by Rachel Held Evans
“…The Spirit is like a bird, fragile alloy of heaven and earth, where wind and feather and flight meets breath and blood and bones. The rabbis imagined her as a pigeon, the Celts a wild goose. Like a dove, she glided over the primordial waters, hovered above Mary’s womb, and descended onto Jesus’ dripping wet head. She protected Israel like an eagle, and like a hen, brooded over her chicks. ‘Hide me in the shadow of your wings,’ the poet king wrote. ‘Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings.’ The Spirit is as common as a cooing pigeon and transcendent as a high-flying eagle. So look up and sing back, catch the light of God in a diaphanous scrim of wing. Pay attention.” - from Searching for Sunday, Chapter 23, “Breath”
One of the greatest joys of writing creatively is seeing how other artists interpret, engage, and play with the themes of your work. Searching for Sunday has provided ample opportunity for creative collaboration because the sacraments at the heart of the book—baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick, and marriage—are rich and complex and endlessly inspiring.
For my sister, Amanda, the sacraments inspired an album of seven songs. And for artist Ruth Meharg, they inspired a series of small acrylic paintings that employ the symbolically-rich imagery of birds.
Ruth is an artist, illustrator and lover of all things beautiful. Raised in a big, loud and loving family in Fort Worth, Texas, she says her parents gifted her a love of art and travel at an early age. In 2013 she received her BFA in illustration from Savannah College of Art and Design and married her artist husband, Matthew. You can find her amazing work at www.RuthMeharg.com, where you can also order prints of this series on the seven sacraments.
I wanted to invite Ruth to share a little about the thought that went into these paintings, and am so glad she agreed to let us into her world. Enjoy!
I didn't grow up with the sacraments. In fact I'm pretty sure I didn't have any idea what they were until after graduating high school. As my world expanded, they began to sneak in every so often. Sometimes during a visit to a Catholic church or perhaps in a friend's post about liturgy.
Despite my growing awareness, I approached Searching for Sunday with a limited awareness of the sacraments and what they meant to the church. I came away with a deeper understanding of the sacraments in general, and of what those sacraments mean to me.
These images are my thoughts, my revelations and my questionings during my month of exploring the sacraments. They are my journey with the sacraments, and in many ways with the church as a whole. And, following in Jesus' parable telling footsteps, I'm telling my story through a bit of symbolism. Birds.
Why birds? Well, throughout art history, and especially in Christian art, birds have been used to represent people. They stand in for every color, gender, age, body type, political leaning and religious affiliation. They represent humanity in all its richness. I tried to represent this by illustrating birds of all shapes and sizes from around the world. My hope is that, whoever you may be, you see yourself and your relationship to the sacraments in these feathered creatures.
Out of all the sacraments, baptism evokes the clearest and most powerful imagery in my mind. I see ascending doves and flowing rivers, death and life and water everywhere. Baptism isn’t passive, it isn’t quiet, it isn’t slow and it’s never done alone. This painting is what baptism feels like, and I think the image describes it much better than my words ever will.
The nightingale sings even in the darkness of the night. In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the nightingale’s song drives away death and brings new life with the rising sun. This is how I see confession. An act that brings light and life, even in darkness. And although there are only two birds in this painting, I imagine that if we could zoom out a bit, the whole branch would be full of birds. A congregation, confessing with the rising sun.
Holy Orders is the commissioning, the sending out of one of our own. These birds, in all their diversity of color, size and song, come together to commission one of their own. To send out one of their fellows with joy and support in the great adventure of spreading one’s wings and heading into the world.
Communion was not my favorite thing as a child. I've never had an appreciation for grape juice and stale crackers, so for this image I didn't want to paint birds picking over seeds, bread crumbs or bugs. I wanted to paint a rich, enticing image of communion - a communion I would want to partake in.
Confirmation is a welcoming. As soon as I understood that, I pictured rows of little birds sitting on their telephone lines, scooting over to make room for the newcomer. Because there is always room. We can scoot over forever and those lines will never be so full that we can’t make room to welcome one more.
Anointing of the Sick:
If any bird sums up anointing of the sick, I think it must be emperor penguins. Those strange birds that waddle for hundreds of miles together, feed each other, raise their children together and protect each other through the fiercest storms. So I painted these penguins in their huddle that brings shelter from the storm. The huddle of gentle love and slow healing.
Albatrosses are the most faithful of all birds. They choose their partner carefully, and they return to that partner over and over again for the rest of their lives. I love that image. To me marriage is a choice to return, over and over again, every day. I think that is what the sacraments are too. A choice to return, over and over. A choice to remember when we share a meal, a choice to stand by a hurting friend, a choice to welcome strangers with open arms. A choice to practice faithfulness over and over again, every day.
Be sure to check out Ruth’s Web site at www.RuthMeharg.com, where you can see more of her beautiful work and order prints of this series. Ruth was kind enough to send me the originals—one of the sweetest, most humbling gifts I’ve received as a writer, and which, in the spirit of eucharisteo, I received with thanksgiving.
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