There is a tragedy that stalks me year after year. The precipitating event is over and done with, resounding in its finality; but the repercussions morph through time. It is a question with no answer, a terrible wrong that cannot be righted, a haunting that cannot be exorcised.
Sometimes I am angry.
Like Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “The Scream,” my hands fly to my face; and I become fury itself. Like so many throughout history, I weep the unanswerable question, “Why?”
A friend challenged me to paint this anger. On a walk soon after after, I happened upon a tree with a gaping hollow at its base, excavated by some sort of stress deep into the heartwood. The tree arched backwards in the frozen winter air, as if tormented, as if scratching at an empty sky with its bare limbs. It reminded me of Munch’s “The Scream.”
I felt an invitation from God to paint, and to ask Him, “Why?” with one condition: to allocate the time and space for Him to answer.
I began with impassioned black oil pastel lines, sprawling across the paper. Layer after layer, I rendered the hollow almost pure black, even as suffering at times completely shadows our souls. Then I applied coats of watercolor and acrylic, pulling light back into the darkest parts. The painting became too neat, too orderly. I attacked it again with emotional lines. The cycle seemed to repeat over and over, and I never felt the painting was finished. (You can click the images below to see larger.)
Meanwhile, I remembered the invitation. I stole away to one of my favorite places to pray, a labyrinth buried in the forest. I cannot put into words what happened there. It was not dramatic, nothing to describe in the physical realm. And there were no answers. But I came away feeling that my questions were held in hands big enough to cherish them. The questions seemed to shatter into light. And that was, and is, enough.
It seems appropriate to me that the painting keeps fracturing into something new, like the questions that plague us, with no answers this side of eternity. Perhaps the process of painting and re-painting is merely a parable: we can only take what we are, in all its vulnerability and authenticity in the moment in which we find ourselves, to the One who knows; and let Him shatter us once again, each time allowing a little more light to infiltrate the wound.
The painting is finished, for now. But as with my own heart, it may shatter again. The only thing I am confident of now is that shattering is not something to fear. If we dare to shatter in the Presence of God, inevitably we will find ourselves standing in ever more light.