Temenos 4: Into Unknowing

This is the fourth image in the series of Temenos paintings. The introduction to this sequence of work can be found here.

I reached the peak of my knowledge about faith in my early twenties. I knew so much, particularly about God and who God did and didn’t accept, what behaviour he (and God was definitely a he) found acceptable and what would send me on the slippery slope to hell. My belief was strong and firm and I clung to it until my knuckles were white because to leave go would mean risking the wrath of this loving God (and he was only angry at me because he loved me so much). The following 20 years have been a continual unfolding and deepening understanding of my own ignorance. I hadn’t realised how small my world was, and whilst I could laugh and roll my eyes at my naivety I think it’s fair to say that none of us realises just how small our view of the world really is – how can we? The goldfish can only begin to conceive that there may be more to the universe if it’s moved from a fish tank to a lake. I simply believed what those I trusted told me about God, it was only when I began to step out and explore for myself that I realised there was so much more.

These are disconcerting moments when previously held certainties melt away. The fourth image in the Temenos series begins to explore this: the clarity of the ancient icon dissolving, shifting and changing. The elements are still there but the image becomes unclear, even disappearing entirely. At the same time tangled lines of thought and experience, confusing and unsettling begin to resolve into a gentler flow. This is the path of unknowing that leads to sacred space, it is an unweaving of the structures that have held us securely perhaps for most of our lives.

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New places, and encountering different cultures do this to us. We being to understand that not everyone thinks like we do, not everyone experiences the world in the same way as we do and so assumptions that we’ve made about the way the universe is are called into question.

When these moments in our lives arise, when the solid certain ice begins to melt into deep clear water, we face a choice. We can cling in fear to what remains of the solid ground, closing our ears to voices that disturb us by excluding the experiences and lives of those who challenge us. Or, we can realise this moment as a generous gift, a time to leap into the deep.

The leap is fraught with risk and uncertainty for sure. This is a fearful moment when we prise our fingers away from the deeply held certainties we have clung to in the past and there may well be a genuinely sense of grief at what we have lost, but it is the way forward to freedom.

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Temenos 3: Into loss

This is the third image in the series of Temenos paintings. The introduction to this sequence of work can be found here.

A woman walks alone through the subterranean passageway of loss. The fractured halo of grief around her head. There are many gateways into sacred space, the liminal place where we are changed in the deepest parts of our being, but the threshold of loss is the most painful to undergo.

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A piece of our life disappears, a person, a relationship, a home, a job; and we are left reeling at the consequences. Even years later the grief can resonate through anniversaries or objects discovered that uncover the concealed pain.

Many years ago, during the summer after I finished at university I spent some weeks interrailing around Europe with a good friend. It was the days before the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones were still a sci-fi dream so we relied on paper maps, a chunky European rail timetable and the goodwill of people we met en route. Ever the time optimist I hoped to see the major sights of Europe over 3 short weeks and so we attempted to do Paris in a day: ridiculous in retrospect. Our plan was to use le metro and pop up at salient locations to experience the Eiffel tower, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and so on before dropping down underground to speed between the various tourist spots to emerge once more into the light. It was a curiously dislocating experience.

Moving through the earth with no sense of direction or distance or time before bursting into the day above it was hard to discern how these places connected and related to each other. Only time and wandering in the light would have enabled us to join the dots of these disconnected spaces.

So to emerge from the tunnel of loss is such a disconcerting experience. A piece of who we thought we were has gone forever. We are in unknown territory and there is a sense of disconnection between who we were and who we have become through the process of loss. Perhaps wandering for some time in the light will help us pick up the thread of our identity, perhaps we will never find it and the sense of loss is compounded so that this is not only a loss of that which we we grieve for but also a loss of the very idea of who we are. We emerge from the tunnel blinking and bewildered with tears in our eyes.

This experience of loss is at the heart of the story of Jesus. He gives everything and then, hanging in the bright sun, he shouts out with the ultimate crisis of faith and identity, “my God why have you forsaken me?”. He gave everything of himself and at the end experiences a deep dark absence. A void that his friends entered into, having centred their whole lives and their whole sense of self around trusting in Jesus they experience all of that ripped from them in his death.

In this cold lonely tunnel beneath the earth there are no comforting words to help. That fractured halo of grief splinters and cuts us. Broken glass to the heart.

Keep going.

 

The full set of Temenos paintings along with accompanying poems by Ian Adams are available to exhibit from September 2017. We are now taking bookings from those interested in showing the work in a public venue and simply ask that transport costs are covered. In addition an artist’s talk, poetry evening and/or led meditations that engage with the work can also be arranged.

For more information contact rjstott@hotmail.co.uk

 

Temenos 2: Into Self

This is the second image in the series of Temenos paintings. The introduction to this sequence work can be found here.

The mystic Thomas Merton writes about how we mistake our false self for the fundamental reality of our life. It is something that we wrap around ourselves to make ourselves feel real:

“…I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasure and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the word, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface”

The second image in the Temenos series invites us to cross the threshold into sacred space by reaching out to what we see in the mirror.

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Bands of red and gold loop over the outstretched hand like a curtain shielding the observer from contact with the real.

If we pay attention to the masks we offer to the word, the false self will be evident. But Merton pushes us deeper and asks us to consider the false self that we present to ourselves. This is the person we mistake for who we really are. I wonder what stories we tell about ourselves to make us feel solid and real. Stories that, rather than being liberating, actually limit us whilst the true self glows with a gentle constancy beneath the wrappings, beautiful and still, .

The false self is a wily beast and employs all kinds of clever tactics to prevent itself from being unwound. It is inevitable that the moment we attempt to draw our attention to the inner life the false self will come up with any excuse to prevent us from making that journey. It’s just so comfortable to cling to the safety of illusion because the alternative path is long and hard and leaves us deeply exposed. Anything; be it TV, social media or religion that fills our time and attention can distract us from the journey. Even stuff that, on the face of it looks like we’re being a good person such as devoting all our time to a worthy cause or to physical exercise can do it: anything to stop us sitting still in silence to notice how and who we really are. And if the activity gives us a nice boost of ego: “look how good I am for spending all that time helping others”, then all the better. This is how the false self protects itself.

The invitation here is to look in the mirror and consider how we see ourselves. Am I wearing armour, to prevent myself from being hurt, to avoid making mistakes or saying the wrong thing? Am I wearing bright gaudy clothes so people notice me and tell me how brilliant or good or clever I am? Both are the work of the false self; it manifests just as much in the brash show off as in the person shrinking alone in the corner thinking “poor me”. Neither are true reflections of the peaceful beauty of the real. And, depending on our circumstances, we can find ourselves wearing many different falsehoods throughout the day as tell these stories to ourselves and mistake them for something true.

Conversely, the real self is not revealed in how successful or unsuccessful we are, how popular or unpopular, how good we are or how pious our prayer. These things are entirely incidental to the unwinding of the bandages that cover us.

To find a way forward wise men and women have pointed the way over millennia. Ways that help us to begin to untangle things, or at least find the end of the ball of string so that we can start to work out how to unravel it. They point to the notion that the energy that comes from the false self has a different quality to it than from the deeper flow of truth.

Consider a river as it flows down the mountainside: there will be times when it passes swiftly over rocks, churning and falling into white water and at other times the river becomes wider and deeper, the flow is still strong, there is a life and energy there, but the surface is smooth as mirror giving little hint to the deep strong flow beneath. The false self thrives on the drama; the experience of being churned up and excitable, whether its our name up in lights as the hero of the hour or the tortured lonely soul in the corner. The deeper self pays no heed to these things, real as they may feel (and the thrill and excitement or the loneliness or the pain may seem very real indeed) but this is all just froth. The deeper self is flowing sure and strong whether people are cheering us on and showering us with accolades, or ignoring us or insulting us.

To live from the true self is to find that place in silence and stillness where the deep river flows. It doesn’t mean we won’t have successes and failures, joys and grief. But it does mean that when we look in the mirror we will be able to see clearly who we really are.

 

The full set of Temenos paintings along with accompanying poems by Ian Adams are available to exhibit from September 2017. We are now taking bookings from those interested in showing the work in a public venue and simply ask that transport costs are covered. In addition an artist’s talk, poetry evening and/or led meditations that engage with the work can also be arranged.

For more information contact rjstott@hotmail.co.uk

Temenos 1: Into Beginning

This is the first image in the series of Temenos paintings. The introduction to this sequence work can be found here.

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We see a child on the swing, reaching that momentary point of weightlessness, giddy and free with a crudely painted halo. The symbols are taken from the icon of Christ the pantocractor meaning a word which means ‘almighty’ or ‘all powerful’ . There is something important about envisioning such a figure at play: Christ laughing, learning, stumbling, picking himself up off the ground with grazed knees and beginning again.

This first image of thresholds into sacred temenos space invites us to lay aside everything we feel we have achieved, in learning, in wisdom and spiritual experience, to find the right perspective on all we have built for ourselves and realise once again the child-spirit that leaps for joy within us.

I remember reading “The Interior Castle” by the medieval mystic Teresa of Avila. In this book she envisages the spiritual journey as a mansion with many rooms and describes the process of going deeper as movement from one room to the next. When I came across this work I had been trying to follow Christ for nearly 25 years and had been engaging seriously in contemplative prayer and meditation for around a decade. I have done this with varying degrees of success and discipline over the years; as with physical exercise these things manifest themselves in my life more in good intentions than actual practice. My feeble attempts at meditation notwithstanding, I thought that I would at least have travelled deeper to some profound spiritual plane after all that time. But reading Teresa’s words brought home to me that, in her great mansion of spiritual experience I was only standing at the gate. I’d walked down the driveway, stood at the doorway and congratulated myself on having such a remarkable deep experience without realising that if I pushed on the door, which was unlocked all along, I’d discover that really I had only been paddling in the shallows, the real depth was still in front of me.

After 25 years I was still beginning. And after another 25 years I will still be beginning.

The gift of the child-Christ is that the place of beginning isn’t a source of despondency, where we fret over so little progress made after so much time, but a source of liberation at the notion that the very idea of progress is anathema to the deeper journey. We are always simply beginning.

To begin is to be open to be taught and everyone you meet has something to teach you. To begin is to realise that it’s not just OK to make mistakes but that mistakes are inevitable and that there will always be times when we fall face down in the dirt. But above all the beginners soul is playful. There is a lightness and a joyfulness here.

I don’t want to romanticise a child’s example, children can be as fretful and avaricious as all of us, but seeing a child jump into a swimming pool to come up delighted and gasping for air, to see her run across a beach whilst holding no energy back, to see him at the top of the swing’s arc shouting “higher!”, we see moments of such focus and singularity of vision. Moments of pure freedom.

Human beings seem to be the only ones in the universe who have difficulty with this. The swift, swooping down to skim clear water and looping in the twilight air doesn’t yearn to be something else. The waves rising from the ocean to break and fall and sink into sand only to rise and break and fall again and again don’t worry that they should be doing something more productive to justify their existence. The swift, the ocean, the mountain, the tree simply are as they are and in their being they are at peace.

Perhaps that is why we struggle so much: we think it should be complicated. We think there is a trick to it or 10 essential steps to be enlightened when in fact the tricky bit is stripping away those illusions that cleverness or goodness or some technique will make us worthy of some beatific vision. The beginner’s soul has the joyful naivety of being liberated from such pretensions: In all the things to know and experience in the universe you know so very little, you are as you are, and that is OK.

So whether your life has been spent in pursuit of ancient wisdom for decades, soaked in profound meditation or whether you have never given such things a second thought. Whether your life feels sorted and together, building success upon success or whether everything has crumbled to dust and there seems no way out but despair. Take a breath, open your eyes and begin again.

 

 

The full set of Temenos paintings along with accompanying poems by Ian Adams are available to exhibit from September 2017. We are now taking bookings from those interested in showing the work in a public venue and simply ask that transport costs are covered. In addition an artist’s talk, poetry evening and/or led meditations that engage with the work can also be arranged.

For more information contact rjstott@hotmail.co.uk

Temenos: Introduction

“There are lost wavelengths and Atlantic sensations, ways of thinking and feeling that are conditioned by long term living on the Ocean’s edge – events of the mind that could only occur on the coasts”

Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways

 

Macfarlane writes about “events of the mind” that can only occur on the coast, in the edge and transitional spaces between land and ocean. Place has a significant impact on what events of the mind (and heart and soul) are possible. Place has the potential to beckon out from within us aspects of our deep self that may otherwise have been hidden, perhaps for our whole lives. Our being and our knowing are intrinsically bound to where we are standing and there are times when I travel somewhere new with the sense that the place has a gift for me.

So, it was that I found myself 7,000 miles from home on a bus winding its way up the mountain slopes of the northern territories of the Philippines. There are many stories to tell about that journey and that place held many gifts for me, some of them weren’t easy to receive, but this is where I discovered the word temenos. You may already know of it, you could have found it in a book or stumbled upon it online but as it happened I had to travel a third of the way around the world to discover it.

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My hosts had taken me to a shopping mall In Baguio, a city in the mountains, where clouds roll in and engulf you as you drink coffee on a café terrace. In some ways familiar to me in the way that city malls around the world resemble each other but in so many other ways there were a million little sights entirely alien to my comfortable frames of reference such as the tropical butterfly alighting on the escalator or food stands mixing up sweet tofu. Only a few days into my stay I was still reeling from jet lag, humidity and the disconcerting culture shock that comes from the realisation that billions of people across the world live in ways that are entirely outside of my own limited realms of experience. It’s a realisation that, whilst self evident in many ways, only really hits home through encounter with the other.

We wandered through a large bookstore, the type that sells office supplies and cheap art materials alongside piles of books. Whilst my friends browsed, my eyes drifted over the shelves, not expecting to find anything to pique my interest but in the midst of that strange daze and sense of dislocation I saw a familiar name. A book by the artist Keri Smith called “The Wander Society”.  I’d read some of her work before, it is charming, quirky and enthusiastic about enabling people to engage deeply and creatively with the world around us. Seizing on the familiar in an unfamiliar place I paid the Pesos and took it with me.

And here is the uncanny thing about finding this wonderful little book at the edge of my world: Smith unfolds ideas about the importance of wandering in places both strange and mundane. She explores the richness of the impact of place on our being, our doing and our creating, in fact, she describes exactly why it was that I travelled to the Philippines in the first place. So far from home, in the corner of a bookshop in a Philippine shopping mall I had wandered into a text that enlightened my wandering.

I don’t know whether it was coincidence or something else but really the distinction is irrelevant. These moments of synchronicity enable us to fold meaning into our lives. In my experience, the more I live with a creative heart that is open to risk and possibility the more these synchronicities occur. Living with our eyes open and our hands outstretched enables us to receive the gifts that we stumble upon. Furthermore, whether coincidence or not, I find it is invariably true that when we follow the pathways that these moments of grace open up then they lead to fruitful ground, rich in creative potential. For me this is a statement of faith: There is a kindness and a generosity in the universe that we will find if we choose to live with our eyes open.

John O’Donohue encourages this in his book ‘Eternal Echoes’:

 

“The very nature of the universe invites you to journey and discover it. The earth wants our minds to listen attentively and gaze wisely so that we may learn its secrets and name them. We are the echo-mirrors of contemplative nature. One of our most sacred duties is to be open and faithful to the subtle voices of the universe which come alive in our longing” 

 

Tucked away in the pages of Smith’s book was a page outlining the concept of temenos: A sacred space or grove set aside for the gods, a special place that enables the exploration of different ways of being in the world.

Discovering the idea of temenos was the discovery of a name for something I had been working on for the previous few months, a series of 10 paintings that are thresholds into sacred space. They each form a gateway into the sacred grove that the word encapsulates. In addition the poet Ian Adams has written a piece to accompany each picture. The paintings overlay image, colour and gesture and the poems weave words that open up spaces and invite each viewer to bring their personal stories and experiences as we move into the temenos.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting the images here with reflections about their creation along with some of the stories of gift that I encountered in the Phillipines.

 

Deep in the belly / unseen, new life stirs, seeding / flowers into spring. 

Ian Adams

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The full set of paintings and poems are available to exhibit from September 2017. We are now taking bookings from those interested in showing the work in a public venue and simply ask that transport costs are covered. In addition an artist’s talk, poetry evening and/or led meditations that engage with the work can also be arranged.

For more information contact rjstott@hotmail.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Noonday Demon

 

The Demon of Noonday, also know as accidie, is a spiritual and psychological phenomenon identified by early Christian mystics who sought solitude in the Egyptian desert. They commonly experienced a sense of emptiness, hopelessness and torpor which they realised was a normal part of our human condition when we seek to deepen our spiritual life. It is a moment that provokes the question, ‘What is the point?’.
This painting explores that experience and draws on a poem by my friend Ian Adams, who’s work I highly recommend, about one of those ancient desert mystics called Abba Joseph:
Abba Joseph in the Desert
Stumbling through a scorched stream-bed
a black-clad figure, spirit-led
descends once more into arid accidie
where dreams fall away from unsteady feet
thoughts spike the soul’s soft skin
and promises circle those who break them.
The Abba stops. Stands, arms outstretched.
In the wind-silence of the desert,
ever higher in the sky the sun’s
searing focus is now on this one man
consumed by the fire – a lens
through whom you too may burst into flame.
Ian Adams from ‘Unfurling’ (Canterbury Press)
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Noonday Demon   Oil on canvas 92cmx115cm

The painting is on display  in the “What is the Point?” exhibition until 15th October at the Strand Gallery, London
For enquiries about the painting email rjstott@hotmail.co.uk

Holiness & Justice 7: The deeper paths

This is the seventh in a series of 7 paintings I have made for Methodist Conference 2016, an introduction to the series can be found here.

This series of paintings began in cool blues, it moved with growing warmth to the central image of a heart offered in love that erupted with red fire and now, in the final piece, back to blue. With the ebb and flow of warmth and colour I hope we are changed by the journey.

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On the Sinai coast of Egypt, where the desert meets the sea, the waters teem with life. The coral reefs host strange and beautiful creatures. I travelled along the track north from Dahab in the back of a pick up truck, dusty and clinging tight to the hot metal. We came to a lone building by the water, it was closed and shuttered tight with an old wheel chair on its veranda. This was a medical centre by the popular diving site called the Blue Hole.

The shallow reefs mean that the sea is turquoise/white as you step into it, swimming out further the blue hole opens up. A sink hole in the reef that suddenly drops away to the depth of 100 metres. I gasped as I swam over the precipice moving from a sea bed close enough to touch to oblivion. In the centre of the circle free divers, who swim deep with one breath, anchored themselves to a floating buoy before taking their turn to plummet. The water is as clear as air but the depth of the hole is fathomless and as they swam down they disappeared into the deepest blue I’ve ever seen.

Swimming over the sinkhole I felt fear: an awe and trepidation at encountering something so much bigger than I could conceive. It didn’t feel like a safe place to be and yet I could sense the call from the depths that beckoned the divers onward.

When I take the time to sit in silence. Time enough for the depth of my own soul and the depth of God’s being to open up to each other, I get the same feeling. It’s an encounter with something unimaginably vast that teems with life unknown to me. It’s easy to mask this fear with words and clever doctrines about god but waiting in silent stillness I am swallowed up by mystery. Over millennia wise men and women have found ways that can help us to navigate these depths. If we listen to them: the mystics, the contemplatives and the deep pray-ers of an ancient tradition, we can begin to find these deeper paths.

The labyrinth stencil in this painting is one such path. It is a design that appears scratched in stone from thousands of years past and continues to enable people to pray today. Is it a labyrinth, or is it a fingerprint? Mine is different to yours, my path is different to yours. But if we heed that beckoning from the deep, dark blue, as we listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before us and who have had the courage to embark on the journey into mystery, we will find our way.

 

PRINTS FOR SALE

A limited edition series of A3 size high quality art prints of these are available for purchase signed by the artist. All profits from the sale of prints will go towards funding the creative at 35 Chapel Walk, Sheffield.

Prices: £30 per print or £200 for the full set of 7. This is a strictly limited edition of 25 prints for each painting.

If you are interested in purchasing prints then please email me: rjstott@hotmail.co.uk

In addition the framed original paintings are for sale at £425 each.

All views on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Methodist Church