Art/Drama, Life, and Spirituality

Every lit votive candle represents a story and a human need

In this paper, I simply want to establish and show the very close relationship among art/drama, life, and spirituality. Particularly, I wish to point out to the reader the power of art/drama to reveal as well as to unite. To achieve this, I thought of developing the following points:

  • The Artist and the Disciple: “Faith as Seeing the Invisible”
  • Real Life Drama as unitive and revelatory: It teaches us as it touches us.
  • Art/Drama as representation (mimesis) of life as “it is”
  • Art/Drama as representation (mimesis) of life as “it should be”
  • Spirituality: Struggle to live life as “it should be”

The Artist and the Disciple

“Faith is seeing the invisible; and making the invisible visible in one’s life.”

An artist and a disciple have something in common. First, they both see something invisible to non-artists and non-believers. Second, seeing the invisible, an artist and a disciple then make visible the invisible so that all the others may see it.

Thus, faith is a kind of seeing; it is seeing the invisible.

Moreover, faith is making the invisible visible. The disciple is shaped or formed (transformed) by what he/she sees or encounters. Recall the story of Saul when he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Consequently, the disciple’s transformed life now becomes the living canvass on which you see and experience the invisible made visible: the mystery of God encountered. Here are some examples of persons who saw the invisible mystery of God and were transformed by it: Teresa of Calcutta, Francis of Assisi, John Bosco.

Drama in real life – it teaches us as it touches us.

[Video] The true to life story of Derek Redmond, British athlete. The story of his fall and triumph in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics touches as well as it teaches us.

The power of real life drama to touch us as well as to teach us is further illustrated by this next experience. It is a phenomenon that surely all of us must have experienced when passing a car crash along the road. It is the curious phenomenon where motorists travelling in the opposite direction of the crash would slow down and delay traffic even when there is no physical obstacle barring their flow. I believe, there is more to it than mere curiosity. There is, I suggest, some kind of an insight being offered.

The sight of the crash touches us deeply and personally. In response, we step on the brake in an attempt to prevent a future crash. Somehow, we feel pity and compassion for the victims of the mishap [=unitive aspect] yet at the same time we are terrified realizing that it could happen to anyone, including us. As a result, we become mindful of the way we drive. More profoundly, we become mindful of the why and how well we live [=revelatory aspect].

Art/Drama is a mimesis, i.e., a representation of life as “it is.”

As representation of life as “it is,” art/drama relates with our real life drama – our hopes and fears, our right and wrong decisions, our good and bad actions, our triumphs and losses.

Standing before a beautiful work of art or a thrilling drama, all of a sudden, it is our own story, our own action that we see and watch represented on the canvass or on the stage. In this sense, art/drama mirrors all our individual lives.

Take for example this icon of OUR LADY OF THE PERPETUAL HELP. There are four main characters in this byzantine icon: Mary Mother of God, Jesus Christ, and the Archangels Gabriel and Michael.

  • Mary is holding the child Jesus in her arms, but her eyes turned towards us, the viewing audience.
  • Jesus has his gaze turned away from his mother in a far-away look. Whatever it is that he is looking at must be something terrifying that sends him running to his mother for help.
  • The Archangels Michael and Gabriel are portrayed each carrying symbols associated with Jesus’ future passion and death. Can this be what the child Jesus is running away from?

Briefly, this is the drama or dramatic action we observe in the icon.

There is one detail though that never fails to catch the spectator’s attention: the sandal dangling from Jesus’ right foot. Taking a closer look, an attentive observer will undoubtedly sense the drama in the dangling sandal. Will it fall or hang on?

  • The drama further intensifies when one sees this dangling sandal within the context of a bigger drama in the icon. A terrified boy Jesus flees from the sight of some horrific instruments announcing his future passion and death, and clings to his mother for help and comfort. In his hasty flight, he almost loses a sandal.
  • Standing before this Marian icon, the dangling sandal and the clinging Jesus suddenly become unmistakably clear to us. They represent our personal little stories, revealing to us our own of our fears and hopes.
  • On the one hand, this drama reveals to us our own fears. What are we afraid or anxious of? What is that sense of danger that sends us to flight? Will we fall? Can we hang on? We are thus led to embrace our own vulnerability and finitude.
  • On the other hand, the dangling sandal and the clinging Jesus also offer us a vision of hope. As Mary, the Mother of God, comes to the aid of her frightened child and the child Jesus struggles to keep his dangling sandal, God the Father will do whatever it takes in order not to lose us, even losing his only begotten Son to save us.
  • It is a vision of hope, however, not a ready-made solution, for it also summons us not to dangle simply and effortlessly, but to trustingly and perseveringly cling on to the Mother of God and ultimately to God our Father. Such vision of hope transforms our fears into courage.

Art/Drama is a mimesis, i.e., a representation of life as “it should be.”

As representation of life as “it should be,” art/drama reveals to us a vision of life – the possibility of a life lived meaningfully and fully.

With the incarnation of the Son of God, this possibility of fullness of life has been realized in Jesus Christ. He is therefore that vision of life which every art/drama points us to.

Let us consider Velasco’s “Hapag ng Pag-asa”.

hapag ng pag-asa

The stories on the canvass:  The Hapag tells the story of Jesus Christ sharing a meal with 12 street children. But it likewise recalls to us the story of the Last Supper the Lord Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he died. Moreover, Velasco in creating this obra employed real street children to pose as models. Each child, however, has his or her own story to tell. In short, the Hapag brings Jesus’ story, the disciples’ stories and the kids’ stories on the same canvass. I call these “stories on the canvass.” Now, we know the stories of Jesus and his disciples from Christian literature, but we do not know the stories of street children. In his book entitled “They have Jesus,” Joey Velasco narrates to us the individual stories of the Hapad kids.

Yet there is another story, the story behind the canvass. It is the story of the painter himself, Joey Velasco. What inspired him to paint? Joey had been a businessman since he was 21. He was happily married with four lovely kids. In 2004, Joey was struck by a life-threatening kidney illness. He was 37. The experience of physical weakness, dependence, vulnerability and insecurity led him to the point of depression. Struggling to drag himself out of depression, he grabbed the paintbrush. At first, he created portraits of his family.

In 2005, the inspiration of painting the Hapag came to him when he felt the need to instill in his children the basic values of not being picky or too lavish with food, of being mindful of those who have nothing to eat. In an exclusive interview, Joey intimated:

“Our children were becoming quite choosy with the food they eat… they were asking us to bring them to the restaurant… I kept on saying to them, “Let’s save money, let’s think of hungry people”… They won’t listen… For a father… whose life was in danger, the things that I would like to share with them for the next 20 years, I sort of compressed them into a few weeks… That was my desire, to compress the values I want them to share. But the words are not enough, so I thought of giving them a visual reminder by painting something which is big, which is challenging, and which will provoke, and will somehow help my children to conceptualize… so they can really relate… I chose a big painting, so that they could really feel that they are eating dinner with those children. Their faces are as big as the faces of the children, and they are the same age as those children.”

This last story gives us a peek into the drama behind the Hapag. Again, it is a story of survival and the struggle with physical vulnerability, insecurity and depression. It is the story of a father who in his moments of insecurity struggled to provide for his children, to secure their future with a healthy serving of basic human values to live by. The Hapag then expresses the hope of the father-painter that somehow his children would be nourished well to live well.

An obra, once created and unveiled to the public audience, is immediately seen and watched. Intended audience or not, people who observe the Hapag, are led by the stories on the canvass to get in touch with their own life-stories “now playing” in the drama of existence. These real life stories then are the stories before the canvass.

Briefly, here are some of the stories before the Hapag.

  • The story of Florencio J:  Florencio always wanted to have his own copy of the Hapag. What he got was more than he expected. Florencio met Velasco in a conference at a time when he himself was dealing with a major problem in his life and struggling with depression. He was filled with joy when he received a pocket size Hapag in the conference and was overjoyed when he later discovered the true stories of the children in the Hapag. He intimated: “I almost cried… I saw myself as one of them, not particularly one of them but saw pieces of me in the children.”
  • The story of a young college student:  In another occasion, an 18-year old, college student – visiting Velasco’s exhibit held at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Santo Tomas, Manila – approached Velasco and said, “Sir, I am an atheist.” Pointing at the Hapag, she continued, “But if this Jesus in your painting is what God is about, then it has opened a part of me to God.” Six months later, another Velasco exhibit was held at the museum of the same university. Velasco dropped by the exhibit one day and skimmed through the entries in the guestbook. He was struck by one that read: “I am the atheist student who approached you the other time. I have visited your new exhibit five times already hoping that I would meet you. Sir, I had (already) been baptized.”
  • The Story of a Chinese-Filipino Christina family:  The Hapag together with other Velasco’s obras have made their rounds not only in lobbies of universities, churches and art galleries. They too have been brought inside busy, crowded shopping malls. When a Chinese Christian family agreed to host and exhibit Velasco’s works in their own gallery located inside the SM Megamall in Manila, they knew they were not going to make any profit. After all, Velasco’s paintings would be displayed only for viewing and would not be sold. But after the first two weeks of exhibition, the host family realized that they received more than they ever expected or did not expect. “We felt so blessed because for two weeks, our gallery became like a chapel (…) people entered, not just connoisseurs and art collectors, but everyday people entered, and were sitting down, praying in front of (the) paintings. And some were coming out (of the exhibit) crying.” Indeed that space inside the Megamall became God’s sacred space.

These are just some of the stories before the Hapag. They are different, unrelated stories from the drama of existence brought together as if sharing the same stage.

One thing is clear though, the Hapag and the stories on the canvass serve as a mirror through which the stories before the canvass are reflected and viewed. This is the case of Florencio’s experience.

The Hapag unites as it reveals. We are actually watching our own stories made visible in the Hapag. Moreover, while we watch our own drama, we are moved to act and act well. This is exemplified in the case of the atheist student. The Hapag managed to seize her. It was not simply a case of an aesthetic insight, but a religious experience. It revealed something beautiful about God. Mere contemplation did not seem to be the apt response. It demanded an act of faith. In faith, she opened herself and began a life with God. Indeed, the Hapag unites as it reveals. The difference between Florencio’s experience and that of atheist student is this: In the first experience, Florencio was move to be one with the Hapag kids. In the second experience, the “atheist” was moved to be one with God.

Whatever action we may take, we become dramatic characters in the Hapag whose canvass has somehow expanded itself, far wide beyond its frame. It has included the canvass of our quotidian life.

As dramatic characters, we search for our role, which seems to shine out through the Hapag from behind the canvass. It is the vision of who we can become, who we are meant to be.

In this sense, the Hapag and the drama on the canvass serve also as a window through which we have a glimpse of a much Bigger Story – God’s drama – far beyond the story of the artist or drama behind the canvass. It is within this Big Story of God’s drama that we are led to act out our roles, as it is in this divine drama that all the human drama – behind, before and on the Hapag – are called to participate.

Spirituality: The struggle to live life as “it should be”

Enjoying a beautiful work of art on a canvass or watching a thrilling drama on the stage, we are caught up in the art/drama. The reality of our life is suddenly revealed and judged against the vision of life as “it should be” (=ideality).

Moreover, the life of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, offers us the vision of life as “it should be.” It is a vision of life lived in total filial trust and obedience to God the Father; and a life given selflessly, totally, freely, and lovingly to God above all and to others. Jesus’ story makes visible God’s Big Story, i.e., God’s drama of salvation.

But any human drama, whether performed on the world stage (real life drama) or a theatrical stage (theatrical drama), relates us to the dramatic life of Christ. Thus, observing the different human drama of our little stories in the light of Jesus’ story and his saving drama, we come to face our own reality – our hopes and fears, good intentions and fragility, desires and inconsistencies, victories and failures, joys and sorrows – and are challenged to live our life to the full – as Jesus Christ lived.

Indeed, art/drama as mimesis of life as “it is” and as “it should be,” can bring Jesus’ story to our little stories so that our different human drama can play in Jesus’ drama, i.e., in God’s Big Story or drama of salvation.

Spirituality is our striving to live life as “it should be,” i.e., the fullness of life revealed in the story of Jesus Christ seen within the context of God’s Big Story.

Discussion Time:

Here are some trigger questions for further reflection and small group discussions:

  1. What are your insights, realizations, and burning questions from our discussion?
  2. What is your favourite piece of art (song, poem, novel, play, painting, or dance)? What insights does it offer you? Do you listen to it, read it, watch it, or perform it simply for the sake of enjoying it? Or does it teach you something about life and what life should be?
  3. In the movie “Les Miserables”, in whose character(s) do you see yourself? Why the title “Les Miserables”? According to the movie, what really makes life “miserable”?
  4. Finally, how does this image (of devotional candles) offer you a unitive and revelatory experience?

By Fr. Rafael M. Dela Cruz, Jr. SDB [JPII 2013]