Below is an excerpt from my book Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times.
In his book The Music Lesson, accomplished bassist Victor Wooten explains his approach to music in a series of imagined conversations with a mysterious man named Michael. Michael is a mystical figure who guides Wooten in looking at the spirit of musical concepts like technique, tone, dynamics, and notes, beyond the nuts and bolts of how to apply them to practicing and playing.
In one chapter, the discussion turns to the subject of how emotion can be an integral part of playing. Michael tries to get Wooten to understand that following emotion rather than resisting it, infusing music with emotion rather than ignoring it, can deepen both the player and hearer’s experience:
“It is like trusting the river current to take you where you want to go. To fight the current could be disastrous. In each situation, whether it be in Music or in Life, take a moment to close your eyes and feel the current of your heart taking you where you need to be. After your awareness develops, you will no longer need to close your eyes. You will feel the pull of your heart’s current and ride it with open eyes, allowing you to view all the astounding scenery around you. I tell you this: If you can follow the current at all times, you will not have a thing to worry about, ever.”
Via Michael, Wooten shows the reader that how one feels has an inevitable influence on how one plays. In the paragraph above, he advocates a spiritual practice of attentiveness to how one feels and following it while interacting with one’s chosen instrument. Developing an awareness of one’s mental and emotional state informs not only one’s act of creating but one’s awareness of themselves: why they feel the way they do, and how they can express it through this creative form.
Artistic practices of all kinds serve both as methods of self-expression and of emotional release. The better attuned we are to what is happening inside of us as we play, paint, draw, write, and so on, the more in touch we are both with our chosen medium and with ourselves.
Along with attentiveness to our own emotional responses to the world around us comes attentiveness to what God is trying to say to us or how God is present with us. Just as we are discovering ourselves in creative actions, we are also expressing God’s creativity that resides within us. Spiritual director William Barry notes that when we experience God’s creative touch, “we are talking about an action of God that is going on continually, not one that happened in some distant point in time.”
To create is to experience an intersection of our own self-realization and God’s creative spark continually manifesting through our gifts. Whether we are novices just learning how to us a paintbrush or a set of knitting needles or more experienced practitioners of our chosen craft, we are faced with the opportunity to bring beauty into the world just as God first did, is doing, and chooses to do through us, as well as consider our own mood and mindset as we do it.
Have you ever sat down to draw, sing, or cut a block of wood and before you know it, several hours have passed? Have you ever become so lost in your chosen creative outlet, so locked into what you are doing, that you are able to forget the world around you in order to become one with the creative process? Have you ever noticed an inward movement of joy or sadness or anger that your work seems to inspire, where you’ve either chosen to let it guide you or stopped for a moment to let such emotions happen to you completely before continuing?
Such moments during times of creating can be times to wonder at what is happening, both in terms of questioning where it comes from but also to take it with awe, having found yourself in the current and allowed it to move you downstream into a new understanding of God’s presence and of yourself. Just as we read in Genesis 1 that God rested on the seventh day of creation, we too could stop for a moment and perhaps even utter an “amen.”
One year during the season of Lent, a 40-day period before Easter that many Christians use to prepare and reflect before this celebration of resurrection, I decided to spend that time writing a song. I have what I’ll call a moderate amount of musical skill, and my spiritual practice during this season would be to compose something using my acoustic guitar. The only criteria that I set for myself for this was that I just needed to work on the song for a little while every day. If I came up with a single word for the lyrics or just strummed the chorus a few times, if I worked with it for two minutes or for a half hour, it didn’t matter so long as I did something every day.
During this particular year, Lent fell right in the middle of a career transition for me. I was changing churches, having finished my time at one to begin anew at another. This significant life change inevitably made its way into my songwriting, as while I was trying to create this piece I was also attempting to work through all the emotions of leaving a place and a group of people I’d known for so long while also attempting to become acclimated to a new such place and group.
The first week or so of this exercise mostly had to do with chord progression and song structure as I tried to figure out what the song would sound like. Then as I began working on the lyrics, much of it ended up reflecting this transition that I was experiencing. I wrote about how no one place has been my home for very long, but also how I end up making home of my latest destination as I settle in with the geography, culture, and people given enough time.
While I never consciously prayed during my time of creativity, I could sense God’s presence at various points as I worked through my own internal experience of change and its accompanying swirl of emotions. I used the creative skills I had as a prayerful act that involved healing, anticipation, adjustment, lament, thankfulness, and excitement for a new adventure.
Creating had helped me go with the current of my heart, allowing it to carry me into a new space both internally and externally. I’d made use of the creative spark placed within me by God, letting it lead the way and to bring something new into the world, just as God had done with me. As with my carefully crafted communion set, I’d infused my song with prayer even if I wasn’t always aware I was doing it.