Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God/ But only he who sees takes off his shoes/ The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. — E. Barrett Browning
The pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus has caused disruptions not just in the socio-economic sphere but also in the religious-cultural aspects of various communities. In the Philippines, religious rituals like the daily Eucharist of the Catholic Christians have been halted because of the strict quarantine protocols against mass gatherings.
To respond to the spiritual needs of the community of the Ateneo de Manila University, Radyo Katipunan, the campus university radio station, has responded to this need by producing a daily online Mass since March 2020. It is live-streamed through the social media accounts of Radyo Katipunan. Right now, the social reach of the station has expanded beyond the ADMU community. The station has reached almost 50,000 followers on Facebook worldwide.
As a priest, I was concerned with the pastoral and spiritual dimensions of the ritual. Meanwhile, as an artist, I was preoccupied with the design, set-up and lighting as well as how to enliven the online liturgical celebrations each day.
To thrive during this pandemic, we need to turn to nature and art to develop our creative capacities. We are all gifted with this creative potential. We just need to nurture it, not just to enliven our exterior spaces, but to cultivate our interiority.
Thus, the art project “Arrange/ Enliven” was initiated. Every day since the lockdown in the Philippines in March 2020, I was arranging flowers for the altar. The photos of the floral arrangements posted online have been accompanied by the scientific names of the plants and flowers as well as quoted reflections to suggest some themes relating to spirituality, art and nature.
By taking one day at a time, I am surprised that there are already 335 posts of these floral arrangements on my Facebook page. And I am doubly grateful for the people who found consolation through these floral arrangements. Some are even inspired through these arrangements to compose prayers, write poems and produce still-life paintings/ drawings.
I must admit that arranging flowers has become a daily routine for me during this pandemic — a sort of coping mechanism, maybe. I will wake up early in the morning to look for plants, twigs, flowers and other objects that I can use in the day’s arrangement.
Nature has been a great source of inspiration for these arrangements. Most of the time, I ideate the arrangement based on the liturgical theme, the form of the donated flowers by RK’s online parishioners, the still-life paintings, especially the “Vanitas” genre of the Dutch painters (focusing on mortality), the ideas I’ve read on Japanese culture like wabi-sabi (finding beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete), or mono no aware (feeling of empathy towards ephemeral things), and recently, the works of Ikebana masters, and the Ikebana lessons based on Sogetsu school exercises under the guidance of Ms. Carissa Singson. The collection of materials and conceptualizing the arrangement are necessary for the 30-minute preparation before the live-streaming of the Mass at 8 o’clock in the morning.
This exercise of arranging flowers as well as celebrating the Mass has been a source of strength during this pandemic. It has not only provided me with a routine but a daily creative endeavor and spiritual nourishment.
In order to thrive during this pandemic, I realized that we need to turn to nature and art to develop our creative capacities. We are all gifted with this creative potential. We just need to nurture it, not just to enliven our exterior spaces, but to cultivate our interiority.
How? We need to train our eyes to see better and to learn from the cyclic growth of flora from their seedling, maturation, blooming, withering and regrowth.
I like to borrow from the phrase of the Jesuit Fr. Walter Burghardt, who described contemplative prayer as “taking a long, loving look at the real.” Art has a way of attuning our eyes to the reality of the world, the inner stirrings of the soul, and to the invisible mystery of God.
Like prayer, as suggested by Fr. Burghardt, we need to see works of art and the beauty in nature through a new and engaging vision by “taking a long, loving look at the real” — real, in the sense of seeking the truth, finding inner resonance, cultivating our creative spirit, and allowing this truth to challenge and change us.