Painting and Praying
Kh. Krista West · July 19, 2008
The Bible says we are to pray without ceasing. But does that include when we have a paint brush in our hand?
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”.
The past few weeks have found me with a paintbrush in my hand almost as much as I routinely have a pair of scissors. Those of you who have tuned into the last few podcasts know that I moved quite recently—four weeks ago, to be exact. And those of you who have experienced moving firsthand, well know the upheaval, the frustration, and the sense of seemingly never-ending chaos that ensues when we undertake to move our earthly belongings from one home to another.
It’s been a stressful few weeks for my family and I, compounded by the fact that I am admittedly rather picky about my environment. Now, I don’t require Hepa filters or air-conditioning or being able to park my car in the garage. I don’t mind a brown lawn and I can easily put up with a rather quirky dishwasher. But I am quite particular about color—the color of the walls, to be precise. If the paint in the house is ugly or cold or plain-looking, then I just can’t bear it. The very walls seem to beseech me to adorn them with warm, lively colors. I work with color for my livelihood and it definitely spills over into the environment of my home—I want just as much beauty and color in my house as I see in the Church, albeit on a much smaller scale.
When we walked through the house prior to buying, I barely noticed the grey walls and odd shade of brown in the master bedroom because I was being a good homebuyer and focusing on the “bones” of the house. Fr. Alban and I looked at each other and smiled and he said, “Oh, you can take all the time you need to change the colors.” We chatted about having the house decorating finished by next June when his nameday rolls around so that we could invite the parish over. And, in the first flush of home-buying joy, I believed him and myself—sure, I could wait months before changing these colors. I had all the time in the world!
Well, it’s week four and I’ve already got five rooms painted. And, I’m not a sloppy painter, either—my painting ritual includes TSP and rinsing and caulking and foundation primer and multiple coats. For those of you in the painting “know”, I don’t tape—I cut in entirely by hand, a skill I’ve worked for years to acquire. I’ve been working nights and weekends and even though I know I shouldn’t, the odd Sunday afternoon as well. My paint tools are permanently stationed in the utility room at the ready and I am buying paint trays and rollers in quantities that make even the paint store clerk raise his eyebrows. I haven’t even bothered exercising the last two weeks because it’s amazing the workout you get by keeping your hands over your head for hours at a time or crawling up and down ladders! My children are learning to ask permission before entering a room and my youngest daughter is becoming a dab hand at the caulking gun.
At the best of times, I’m a woman on a mission and at the worst, a person obsessed. I lay awake at night deciding on half tones or full tones or should I repaint all of the trim I’ve already painted because I saw an even better shade at the paint store? This is definitely the “down” side to being as my dad would call it, “a creative type”. But, at core, I find painting quite relaxing—the swish-swish sound the brush makes, the wonderful thrill as the first coat of envigorating color goes on the wall, even the smell—it soothes me and takes me out of myself and my worries. When you’re painting, there’s not really much else you can do—you can’t answer the phone or cook a meal. It’s a completely absorbing task and therein I find its joy.
Despite this pleasure I take in painting, I have had my share of moments over the last few weeks in which I’ve been discouraged, frustrated, and overwhelmed. My laundry’s not done, our meals have been sketchy at best, and I’ve wondered if I’ve been giving too much of my time and energy to the “world” in the form of the walls of my house. In the back of my mind, I think that I really should be doing less and praying more. So, imagine my surprise and delight when I received the following quote from a friend. This is from St. Ephraim the Syrian,
It is good…to pray always and not to lose heart, as the Lord says, And again the Apostle says, ‘Pray without ceasing’, that is by night and by day and at every hour, and not only when coming into the church, and not bothering at other times. But whether you are working, lying down to sleep, traveling, eating, drinking, sitting at table, do not interrupt your prayer, for you do not know when he who demands your soul is coming. Don’t wait for Sunday or a feast day, or a different place, but, as the Prophet David says, ‘in every place of his dominion’. Whether you are in church, or in your house, or in the country; whether you are guarding sheep, or constructing buildings, or present at drinking parties, do not stop praying. When you are able, bend your knees, when you cannot, make intercession in your mind, ‘at evening and at morning and at midday’. If prayer precedes your work and if, when you rise from your bed, your first movements are accompanied by prayer, sin can find no entrance to attack your soul.”
I remember a story someone told me once: a person was visiting a Abbess at a monastery known for their beautiful vestments. The visitor assumed that these sisters must have a very strict rule of prayer while they were working on the vestments and questioned the Abbess about this, hoping to be given some pearl of wisdom. The Abbess paused and looked at the visitor bemusedly and then said, “Say the Jesus Prayer while I’m cutting out brocade?! It takes all of my concentration not to make a mistake much less say the Prayer!” In this way, the Abbess was telling the visitor that her very concentration on the brocade, her surrendering of her mental faculties and the physical ability of her hands, was her prayer. Her work became her prayer and her prayer was her work.
For many of us leading busy lives, good lives with children and parish commitments and family and all sorts of other blessings, constant prayer can seem like something of a joke—“Yeah, right, me pray all the time? That’s for monastics!” But, it isn’t so. The simplest prayer, the quietest “Lord, have mercy” can make all the difference in the hour in which you find yourself, the day you’re living, and the life you for which you will be held account.
We have a lovely children’s book someone gave my daughters entitled, “Bless, O Lord” and it gives all the different little prayer phrases you can use throughout the day. I particularly like “Bless, O Lord” and “Glory be to God!”, the popular “Doxa to Theo” of monastics. These are wonderful for marking small events throughout your day. Find a parking spot right near the grocery store? then “Glory be to God!”. Gotta throw in another load of laundry, then, “Bless, O Lord!”. I even found myself at the paint store the other day, when they had just the shade I needed, emphatically saying, “Glory be to God!” to a rather surprised clerk! When we make these phrases our default or automatic response to various situations throughout the day, they become ingrained in our minds and our nous. Even in negative situations, we should strive to teach ourselves to say, “Glory be to God!” because as is said in the prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, “In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You.”
If we start in this small way to embrace the traditional prayers of the Church, then we began weaving prayer all throughout our lives, our family’s lives, and the lives of those around us. We give our minds prayer “habits”, which can lead with attention and other spiritual disciplines of the Church, like attending services and fasting and almsgiving, to deeper and deeper prayer.
It’s much like painting a room—you start by washing the walls and then you proceed to apply hundreds of brushstrokes, one swish of the brush at a time. It’s time-consuming and absorbing, but by the end of the day, you’re looking at a fresh, beautiful space. And, it’s not just for you—everyone around you notices the beauty and the color, the very life in the walls. But it wouldn’t have happened unless each little, tiny brushstroke was in it’s proper place, just as our life of prayer must be colored by little, tiny phrases of prayer. By adding little brushstrokes of prayer throughout our day we move little bit by little bit along the path toward constant prayer and deeper union with our merciful Lord.
Hey, it’s a beautiful day—let’s go paint and pray!