As I sat still to begin another collage mandala, images of fire, stars, and bombing rose together in my mind’s eye. My students and I had just invited Israa, a 20-year-old Muslim student from Iraq, to join our Pendle Hill workshop– allowing our hearts to break with her firsthand stories of a lifetime of violence in her homeland. Two evenings before, I’d pulled a nighttime photograph of forest fire embers out of a magazine. When I opened to the morning’s creative process, those fire embers looked to me like stars in a galactic cloud, or sparks in a bombed neighborhood that Israa described. What could I do with this imagery shifting from beauty to tragedy and back again? I started with prayer.
In fact, I wrote a very long, rambly, unedited prayer on the background layer of the wooden circle I planned to collage. I let the sorrow and the anger, and despair flow out in words, alongside beauty and wonder and longing. The sentences came through easily in my pencilled handwriting, mostly because I planned to cover them with paper and paint. The energy of the prayer would be buried in visual imagery. No one but God and I would know how jumbly and powerfully I felt about fire, stars, bombs, violence, grief, compassion, and hope. Only a few words might peak out around the edges.
During that day, I focused on teaching the workshop and engaging with the students. By nightfall, I’d added a thin layer of orange tissue on top of the still-visible words. When I called my partner, Holly, before bedtime, I told her about the art and how good it felt to write out that long prayer with its wild wandering through questions, metaphor, and petition. Wouldn’t you know, she asked if I wanted to read it to her! Shocked and shy, I felt both hesitant and eager. But since Hol is my safest, most compassionate listener, I worked up the courage and read my prayer aloud. “It’s beautiful,” she said, before I had a chance to argue. She said it was deep, rich, and heartfelt. And she asked me if I’d consider copying the words before covering them up. Amazed by her encouragement (and by my vulnerability), I went to sleep wondering about visibility and invisibility, and why I so often keep my writing and the complexities of my heart partly hidden.
The next day I photocopied all the handwriting on the circle– just in case. That afternoon I knew my heart wouldn’t let me cover all the text. The Spirit was inviting me to be more transparent in my art and with my messy thoughts and process. So rather than hide my words with magazine photos, I laid thin layers of tissue and paint to shape the flame my written prayer lines returned to, over and over. The whole image itself now illustrated the hide-and-seek of despair with trust, and the in-and-out ambivalence toward sharing my unedited, passionate, and unsolved thought and prayer.
On the last day of the workshop, the students and I shared and celebrated our art and our insights with each other. To symbolize my learning and embody some fresh courage, I displayed the photocopy of the whole handwritten prayer beside the completed art mandala. Offering the two together brought me a surprising sense of belonging and integrity. Then the feedback from the students and my soul made it clear that more transparency was in order– it’s time for me to practice more willingness to show up and speak up– especially when anger and heartbreak meet creativity and vision.
To that end, I’ve typed out that rambly, heart-felt prayer and posted it on a website page along with the art, called Ready for Flame. It begins:
I come tonight with a prayer for a broken heart, a burning heart with the pain of impossible, unthinkable choices. Or the terror of an earth on fire with greed, out of balance as we rich burn oil dug up from millennia of trees laying down their bodies as offering. Is there any offering we can make to the embers to calm them? Is there any act of peace that will still the bombings? …
The prayer ends with this intention that you’re welcome to pray as well:
This seriously scary time might yet catch blaze with compassion, spark with creativity, burn with understanding. At times my heart flares up in a prayer or an action, yet more often I am a burned-down campfire waiting for new fuel, new wind, to fan the flame of passionate response, timely argument, or a quiet act of kindness.
May I burn as a starlight ember in waiting, ready for flame.