Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), one of the most accomplished persons of the entire Middle Ages, finally has been officially declared a saint and is to be named a doctor of the church this month. She was a polymath with many roles, including those of scholar, scientist, botanist, ecologist, healer, preacher, writer, visionary, church leader and Benedictine spiritual guide. She sprinkled justice and compassion for the poor throughout her writings and composed chants with meditative melodies. She also painted mandalas, which are circles filled with colors, shapes and symbols. Making mandalas allows one to paint and pray at the same time. The process leads the painter to deeper levels of self-awareness and to the presence of God within.
When I am in the throes of grief or overshadowed by doubts of faith, I also create mandalas. Instead of caving in to despair or allowing anger to consume me, I turn the energy of those emotions into something creative and life-affirming. The process helps me befriend the dark night that oppresses me and tell it that my faith, riddled with doubt though it may be, is alive and well. Making mandalas is a way to welcome growing pains, which eventually pass. When the going gets tough, an artist is inclined to create beauty, to turn grief and misery into inspiration and healing. These days, I feel like a mandala machine. When my attention turns from the miseries of church and state to consider which color works best beside another, then I know I am on a healing path where all will be well.
The mandalas described here are a few of those I have painted in recent years as personal prayers. The time spent creating a mandala is a mini-retreat that teaches me to be still and listen for the quiet voice within. As Teresa of Avila used to say, “God cannot rest in an unquiet heart.”
Upon learning of Hildegard’s canonization, my first impulse was to paint a celebratory mandala of her and for her. Hildegard’s writings, musical compositions and artwork evoke her own encounters with the green freshness of the Holy Spirit, so I placed her in the midst of verdant, abundant life. She coined a word for this, veriditas, which means eternal greenness, a concept in keeping with the contemporary emphasis on stewardship of the earth and all living things. Hildegard, like many scientists and physicists today, taught that we are all connected as one with a great cosmic God.
Above, she stands at her keyboard beneath a tree of life with glimpses of the cosmos above and the depths below. Mystics teach that through encounters with nature, we best come to know the deep, high and wide presence of our incarnate God.
St. Kateri’s Medicine Wheel
Devoted to Kateri Tekakwitha ever since I learned her story as a boy, I am very excited about her canonization, also this month. I created a mandala in her honor with the help of Carla McConnell, an artist-friend, mentor and teacher. Divided into four sections, it is filled with Native American symbols of healing and abundance and was inspired by medicine wheels I discovered while researching American Indian spirituality.
A Heavenly Leadership Conference of Women Religious
There is much to be learned about Jesus from those who have struggled extra hard to know him and to proclaim their message about him. These four women—Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux and Hildegard of Bingen—are true leaders to be admired and imitated. They communicated their experiences of God through the written word. Each had a momentous impact on the church’s spiritual life, which is one reason they qualify as doctors of the church.
Circle of Soul Friends
I painted this trio of favorite saints and heroes (Blessed John XXIII, St. Francis de Sales, Sister Thea Bowman), prophets who read the signs of their troubled times and led the way to reform through joyful optimism against all odds. John, my favorite pope in my lifetime, never lost touch with his peasant roots or with compassion for people, even in the face of suffocating curial resistance to anything that smacked of a good time in the Lord. De Sales, a doctor of the church, was both a civil and canon lawyer and a bishop who put the love of God above all else. He used to teach the faithful, “Be who you are and be that perfectly well.” Sister Thea, a Franciscan troubadour with roots in the Jim Crow South, sang her black and beautiful self into the hearts of the American bishops and the soul of the church. She used to say, “Remember who you are, and whose you are.”
What I would give to have coffee with any one of them for an hour! Yet I am content to see them at my fingertips in living color, and I trust some of their courage may come my way through the act of painting them. They remind me that I am made in the image and likeness of God, not the other way round.
Madonna of Wisdom
Black Madonnas are ancient devotional images that recall the fertile soil, the contemplative quiet of caves and cathedrals, the nighttime sky. For me, nothing says “Incarnation and salvation” more clearly than a black madonna and child. The pearls of great price are somewhere deep within you, too, I am sure, waiting to be revealed in the light of day. The creative path is the best way to find these hidden treasures. I have painted dozens of them, each a prayer for God’s children wounded and excluded by society and the institutional church across time: women, gays, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, people of color, victims of abuse, divorced people—whoever has needed shelter in the arc of Mary’s wisdom and the abiding love of her son.
You do not have to be an artist or a visionary to create a mandala. And you do not have to be an art therapist to interpret one. You need only an open mind, a searching heart and an inner child with an ample supply of crayons, markers or paint. Cultivate your inner eyes and ears so that you can see and listen to the still, small voice within. The goal is not to create a frameable artwork, but to look at unfamiliar things for the first time and familiar things as if for the first time. When that happens, you come face to face with the Holy Spirit who tells you, “I will make all things new.”