The Heart of and in Calligraphy

August 17, 2016 • Posted in Calligraphy by

Many years ago, when I first wrote Bread for the Wilderness, a book we plan to publish in a revised edition, Pani Susan said to me, “What you have written in the chapter about the spiritual aspect of bread baking could be easily applied to any craft. It’s more or less universal.”

I realized that she was right. In fact, I had already thought about the similarity in my heart between baking and calligraphy. I have written about this before and will shortly be adding those ancient columns to this blog, but for the moment suffice it to say that there is an inner aspect to all crafts.

Many others have written about this more ably than I, including my beloved friend and inspiration Frederick Franck (of blessed memory), particularly in his most popular book The Zen of Seeing. Frederick emphasized what I would call direct transfer from vision to execution. In other words, you draw precisely what you see as exactly as you can, with no filters in place to judge or make distinctions. By so teaching in his workshops, he enabled people to capture the essence of what was viewed, whether it was a leaf or a person. These workshops always reminded me of a saying by Simone Weil that “all religion is but a looking.”

Calligraphy is an exacting craft. There are standards to an alphabet on one hand, but there is freedom of expression on the other. Recently I’ve been visiting the web site for Ieuan Rees, a true master of the art in both paper and stone. Ieuan lives and works in Wales. I attended a deeply inspirational workshop with him many years ago, and I have never forgotten his spiritual energy, expressed so magnificently in his calligraphic forms. In Rees’s work one sees both the exacting standards of a particular alphabetic form, but at the same time his creative powers of expression. His heart is there, visible to the beholder in and through the forms.

The pursuit of excellence is both a universally spiritual experience and also a deeply Christian vocation. Early Christian writers and teachers emphasize that we are called to do all things well to the greater glory of God. What could be more evident than that, if we love both God and neighbor, we must be prepared to give our best?

One of my favorite writers and artists was David Jones, an Anglo-Welsh poet who did a series of what he called “inscriptions” in his latter years. Once, a friend was visiting him and asked about a particular piece he was working on, noting the incredible concentration and thoughtfulness he brought to the work. Jones said something to the effect of, “I have to set this aside for now. Perhaps by Saturday I will be able to complete the E.” Here is the heart of the matter, expressed in a simple sentence.

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