O Taste and See

Bringing the Imagination and the Senses to the Scriptures Juliet Benner Part 12 of 16

Classical Spiritual Exercises: Habits that Transform

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Table of contents

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Timothy R. Botts

“I pray that Christ will be more and more
at home in your hearts as you trust in him.
May your roots go down deep into the soil
of God’s marvelous love.”
(Ephesians 3:17, The Living Bible1)

Cover art in past issues has presented representational art that symbolically arises from the artist’s meditation on a passage of Scripture. The art on the front cover of this present issue is not an exception. In this work, the passage of Scripture itself becomes the art as the artist shapes the text into a word picture, enriching its meaning and inviting us to use our own imaginations as we read it.

Scriptures expressed artistically in word pictures can speak as powerfully to us as a painting or a sculpture. Taking the time to sit before such a work of art can enrich our understanding of the passage and help us apprehend God’s personal word with our whole being.

The front cover of this issue presents an artistic meditation on Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians. The artist, Timothy R. Botts, is one of North America’s most important calligraphers. Trained as a graphic designer from Carnegie-Mellon University, where he studied under Arnold Bank—a major force in the recent revival of interest in calligraphy— Botts first discovered his gift when a first-grade art teacher identified him as an artist and personally picked him to attend Saturday classes in her home. He has designed numerous books, is an internationally acclaimed educator in calligraphy, and currently serves as senior art director at Tyndale House Publishers.

Interview with the Artist

JB: First, I want to thank you for the beauty of the works you have created over the past years. As a young student of calligraphy myself, your works were both inspirational and discouraging. I wondered how I could ever find my own voice. But over time, I did—and I thank you for helping me do so.

But more than encouragement in my work as a calligrapher, your work has also always deeply spoken to me spiritually. I’m not sure if you do anything other than the words of Scripture, but the works with which I am familiar draw me into a rich contact with the Word behind the words. Often moved to tears when I meditate on your works, I have always been deeply appreciative of your very obvious love of Scripture.

That’s where I’d like to start in our discussion of your work. Tell me a bit about your spiritual journey and the place the Scriptures have played in it. In particular, I’m interested in the way in which your approach to the Scriptures has either shifted or stayed the same over the various stages of your journey.

 

TRB: As a young reader, my first memories of the Scriptures were of Egermeier’s Bible Story Book. Inside, the classical paintings carried me from one story to the next. I remember feeling such sadness about so many of Israel’s kings turning away from God, and I determined to be on God’s side. During my early high school years, a family friend bought me a copy of Living Letters: The Paraphrased Epistles, the letters of the apostle Paul, which was the first installment of The Living Bible (by Kenneth N. Taylor).

Before that time, I don’t really remember reading my King James Bible, but with this new paraphrase, I found myself reading late into the night under my bed covers and began to really understand the Gospel. After a while, with so many sermons and Sunday school lessons under my belt, I began to feel as though I knew it all, and it was hard for me to concentrate on personal Bible study. Then in 1984, I made a New Year’s resolution to read through the Bible from beginning to end for the first time. But this time I would do it with my paints and pens in hand.

 

JB: And how glad I am you did! The series of books that resulted has been the same blessing to many of us as The Living Bible first was for you. But I am interested in hearing more about the way in which art, calligraphy in particular, serves you spiritually.

 

TRB: Calligraphy is the medium by which I meditate on Scripture, which I acknowledge to be God’s message to humanity. By making word pictures of it, my mind is engaged, and I enter deeply into the meaning. It also becomes a form of worship by honoring the message that I have received through this exercise.

 

JB: Your phrase, “word pictures,” is particularly interesting, given the central place of words in your pictures. So easily we read words without encountering the rich tapestry of meanings to which the words point. You catch this cloud of meanings wonderfully in your art. Could you elaborate a little on the process of making words reflect their meaning?

 

TRB: Often I paraphrase or put the words into my own words until I find a visual metaphor for the message. Miming is also helpful, as hand or body gestures can suggest ways to arrange words on the page. My goal is to make the words look like what they mean. As a visual learner, my mind suddenly becomes totally engaged.

 

JB: Your work suggests a remarkable freedom and spontaneity. Would you speak a bit about the influences that led you in this direction?

 

TRB:  Thank you! That is a beautiful compliment to me since Christians involved in the arts are often considered predictable and confined. I had wonderful training in the arts at Carnegie-Mellon University as an undergraduate and then was exposed to the freedom of brush writing while teaching conversational English in Japan for three years.

 

JB: Much of your calligraphic interpretations are biblical texts which I sense to be central to who you are as a person and as an artist. How does Scripture inform how you create your art?

 

TRB: I believe that when we ask God’s creative Spirit to guide us, we have the potential to make art that is fresh and free of the expectations of current style. Nearly all of the inspiration for my work comes directly from meditating on the words themselves.

 

JB: Say a bit more about how you actually do this meditation on Scripture, either when you are preparing to make art or simply for your own spiritual nurture.

 

TRB: From my study of graphic design, I have employed many principles that have helped me to get inside the text and to get the text inside me! I look for the main idea or gist and try to keep that focus. I make associations of meaning with my use of colors. Visual contrast, use of space, a variety of letter styles—these are just some of the ways I think about putting the words down on paper.

 

JB: Let’s turn now to the art on the front cover, a work based on Ephesians 3:17. To my eye, this piece conveys a dynamic sense of joy, exuberance, growth, and stability in Christ through the use of color, design and script. Tell me about the process of creating this particular work.

 

TRB: Christ is the main emphasis in this text, so I chose the brightest color, white, against the green background, which also represents him as the Light, also punctuated with gold diamonds. Perhaps you can sense my symbolic use of color, beginning with the blue of heaven and ending with red, representing God’s love. The flourishes surrounding the letters serve to suggest the foliage and roots of a tree, but there is not an actual tree drawn because the text is not really about trees. Rather, it is treelike, to celebrate the growth we experience as we become more acquainted with the Savior.

 

JB: What personal significance does this passage of Scripture have for you? What is your experience of God as you look at your meditation based on it now?

 

TRB: I feel the joy of growth and maturity. We can never see the work of a plant’s roots, but it is fun to make a picture of them reaching down deep and almost wiggling with life. That’s what I love to do—to give a face to that which is invisible.

 

JB: Finally, I wonder if you might have any suggestions for people who want to learn to engage with Scripture in the creative and responsive way you do when you meditate on a passage. Where might such a person start?

 

TRB: We all have studied handwriting and a print script. Our alphabet has both capital and lowercase letters. So already you have four ways to express the meaning of words, even if you don’t do calligraphy. Then there is the whole range of colors in your crayon or paint box. Ask yourself about a particular phrase: should I make the letters large or small, close together or far apart, tall or thin, dense or airy? Should they go in a straight line or an arc, go uphill or downhill, flow, bounce, or meander? Since there are at least twenty historical styles of our alphabet, you may eventually want to learn some calligraphy, or if you prefer the computer as a tool, you could use the many typefaces available these days to aid in your expression.

 

JB: Thanks for those concrete suggestions to help us all release our inner artists. And thank you again for sharing the fruits of your own meditations on Scripture in both our cover art and your many books and other works.

 

TRB: You are welcome. And thank you for selecting that piece for this issue, and for this interview.

Reflecting on the Art

God’s Word is more than a text to be read and studied. It is living and life-giving, profound in its ability to renew and transform us. But so easily it can become stale when we approach it mechanically and analytically. The challenge for all of us is to get behind the words to the living Word.

One rich and centuries-old way of doing this encourages us to bring not just our minds but also our imagination to Scriptures. By way of the imagination and the senses, we are able to be more fully present to the mystery of God. We enter the passage, watch and listen to what is said, and become part of the experience as we engage with it.

Take a few minutes for prayerful meditation on the Ephesians 3:19 passage that was the basis for the cover art meditation. First, allow yourself to sit quietly and be fully present to God. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you hear what God wants to say to you. Then slowly read the passage several times—either in your own Bible or below—listening for a word or phrase that may catch your attention. As you receive it, think about the word or phrase and explore the feelings and images it may evoke for you.

I pray that Christ will be more and more
at home in your hearts as you trust in him.
May your roots go down deep into the soil
of God’s marvelous love.

Now turn to the cover art and slowly read again the text as it is presented by the artist, Timothy Botts. What is different in your reading this time? How has the artistic interpretation changed your response to the text?

Let’s look at Botts’ meditation together. It encourages us to go beyond a superficial or analytical reading. His word picture draws us into the text, evoking a heart response. The text fires our imagination, prompting us to engage with it more personally and intimately.

The first thing that strikes me as I look at it is the sense of growth and vitality suggested by the overall shape—an oval or seed—and by the letter style. Emanating from this in every direction are flourishes which reach upward, outward, and downward. Their spontaneous liveliness evokes an image of a tree waving its branches in the wind, of growing tendrils reaching out with energy and life.

In the midst of all this exuberance, the name of Christ—in bold white capitals—is prominent. Its letter style is solid, large, and strong and is punctuated by gold diamonds, reminding us of Christ’s royalty, holiness, light, and purity as he reigns with the Father in heaven. We are made aware of the centrality of Christ as we journey toward union with God. Because of Christ we have been made alive and set free to grow into righteousness as we plant our feet firmly in the soil of his eternal love. He provides the solid foundation on which our faith stands and endures.

The rest of the text, in a looser and freer hand, reflects the dynamism of the words themselves. Look at how the words vibrate on the page with movement and color, again pulsing with life and energy. Moving downwards from the top, the colors range from a heavenly blue through refreshing green, into ocher and orange and finally into a vibrant red. As Botts has explained, the colors symbolize the dynamic process of growth in the spiritual life. We can picture a tree with its roots reaching deep into the nourishing red soil of God’s love. Out of this groundedness, the tree emerges into the golden sunlight to produce fresh green leaves and limbs that lift their arms upward into the heavens. These branches bear the name and character of Christ, the fruit of his Spirit. It is a tree growing toward Christlikeness.

The indwelling presence of Christ in each Christian is not static. Rather, it is progressive and continuous and is maintained through trust and faith in Jesus Christ. Like a sturdy tree sending its roots deep into the soil and bursting with life and fruit, so is our life in Christ. Grounded, firmly established in him and in his love, we become like the tree described in Psalm 1:3, “planted by streams of water, which yields their fruit in its season” (NRSV2).

Make this prayer your own. Return to the text and read it again. Imagine yourself as this tree. Feel yourself sending your roots down deep into God’s love. Experience his strength and security as he holds you in that love. Grounded here, now imagine yourself as a small shoot bursting up through the earth towards the sunlight. Feel the warmth and bask in the sunshine of God’s joy at your birth. Then feel your new leaves begin to unfurl and open out, your branches stretching out to receive breath and life from the fresh, unpolluted air of heaven. Allow yourself to be swayed by the wind of the Spirit so that you join him in the dance of life. See Jesus in the midst of this process, bearing his fruit within you, transforming you into his likeness. Be there with him; listen to him, allowing him to be what he wants to be to you. When you are ready, thank God for the gift of a new experience of his Word. Reflect on how this experience has changed your response to God and to the world.

You may wish to draw upon Botts’ inspiration in approaching other passages of Scripture. Make your reading an act of worship by becoming totally engaged with it. Use other ways—in Botts’ words—“to get inside the text and to get the text inside” you. Perhaps you too can use your imagination through body gestures, mime, dance, art, music, or calligraphy to “give face to that which is the invisible.” Come to the Word with your whole being. Dare to meet the living Word behind the words. Dare to encounter God as a living, present Reality.

Footnotes
  1. Scripture quotations marked (The Living Bible) are taken from The Living Bible © 1971 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
JULIET BENNER is a spiritual director and retreat leader who was, for many years, a docent at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario, Canada). Her special interest is in art and spirituality, particularly the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer. She can be contacted by e-mail at julietbenner@sympatico.ca
Listen to all parts in this Conversations 3.1: Scripture and Formation series