Silent prayer and creativity: To create out of silence

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In this article the relationship between artistic creativity and hesychast prayer in the Orthodox Christian tradition is examined within the context of a broader consideration of art as a means of spiritual elevation in the contemporary world.

The article begins with an extended quotation from a key passage from the novel Verliesfontein (“Loss fountain”) (1998) by Karel Schoeman (26 October 1939 – 1 May 2017), who remains not only the greatest Afrikaans novelist in my view, but was also my mentor in writing and the contemplative life. The passage is meta-fiction where the author reflects on the craft of fiction and his relationship to the principle character of the novel, Kallie. The passage is read as Schoeman’s ars poetica to advance the claim that he had a kenotic approach to writing; that is, the writer expressing himself here clearly does not believe in subjective control over his imagination or over his characters. The writer testifies about a kenotic attitude in which the writer as artist empties himself out in order to listen to what is given to him in his imagination and then becomes the vehicle of that by faithfully rendering in writing what is given to him.

Building on this it is argued that such an attitude or creative posture is not something that is merely given to the artist, but that it has to be mastered through disciplined practice. In this regard Franz Kafka’s famous Zürau aphorism 109 is cited, which was first brought to my attention by Schoeman in personal correspondence in 1997, and in which Kafka advises the aspiring writer to practise simply listening quietly in one’s room and to experience how the world will ecstatically reveal itself to you.

Pointing out that Kafka formed part of the broader phenomenological tradition’s awareness of the givenness of the world, it is then investigated what the source of this givenness is, and how the artist must cultivate the necessary receptiveness to receive what is given. Acknowledging that where leading phenomenological thinkers such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger approached these questions with the concept of intentionality, the contribution of Orthodox Christianity to these questions is analysed.

Following John Zizioulas as one of Orthodox thought’s most important contemporary interlocutors of the phenomenological tradition, the article investigates from an Orthodox perspective that the source of the givenness of the world is the Triune God. From this perspective God created from and in silence, and the artist striving in faith to realise the image of God in him- or herself may also create from and in silence by surrendering to silence.

Next, the article considers how the artist should cultivate the necessary receptiveness to receive the world as given. Acknowledging that the phenomenological tradition seems to prefer an impersonal view of the source of the givenness of the world as opposed to Orthodoxy’s seeing it as a gift from God as a Person, it is argued that the secular Jew Kafka offers advice in the above-mentioned aphorism which amounts to an approach that is surprisingly similar to a Christian mystical approach of cultivating silence as a pre-condition for creativity. On a broader level it is argued that Kafka and the broader phenomenological tradition’s approach can, from an Orthodox perspective, be interpreted as proto-Christian. This position is seen as the continuation of the ancient Christian apologetical approach of St Justin Martyr who, in trying to do justice to influential pre-Christian Greek thinkers such as Socrates and Plato, acknowledged that inasmuch as they made the best possible use of reason in search of truth, they may be considered as proto-Christian. The intent in applying this same approach to the phenomenological tradition is to search for common ground between Christians and non-Christians in discussing these questions.

Then follows an investigation of the question on cultivating the necessary receptivity from an Orthodox perspective with reference to St Gregory Palamas, and with the emphasis on art that strives to be beautiful as a tool of spiritual elevation, for which the reader is referred to but one of many considerations of this topic: the Orthodox philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart’s influential book The beauty of the infinite: the aesthetics of Christian truth. Mentioning in passing four main human approaches to dealing with desire, namely non-attachment (Buddhism), repression (“Victorianism”), total indulgence (consumerism) and rightful ordering of desires (Plato and the Patristics), I go on to interpret Palamas is seen as espousing this approach, among others by his affirmation of the Aristotelian view of the three levels of the soul. Palamas sees hesychast prayer as an act of communion with God, not only as the key to the rightful ordering of desires, but also as the key to deepening the relationship between Creator and creature as an artistic creator.

The second reason why beauty is an important issue for the contemporary world is that the type of capitalism that we live under today uses the aesthetical to make the world ugly and spiritually poor. Building on famous observations by the communist dissident writers Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel about how communism made the world ugly, the article develops the view of Christos Yannaras in reading both communism and capitalism as forms of materialism. Capitalism makes the world ugly in the sense that beauty is reduced to manipulated beauty for the sake of relentless consumption and spiritual impoverishment. The article also builds on views of the (atheist) thinker Bernard Stiegler and his analysis of hyper-industrial capitalism. Whereas industrial capitalism sought to control the means of production, hyper-industrial capitalism seeks to control both the means of production and the patterns of consumption. The latter is done by soliciting people’s attention in advertising, social and mass media, appealing to traditional ideals of spiritual elevation such as beauty, destiny, truth and personal transformation. Stiegler points out that this leads to a consistent betrayal of these ideals, leading to a generalised spiritual crisis. Following Ivan Illich’s plea for a new asceticism where the gaze is trained to look away from what is denigrating and to look at what is elevating, it is argued that Christian artists have a special responsibility to create such elevating, beautiful art that may help to do for this age what, say, iconography did for a previous age.

How, then, could the Christian artist go about creating such works of art? Following René Girard’s view of some sort of personal transformation (“conversion”) as a pre-condition for writing great novels, what this transformation may look like is analysed from a Palamite perspective. It is generally accepted that major art is distinguished by its ability to make us see things differently, which in turn requires that the artist creating such art is him- or herself able to see things differently. My argument here is that this ability to see things differently from a Palamite perspective requires the transfiguration of the artist through his or illumination flowing from communion with God as experienced in hesychast prayer. It is also pointed out that for Palamas this is part and parcel of the ongoing process of deification (théosis), and that in the case of the artist practising hesychasm his or her art may flow from the experience of divine energy (where Palamas’s well-known reflections on God’s essence and God’s energies, a distinction that he sourced from St Augustine, are used).

Then follow concrete examples of artists demonstrating the link between hesychast prayer and artistic creativity. The novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is mentioned in passing, but I concentrate on the living composer whose work is performed the most in the world today, namely the Orthodox Christian composer Arvo Pärt. Here the insightful study of the link between Pärt’s artistic output and his practice of hesychast prayer by Peter C. Bouteneff, Arvo Pärt: Out of silence (2015), is used to illustrate how the music for which Pärt is recognised emerged only after a protracted period of spiritual crisis, silence and hesychast prayer. In spite of showing enormous musical talent in the first phase of his career up to roughly 1967 working in serial music, Pärt felt that he could not continue along this path. He slowly found his way out of this crisis, a way that included his Orthodox baptism in 1972 and his intense study of earlier Christian sacred music and Gregorian chant, but especially his self-avowed discovery that such music can be fully understood only when its rootedness in prayer is acknowledged. In this regard Pärt is seen as a living example of Palamas’s description of a deified person. Pärt’s cultivation of a silent, listening attitude is similar to the kenotic ars poetica of Schoeman.

The article ends with a brief allusion to how through intense hesychast practice I survived a personal crisis after Schoeman’s self-death in May 2017 and how I was given to write my third novel (forthcoming) about the link between contemplative silence and creativity, and then a citation from the novel written in a voice that was temporarily given to me to write in, which I ascribe to hesychast prayer.

Keywords: Arvo Pärt; beauty; creativity; Dostoyevsky; hesychasm; Karel Schoeman; Palamas; silent prayer; Stiegler

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