Praying with Pictures
One Person's Experience with SoulCollage®
From time to time the Benedictine Center invites program participants to share the spiritual reflections that emerged from their experience at St. Paul’s Monastery. This reflection is by Rachel Gableman about her time with Barbara Sutton’s Monthly SoulCollage® Circle.
Where I Begin
Stubbornness is a steady companion for me. My spiritual director is well acquainted with it. One day, when I was experiencing peak frustration with the slow trajectory of my inner healing, he made a remark that’s stayed with me. He said, “the thing about you is that you’re stubborn about being integral.” We both laughed. As I remember this fondly, I surmise that the work of integration really is the crux of the spiritual life. Maybe my stubbornness serves me in a much larger way than I previously knew, championing my pursuit of wholeness.
Imaged after the Trinity, each one of us have dynamic inner-parts to ourselves that coalesce to make up our unique person. We may overly identify with some parts, while we may repress or neglect others. Social conditioning normalizes these tendencies. What is praised and valued by our culture at large, we learn to fashion ourselves with most overtly. Similarly, what our family systems discourage and our peer groups disdain get tucked away, sometimes clouted in shame. Yet, there always comes time when we awaken to the deceptive narrative that characterizes some qualities totally good and others completely bad.
What Brought Me to SoulCollage®
Prudence in self-discovery says, “all that is present may have something to teach us.” And yet, only by plumbing the depths of our awareness can we first know and then welcome the desirable and undesirable aspects of ourselves alike. Finding helpful tools on the path toward wholeness can be a significant obstacle, which is why I became delighted when I found SoulCollage®.
For the better part of this year, I have participated in the Sunday SoulCollage® Circles at the Benedictine Center led by Barbara Sutton. I appreciate how accessible the SoulCollage® process is. Though it’s a creative visual practice, there’s no need to realistically render images from scratch. Thankfully, that puts all of us who are so quick to say “but I can’t draw!” to ease. Rather, found images are collaged together with one’s intuition as the guide. The practice is rooted in the acknowledgement that our souls are indeed multi-faceted.
What My Collage Looks Like
A fat cat unsuccessfully hiding behind a partial façade, peering out from behind it with one eye visible in the window. Blue withered flowers strewn across crisp white bed linens, alongside a chair with an open book and a lit candle. A young carefree girl, with the sun adorning her head, walking on a golden-amber palm of a hand gesturing out into a twinkling purple galaxy. These describe a few of the many cards I’ve made thus far. Some absurd, others tender, while others yet range from minimalist to complex. But all are brimming with potential for rich insight—insight only I, as the maker, can bring to or elicit from the images.
What I Do With My Collage
Once a few images are compiled, a dialogue occurs. Looking intently at the card as one facet of my soul that is now externalized, I ask three questions.
Who are you?
What do you give me?
What do you want from me?
Next, it’s as if I isolate, step into, and embody only this one facet of my soul. Then I listen for it’s pure voice that emerges in first person.
I am . . .
I give you . . .
I want you to . . .
During one of the Sunday circles, Barbara invited us to focus on the Beauty of the Flaw. Committed to the relentless pursuit of self-discovery as I am, I took a particular interest in utilizing SoulCollage® to examine my shadow sides. I’m pretty well-versed in criticizing, judging, condemning, and exiling what I assume to be my flaws. But this practice of externalizing them, conversing with them, and giving them a devoted place at the table where I workshop my self-understanding invites me to re-think my assumptions. Giving voice to the parts of myself that I typically refuse to honor feels destabilizing—in the best way.
Recently, I’ve been captivated by the work of a few Buddhist authors who write about extending hospitality to our demons. Demons in this sense are broadly spoken of as anything internal keeping us from true freedom and liberation, rather than external forces of evil such as our Catholic imaginations might conjure. Adrianna Limbach, author of Tea and Cake with Demons, speaks of the necessity to welcome the information our demons or shadow sides provide us.
Ongoing Practice with SoulCollage®
I am inspired by the imagery of putting out a sweet treat and pouring an aromatic tea while being attentive to a personified version of the inner quality I most want to shun. As a result, I come to my dining table and set my SoulCollage® cards out as if they were guests for an afternoon tea. Each one has an esteemed place. All are welcome. Every time I see a card that I don’t want to face that day, I know that’s where I will devote my hospitality. When it comes to opening myself to guidance and direction for my practice, this gut test is tried and true. I focus my gaze and attention on that card and begin.
Fiery, feisty, red hot anger. You again? How about we take this week off. I’ll just tuck you away out of sight. We’ll resume our conversation next week. What’s that? You’re not going anywhere? Oh. Let’s see. Maybe, just maybe, I can take a moment to listen to what you have to say today.
Returning to My Questions
My stubbornness yields to curiosity. I return to my questions.
Who are you? (I must remain receptive to the voice speaking anew each day. I remind myself not to dismiss something as familiar. To approach it with beginners mind, and await whatever it has to say.)
What do you give me? (Knowing there is reciprocity and a mutual exchange drives me back to these encounters. Some days the challenge may be in giving, while other days it may feel more difficult to be in the posture to receive. Both are worth noticing.)
What do you want from me? (I must remember that being generous with my attention, time, and energy can be generative. Especially when it comes to allowing my own needs or desires to emerge and make claims. Tending to these will not deplete me. It will likely challenge me. It also may very well may renew me.)
I am both the questioner and the answerer. And yet this practice continually surprises me with the discoveries available therein. The hardest part is the discipline it takes to return to the cards without presuming to know how’ll they speak on each new occasion. And yet it is only by doing it that I can grow in trusting the process. Perhaps I should make a card for that.