Seeking the Soul

By Cinnamon.

One day earlier this month, with a few hours to spare after work, I wandered over to a little university museum in the city. In the first gallery was a modern art exhibition. In the second gallery, late-period Egyptian mummies. In the third, illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The contrasts were extraordinary… and even more so, I think, for someone who has been in the convent.

Take, for example, the modern art set-up, which the explanatory plaque described as “an ongoing project concerned with representations of the self and the body,” designed to investigate “the stereotype of the artist as a creative genius.” To that end, the room was full of sculptures of the artist’s hands, paintings of her silhouette reduced to an inch in height, replicated thousandfold and scattered across a canvas like confetti, and, most disturbingly, a giant video screen in which her eyes, magnified to hundreds of times their normal size and (according to the information plaque) “god-like in their intensity,” slowly turn from black to white and back, over and over. Without blinking. This vividly demonstrates what happens when an artist has no higher reference point than the self – the gaze turns totally inwards in fascination. Some of the installments were okay (freaky eyes excepted) but I can’t quite fathom why the museum would be convinced that a giant mixed-media selfie is something the public needs to see.

Upstairs, the Egyptian exhibition provided a very different view of the world. If the first display was a secular gaze inward, then this is an ancient, virtuous paganism with the gaze turned outward. Art for them was not merely decorative, but crucial to eternal survival: a cartonnage mask that covers the head of a young woman’s mummy may be the only way that her wandering soul can find its way back to her body, and so every detail must be beautiful, accurate, and perfect. The love that these people, long before Christ, poured out upon the bodies of those they had lost – one tiny hand has its linen bandages overlapped diagonally up the wrist like origami, while a mummified foot in a soft leather sandal has every toe individually wrapped – is deep and palpable. Without knowledge of the true God (the Hebrew Scriptures tend to be a little sour on the topic of Egypt and its deities), they knew of something greater than this present life, and prayed for the souls of their beloved dead according to the Natural Law written on their hearts (Romans 2:15).

In the third gallery, across the hallway, was the illuminated manuscript exhibition that had brought me to the museum in the first place. For a couple of hours, I wandered through several rooms full of intricately-decorated breviaries, giant books of chant notation that had been used by monks in choir, and laymen’s missals that would fit in the palm of one hand, tiny and bright as jewels.

Of course, it’s possible to admire these books as works of art, but that would be to miss the point of them: to those who drew them line by perfect line, they were an offering to God and a way of showing the reverence due to His word – the artist’s gaze turned upward. Having been in the religious life, I understood, too, that each breviary was to the monk or nun who held it what my own, much simpler breviary was to me during my life in the convent: a rope that anchored my soul to the life of the Church.

Incredibly, the exhibition also included a large fifteenth-century monastic choir book that visitors were permitted to touch – to turn the pages, to stroke the parchment, to lean in and breathe its dry, musty scent, and, in my case, to try and follow the rising and falling of the chant notations with half-remembered convent training. I asked the assistant why we were permitted to touch something so old without gloves, and she replied that parchment is much hardier than vellum and there’s no famous artist’s name attached to it to make it particularly important, and that for those reasons the coordinators of the exhibition had decided to take it out from behind the glass and put it into our hands as a tangible connection with the past.

It was more than that, however. I was holding many lifetimes’ worth of devotion: every line was a five-hundred-year-old prayer by someone who had dedicated his life to God. Every page had been turned for centuries by others, young and old, who had been called to the same path of monastic dedication that I had tried to follow, to serve the same God I love. It occurred to me that we who have been in religious life are, in our generation, what they were in theirs. We understand them as they, I think, would understand us. And so, with my hands resting lightly on an anchor of prayer that they once held, I reached out to them – pray for us. You glorious souls in heaven, who have received the reward of your devotion – pray for us. Pray for those of us who live in a world you would not recognize, but seek a vocation that you would – pray for us. You holy souls in purgatory, who chanted these same prayers long ago, and now seek our prayers for your release – we have not forgotten you. We hear the echoes of your prayers, and we pray for you. May your souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. And when at last you see Christ face to face, remember us, too, and pray for us. Pray for us. All you holy men and women, pray for us. Amen.

When I left the Seminary, My Soul was Saved by Art!

Well, in a manner of speaking. God alone saves, but in my case, He decided to use art for that purpose. Leaving that community of prayer and mutual spiritual support left my soul feeling lost and starved, my heart with feelings of bitterness and despair. I did not immediately realize after I left that I needed to have a healthy outlet for these feelings or they would destroy me. And for several months they did indeed tear me down.

I’d always been a bit of an art nerd. I took lots of art history classes in college, without much idea of how to use them other than to soak up my elective credits, despite the continued objections of my academic advisor who thought I was crazy and needed something more practical. I took all my class notes as a series of random doodles, partly from love of doodling, and partly because I have ADD so bad I couldn’t actually take proper notes. The pictures formed for me a kind of pictorial mnemonic device for remembering what I’d learned that particular day.

By the end of my 4 years in college there were guys who would come to me at the end of the semester just to see my notebooks. I really didn’t understand why they were fascinated. The staff there thought it was inexcusable, that I was treating my academics like a joke by spending all my time doodling, so naturally I felt that way too. For me, those scratches represented what I perceived as my own personal weakness and laziness, my inability to be a “good seminarian.”

I eventually would go on to show those scribbles to family and friends outside of seminary, and almost overwhelmingly I would be asked, “Is there any more? Will you please make more?” I had no inkling that this art thing was anything important, but my spiritual director had just reminded me that when you have a gift from God, the Holy Spirit will draw people to it, and they will come to you and ask for it. So I went back to drawing.

I didn’t think I was very good. Actually, I was objectively bad! But I drew because I needed it, as a way to heal. And because other people needed it, and I needed to feel that people needed me, too. In prayer, God made it clear that I needed to do this for Him, because He had people who needed what I could make.

So I learned how to draw in new ways, using new tools. I learned how to use paint. I learned how to engrave. Some people meditate over Scripture by reading it over and over again, but I would imagine it over and over again, and then draw it. Other times, when my imagination would run wild in the Adoration chapel and I couldn’t get an image out of my head, I’d draw it, and then listen to see what He thought.

There were also times that I would draw with the intention of making something for selling, without listening to God or presenting my work to Him – worshiping mammon with the work of my hands, as it were. In these cases I almost always failed. It was humbling to see how my work is empowered by Him, how even when I will not obey His commands, the work of my hands is still the work of His hands.

Through all of this, I was constantly reminded that drawing was something that was for my healing. Not because it stroked my ego (though it sometimes did) but because God made my hands and I was using them to do something for Him, even though I didn’t understand exactly how. I don’t always pray before I pick up my pencil or brush, but in those early days I learned a sense of working with God on this hobby of mine. Or more precisely, this hobby of ours.

I discovered that I didn’t have to change the whole world to be holy or happy outside of a religious community. My vocation to personal holiness and communion with God can sometimes just be about making scribbles and giving them to Him.


By Anthony
Anthony is a thoroughly lovable former seminarian, artist, and Catholic blogger. He is not only the author of this week’s post, but also the creator of its featured image. If you’ve never seen his artwork, check out his blog at

And please PRAY FOR ANTHONY, because he’ll be marrying the lovely Katie on the Solemnity of the Assumption (this coming August 15th)!


Leonie’s Ladies: What have you found works as an “outlet” for you since returning to the world? Has something in particular helped you to heal, to process feelings, to readjust? Please share in the commboxes below so others can get ideas that may help them!