The Art and Liturgy of Creation
In this interview, Douglas McKelvey and Ned Bustard, the author and illustrator of Every Moment Holy, explore what art and liturgy reveal to us about God and his creation.
Every Moment Holy (EMH) is a collection of liturgies that invites us to contextualize every aspect of our lives into the larger story that God is working through us. In this interview, with the author Douglas McKelvey and illustrator Ned Bustard, they explore what art and liturgy can reveal to us about God our Creator and the ultimate source of our Creativity. You can read an excerpt from EMH that we’ve previously published here.
Ciara: For those in our audience who are unfamiliar with liturgy, can you define it? Also, what does it mean to you? And what does it look like in practice?
Douglas: There’s the strict definition of the word liturgy that refers to the form and content of a church service. This is probably where most of our minds go first when we hear the word, especially if we have some history in Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox circles which tend to have very structured orders and repeated rhythms in their services. It is worth noting though, that every church has a liturgy in so much as they each have some sort of form and content to their services. Even if the structure is very “free-form” and spontaneous, the weekly repetition of that gathering with those sort of parameters becomes a liturgical practice.
Which leads us to a broader definition of liturgy as any practice repeated until it becomes a consistent, shaping rhythm in our lives. James K. A. Smith articulates this idea in his book You Are What You Love. A repeated practice might be a constructive liturgy, drawing our hearts toward greater devotion to God, or it might be a destructive liturgy, pulling our attentions and affections away from what is good and true—but if it is shaping our hearts and minds by a repeated practice, then in this broader sense we can view it is a liturgical rhythm in our lives.
…liturgy [is] any practice repeated until it becomes a consistent, shaping rhythm in our lives…[it might be] a constructive liturgy drawing our hearts toward greater devotion to God, or…destructive liturgy, pulling our attentions and affections away…
In practice this might look like time spent every morning meditating on scripture, or hours spent mindlessly surfing the web every evening. It might be a meaningful prayer repeated each time you undertake a home repair, or it could be an ongoing habit of overindulging in food or alcohol or a thousand other unhelpful diversions when we’re stressed, or it could be something like the practice of taking walks in the woods to delight in creation on a regular basis. Each of these could become a repeated practice over time—whether deliberately or by default—that has a formative effect on our hearts.
So in that more general sense, all these things can become liturgical practices. And most of us, if we closely examine our lives, will find that we already have in place some liturgies that serve to reorient our hearts toward our Creator, and other rhythms in our lives that orient us toward ourselves and our own more shallow ambitions or desires.
Ned: When I think of the word “liturgy” I think of both ordinary human activities (I have a liturgy of a glass of red wine and a wee bit of dark chocolate every evening) and sacred corporate activities (singing the Doxology every week at the end of church). What I love about Every Moment Holy is that the books encourage the reader to see both of these liturgies as set apart to the glory of God.
In practice [liturgy] might look like time spent every morning meditating on scripture, or hours spent mindlessly surfing the web every evening…Each of these could become a repeated practice over time—whether deliberately or by default—that has a formative effect on our hearts.
Ciara: Every Moment Holy is a collection of liturgies that invites us to contextualize every aspect of our lives, the simple and mundane, the grievous and glorious into the larger story that God is working through us. There’s a liturgy to accompany the reader through various moments and seasons of life, from sipping morning coffee and changing diapers, to recovering from sick days and mourning the loss of a loved one; there’s even a liturgy for liturgies. What can we gain by inviting the practice of liturgy into our everyday lives, especially the moments that seem to lack significance and sacredness?
Douglas: The Practice of the Presence of God was a book written by a 17th Century monk known as Brother Lawrence. I confess I’ve never actually read his book, but I’ve nonetheless shamelessly borrowed the terminology of “practicing the presence of God” as I seek appropriate language to describe the roles that liturgies and prayers for everyday moments might play in our spiritual formation.
Anyone who holds to an orthodox Christian viewpoint will give intellectual assent to the truth that God is always with us, his Spirit present in all moments. But we tend to more often live our daily lives as what a pastor of mine once termed practical atheists, meaning that we give intellectual assent to the notion that God is always present and active, but we live our lives and make most of our choices without even considering him.
One of the ways I’ve hoped Every Moment Holy might be of service, is as a model for how one might begin to “practice the presence of God” on a more integrated and consistent basis, as one navigates this unspooling thread of moments that our lives consist of. And of course “practicing the presence of God” in that context really means practicing an ongoing awareness that God is present with us, and allowing our choices, our attitudes, our daily stewardships to be incrementally transformed by that awareness.
…“practicing the presence of God”…really means practicing an ongoing awareness that God is present with us, and allowing our choices, our attitudes, our daily stewardships to be incrementally transformed by that awareness.
Prayers that we offer in specific moments can become practices that serve over time to reorient our hearts to God’s purposes for us and for his creation. And as those prayers become integrated into the rhythms of our days, they can serve to foster an ongoing awareness that God desires to use all parts of our lives—even those moments that feel mundane or disappointing—to draw us nearer to him, to convict us of truth, convince us of his love, wean us from lesser hopes and desires, reorient our hearts to an eternal perspective, and slowly reshape our hearts into ones that more nearly resemble the heart of Christ.
Ned: What we gain is a beautification and glorification of our everyday lives. We begin to be able to step back and look at our lives from a more objective perspective and value what we do more, be more discerning about what we do, and at a basic level, simply see what we are doing.
Linocut by Ned Bustard from Every Moment Holy
Ciara: As a writer and fellow creative myself, I’m curious what it’s like to create a liturgy and the artwork that accompanies it. Is the act of creating liturgical? Are those who ‘create’ liturgists? Might this reveal to us something about God, the ultimate Creator and source of our creativity?
Douglas: For me, most often, the act of writing a liturgy is a sobering and daunting task. Scripture tells us not many should presume to be teachers as they will incur a greater judgment. I don’t fully understand the implications of that warning, but it sounds serious, and I think it’s probably a necessary caution against both egotism and presumption. To write words that others will then speak to God is a task that borders on presumption. And by its very nature the task of writing prayers implicitly contains an element of theological instruction. So I find myself most often approaching liturgy writing with a great sense of inadequacy and a certain measure of fear and trembling. I feel stripped bare by the process, as I know my only hope of writing something of real value to others, lies in the possibility that God might be pleased to meet me somewhere in the midst of my own weakness, and—as Christ did with the meagre few loaves and fishes a little kid once offered to him—be pleased to take, bless, break, and mysteriously multiply my own insufficient offering unto the nourishing of others.
Ned would have to speak to what it’s like to create the artwork, though I can say that, as I brainstormed with him and gave notes on some of his initial mock-ups of illustration ideas, that I observed a prayerfulness in his approach, and perceived that the process of cutting the images and creating the prints is for him an important “focal practice” and an ongoing part of the liturgical rhythms of his own life as well.
And yes, I do think the act of creating often becomes liturgical for those who persistently engage in it. The fact that human beings are creative seems to be an unavoidable outworking of being created in the image of the Creator. We can’t not create, even when our skill doesn’t match our desire or ambition. So I think if we repeatedly approach the act of creating in an attitude of humility and awe, recognizing that what we are exercising is an echo of the mind and heart of a God who delights in beauty, poetry, and wonder, then the practice of creating can draw our hearts closer and closer to God’s own.
…I think if we repeatedly approach the act of creating in an attitude of humility and awe, recognizing that what we are exercising is an echo of the mind and heart of a God who delights in beauty, poetry, and wonder, then the practice of creating can draw our hearts closer and closer to God’s own.
On the other hand, we can also create for more mercenary reasons. Rather than seeking to create that which will serve others well, in whatever capacity, we can create with an overriding motivation for material gain, or from a posture of pride or egotistical self-indulgence that shows no regard for the impact it might have on others. We are quite capable of creating inhospitable works that don’t ultimately offer grace, beauty, hope, comfort, or truth to those who encounter them. So the habit of creating can also become either a constructive or a destructive liturgy in our lives.
Some of the artifacts we create can become a sort of liturgy in their own right as well, but I don’t think I could make a blanket statement about that. My observation is that some things will be interacted with in ways that take on a liturgical bent, and others won’t. But even that possibility does highlight our responsibility as stewards of the creative gifts with which we’ve been entrusted. The things we create and set loose in the world can be foretastes of the new creation, stirring hope, salving wounds, exposing lies, pushing back darkness, reconciling in love, awakening wonder. But they can also deceive. They can wound or harm. They can arouse emotion and then bend it to some unworthy end. The idea that the artist has no responsibility to their community is a pretty diabolical notion. I’m not the first person to suggest that the only viable context for art-making is community, but I will second that assertion.
…in the same way that theologians and scientists alike can go about their vocations with a mindset of “seeking to think God’s thoughts after him,” I believe that the act of creating can give us a sort of window into that creator aspect of God’s being and personality.
And yes, in the same way that theologians and scientists alike can go about their vocations with a mindset of “seeking to think God’s thoughts after him,” I believe that the act of creating can give us a sort of window into that creator aspect of God’s being and personality. I remember an epiphany moment of realizing that God is truly a poet whose towering poetry is composed across dimensions of time and space that our minds can’t comprehend, on scales as large as the universe and as small as the quantum particles, and permeating every layer in between. I won’t try to unpack that here, but suffice it to say that it changed my own experience of writing poetry as I afterward wanted to consciously structure my own lines with layers of meanings. I wanted to mirror in my own small way, the works of a master Creator who would reward those willing to plunge deeper under the surface.
Ned: I believe all of life is liturgical as I believe every moment is holy. Making art, cooking a meal, planting a garden, changing diapers are all opportunities to live a life set apart as holy and glorifying to God. For a great little book on how we are all (both left and right brained folks) made to be creative, pick up Naming the Animals: An Invitation to Creativity Stephen Roach and I developed a few years ago. And, of course, for a great book to help see every moment of our lives as holy, pick up Every Moment Holy!
As to learning something about the source of our creativity, I believe I have come to appreciate Genesis 1 in new ways in the wake of collaborating on these books with Doug. In the Creation account it speaks of the interpersonal conversation within the Trinity before creating humans. Not to be overly egotistical or even heretical, when Doug and I worked on these prayers and linocuts there were beautiful conversations between us, a give and take, a collective brainstorming and mutual encouragement that made me wonder if our collaboration was a small reflection of what that creativity before the dawn of Time might have been like. His writing informed my artmaking (as I dug in and tried to illustrate and amplify visually what he had written) and there were even some times that my artmaking informed his writing.
Ciara: There are beautiful block print images that accompany some of the liturgies in Every Moment Holy. How do images and text work together to create an experience of liturgy? Is the image and text part of the liturgy, a supplement to the liturgy or a visual interpretation of the liturgy? How should the reader engage with text and image?
Ned: I’ve thought of my work in the series as supporting and amplifying the gorgeous writing that Doug has produced. I have seen them as “illuminations” in the way that monks of old would illuminate copies of the Bible when they were copying them. But I am coming to appreciate that the Every Moment Holy books are more than my linocut prints and more than Doug’s writing. We are not just thinkers—we are bodied people who experience all of the physical and spiritual realities from a position in Time and Space as people, and therefore both words and pictures will be used together in this way. And it isn’t just the words and pictures. The books have gilded pages and are set in beautiful typography because all of life is holy. It all matters.
A surprising thing happened to me recently while I was giving a short lecture about the Every Moment Holy books and that was when someone in the audience shared that in her use of Every Moment Holy Volume II: Death, Grief, and Hope she actually hadn’t read the words yet but was using the illustrations as her prayers. I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised at this because art often works for me in the same way, but thinking so very highly of Doug’s writing, I do admit to being caught off guard by this reaction to the book. Yet isn’t this how amazing and gracious God is to us? We bring a few small fish and some bread to him and in the end he uses it to feed thousands.
I have been quite unprepared for the way people have actually engaged with them. I have talked to many people who will go out of their way to tell me what the illustrations have meant to them, and we have received more requests for our liturgy-linocut broadsides than I would’ve ever imagined. It is also fun for me now because family and friends will text me quick photos of our art and prayers in strangers homes by their coffee pots and diaper changing tables.
Linocut by Ned Bustard from Every Moment Holy
Douglas: One of the unexpected and delightful benefits of developing the Every Moment Holy over the past several years has been my friendship forged along the way with Ned Bustard. Ned’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of symbolism in the art of the church gives his linocut block prints a deep rootedness, fraught with meaning. From the outset it was our shared intention that the illustrations would emerge as sermons in their own right, even as they also serve to reinforce the content of the prayers. So yes, I think there is a very real sense in which Ned’s art has become an extension of the prayers. One can spend rewarding moments reflecting on the rich visuals, and letting their meanings unfold into manifold little epiphanies. Sensitive searchers will be hard-pressed to find any of Ned’s illustrations that don’t offer valuable theological insights.
Ciara: Themes of nature and God as Creator can be found in Every moment Holy volume I, from watching a sunset and stargazing to commemorating the first winter snow. Is there something about the natural world that lends itself particularly well to liturgy? Is creation a liturgy in and of itself?
Douglas: There’s this brilliant little bit that G.K. Chesterton scribbled out —I don’t have the citation so this is a very loose recollection—in which he suggests the bemusing possibility that when Jesus says in scripture that he is the door, that he is not comparing himself to a door, but rather comparing a door to himself and that, in fact, the only reason doors might exist in our universe is because they are an expression of a particular aspect of the immutable nature of our Lord. [Disclaimer: Chesterton stated it more convincingly and elegantly than I just did.] This notion at first strikes the reader as but a fanciful thought experiment that exaggerates to make a point. But the question stuck in my head. And for a few years I’ve been worrying that thought like a grain of sand in an oyster shell, and the more I do, the more I suspect G.K. was actually on to something profound there.
I mentioned earlier the idea that God is a poet. And I confess that I do perceive creation as a great and massive poem, fraught with inexhaustible layers of meaning, with aesthetic beauty and crafting, with wonder, awe, and delight, with rhythm and rhyme. So if we consider that notion of God as the master poet (and I can’t stress how much I mean this in a non-figurative sense), and we consider the poetics of God in light of the point Chesterton was inviting us to consider, then we begin to glimpse how creation is a direct expression of the Maker, and a universal profusion of divine poetry.
…God is a poet. And I confess that I do perceive creation as a great and massive poem, fraught with inexhaustible layers of meaning, with aesthetic beauty and crafting, with wonder, awe, and delight, with rhythm and rhyme.
The very laws of our universe and the fabric of creation itself, and all the manifold outworkings and manifestations of elements and particles and life—all those myriad things that stir and move us, that quiet us, that humble us, that elevate our emotions, our thoughts, that wow us with their mysteries, that amuse us, that inspire us, even sometimes terrify us—is it possible these exist, neither as momentary flukes in a sea of meaningless materialism, nor as pantheistic manifestations of a diffused god, but rather as a billion intentional, perhaps even inevitable, expressions of God’s eternal glory, as shimmering reflections of his divine being? Is it possible they exist precisely because they are in some way aligned with or, more precisely, emergent from the nature of the triune God? Is it even possible, as Chesterton suggested, that in our universe “doors” are a thing that make sense on a conceptual and even on a practical level only because of their relationship to the nature of the Creator, and of the relationship of natural laws to the nature of the One who crafted them? As I said already, I think we’re on to something here.
So yes, I think after the direct self-revelation that God offers in scripture, the “book of creation” as it has often been called is perhaps our second-most powerful testament. As Paul tells us in Romans, ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So a regular practice of interacting with those myriad created works of God, of meditating on them as his handiworks, as expressions of his nature, can indeed become a powerful liturgical rhythm that brings us before our Creator in humility and awe to consider his mighty works again and again. The prayers in Every Moment Holy that focus on aspects of the natural world—like the sea or storms—are very much concerned with that practice of reflecting on aspects of the divine nature as “seen through the things he has made,” while also remaining rooted in scripture.
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About the authors
Douglas Kaine McKelvey
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