I arrived at Conception Abbey with my friend Mark, along with something I can only assume was a mutual mixed feeling of uncertainty and eager expectation. Seminary is a new phenomenon to us both, and neither of us fit the mold of typical seminary students looking for M-Div degrees and pastoral roles within congregations. It was, for us, a chance to find our centers and renew our hearts and minds. But I left the abbey with much more than recharged batteries.
My initial understanding of creativity (a very basic understanding, to be sure) involved taking one idea, fusing it with another, and synthesizing the two to produce a third idea, completely new and independent of the first two. A caveman discovers that by hammering rocks together, sparks occur. By positioning the sparks over an area of flammable material, a fire can be kindled. And by building a fire, it becomes easier to cook and ingest meat, which in turn gives Caveman more energy to hunt more meat to cook over more fires. This understanding is pretty cut-and-dried. Not necessarily a bad definition, but still somewhat incomplete.
But I have found that creativity is more than just synapses firing and connecting one thing and another. In many ways, creativity is useless unless it leads to innovation, beauty, and growth. A person can have a good idea, but that idea is worthless without action, and that action—by what I’ve gathered through reading scripture, as well as Roberta Bondi’s To Love As God Loves—is useless without love as its primary motivation. Interestingly enough, it was less than two months prior to our time in the abbey that I spent a single day in fellowship with a new monastic intentional community in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was that day, after stepping off the bus in a remote, economically and socially disparaged part of the city, that I first began to draw the beautiful connections between spirituality and creativity. The Hyaets Community draws its name from the Hebrew word for the “tree of life” found in Genesis and Revelation—a symbol of initial and continuing creation. The project began a few years ago as an attempt to build a bridge between the contemplative lifestyle of the Desert Fathers and the compassionate active lifestyle of experiencing and meeting the needs of marginalized people suffering on the fringe of society—what better example of the creative spiritual process than this?
Jason Williams, the leader of the community, led us on a tour of the small, three-house block, pointing out the art and construction along the way. Earlier this year, Hyaets became the recipient of a recent CBF grant that allowed them to build a small clubhouse where the neighborhood kids (many of them so-called latchkey kids) could hang out after school. But rather than simply throwing together a “shed” where the kids are “kept,” the community rallied a number of local churches for the project: one church to build the clubhouse, one church to paint it, and still another to design an intricate mosaic (made from bits of broken glass and other trash) to decorate the façade of the building. In this case, the initial motivation of love (desiring to fill the needs of the neighborhood kids) led to a physical aesthetic (the building, the mosaic). This in part illustrates a very basic sense of the connection between spirituality and creativity. However, it may—and, I feel, should—be stretched further to include perhaps a more important non-physical aesthetic: the aesthetic of the impact on the community as a creative congregation. Conceivably, more beautiful than the physical mosaic is the transformation of the lives of the children impacted by the existence of the clubhouse as a safe place to gather. The clubhouse then fosters more creativity within the children, who in turn may in their maturity go out and begin the creative cycle over again. In a New Monastic setting, this creates the perfect balance of tension between the contemplative life and the active life.
Part 2 continues tomorrow.