Art and Becoming Artisans of a New World
By: Chad Hyatt
At Mercy, we believe in God. And we believe in art, too. In all its mediums, art is one way of expressing the many ways God is present with us in both our joys and struggles. Our life together includes Friday Art Class, a safe-space where we draw, paint, and work with fabrics. We’ve painted Southwestern retablos, Byzantine icons, and Fourteen Stations of the Cross. We’ve made tee shirts, our own paper, prayer flags, and even the occasional Star Wars-themed piñata. Our walls are now a bright orange and a bold purple, painted by friends and members of our community. We have a mural in chalk of Jesus and the Woman at the Well and a large, made-by-hand crucifix, both in Mercy’s own distinctive style.
But that’s not so strange, when you think about it. Art has always been important for faith. In the image of God, we have been created, after all. And the God whose likeness we bear is the one both Scripture and creed affirm as the “Creator of Heaven and Earth.” It might even be said, as did Paul, that humanity is God’s art.
Art is powerful for faith because it is a way of sign-ing truth. The sacraments that feed our faith are rich in signs for us of God’s new world and the liberating work God is doing with and among us to bring that world to be. The water of Baptism, whether bountifully and lavishly poured over us or into which we are boldly plunged, speaks loudly of vitality, abundance, gratuitousness, washing—even living and dying and being raised again to new life. In the same way, the bread, cup, and table of the Eucharist proclaims a better sermon about God’s life with us than most preachers ever could through the simple signs of meal, invitation, welcome, thanksgiving, and sharing. By these holy actions and common signs, we are guided. By doing them faithfully and remembering them when we gather, God’s people begin to image life itself differently. It is through the power of sign that we, as the old song says, begin to “have another world in view.”
At Mercy, we have ‘art-signs’ of our own that help guide our lives as a community. One of them, often found hastily drawn on the white-board during Bible study or incorporated into our logo on stationary, is a little drawing we call the ‘House of Love.’ Like all such images, it is simple, and yet like the best of them, it’s meaning deepens and expands the more we reflect on it. The picture itself is modest enough. At the center is a little house and, within it, a large heart. Behind the house, towering over it, almost overshadowing it, are the ominous skyscrapers of a prosperous cityscape.
For us, it means we are called to be a community that embodies love while living all the while in systems that are often opposed to love—perhaps not in name, of course, but in practice surely. This is the world of hate, greed, and violence. In such a world, amid such systems, the house of love seems small, vulnerable, and insignificant. It is seemingly overwhelmed and easily overpowered when contrasted with the imposing towers of our present system, which seem at once both strangely alluring and wholly intimidating.
This simple image came to me one day while walking in the city, taking in all its impressive and frankly beautiful sights. I was returning from some errand for the church, and rounding the corner, I saw our little community, fully and wholly alive in the shadows of the much bigger buildings of our city. People of every sort laughed and sang and teased one another, some talking quietly, a few shouting. Here and there, someone sat off to the side strumming a guitar. I knew others were inside, busy sharing clothes, cooking meals, praying. I saw a house of love.
Signs can often be misread, though. Let me be clear: an image of our community as a house of love in a world often opposed to love is not meant to be us-versus-them propaganda. This is not about patting yourself on the back and feeling good. Nor is it finger-pointing. It is about naming ways of being in our world in which all of us are part and participant, for good and bad, for love and hate. And it’s about the call, the invitation, to live with one another differently. Two other images frequently sketched on the white-board in our Bible studies might help us get a little closer to what I mean: one is a ladder, and the other is a table.
What we call the house of love and the world of hate are driven and sustained by core values. The core values of the world systems, as many of us experience them, might be described best by the image of a ladder. We’re successful, we’ve arrived, we’re somebody—if we sit at the top. The goal is to get there and, after that, to stay there. Or at least to get as far up as you can, even if that means stepping on someone else. For us, the top may look like wealth, power, celebrity, enviable relationships. No matter where you are on the climb, you can take comfort in knowing someone else is beneath you. Everyone has his or her ‘place,’ if you will, and while we want to move higher, it’s safest to make sure those below us don’t. Jesus calls us to flip-over the ladders of our culture. “The first shall be last, the last shall be first,” he said. “The great shall serve, and the servant of all shall be the greatest among you.” That’s not ladder-theology.
The table is an altogether different image. The table is a vision of sharing, of welcome, of hospitality. With a seat for everyone, it evokes a sense of genuine equality and mutual care: loving one another, serving one another, washing the feet of one another. This is an image deeply rooted in the gospels, too. Jesus was known as a “friend of sinners,” in large measure because he sat around tables and welcomed the outcast. Clearly, there are echoes of the Eucharist, the last table meal Jesus shares with his disciples. For us, the table is a vision of a new humanity.
As Peter Maurin said, we are called to build a new world in the shell of the old, finding building materials in the crumbling structures all around us. We can all be sisters and brothers in the house of love or share-holders in the world of hate and greed and violence. And it’s not as simple as transferring your membership from a country club to a church. Daily we must choose: in even the smallest of actions and how we steward our goods, with whom we share relationships and how we handle the power given to us. It does not matter if we have much or little. We must choose daily.
Wherever we are on the ladder, be sure of this: we are called to go down it, not up. To do so is a reversal of all we’ve been taught: the world sells us upward mobility. But in the words of Henri Nouwen, the gospel calls us to something different, a ‘downward mobility.’ This is the way of Jesus, the pattern of life to which he calls all of us who would faithfully follow him toward a new world. As we go, let us dismantle the ladders themselves, and in their place build a great table for all of God’s children at the heart of the house of love.