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. – Franz Kafka
In his book, Prayer, Timothy Keller takes us inside Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal, which she started in 1946 while studying at the University of Iowa. As Keller points out, O’Connor understands intuitively that the key to everything she needs can be found in prayer; not the “perfunctory religious observances” she learned as a child, however, but true prayer. The trouble, unfortunately, is that true prayer is not easy to attain for the young writer, and no one seems capable of teaching her how to do it. In her frustration, she cries out at the end of one journal entry: “Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?”
Like O’Connor, I grew up in the Catholic faith. Unlike this great writer, though, once I left home, I sought neither a prayer life nor a teacher to help me learn the practice. After my childhood experience of sitting dumbly in a pew every week and repeating just as dumbly the prayers I had been made to memorize, it seemed a pointless endeavor to pursue as an adult. Art, on the other hand, thought otherwise. With Extraterrestre et son petit chien, it had already intuited that my life was about to come undone and that I would need God to help me through the crisis (see But first, the dog, 12 February), and that my resistance to the idea could ultimately be overcome with the help of a little beagle named Sophie (see Art is a fortune teller, 5 February), but also and especially with the help of prayer. Of course, I was not going to start praying overnight, but I would start painting. Daily. For months. And if Covid hadn’t forced us all into confinement and I could have continued to see the shaman I had started consulting in the fall of 2019, he would have told me that I was praying. And he would have been right. Despite myself, I was praying. Psalm 31, to be exact.
Like David who laments that his years are shortened because of his sadness, and who stoops under the weight of his sorrow, many of the figures in the daily paintings I made during March and April 2020 are aged and hunched over. The old woman in La Vieja bella, for example.
And like David who feels alone and broken, the bodies of these solitary creatures are deformed, and their limbs are often disjointed or missing.
In his state of distress, David implores God to have mercy on him. He begs his Lord to come quickly to his rescue, to bend low and hear his cry, to be his refuge and his rock, and to lead him out of peril. David trusts in his Lord, and is sure that he is not lost so long as he hopes in him.
In the early pieces I was making, there is evidence of my own soul turning toward God, the most obvious one being Jeune poule se coiffant avant la messe. In this piece, the message, which is delivered in a playful tone, couldn’t be more clear: Get to church, woman! Trust in God already, for Pete’s sake!
I did not know that I was crying out to God at the time, and that art was helping me pray psalm 31; I just thought I was making watercolors based on stains and splatters I was seeing on the sidewalks of Brooklyn. Nonetheless, God heard the cry, and he showed up one afternoon in a large combination tar patch and water stain at the corner of Willoughby and Washington Park in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
At the end of his discussion on Flannery O’Connor’s quest for God through true prayer, Timothy Keller posits that prayer is both “the only entryway into self-knowledge” and “the main way we experience deep change.” I believe this now to be true. Arriving to that truth, however, would take months and months and months. My teacher would have to be patient and kind. Luckily for me, art was, and continues to be, both of these things.