Written by Laura Tan
When we hear the word “creative,” many of us are quick to reject or exclude ourselves from the label, claiming that we aren’t born creative. We are so accustomed to thinking of the creative soul as the rare and brilliant genius, the fountainhead of new and exciting ideas, the source of masterpieces in and of him/herself – so much so that we would scarcely dare lay claim to the label.
This identity is a heavy mantle to wear, and was the source of much inner turmoil and insecurity for me for years.
“Am I good enough? Am I cut out for this? Are my ideas worth being listened to?”
These are questions I lay before God one night in the adoration chapel. As I sat there, I heard – or felt, almost – a soft susurrus of movement slipping in between my churning thoughts. “Yes, because I created you, and you should know what that means.”
Since that night, I am discovering bit by bit what that means.
A reflection of our Creator’s heart
In reflecting on what it means to be a creator, I came to understand that my primary identity is actually that of the created. Claiming the identity of God as my Creator has helped me understand better the relationship He has with His creation, and helped me grow to be more secure in His love, and in turn, in my own creative vocation.
Firstly, just as a creator delights in their creation, so too does God delight in us. We have all felt that hard-won feeling of pride when we behold the fruits of our labour. In that same way, our great and almighty Author of Creation formed us, looked upon us, and declared us “very good” (Genesis 1:31). He loved us into being, and we can be confident in His delight and pride in us.
Secondly, when we create something, we form a bond of duty to what we create. We defend it, believe in its merit, and continue working tirelessly on it to bring it to completion. Similarly, God is faithful to what He creates. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul tells us that “He who started a good work in you is faithful to carry it to completion” (Phil 1:6). Like a dedicated architect, God has a beautiful vision for our lives. For us mortal creators, it can be tempting to disavow our projects when they go awry or get convoluted. But to the immortal and divine Creator, no detail of our lives is too tedious to resolve.
To be Catholic is to be creative
The writer and journalist Melissa Pritchard once exhorted all writers – and by extension, artists – to consider the following:
“Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.”
Pritchard points out that there is an alignment of sorts between creativity and saintliness. If as Christians, we are all called to sainthood, then perhaps we might think of creativity as a kind of everyday spirituality that all of us can partake in, whether or not we identify with the label of “creative.” Creativity can be understood as a set of practices in seeing the world and responding to it in a way that allows us to grow closer to our Creator God, and to also live out our call to love. Taken as a lens to conventional Christian wisdom, perhaps creative practices can offer us an expanded view of what Christian living entails.
1. Paying attention
As Pritchard mentions, some commonalities between saintliness and creativity include “a suspension of judgement in regard to your fellow human beings, [and] an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation.” At the root of these two tenets lies the ability to pay attention.
To be able to pay attention is not to blithely open all senses to bombardment by the stimuli of the world. Neither is it merely a scientific record of observable phenomena. True attention necessitates an openness and empathy to the subject or person before you in order to do what the poet Mary Oliver calls “seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles.”
By paying attention, we slow down enough to uncover the divinity in the everyday, and in every person we encounter. It is when we get into the specifics of a subject that we start to build a unique relationship with it. To the creator, this is the start of a personal understanding of a subject through sustained attention and research. I have found that this is an equally apt description of what it means to minister to others with our presence in Christian community. The act of loving is to be present, to bear witness to, to show up to the specifics of someone else’s life. In this way, St Paul’s words to the Ephesians come alive in us: “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10).
2. Finding your true voice
Another way in which creative work bears relevance to Catholic spiritualities is the power of self-understanding. Pritchard brings up the notion of “the death of the little self” as essential to creative work. Her words extend our Christian understanding of “dying to self.” What Pritchard calls “the little self” illustrates a distinction between dying to oneself and losing oneself: the former means to disregard the selfish, base impulses of personal will, while the latter would evince an obliteration of personal voice entirely.
For the creator, developing that creative voice means coming to a unique encounter with the world and being moved to translate it in away that only one can do. And I have found this to be true of Christian living as well. To find that “true” and “authentic” voice means learning the specific ways in which you are loved, and in turn called to love through your unique combination of charisms, experiences, and traits. Perhaps this is what the artist van Gogh alluded to when he said that “there is nothing more artistic than loving people” – because we are each called to fulfill a specific mission by responding creatively to the world around us.
3. Reaching out
The courage it takes to put one’s work (or one’s act of love) out there is another way in which creative practices or mindsets can expand our faith. The fear of failure is essentially the root of every creator’s insecurity – that which means so impossibly much to you can mean so little to the world at large. So it is with loving. Love necessitates vulnerability, which can be difficult to give when we do not know how it might be received. The fear of rejection can be paralysing in any circumstance.
Creative work has taught me that the terror never really goes away. What eclipses this fear is this sentiment expressed by Franz Kafka: “Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts.” Creative work, to Kafka, is an act of faith. One does not know if the act will yield anything, but only trusts that a higher power can do more with a mistake than with inertia. Just as this presupposes a tremendous amount of surrender on the part of the artist, as Christians we are also asked to let go of any preconceived notions about how the finished product of our endeavours is supposed to be like, and trust that the process will bring its own result.
In closing, may we all heed the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta: “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.” We are all called to make the love of an invisible God visible to the world.