Deb Kennedy and Kate Young Wilder on Praying in Color
By Rev. Michael Reed, Associate Director
"Joy is available."
Or so says Deb Kennedy, co-leader of a program with the delightfully audacious name of "A Joyful Gathering." It's a contemplative art retreat hosted here at Rolling Ridge. "What do most people misunderstand about joy?" I had asked Deb, moments before. She thinks for a minute, and then delivers her answer slowly, with emphasis on the first word. "Joy is available."
Joy is available.
It's the sort of simple phrase that—when you hear it—either fizzles out in your brain as simply one more banal truism, or electrifies your consciousness with a sudden rush of insight. As soon as Deb says the words, they ring me like a bell. I feel a sudden mad desire to shout it from the rooftops, or plaster it in ten-foot-high letters on a billboard. Joy is available. Not guaranteed. But not out of reach either. Available.
Would you like some?
For the people attending workshops led by Deb Kennedy and her co-leader, Kate Young Wilder, the answer is a resounding 'Yes.' On the morning of their first 'Joyful Gathering' at Rolling Ridge this past May, our staff scrambled to find extra chairs for all the people who showed up. When the day ended (with cake, because—why not?), the participants who packed the house had left with prayers and haikus they had written, mandalas and watercolors they had illustrated, a set of daily spiritual rhythms and new practices to try, and—hard to quantify, but palpably real—a little bit more joy.
Participants of the Joyful Gathering workshop at Rolling Ridge
Deb Kennedy and Kate Young Wilder are on a quest to help people find joy. Talk to them for any length of time, and you'll quickly discover that they're the right sort of people to do it. Spiritual directors and self-described 'soul friends,' the two of them radiate a kind of spiritual lightness that is energetic and inviting. And they've hit upon a strategy for teaching people the art of contemplation: art itself.
I ask them to show me one of the prayer techniques they use in their workshop—a watercolor exercise. Deb holds up a piece of canvas taped off into a grid of one-inch squares. "You just go square by square," she tells me. "You put a little water in a square and add a drop of color—maybe a bit of a rose color, like this. Then you ask yourself, ' What would come next? What seems to be leading from here?' Maybe a bit of transparent yellow. Maybe some blue, or a nice purple. Don't just bolt through it. Go square by square by square."
A participant at the “Joyful Gathering” practices praying in color with watercolor squares
Kate and Deb are convinced that art can be prayer, and prayer can be art. They believe that these types of creative exercises open a gateway to spiritual awareness—a kind of attending to the things of God and mysteries of existence that cannot be accessed by the rational mind, with its desire for certainty and control. But how, exactly, can colored dots and painted squares be prayer? I put the question to both of them.
"I love the line from Mary Oliver," Kate tells me, "where she says: 'Attention is the beginning of devotion.'" Kate tells me. "The hours I spend with paint and paper and pen provide a direct connection for me with our Creator God, the source of all beauty and love. That holy rumination—placing color and allowing for empty space—focuses and calms my soul." As Kate talks about color ("Color is one of my most favorite things God ever came up with") I sense in her a revenant delight. Her art has almost a worshipful touch, rendering back praise for the sheer decadence of color. She shows me her journal, and there is a spectacle of color on every page—brilliant swirls of sunflower yellow and string-bean green and blackberry purple ("I love that line from Alice Walker, where she says that she thinks it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple and don't notice it"). Each design is lovely overlaid with poems and prayers, written in felt-tip pen, demarcating the running conversation between God and her own poetic soul.
Watercolor artwork by Kate Young Wilder. The picture on the right contains a quote from St. Catherine of Sienna: “I can lose nothing in this place of abundance I have found.”
You would be forgiven for thinking that this sort of lightness of being comes easily to them, or that they've always thought that praying in color was a good idea. In fact, the opposite is true. Their Joyful Gatherings have come at a significant cost. Indeed, their whole approach to prayer has undergone seismic shifts. The day they published their website, ajoyfulgathering.net, Kate felt like she was going to throw up. Deb said it was the bravest thing she had done since giving birth. Could colored dots and watercolor squares be prayer? Was this the height of privilege and presumption—to offer spiritual pathways through art?
Kate and Deb tell me they were both brought up thinking about faith in black and white. "We were raised in churches where certainty was really important," Kate adds. "There were specific programs and teachings that would lead you to greater certainty." Prayer functioned as a kind of holy 'To Do' list: 'It's the idea that 'I do this for God,' says Deb, 'and in return, 'God does this for me," adds Deb.
Launching the Joyful Gathering workshops felt like coloring outside the theological lines. Kate puts it this way: "I was putting out in public that I'm not interested in certainty. I'm interested in questions. I am trying to cultivate more room for my spiritual understanding, not a condensed understanding." Watercolor, like life, is tricky, she says, precisely because it's so unpredictable. You can't control where everything ends up. "Sometimes you go into prayer with an outcome in mind. 'God, I want to feel sure.' Or, 'I want my children to be safe.' Or, 'I don't want this person to be sick.' And this is so different. You go in and you start laying down color and you say, 'God, could you just speak to me in this? And I'm going to be quiet.'"
Oil paintings by Deb Kennedy. Deb loves to paint scenes of her local area of Cape Code, MA.
"We are so very noisy with God," Deb adds. "For some reason, we think we have to fill all of our prayers with tons of words and petitions, with specific formulas." Deb adds that many people find learning these new practices of contemplative prayer challenging—even uncomfortable, at times. And yet after even thirty minutes, a change begins to take place. "People come out of it so pleased that they actually, for the first time in maybe a long time, were quiet enough to hear from God. By the afternoon of the workshop, they are wide open."
As we talk, they tell me stories—about a participant, who arrives with a deep-rooted fear, and experiences a breakthrough after contemplative silence; about people who enter sad and spiritually dry walk away refreshed and joyful. And they tell me that Rolling Ridge is the perfect setting for their workshops. "It's a place for people who have a desire for quiet practice," says Kate. "And to be with others who already understand. We don't need to convince anyone at Rolling Ridge, because it attracts a certain kind of person who is drawn to mystery rather than certainty. And that works really well if you're an artist. For us to partner with Rolling Ridge is a joy! It's a privilege. And it is so fulfilling."
A candid scene from the “Joyful Gathering.” Can’t you feel the joy?
Art is becoming a focus of our mission at Rolling Ridge with original paintings in the Lakeside Gallery Dining Room and sculptures by Mico Kaufman throughout our property. Through our new 'Artists Collaborative,’ we are exploring the Divine intersection of art and spirituality. We offer a monthly online gathering called "SoulCare with Artists," a peer group that focuses on nurturing the soul of creatives through contemplative artistic reflections. This past May, we hosted our first ever "Artists' Week"—including Kate and Deb's 'Joyful Gathering' workshop—with retreats for writers, photographers, and artists of all kinds.
Rolling Ridge is committed to art as a core part of what we do, because we believe that for Christian spirituality to survive in the coming decades, people will need models of faith centered on mystery and devotion, rather than certainty and control. We’re looking for donors, patrons, and sponsors who believe in what we are doing so we can offer more programming that explores the Divine intersection of art and spirituality. (It's worth saying—and saying with joy—that the generous financial support of our donors and friends makes it possible for us to offer that alternative vision of Christian spirituality. To those who can give in support of our Artists Collaborative and our mission at the Ridge, thank you! Click here to give.)
I ask Kate and Deb whether the risk has been worth it—learning to pray in color. They tell me that yes, some people might think they are odd. But for both of them, the trade-off has been a closer connection to God. "When I'm doing well and practicing," says Deb, "I'm very spiritually centered. My spiritual life is very rich and God is so much bigger in the process." It's not perfect by any means. Kate and Deb told me that some days, they get off-center. Some days they don't feel joyful. But they know how to find their way back. "I don't have to do everything; I don't have to do anything," says Deb. "I just have to walk with God every day. I have to breathe. I have to talk with God a little bit. That's all. And when I'm not feeling it, I ask God, "Could you bring a little delight my way today? Could you just show up somewhere? And when I'm prayerful enough to ask, it's remarkable. It happens."
Praying in color: the devotional artwork from the Joyful Gathering. The quote on the right is from Henri Nouwen: “You are the place where God chose to dwell... God is the God of the present. God is always in the moment. Be the moment hard or easy, joyful or painful… Real care means the willingness to help each other in making our brokenness into the gateway of joy.” Art by Kate Young Wilder.
It brings me back to that original line: "Joy is available." It's one thing to say it. It's another thing to witness it. Talking with Kate and Deb, I get the sense that they have figured out something fundamental. Something important to stop and learn from. The Jewish and Christian Scriptures have always connected joy with the presence of God. "In your presence," says the Psalmist, "there is fullness of joy." It strikes me that joy isn't the same thing as blissful circumstances. "Rejoice in the Lord always," says the Apostle Paul—a line that Christian tradition tells us was written from inside a jail cell. How one finds joy is something that must be practiced and internalized. But when you find someone who's figuring it out, you can't help but ask them to share what they know.
Like many others, I'm looking forward to the next Joyful Gathering here at the Ridge. I'm opening myself up to learning how to pray in color and contemplate with art. And—even if it's not shouting the message from the rooftops, or plastering the words on giant billboards—I have at least written those three words on a simple 3x5 card. It's pinned above my desk, reminding me that every day, I get a choice. After all, joy is available.
Deb Kennedy and Kate Young Wilder are spiritual directors and co-founders of the “Joyful Gathering.” Learn more about what they do at ajoyfulgathering.net. Follow them on Instagram at @kateyoungnh (Kate) and @debkennedyart (Deb).