Creative Desire and the True Self

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Years and years ago, before I ever did any spiritual writing, I wrote a book about creativity. More specifically, it was a book about creativity for graduate students. Having freshly completed my own Ph.D., I wanted to create the resource I wished I’d had as I slogged my way through overwhelming reading assignments, two sets of grueling qualifying exams and, everyone’s favorite, the dissertation.

I was only just starting to learn about Ignatian spirituality then, and I didn’t necessarily see its connection to my book. I only knew that creativity had been a lifesaver for me as I tried to build a sense of myself that was separate from my work and the validation (or disapproval) of others, especially those in positions of authority over me.

By creativity, I didn’t just mean painting or quilting or mastering Scandinavian pastry. I meant, essentially, all that is within us that makes us who we are — creativity writ large, understood in its broadest sense. Creativity for me was — and is — intricately bound up in the choices we make (even the most mundane ones), the things that interest us, whatever aspects of the world around us bring us the spark of delight, of inspiration.

And now, a decade later, I can clearly see that all of that is so deeply spiritual, so undeniably Ignatian. That self that I was trying to encourage harried graduate students to recognize and celebrate within themselves is what Ignatius might have called the true self, the one that we embrace as we wade into deep intimacy with God.

Creativity — the way we process ideas and emotions through our bodies — is already a uniquely human practice and one that I now see as inextricable from the humanity of Christ. I still marvel at the way an idea in our minds works itself through our hands into a drawing, the way an emotion is carried through our voices to become song, the way every creative expression could only be birthed by a very specific person, shaped by specific circumstances and experiences. Jesus, too, led a life of sacred specificity — born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, fed with fish and bread and wine. We remember and celebrate the uniqueness of his life when we create art from the uniqueness of our own.

As I’ve been reworking my way through St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity as it relates to our true selves, the selves we don’t have to hide any part of, the selves that exist outside of any economy, the selves that simply feel a creative prompting and answer it. St. Ignatius calls us to pay attention to the ways that God speaks to us through our desires, and our creative desires are a big part of that process.

(Society of Jesus)

In his guide to the Exercises, “The Gift of Spiritual Intimacy,” Monty Williams, SJ, writes, “The path to intimacy starts when we allow God to enter our stories.” That intimacy is, for Williams, a creative endeavor, one that’s tuned to the specific language we speak with our lives, the language that we can only speak with God, the language that God uniquely tailors to speak to us.

Of course, the threads can get tangled when we do creative work professionally. Hopefully, there’s a synergy between our spiritual lives and our workaday lives. As a writer, I remind myself all the time of Logos, the Word, but surely the God who painted every flower and crafted every birdsong is with us in our every creative endeavor.

Part of developing intimacy with a Creator God, I have found, is saying yes to the creative impulse, even when it seems out of left field, has nothing to do with our usual work, or is something that will never be seen or heard except by the eyes and ears of God. It’s good and healthy, I think, to hold the intimacy of that creativity just between us.

Listening to that inner creative prompting has led me to an unexpected project: a watercolor journal of the diners I visit with my children. It’s a project crafted out of our unique and unrepeatable experiences, one that never fails to bring a smile of joy and gratitude to my face. It’s nothing I’ll ever submit for publication, but it is an intimate celebration of our family, of the beautiful details of the world in which we live, and of the God who created us all and draws our hearts and hands, too, to create.

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