Mind(ing) the Gap

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The topic of this year’s Quaker Universalist Conference (12-14 May 2023) was ‘How creativity expresses and enhances spirituality across the world’. Around eighty people attended, either in person or online, and for the fifty of us who met at Woodbrooke it included home groups, sunny walks in the garden, socialising and good food.

The weekend was a rich mixture of speakers and workshops, encompassing broad historical and diverse cultural perspectives, personal insight, experimentation and entertainment.

Conference convenor Tony Philpott explained the purpose of the Quaker Universalist Group in seeking to hold a shared space between Quakers of diverse faiths, cultures, backgrounds, beliefs, and many other apparent contradictions. Two professional artists, poet Philip Gross and painter Helen Otter, also spoke of spaces in-between.

Helen said she regarded herself primarily as a ‘maker’ rather than an artist. Her watercolours and drawings depict subjects and settings that reflect an inner state. She wondered if it made any difference whether an artwork was created with spiritual intent, referring to Kandinsky who was certain it belonged to a spiritual domain, and spoke of the importance of becoming still, present, and open to new work, both as artist and viewer.

Philip Gross read out a number of poems, and commented that they had a life of their own. He spoke about ‘trusting the poem’, that its meaning may branch off in different directions depending on the quality of the listening. To listen well is to be creative.

“There’s a space between us and that is how it needs to be, not just for art but for religion and world views. To fill the space with language, images and faithful listening. And silence.”

Both Philip and Helen referred to the point at which an artwork lifts off and takes on a life of its own, the artist becoming less the creator and more a conductor of, or vehicle for, the piece.

Another painter, and university professor, Jaana Erkkilä-Hill, joined the conference from Helsinki via Zoom, and spoke of creativity and spirituality in the Nordic Tradition. Drawing on her experience of the North Sami Christian community, she shared one of her own paintings of a woman with a basket containing sacred animals.

“As humans, we hold the world in our hands. How much respect do we have for the world? What is our relationship with the cosmos? How should we live? Surrounded by the wisdom of nature, we are not on our own.”

Eyes are a frequent motif in her work and there is a strong sense that Nature is watching us, and what we are doing.

Jaana’s husband, Roger Babington-Hill followed with an elegant essay on Daoism and Creativity. He referred to Qi energy, a universal quality, sometimes referred to as a power, which encompasses freedom from ego, heightened attention, harmony and emptiness. He also referred to Yi energy, the quality of intention – and paying attention – which applies in everything we do. Contradiction is not a problem. The paradox of our appetite for more and, at the same time, our aspiration for Simplicity, helps make things happen. The question arises, what holds us together as we are both enriched and yet dissolve?

Much of this was apparent in David Brown’s workshop on Shamanism, where all present participated in a guided meditation to the upper world, and the creation of a Peruvian despacho – a parcel of cares – later set alight. We heard from one participant how this kind of activity had helped in bringing healing to a family affected by mental illness.

On the final morning Charles Monkhouse talked about colour as a cultural phenomenon, and the spirituality of colour, in a variety of religious settings, including the personal impact of the 5 principal tantric colours of Tibet. These carry us from ignorance to wisdom and although usually rendered in pigment, they depict a rainbow of compassionate light.

A full account of this year’s conference will be posted on the Quaker Universalist Group website, www.qug.org.uk.

Next year’s QUG conference, on the topic of the future of faith and religion, will be held at High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire on 19-21 April 2024.

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