It's been about two years since I've established the pattern I'm currently in of painting for hours at a time whenever I have a chance; my days off are the best time for this, as I usually get in a morning run or some yoga and then come home, meditate on what's inspiring me, and start creating.
Creativity is kind of like a muscle you have to keep using or you'll lose it, or at least it won't be very reflexive; it's a practice that I find I need to stay in the groove of, and it's not at all passive: it has to be very actively pursued to produce any fruit. Painting and writing are both like that: if I don't seek them, actively make time for them, they simply don't happen, they're not a part of my life.
I notice this is a good metaphor for many more things as well: we have work for what we love, invest in it, whatever 'it' happens to be. It doesn't just happen unless it's established.
When I was traveling two summers ago was the first time I really had the opportunity to sort of let my heart ask itself the question, 'what do you really love, what can you really not do without in your life; what does your soul need for happiness, joy, and a sense of love for life?'
It is crazy for me now to think that what was once a little inner impulse to go volunteer abroad and see some of the world wound up being the beginning of the most important journey I could ever go on: the one of creating the kind of life- and most importantly the kind of inner life, the one I have to take with me everywhere- that I not only want, but have come to see I need, if I want to live life in full.
The answer to that question, 'what do I need my days to be full of for joy?' was art for me, at the time: I felt a certain yet terrifying (and, I thought at the time, impossibly unrealistic) need to leave the structure of a secure job and comfortable social and family circle and a pursue a life of more: more creativity, more freedom, more of something that seemed to be inside. Something deeper, something satisfying and fulfilling- a life that didn't just seem good, but really was, wholly and fully, from the inside, good.
The choice to pursue what my heart wanted also lead me, eventually, to the thing it needed, which is where faith has come into my journey. I thought I wanted my happiness, but what I've come to learn is that I really wanted was to do the will of a Creator with a vision far beyond my own- even though there was a point in time where I couldn't quite see that that was true.
A lot of my expression in both art and words- and hopefully in life- has been the result of following my heart, yes, but also recognizing what's in there, and how it got there, and why. It's been much easier (and at the same time, extremely challenging and vulnerable) to work with the awareness that my words, or my art- or my life- should reflect not 'me,' but something far beyond me. What we call 'me' is generally just a composite sketch of experiences we've had, things we've been through, things we think are true, or false; it is not the depth of our hearts but rather the personal understanding we have of life as it has happened specifically to us. It is nothing pure.
It is hard to see the Lord when we cannot see- and believe in- our heart.
We don't live, generally speaking, in a world where the pure heart, or establishing love for something, is truly valued (or rewarded) more so than working for money (or fame, or acknowledgement, or advancement, or personal security, or status). It's a me-centric mindset; the idea of servitude- which requires vulnerability, openness, the cessation of personal, more self-satisfying desires- is at odds with the socially fabricated idea of moving up or gaining ground.
In ways big and small, you see people competing with, or rivaling, or out-doing their neighbor or fellow man much more often than you see them actively, selflessly loving him.
When we really make the choice to work to establish love, we do wear ourselves out in the process, quite a bit: we have to give, we have to submit; we may go unacknowledged or even rejected. And as long as we're working on behalf of the self- as long as our actions are self-motivated- we have very little motivation to truly live- actively, consistently, devotedly- for Love and Love alone.
The active pursuit of God through Christ is something that inspires our actions for others on a basis which is not self-motivated: there's really a personal decrease in what the self wants, and an increase for what is good in God's sight- and, in the long run, turns out to be good for us- on the truest, most honest, most pure level of who we are.
That is one piece of belief that I didn't quite understand until I saw it in action on behalf of those already walking that way: that the most ultimate desire of every person's heart is to know deeply the Spirit from which it came- and to operate as close to that Spirit as possible.
So while art, of course, is on some level self-gratifying (I obviously love to paint) it's more gratifying to know that someone else may become happy, or inspired; or a little healed, or a little more peaceful, by seeing it. The actual joy comes from the sharing, the giving of the creation. It's also amazing to have uncovered painting in my own life story, and to see not just how I can give it to others, but how God gave it to me.
Looking at things- certain talents, or strengths, or even weaknesses; even people or events in your life, as gifts from something beyond you does a lot to eradicate your possessiveness of them, and encourages your cherishing them, sharing them, and loving them.
If it didn't, it wouldn't be something to which I could dedicate my life or share with abandon: I'm not sure anything other than something divine within me (not me) would have the directional sense to go on with a life that involved a lot of time, energy, commitment, and inner-submission for very little approval or yield in what society or culture on the whole calls 'accomplished' or 'successful' or 'wise' or 'worthy.'
But a person's outer workings, what they produce in and do with this life (whether it's monetarily fruitful, or widely acknowledged, or popular- or not), are really indicators of their opinion of themselves- and there's something about getting your identity, your opinion of yourself, from a love story as great as the Gospel that changes the heart of who you are and what you understand yourself to be made for.
I think I've learned that following your heart, learning your heart, is part of living this life to the fullest- but it seems that the other part is following it all the way to the One who ultimately keeps it.
So a wise Christian life, in one way, maybe means this: a constant focus on and communication with the greatest narrative and example of love in the history of the world, which we have in the person of Christ; a looking through the eyes of God and not the eyes of man at people, which means a removal of judgement and an actual, heartfelt, desire to want to serve them.
It is like giving yourself to Love itself- and when you build a life in this way, it follows suit that everything else in your life will be saturated with that selfless love with which you are pursuing Christ: friendships, relationships, marriages; jobs, hobbies, free time; the way you treat strangers, or co-workers, or acquaintances; how you spend your days, what amazes you and fills you with joy; and what breaks your heart.
I cannot now imagine a more loving or solid foundation on which to build a life- or I could, but it would feel untrue to my heart. Christ as an experience of love and Christianity as merely 'a religion,' I suppose, are two different things. An earnestly enraptured heart would do a lot more than conformity to theological rules to display the very real functionality of a Christ-centered life. A heart that works for the Lord will work for what He has created and given, which means that heart will value things- and people, and life itself- quite differently than culture tells us to.
When existence is lived for Love, it feels enduring, lasting, eternal; living with the humility of Christ prepares our life- in an active, diligent, self-sacrificial way- to be lived free of fear and on a foundation of trust in the power of that Love, versus trust in the power of our own strength or control.
So the self is worn out in the process, yes- but the joy and peace that takes its place creates a beauty far, far beyond what the self alone is capable of achieving.