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The Broad Road and the Narrow Gate

Last week my brother let me know our Dad was admitted to hospital with a severe lung infection. Dad, who is 86, has cancer and he has been dealing with it in different forms for two years now. The latest development is that he just went through three rounds of Chemo and it seems like he just couldn't take the strain. When the ambulance crew arrived to get him to hospital, my mum told me they struggled to move him because he was so weak, and as I listened to her describing the incident an image rose in my mind of Caravaggio's Deposition From The Cross. I had it clear as day, my dad sagging and lifeless, two men straining to carry him, it startled me. Art can do that for us, in a significant moment it can help us contextualize things, figure out where our values are and what is most important, and it can put pictures to our feelings. When feelings are complex and contradictory pictures can help us hold them.

I took a bus from Stratford, my parents live in Brittany, and I changed in Paris to a bus for Rennes, which is an hour from my parents home. The whole journey took almost a day, but it was easy enough. On the journey to Rennes I stretched out at the back in the aisle seat and got out my paints. At one point a woman stretched across the aisle and tried to sleep, I found myself thinking of that painting again, a horizontal body, surrounded by verticals, someone overwhelmed by gravity, while the rest fight to stay upright. I thought of my Dad, who is lying down most of the time these days, and I tried to make a painting which pondered this theme. 

In my picture, one person stretches up to reach something in the overhead space, his body makes a bow shape, the opposite of rest. The legs of the woman lying across the aisle stick out, surreally, from the left. A child, someone at the start of life is wriggling and playing with a doll, in the arms of a stoically upright mother. the child's doll is the only full horizontal figure, and it hangs limply in her tight grip.

Making pictures is a way of meditating on things, if an issue is pressing on us, a drawing can help us manage. I find starting a drawing in an actual place, describing specific things very helpful, but as the picture gets underway, I begin to notice themes and then I begin to run with them. This helps me notice metaphors that I can turn over in my mind as I try to decipher my experience, and untangle the threads of emotions, and thoughts, which are often too easily confused and mistaken for one and other, emotions aren't thoughts, and thoughts aren't emotions.

And then there is the theme of the road. Tim Mackie of Bible Project often describes Jesus' ministry as a road trip. Jesus hits the road in all four gospels gathering friends and allies, living fully and helping all those who meet him to get a sense they can do the same, then it all comes to a dramatic halt and he gets killed.

Life has a way of doing that to us. Every one knows that isn't the end of the story in Jesus case, but for now, I am reflecting on the dying part. I used to be an atheist, as a younger man, Christianity seemed intellectually ridiculous to me. It was art that helped me see it more coherently. Where I had previously seen scientific impossibilities, I began to see poetic profundities, and I began to recognize the importance of the paradoxes meditating on scripture present. My Christian faith developed out of my perception that anything that is really true, by which I mean so true that it works on all levels of reality simultaneously, would have to speak to every aspect of us, not only the rational but the irrational, and not just the sensible but the ridiculous, and I began to appreciate the vital importance of art in making sense of life. Art is a key to the profound, it holds the difficult material our minds can not articulate, and it locates our experience in the bigger picture of a cosmos which is created and meaningful.

Often, when some one speaks about their faith, they are either proselytizing or apologetic. These seem to me to be strangely superficial behaviors, given the significance of the subject. For me, faith is a matter of life, it colours everything, it isn't a matter of agreement or otherwise on any one else's part. We all strive to make sense of life, and if we take art seriously, I think it can help us approach many of life's difficult questions, which typically exist in the territory of faith. Art can lead us from the frightening, broad road of confused ideas and fears, onto narrower paths, less hectic and more precise routes to the narrow gates, through which we might pass, into greater meaning and understanding. 

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