerns.

People have said to me, "You should just be happy and content with the knowledge that what you do is saving innocent lives..." But I know nothing about that and it is not for me to know. I hate to burst whatever illusion bubbles there may be about my motives, but a life isn't lived like that. One may have noble motives, but real life can't be lived on those heights. Real life is lived in the grubby, prosaic day to day.

But I also think it is a mistake to try to make such lofty ideals into the daily sustenance. If I were to try to keep them before me as a reason to do my work, I would quickly run out of juice. I've known a lot of pro-life activists who do this, but I know that I would very quickly succumb to the machinations of my ego if I were to try it. I can't afford to think of myself as anything but a writer. As a writer, I strive to tell the truth as clearly as I can on subjects that are, I believe, of universal importance. What the final result of this work might be is out of my hands, and really isn't my business anyway.

I once had a conversation with an archbishop about this work, and described it as "pushing the rock". I've been instructed to push the rock. Not to get it to the top of the hill. Whether it rolls down the hill every day and I have to start again at the bottom is no business of mine. My job is merely to push it.

I am not a crusader by nature and I find such language to be at best distracting. I did not get into the pro-life movement because I thought it was a vocation. It was simply the most obvious answer to a puzzle, a kind of mathematical equation. I only have one life, it would be a waste to do with it anything less than the most important thing I can think of. I spent many years trying to understand what was wrong with the world, and when I did, what I should do with myself simply became self-evident. It was no more dramatic than that.

So, to the friends asking, "What's wrong with what you're doing?" I respond simply that there's nothing wrong with it at all, but it is incomplete. What I need now are the other pieces of the picture. If the three cornerstones of a balanced lay life, that is the totality of one's vocation in life, are the spiritual life, work and family (as Benedict put it, ora et labora et vita communis) how can I find a substitute for the third thing in a life lived in solitude?