Advent in Art 10 : 'Cosmic Christ' by Sarah James

Murray Sheard
Sunday, 5 December 2010

1 Intro

You’re looking at Cosmic Christ, by Sarah James, 2010. This piece was born from pain. From a journey into sadness. A journey into unwanted grief. And it uses a lot of darkness. I want to look at this painting in that light – as an exploration of a soul process; as an expression of a soul process; and a celebration of a soul process. I want to look at elements of the work itself, but also – having discussed the creation process with Sarah - to talk about the rather cool and liberating process of its creation. And then I want to say something about the relevance of the title “Cosmic Christ”

At one time – sometimes many times – most people go through a time of sadness, frustration, trial, loss, or failure that is so long lasting it can be called a dark night of the soul. Sometimes, if it’s sickness, it ends in death. If your main interest in life is success, health, and avoiding pain, you may try to quickly overcome the darkness. But if you are looking for meaning, for character, for internal resources, and for personal substance, you may discover that a dark night has important gifts for you.

The whole of advent points to God’s pouring himself into our world, into humanity, into human form – and transforming it though great pain. There’s a secret there: Our dark side of life is our salvation. Unless we become aware of this fact we will be-ware it. This I think, is shown both in the painting itself and in the process. So I want to speak to the darkness and its gifts.

I’m aware that I speak this in a time of national darkness as we lost 29 miners in a very dark place.


2 Why is this Important?

Especially in last 60 years, it seems our entire culture is dedicated to collective blindness about the importance of embracing rather than chasing away our troubles and troubled side.

Many genuine dark nights are medically dismissed as depression, anxiety disorder or a bad gene. The mission is to relieve you of your suffering (Freud – from uncommon misery to common unhappiness). I’m not denying the value of therapy – not for a second – but it’s not the whole of the story. I think Heidegger’s critique of Freud is important: A crises can be an existential and spiritual awakening – the ‘moment of vision’. And we’ll miss that if we therapise it away. That approach is not theologically and spiritually attune for helping you find meaning in the dark.

Religion too, far too often avoids the dark in platitudes of afterlife and and false assurances of quick healing. As if we’ve forgotten the lesson of Jacob - that walking with God requires wrestling with God. Many religious approaches tend to sentimentalise the light and demonize the darkness. I think we know all about that – how forms of religion can become about protection from the world, re-affirming our old ideas, an excuse not to grow and be conscious. Religion also holds the deepest and most beautifully stated wisdom for guidance, but there is true religion and the shell of religion and its important to know the difference. Flight from the dark infantilises our spirituality.


3 Sarah’s Context and the Process of Creation.

Sarah’s life was going at least somewhat according to plan until about 5 years ago when she went through a separation and then divorce. I have permission from her to speak of that, and as most of you know I speak out of my own experience of divorce.

Like a lot of dark nights, she had to face the experience of looking over a cliff – an abyss where the road used to be. I see in her painting – whether intentional or not – themes of water.

What is it like?: It’s like being led to look over a pit of seeming abandonment by God, without the handrail of companionship; Without the sure ground of your assumed future; Watching your security, respectability and reputation fly off, over the cliff.

At times when producing this, Sarah had to strip away paint with her hands – especially from parts painted from old plans for the work that were no longer going where she was going.. This embodies the stripping away, in a dark night, of everything known: like the stripping of Jesus’ clothes from his body, skin from flesh, flesh from bones.

This is especially difficult in churches where divorce is not supposed to happen! So the pain is made harder by judgment – from some others but also from yourself. It goes against everything we are brought up to believe is how life should go and will go. Where if you only life well and virtuously and religiously, all things will go well. I often describe it as waking up in someone else’s life – and still now sometimes can’t believe it.

It’s not an experience I’d wish on anyone.

BUT, a dark night – all kinds - is also the place where you are utterly undefended; facing something no-one can face for you, thrown back - perhaps for the first real time to a place where you know grace! Sarah and I discussed the fact that, for me before this, Grace was really just a theological concept – “God extends his grace toward us”. But real experience of grace only came when everything I relied on, everything I thought true of me was stripped away. Where nothing can protect you from the gaze of God, but then finding out that, that gaze is love. (Who’d have thought?).

And out of it, a place where God’s spirit can flow through you in a new way.

.. and I wish that on everyone.

There’s a lot of darkness in this painting. But then does Christ’s spirit always come from the light? There’s a strange new luminosity from a deeper place.

And even that light in this work is off-centre. Perfection is static; depth is messy.


4 Elements of the Dark Night in the Painting.

It was created very physically. - > so I Lay on it, felt it, smelt it.

I found three images in here – that are mirrors – mirror processes.

The Bible talks about the firmaments – of the sky and the sea. I see both of these in here. But I also see a person – faintly.

  • The sky at night – with the moon, or a nebulae - a diffuse light. Sarah talks about the process of smoothing out the midnight blue: and experiencing that “this is how God felt, spreading out the sky”.
  • The sea at night – with the reflection of the moon
  • And a person – with luminosity radiating form the torso. (not ideal lighting conditions in the particular gallery) – but head is here!


1st – the Lack of Choice in a dark night. Drawing on the sea image, a dark night is like Odysseus being tossed by stormy waves, Tristan adrift without an oar, Jonah being swallowed by a whale. (Sarah tells me that Jonah is a symbol of the enneagram ‘9’ - the unwilling prophet.) In stories in a number of cultures, the hero – or anti-hero - gets swallowed by a great fish. Toward the west from Joppa – where the sun sets. Oceanic – immersed in the waters – as Sarah immersed herself in dark paint. The ocean is the original womb and source of all life on earth.

One aspect then, is a Lack of choice. You don’t choose your dark night for yourself. It is given to you. You have choices to make in it: Your job is to get close to it and sift it for its gold. You probably know more about the depths of your soul from periods of pain and confusion than from times of comfort. Dark because it doesn’t give us assurance that what is happening makes sense. We are in the habit of wanting to know what is going on. No way out. Must rely on pure faith and resources beyond understanding and control. No choice but to surrender control.

A whale is going somewhere; the setting sun is going somewhere, taking you where you need to go. A night sea journey. To rise again. Like Jonah, shaped and humbled (and bleached?), by the darkness you rise and find your calling. More aware, and with more care, with a message from God for the world.


2nd: Requires you to Enter the darkness. Also from the sea image: There is something very lunar about this with the light on the dark. Sarah has said to me “the moon and I are like this

In Freud’s the interpretation of dreams. He discussed a patient’s dream. She was at her summer resort, she dived into the dark water just where the moon was mirrored in it. Freud concludes it’s a dream about her needing to continue in therapy – but he would. But Thomas Moore sees it as the need to go into the water in order to be born again. A profound change in her soul. Not being born, but a return to the source from which she can be re-born.

Many people think that the point of life is to solve their problems and be happy. But happiness is usually a fleeting sensation and you never get rid of your problems. Your purpose in life may be to become more of who you are and more engaged with the people and life around you. To place a higher value on soulfulness than on health and propriety.

But we are afraid to let life flow through us and so our vitality gets channelled into ambitions, addictions, activity and pre-occupations that don’t give us anything worth having. A dark night, paradoxically, can be a way to return to living. It pares life down to its essentials and helps you make a new start. If you give all our effort to getting rid of your dark night, you may not learn its lessons or go through the important changes it can make for you.

3rd: Shaking out of unconsciousness. Water is an image of the unconscious.

In that advert where guys are watching rugby and one goes to out-house (in the dark) – sees Moa, but is pre-occupied: “Guys, Guys, what did I miss”. So caught up in the normal and day to day we don’t see). Unconsciousness is like junk-food. An easy way to go trough life but it doesn’t give you the nourishment you need for transformation. Dark night shatters this surface world.

Something that symbolised the surface world for Sarah was the art she used to produce. C/f her last piece. Light box. It was neat. It was in a box. It was about theology - not an expression of it. Safe neat Sarah. Compare the swirling unsettling piece we see today – and the wild warrior/gladiatrix of Sparticus! Transmuting music that was important to her (Ode to Joy) into the canvas. Playing and laughing! Wading in paint, then using her whole body.

The wild child has emerged. It wandering back in from long, long sitting in the dark and listening to the sounds of such a night.


Part of the Gift here is the gift of gut-wrenching raw emotions. Also, visually, there is in here a swirl of emotion – it’s not neat. Darkness and toil stimulate the imagination. I remember when my father died - the time when I most knew you are alive because of the turmoil, thrown-ness, and unrest. They allow you to see things you may otherwise overlook - to become sensitive to a different spectrum of emotion and meaning. The ultra-violet extremes of your feelings and thoughts.

In the best of cases you get to know your deep passions, and the voices that speak most deeply in your imagination; offering you an alternative to being absorbed in – and by - the manipulations and entertainments of your culture. A dark night stops you being stuck in your small life; Challenges you to heroism.


4th: Darkly Luminous. I mentioned the third Image was a body radiating from torso. Light in the painting comes from a dark surrounds – not superficial. Within this light there is a mass of potent activity.

Thomas Aquinas said that the central element of beauty is its splendour – but others have been drawn to darker beauty. Beaudelaire, Samuel Beckett, include a dark luminousity. The French post-modern post-everything psycho-analyst Julia Kristeva calls it “following a black sun”. A dark luminosity that is less innocent and more interesting than pure sunshine. That is one of the gifts a dark night has to offer


5 Transformation

So this is a work of transformation. Much of that comes from having a safe life stripped away. The death of certainty, of plans and or beliefs about how the world works. Emerging to an embrace of life as it is - a new ability to live in it. As Keats puts it – negative capability – ability to live without “annoying reaching after certainly”.

It’s part of making peace with the world as it is, not as it should be in some fancied ‘should’. Not just the peace of unconsciousness; Not just the unflappability that comes from never having been flapped. Or never having had to flap. Not the peace this side of trouble and disturbance, but the other side.

You can come through a dark night morally and spiritually even if to all appearances and the lights of your culture, you have failed.


I like to think of this painting not as static but a snapshot of a living being where that light – the diffuse, dark but knowing light is expanding. Like the expansion of a part of the self:

Three layers of the self.

  • Eternal Self (there are bits that never change – sometimes a curse!) Stays same; Essential “you”-ness.
  • Practical Self: Makes sure life happens; defined by events. Survival / Surface self
  • Unfolding Self: Caterpillar and Butterfly; Evolving / transforming

Links eternal with practical/everyday. Makes sense of it.

A dark night expands the unfolding self.

In emphasising the individual transformation, I am not speaking against fellowship, community, or family. Community thrives when it consists of true individuals, accepted for their own contributions. People are waiting, needing of each voice to be authentically offered to society.

Play: DAVID WHYTE poem “Self Portrait”.


6 Cosmic Christ

The title of this piece is Cosmic Christ.


For many, in a dark night, God changes for you: One common report of people of a dark night is that it’s like being in prison. Some dark nights are literally in prison. The writing holes of St Paul, Oscar Wilde and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Each went through a transformation in what God was for them.

Bonhoffoer wrote that a world come of age would be “more godless and perhaps for than reason nearer to God than the world before”. In the “old days” religion called on God’s power outside of life to solve our problems – and ultimately to solve death by ‘salvation’. In a new incarnation, we have to face our problems directly, having lost the option of believing that God comes like the cavalry from the sky. We discover a deeper meaning of religion, and openness to its mysteries. And a power to walk with Christ into life. (Perhaps the difference between stg 3 and 5 as per Brenda’s talk last week).

St Paul, in prison wrote Philippians: “As far as someone can be righteous by keeping the law, I was without fault. BUT all those external things I might count as profit, I now count as loss of Christ’s sake … For his sake I have thrown everything away so I may gain Christ and be united with him”.

Wilde “I have lain in prison for more than 2 years. Out of my nature has come wild despair abandonment to grief, … terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb…. Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. “

Christ enters the world, dives into this “darksome clay”. He is then hounded out from the world, strung out hung – and it is there he is with us.

Accorded to tradition, he entered into hell. (a place I don’t believe in). But Christ entering hell tells us that no aspect of fallen creation cannot receive and be redeemed through God’s love.

This is the Cosmic Christ. Christ is not Jesus’ surname. (nor is “of Nazareth”). Jesus is the microcosm; Christ is the macrocosm. There is a movement in him from Jesus to the Christ that you and I have to imitate and walk, as well. A lot of us have so fallen in love with Jesus as we see him in history that we worship him as such and stop there. We never really follow the same journey which he made, which is the death and resurrection journey. Jesus died and Christ arose.

Unless we make the same movement that Jesus did—from his one single life to his transformed state, we probably don’t really understand what we mean by the Christ - and how we are part of the deal! That is why he said "follow me.” As Richard Rohr says, the Jesus that you and I participate in, are graced by, and redeemed by, is the risen Jesus who has become the Christ, which is an inclusive statement about all of us and all of creation.

Perhaps the Magi knew this in their gifts of Gold, and Frankincense substances of brightness, luminosity and aroma mixed in with Myrrh, a substance of pain and death. Darkness gives you colour, character, capacity.

(Liberal vs post-liberal. Our suffering has meaning it is part of the great world story of transformation, represented by Christ).

I said I saw three images – sky at night, sea and a person. Didn’t mention the sky.

When look at this painting as a night sky, I’m drawn to the lighter parts – a Starfield – like a nebulae. Some picture of nebulae look just like synapses in the human brain. Could be looking at the same thing. We are part of the cosmic story.


To honour Sarah

You answered the challenge: The challenge was: are you going to become cynical and closed down or are you going to open you heart to a mystery that is as natural as the sun, moon and seasons? You transformed suffering into images that heal. You are prepared by your dark night – which is both pain and deliverance. You have used a darkness to reveal your own luminosity

We are in the belly of the whale precisely to get to Nineveh – to become the voice of God. To act in the universe and add our voice to its song. This is the coming of the Christ in you. The Cosmic Christ.


(Hongi mai!)