I thank my friend Cypress Mintz for the suggestion that I place the image of my special painting on my website. She knew how important the painting is to me, as an icon of my own soul, a longtime companion on my journey, and a work of art which calls me daily to authentic living. (I do my first prayers of the day facing the painting.)
In the issue of March 9, 2010, the painting was featured in the art column of the ecumenical American journal Christian Century. However, the caption which my friend Lois Huey-Heck (then a regular contributor to its art feature) and I wrote together was substantially shortened by the editor. Here is what Lois and I originally wrote.
This is a large semi-abstract portrait which states little but implies much. It sits at the threshold between the didactic/representative and the interpretive/imagined and felt. Since 1972, it has been an icon – a gateway to God – for its owner, Don Grayston. He recalls an instant recognition on first seeing The Holy Man–that he simply had to buy it. Decades later, it continues to offer him truth and insight. As with all icons, the image-viewer dialogue is very personal. Revelation is rarely gained in a passing glance; rather it comes from time spent in prayerful communion … from imaginatio divina.
Below you will find a bare-bones outline of my journey with the painting since 1972. Most of it was written in 2012; I updated it slightly in July 2014, and then gave it its final editing on August 31, 2014, my 75th birthday, 75 being the age held out to me by the Holy Man in the painting as the age of solemn accountability. I did wonder at the time, 25 years ago, whether or not he was telling me that I could expect to die when I turned 75. However, that seems not to be the case [ :)]. So I still have some time left in which to pray the Two Great Prayers (my friend Grainger Brown expresses them even more succinctly as “Help!” and “Thanks!”): “Thanks be to God!” and “Lord, have mercy!”
MY GREAT PAINTING
This is the bare bones of the story of my ongoing relationship with what I call my great painting: “The Holy Man,” painted in 1965 by Czech-Canadian artist Velenka Fanderlik (48” X 32”, acrylic on masonite).
June 1972 (I am 32).
Living in Rossland, BC, I see the painting at an art show in nearby Trail, and am compelled to buy it—no choice, simply had to buy it. If it had cost $10,000, I would have just taken out a mortgage; in fact, it only cost me $130. The name of the painting is “The Holy Man,” a title which I did not see until after I had decided to buy it.
In addition to my sense of compulsion, I bought it as an act of defiance. I had just had a letter turning me down for a scholarship (I was about to start grad school) for which I believed I was qualified. So I bought the painting as a kind of pledge that I would get the scholarship. Hung it in the living room. Got up early the next morning to sit with it. Heard the clock, the fridge and the furnace for the first time since I had moved into that house.
Left Rossland shortly thereafter, took the painting to Toronto. Telling a friend who came for dinner about the painting, and he said, “Well, it worked: you did get the scholarship” (I had reapplied with some big-gun references)—and yes, I did: I had forgotten my pledge, didn’t make the connection. Thank you, Holy Man!
Three years later, October 1975 (I am 36).
I am walking upstairs in the stairwell in which the painting is hung. I hear the figure in the painting say “Look at me.” I turn to look, and realize that the painting is an archetypal painting.
Archetype: a psychic tendency or capacity to form personal representations of universal motifs. Thus, there are many representations of such archetypes as the Great Mother or the True Self, but the motif, the psychic mold, remains the same. The figure, I come to see, carries at least five archetypes: the True Self, God, the Wise Old Man, the Father, and the Stranger.
1980s (I am in my 40s).
People ask who the figure in the painting is. Some ask if it is my father. Having no direct answer to give them, I jokingly reply, “It’s me, when I’m 75.”
November 1989, seventeen years after buying the painting (I am 50).
I am now separated, and am at the lowest point in my life to that date: of course I take the painting with me. One day I am meditating in the same room as the painting. Suddenly I sense that the Holy Man wants to speak to me. I open my eyes (and my ears), and this is what I hear—and this is verbatim.
“I am your True Self. When you are 75, you will look at me and say one of two things. Either you will say, ‘This is who I have become—thanks to be God!’ Or you will say, ‘This is who I could have become—Lord, have mercy!'”
December 1989, about a month later (still 50)
I am reading Genesis 11-12, the story of Abraham. I note that Abraham received his call when he was 75. He did nothing particularly worth recording before he was 75. I remember my joking comments, and now realize that the painting, physically painted in 1965, had been spiritually painted from the future, my own future, from 2014, the year I am 75. I recall here Jung’s telling comment about how the future casts its shadow on the past.
This completely changes my sense of what age 75 means. Previously I had thought of it as the lines of my life narrowing until they converged at 75 or whenever I should die. After this, I saw the same lines, but then saw them continuing, each in its original direction, and thereby opening up to infinity and eternity.
Quite apart from my age at death, whenever that occurs, what the Holy Man was holding before me was a kind of developmental or spiritual terminus ad quem, or deadline date, after which I could not in good conscience continue to think of myself as a person in process, someone for whom excuses could be kindly made as not essentially a finished product. It would be a moment of solemn accountability, for which his comment, 25 years before that moment, was preparing me, and towards which it was calling me. Lots of notice at least! (I know: some people make it to the “finished product” stage many years before 75; and sometimes that’s good, and sometimes not. To each his/her own.)
August 1990 (I am 51).
I have moved to a new house, the sweet little place on Kitchener St, which I still miss. The painting is leaning against a wall, awaiting hanging. I am on the phone, facing the painting, but not looking at it with any intentionality. Suddenly I notice that in the hand of the Holy Man there is a scroll, something I have never noticed in the 18 years I have owned the painting. I ask myself: what is written on the scroll? The answer comes immediately: “It is the story of the rest of your life.”
January 2009 (I am 69).
I am on retreat. I have taken with me one of the cards of the painting which I have had printed, as I usually do when I am traveling, and have put it on the mantelpiece. One day as I walk past and glance at it, an epiphany: it is my father! The people who asked me “is it your father?” spoke more truly than they knew or than I knew. I knew then something more of what had compelled me to buy the painting. Not only was it a representation of my True Self; it also represented my pain around the unrealized character of my relationship with my own father. My father was a sweet and dutiful man, who did what his mother and his boss and his country told him to do. The upshot of this was that for me (my sister had a different experience) he became the classic fifties absent father. I characterize our relationship as affectionate but inarticulate. I believe that I “got” him, but he didn’t “get” me.
May 2011 (I am 71).
I am at a Jubilee residency at Naramata Centre. I show the card to my friend Genjo Marinello, Zen abbot from Seattle. “It’s your True Self,” he says, without any prompting on my part, and that’s all he says.
July 2014 (I am not quite 75).
For some years now, the first thing I have done and continue to do when I get up in the morning is to offer a modest bow in the direction of the painting. I am not bowing to the painting, nor to the figure in the painting. My intention is simply to acknowledge every day the iconic and archetypal character of the painting which points me to God and to accountability (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). I now have less than two months to go; and at the moment I think my chances of being able to say “Thanks be to God!” are fairly good. But for the remainder, I am also going to be ready to say “Lord, have mercy.”
August 31, 2014 (I am now 75)
So now I am 75, the age which the Holy Man held out to me 25 years ago as a solemn moment of accountability, and the age of the patriarch Abraham at the time of his call. I’m now 25 years older than when the Holy Man spoke to me; a third of my life to date has passed since then. I have wrinkles that I didn’t have ten years ago, and most of my hair is white. (Leonard Cohen has a song about this: “My hair is gray, and I ache in the places where I used to play.”) As Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas would say, the “accidents” speak of age, but the “substance” inside still feels youthful. Is this immaturity? Am I trying to hang on to what’s left of my youth (not that easy with arthritis and my need for oxygen)? Am I, heaven forfend, the puer aeternus [“the eternal boy”], Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up? Let these questions drain away into the sand before anyone answers them in the affirmative!
So what am I saying today? Is it “Thanks be to God!” or is it “Lord, have mercy”? Earlier this week I had a conversation with my friend Margo Ritchie, CSJ, a Catholic sister in London, Ontario, a redoubtable and marvellous woman. I told her about this document and asked her what I should say today (she knows me pretty well). “Both, of course!”
Ergo, and in the best Anglican fashion, both-and, not either/or.
Thanks be to God! – 100%
Lord, have mercy! – 100%
And something that came to me in church on my 75th birthday. First reading, Exodus 3, Moses and the burning bush. Moses asks God what the divine name is, and God says, “I am who I am.” That pretty well says it for me, too. At this point, LXXV, I am who I am; what you see is what you get.
Thanks be to God! / Lord, have mercy!
PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Grayston
Icons in the header:
Mother of Perpetual Help (western name); Virgin of the Passion (eastern name). Painted/written before 1499, in Crete; now in the Church of St Alphonsus Liguori in Rome.
Thomas Merton (2003). Copyright Joseph Malham. All rights reserved. Used by permission. The original of this icon was presented to the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his visit to Chicago in 2012. Website: www.trinityicons.com