Theme commentaries 2022

Theme: Metamorphosis – a profound or radical change

Reference: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19) 

Many times in the ancient world of Isaiah and the other prophets, there had been episodes of destruction and renewal. The two greatest ones are the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and the exile into Babylon. Both times major changes had to happen in the Hebrew world and a recreation of their world was brought about by immense suffering and distress. 
The movement of the Hebrew people from Egypt, where they had been enslaved for many generations, required them to travel through the desert for 40 years – symbolic of a life time. From one generation to the next they were able to renew themselves through God’s gift of the Law to Moses and the way it then formed them to live better lives with God and their neighbour. 
Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the ruling class were exiled in 586 and 581 BCE; life could not be the same and on their return from exile over 60 years later, they were a changed people and they brought back to Israel changed ways of behaving towards God and one another. In Isaiah 43 the setting is a trial scene. God declares himself to be the creator of Israel and alerts them to the healing and transformation that will now occur. To make it possible the people have to open their eyes and hearts and leave behind the things of the past. 
Our world has been turned upside down through pandemics, particularly the latest one, COVID-19. Are we going to be able to return to the same way of behaving? Did we find that there is another way of being, another way of behaving? Climate change has also brought an awareness to us that the ways in which we have behaved have become destructive of our environment and the danger of the loss of balance has provoked us to consider serious change in very practical ways as well as in political and philosophical ways. We need artists to help us imagine what that recreation can be. What kind of change will bring us to a new and better way of being. What is required of us? 
Dr Angela McCarthy, Chairperson, Mandorla Art Award 
The theme for this year is “Metamorphosis;” this could be a call to each participating artist to become more deeply aware of the spiritual metamorphosis that occurs during the process of creation of an art piece for submission toward the Mandorla prize.  Artists are gifted in reflection and articulation of the inner meaning of human experiences – especially those experiences that are difficult to express in words alone, that process can bring about a transformation in the person of the artist – a metamorphosis in the artist’s thinking, attitudes and prayer. 
While metamorphosis is often used in relation to changes in physical, natural realms, such as in physiology, in botany, chemistry and even in baking etc., the term is not confined to the natural, it also includes the supernatural, the spiritual realms of human existence. It is clear from the text that accompanies the theme for 2022 the focus is expected to relate to human responses to the action of God at the spiritual level.   
I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:19 
Reflection on this theme led my thoughts to the global disturbance of the past two years of pandemic. Questions easily come to mind such as: 
  • Is there a metamorphosis now in process that is impacting on all of humanity?   
  • Is the individual experience of the virus a transformational event in those infected- even when death is not the outcome? 
  • What transformation is occurring for the medical and healthcare profession during a global pandemic in the era of scientific approach to medicine? 
  • Has the pandemic prompted a return to Faith-based living in contrast to a Godless existence? 
  • Have people of Faith experienced a metamorphosis toward a conscious focus on God in everyday life? 
  • How have people with an artistic gift reflected on the impact of pandemic COVID 19 in everyday living – personal or communal? 
Reflection on the theme for 2022 in the context of the upcoming Plenary Council also raised similar questions and dreams of the great potential for metamorphosis among Australian Catholic individuals, communities and dioceses.     
Remembering the words of Pope Francis: “this is not just an epoch of change, but a change of epoch” led me to think that we may be experiencing a pivotal point in human history. 
 The Theme for 2022 is a mine of amazing scope for a reflective artist to create a work of art that is an eloquent reading of the times we are in.  The creativity of the winning artist will be evident technically, aesthetically and theologically.   
Sister Mary Eugenia Brennan SSJG 
At the heart of Isaiah an encompassing theme of the restoration and renewal of Israel can be identified. Multiple portraits of redemption and salvation are offered throughout the text, frequently in the form of a juxtaposition of imagery that oscillates between the blessings of Eden on the one hand (“streams in the wasteland”) and the privations of ‘wilderness’ on the other (Isa 41:18; 43:19). Graphic metaphors of corruption, alienation, deprivation, darkness, emptiness and confusion, are displaced through the righteous actions of God as king, returning Israel to Edenic harmony and prosperity, a state of grace stabilised through worship of the Lord (cf 41:21-28). Reading further, Isaiah 59:2-15a, for example, paints a picture of Israel as one of desolation, violence and injustice, wherein, “we all growl like bears” (59:11); and where petitions of justice are conceived with such dishonesty they are equated with “adders’ eggs” that poison whoever eats them (59:5); and where darkness prevails such that, “we stumble at noon as in the twilight… as though we were dead” (59:10). Still, death and alienation never have the last word in God’s kingdom, and in most instances, where the negative consequences of human limitation are revealed in the text, an opposite view of grace experienced through adherence to the covenantal life is also offered. Indeed, all around, should the Israelites have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, is the clear evidence of God’s creative, life-giving participation in Israelite history: “See, I am doing a new thing!”  The speed with which this can be accomplished is arresting. 
A superficial reading of Isaiah might suggest that its specific concerns are confined to an ancient people, and a faraway time. But ancient Israel’s responsibility was not just to itself, but to be a “light to the nations,” (42:6) such that its experience was significant for all of human history. Not surprisingly, the themes of Isaiah remain utterly contemporary and ultimately universal in their existential familiarity.We are lost; we are experiencing alienation, injustice, anxiety, corruption and confusion; we worship the false gods of consumerism and materialism, wherein the accumulation of wealth for its own sake is its own moral compass, regardless of its consequences for individuals or the planet; we appropriate a radical individualism that give rise not to human excellence, but a destructive narcissism.  
Nevertheless, one of the most sublime aspects of Judaism is its belief that, whilst nothing can be achieved without God’s grace, human subjectivity, imaged in the likeness of God, can also be honoured and dignified through human freedom and agency. We are co-creators with God of the world we wish to live in. Deuteronomy (30:15-19) exhorts Israel, and through Israel all of humanity, to “choose life!” over and against any human actions, attitudes or behaviours which might jeopardise the inherently loving relationship between of God and the world. So too, the author of Isaiah 43:19 provides an array of imagery, that offers in its beauty and joyful abundance the eternal possibility of hope. 
 Dr James Cregan, Theologian 
When we think of metamorphosis, our minds instinctively go to the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly. The complete difference between the squirmy caterpillar and the regal butterfly it eventually becomes is what classifies this transformation as a process of metamorphosis. But what is not commonly discussed is the process which the caterpillar undergoes to become a butterfly. The most crucial of the process is in its final steps, as the butterfly squeezes itself out of the cocoon before spreading its wings before the sun and the world. It turns out that in order for the butterfly to survive, the act of squeezing is necessary so that all the moisture that is weighing down the butterfly’s wings are eventually squeezed out. If not, the butterfly dies from the weight of its wings.  
So what does this mean for us humans? In the current state of the world, climate change has been an ongoing issue that threatens the future of our earth. Adding to this crisis is a global pandemic that never seems to end and wars breaking out in different parts of the world. The future seems bleak. Yet perhaps, it is through these seasons of conflict and difficult experiences that we go through the process of metamorphosis.  
The context of Isaiah 43:19 is set in a prediction of Israel’s impending exile into Babylon and the promise that God will eventually rescue them out of exile. This verse in particular, provides God’s promise to bring the Israelites into a new season. The verse points to the metamorphosis which God will bring about in the Israelites through their difficult season in exile, and provides a sense of hope and an anticipation for a renewed future.  
Upon reflection on the theme of Metamorphosis, I looked at my own journey of conflict and transformation into the person I have become. Especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have become increasingly aware of the importance of art and artistic expressions in articulating the deep struggles and pain that we are going through. Yet, it is also through art that we can reflect, process and articulate the deep transformation that occurs in each of us during such a time as this. This is a theme that encourages artists to express the transformation that occurs in the environment around them as well as within themselves, through their art.  
Simeon Neo, Committee member, Mandorla Art Award
Metamorphosis, changing form or transformation, is a key word in our Christian-Judaic traditions. As a matter of fact, it is in all world religions because it is the heart of the spiritual way. It moves between our most intimate self, the soul, and that which transcends us – in complete reciprocity. This process is conceived and expressed in terms like form, deform, reform, conformity, and with the ultimate aim: transformation, in the Image of the Divine.
As an introduction to this year’s theme from the discipline of spirituality I am turning to the life and works of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968). He himself was not only a monk, but an artist as well. As such he was a prolific writer and poet, and later in life became a photographer and (modest) visual artist. For him, both monks and artists are, or should be, people who live a contemplative life. This means, people who are ‘deliberately seeking to live in the margins of society, outside of all establishment, with a view to deepening fundamental human experience.’ (Merton 1968) Being a marginal is similar to being free to be a true self, because in the margins there are no masks to be held up because it is there where we meet the limits of everything and go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and become free to be a ‘witness to life’. For Merton the fact that there are always people who dare to seek the margin of society is a small message of hope: ‘(…) people who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. (…) And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion.’ (Merton 1968) It is the vocation of monks and artists, for every human being really, to grow into a true self. This is the spiritual way. It is an ongoing process of emptying oneself in order to be able to be fully awake, in being fully receptive to our surroundings and response to life, people, nature and cosmos with a warm embrace. Merton tells us over and over again to not only look, but see, through the inner and outer eye of Divine Love. Just because of this very specific (mystical) perception, Merton himself also grew a very conscious and critical mind and had an outspoken voice. His aim eventually was not only an inner transformation, but a metamorphosis of the world. He invites us to go on the journey with him, ‘to move from alienation toward community and wholeness.’ ‘Alienation begins when culture divides me against myself, puts a mask on me, gives me a role I may or not may want to play.’ (Merton 1984) He points to the alienation in which we are living in the contemporary world. We are alienated from our selves by our economic structure and the falseness of modern culture. His prayer is for us to move into wholeness and healing. As monk and artist, he is receptive to the uneasiness of this alienation, feeling it ‘itch’. It is about seeing and experiencing God’s blueprint in everything. But this blueprint requires an awareness and sensitivity to be seen and read.
Artists have much in common with the prophet and in accepting their vocation, they becomes homo cooperator. For Merton, goodness (ethics) and beauty (aesthetics) are two ways of finding God. He viewed both as an extension of the divine creation. Moreover, aesthetic awareness, opened human beings to the “interior sanctuary of the soul”. Aesthetic perception allowed the artist to see being in its ultimate sense:
There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, my own nature, and the gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.’ (Merton 1977)
Returning to the theme of the Mandorla Art Award for 2022: as a monk and artist Thomas Merton is a spiritual guide in the metamorphosis of humanity and creation into the Divine Image. All artists are invited to enter the competition, from the margins, a space of freedom, from which you can tune into dissonances, and enter into the cosmic dance of metamorphosis of the inner landscape of your soul, in dialogue with the world around you:
‘(…) we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.’ (Merton 1961)
Merton, T. (1961). New Seeds of Contemplation. New York, Toronto, New Directions.
Merton, T. (1968). The Asian Journal. New York, New Directions.
Merton, T. (1977). The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. New York, New Directions.
Merton, T. (1984). The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton. New York, New Directions.
 
Be still
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
To speak your
 
Name.
Listen
To the living walls.
Who are you?
Who
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?
 
Who (be quiet)
Are you (as these stones
Are quiet). Do not
Think of what you are
Still less of
What you may one day be.
Rather
Be what you are (but who?) be
The unthinkable one
You do not know.
 
O be still, while
You are still alive,
And all things live around you
Speaking (I do not hear)
To your own being,
Speaking by the Unknown
That is in you and in themselves.
 
“I will try, like them
To be my own silence:
And this is difficult. The whole
World is secretly on fire. The stones
Burn, even the stones
They burn me. How can a man be still or
Listen to all things burning? How can he dare
To sit with them when
All their silence
Is on fire?”
Thomas Merton
Sylvia Grevel, PhD Candidate: Innovation of Spiritual Care by the Arts, and Committee member, Mandorla Art Award.
Daily life, in my view, in the 21st Century has been largely characterised by a search after certainty, prefaced by predictability, where an algorithm is more likely to be believed or accepted as reality than what we actually see with our own eyes.
The invasion into our consciousness of unwarranted advertising, based on our computer search history, virtually instructing us as to what to buy, view or follow, can become quite exhausting, if not frightening. I am often confused when there are demands for more personal privacy, while at the same time we become captive to the new gods “Siri” and the myriad of her other demanding siblings, who listen to our every conversation and make “helpful” suggestions as to how to conduct our lives and relationships.
With electronic devices everywhere we look – and even hidden from our view – the most obvious casualty is that it is increasingly difficult to find the necessary quiet moments or space for one to simply “be.”
As we live through the third decade of the 21st Century that pursuit of such certainty has given way to a seismic change in behaviours, unceremoniously forced upon us by the unseen, silent, threatening presence of something most had previously never heard of before, but which has now become the stuff of folklore, Covid-19.
So many things have changed in our day-to-day interactions, work habits, socialisation rituals and travel. Suddenly restrictions emerged restricting our freedom to come and go as we pleased. Consumerism has taken second place to a new pursuit of personal health and safety. Floods, fire and drought have caused preservation of our environment moving to centre stage. The cries of the animal kingdom in sea and on land have made us realise the fragility of life itself. Humans are now the ones under threat. Throughout the world fear and uncertainty has begun to replace the arrogance and dominance that has bedevilled the human condition for far too long.
The ancient Hebrews recognised when there was a need for radical change of life direction, nowhere moreso than when forced into exile: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)
In contrast, Greeks referred to profound or radical change as “metamorphosis” (μεταμόρφωσις) as part of the mythological landscape where creatures could change shape or form to become gods who possessed all manner of power over humans, with perhaps the most contemporary in these troubled times, where politicians of all hues mirror familiarity with the prophetic old man of the sea, Proteus, a sea god who constantly changed appearance and always managed to avoid answering questions.
Into the cultural melting pot of Greek and Roman culture and belief, an obscure Jewish teacher emerged, whom the world today knows as Jesus. He was one who identified human need and opened up radical new ways of seeing what was possible, whilst at the same time identifying that which was abhorrent. He turned traditional faith, belief and practice on its head, but at the cost of his own life.
However, the God of all had the last word. After his death and resurrection, the followers of Jesus, drawn from Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures, all began to speak as one, with the transformations in people’s lives becoming known as “Epiphanies”, where unlike the unpredictable antics of the mythological gods in the prevailing culture, the lives of the followers of Jesus were changed beyond recognition, as they proclaimed the power of the Risen Christ to transform the people of God in every generation.
In the midst of the uncertainties of this present age, that truth still remains true and is the one sure thing we can rely upon, as Paul wrote to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, now powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. (Romans 8: 38-39)
Mrs. Susy Thomas, Moderator, Uniting Church Synod of Western Australia