When I was diagnosed with cancer, my doctor ordered a course of adjuvant therapy intended to heal my body—but what about my mind and my soul? How to step back into the light after living in the darkness of this dreaded disease?
I knew I could draw upon the healing power of prayer to revivify my soul. But it took me some time to understand the role art might play in my recovery. “All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” Abdul-Baha tells us. – The Chosen Highway, p. 167.
In its noblest forms, art can serve as an emissary from that world of light with which we, as spiritual beings, strive to commune.
So, in the difficult year after treatment, when recurrence was most likely, I found my mind strengthened and my soul lightened by the beautiful expressions of spirit embodied in the paintings of New Brunswick artist Catharine McAvity, which hung on the walls of the house I had rented in Saint John, where my daughter attended a private school.
As the months passed, I was uplifted by the beauty of the art that surrounded me and inspired by what I learned of the years of struggle that attended Catharine’s development as a painter. Catharine McAvity was born in the early years of the last century into wealth and privilege. Her life unfolded as the lives of young women of her class typically did. She attended university, married well, bore two children, and pursued her life as a socialite. Then, one day, in a fleeting instant, Catharine’s life was forever changed, when her only daughter, newly married and at the beginning of her life, was killed in a car accident.
The death of a child is surely the worst suffering any parent can endure. Abdu’l-Baha once consoled a woman who had lost her son with these words:
O thou beloved maidservant of God, although the loss of a son is indeed heart-breaking and beyond the limits of human endurance, yet one who knoweth and understandeth is assured that the son hath not been lost but, rather, hath stepped from this world into another, and she shall find him in the divine realm, that union will be for eternity … – Selections from the Writings of Abdul-Baha, p. 171.
Yet such words do not offer comfort unless one has an active faith. How did Catharine find the strength to go on? She painted. In the beginning, her work was typical of amateur women artists—conventional still lives placed at the center of the canvas. But before long, Catharine began to experiment with abstraction, and after many decades, she arrived at the luminous landscapes of her later work, landscapes that testify to the reality of art as a spiritual gift.
For Catharine, art, through the agency of the holy spirit, became a kind of prayer. In the words of Abdul-Baha:
… in this wonderful new age, art is worship … That is to say, when thy fingers grasp the paint brush, it is as if thou wert at prayer in the Temple. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a recently translated tablet to an individual Baha’i.
And so it was for me. The practice of my art became a form of worship. In the year after cancer treatment, I wrote and I wrote. I wrote poems, stories, even a memoir-essay about how Catharine McAvity’s paintings gave me hope at a time of great darkness: “A Landscape Yearning Towards the Light: A Year With the Paintings of Catharine McAvity”. In the process of writing, I received the gift that heals the soul—the holy spirit.
When I had finished setting down all the words that came to me in the bleak aftermath of my cancer treatment, I decided that what I wanted more than anything else was to share that spiritual outpouring—the gift of the holy spirit that is art.
I wanted to share not only my own writing, but the creative work of others, painters and writers who drew on the same source in their art making, for I had understood a truth: genuine art never finds its beginnings in ego nor its end in self-promotion. None of us can claim to own the source from which our gift issues. Our art comes not from us, but through us.
So I decided to launch elixir-journal.org, a journal of the arts and letters devoted to showcasing the work of artists who find their inspiration in the Baha’i revelation. Within its pages appear works of art that I hope will serve as lights shining brightly in the darkness through which so many of us must pass on our journey.