Spirituality and Art, Mysticism and Activity

“But the mystic, like other persons of genius, is man first and artist afterwards.”


— Evelyn Underhill

Of course.  Like Dylan and Cohen in music, like Whitman and Blake in poetry, like Lars von Trier and David O. Russell in cinema, advanced contemplatives place the greater human mission ahead of the mere forms of  expression.   And the contemplatives  do well when they can fully comm to the path of  meditation and prayer, in light of a   larger culture’s propensity to place creative success as superior to spiritual success. Nevertheless, we see time and often in the history of the West, a common ethos of brotherhood and sisterhood, living and dead, in the output of whatever genre the mystic-artist chooses as a vessel for their ministry.  Such children of God have been indispensable to our world, for what they have continued to infuse light into a dark world, often at the expense of their own lives.  Bob Marley did not live long, but around the globe, he unites people from different cultures and languages as a symbol of love, peace, and the interconnected fellowship of all humankind.    

Yet this is not the stance of every artist, nor is it meant to be.  Some artists and creatives develop their own brand, or non-brand, of what aesthetics signifies for them and what   their subjective values may be in judging a created work.  Talking about unconditional love at some artsy cocktail parties may get you sneered at; at others, it may grant you immediate access to the inner circle.   You never know where or when other mystics and contemplatives-in-heart travel in your midst....  

The point, however, that remains central in Underhill’s quote is the emphasis on Being rather than Doing.  Yet when one has creative skills - and many contemplatives do - it is tempting to work on one’s art instead of meditating, substituting our craft for our religious path.  I continue to find it better instead  to place spiritual practices first, even when creative output is part of my daily grind.  

Experiencing pure Being is helpful for all Doing, whether your “doing” is art or business, technology or education.   As Eckhart Tolle has mentioned, often the greatest discoveries in science have come not from hurried hyper-reasoning but from flashes of insight that avail themselves in quiet moments of the here Now.   

But daily practice is always easier said than done. In an economy dependent on productivity and results, we are left with the additional challenge of finding the sacred in our daily activities and disciplines.  The advantage we have - because mysticism isn’t just for those in the monasteries - is the sense of dynamism and vitalism that can arise through the Holy Spirit when Being and Doing mix in the hybrid land of Becoming.   An active contemplative life, when woven into the thread of daily living, requires us to make a conscious habit of setting  time aside.  For this reason, motivation and a healthy dose of gentle reminders is helpful, like the weekly tip from Rich Lewis on centering prayer, and churches that have daily morning prayer services during the week.   Anything we can do to increase our chances of regular practice is a good thing; and like Underhill mentions, the development of the spiritual personality and the life of faith is the highest priority.