THE CIRCLE OF LOVE – the story behind my drawing
I suppose it started while I was at Taizé (in France) in June 2016. At Taizé, I found myself sitting in a position in the church where I was looking at Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, which made me feel very uncomfortable and challenged.
The icon was painted in Russia in about 1425. From left to right, it represents the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in deep, loving, silent communion around a simple meal. The space in the foreground is empty, as though they are inviting me (or you – anyone who observes) to join them. It is so personal and intimate that I couldn’t cope with the invitation to come and join them and couldn’t accept it, for various reasons.
Later, I read a similar interpretation of another famous painting, this time of The Last Supper with all the disciples sitting with Jesus around three sides of a long table, done in 1495 by Leonardo Da Vinci, an Italian. The writer suggested that there is no-one sitting along the front side of the table so that you, as the viewer, are invited to come and join Jesus and his disciples at the meal.
For me, the idea of joining the Last Supper is not so difficult, because Jesus is not alone with the Father and Holy Spirit, but is surrounded by his disciples who are ordinary human beings who have also sinned and failed. It is much more like a picture of what happens in the communion service, when I am surrounded by other people and go to receive from Jesus alongside others. Although this is still an important and powerful image, it doesn’t challenge me in the same way as I can ‘hide’ amongst others. It is Rublev’s Trinity painting which I find so challenging and uncomfortable.
In September 2016, Roger and I went on holiday in the campervan to the Gower Peninsular. Whilst walking along the rocky beach at Port Eynon, we saw this piece of driftwood which someone had placed upright amongst the rocks. It really moved me. Whilst on retreat on my own in the campervan a month later, I drew the cross and called it The Resurrection Cross.
It seemed to me that the body of Jesus was actually incorporated into the shape of the wood. Jesus and the cross are one, an aspect of the incarnation of God in the world and his participation in and identification with all the world’s suffering.
The other striking thing is that the shape of the wood also looks as though cloth is draped over it – the burial cloths which were left behind in the tomb after Jesus rose from the dead, and which are often symbolically draped over the bare cross in churches on Easter Sunday.
This piece of driftwood reveals so much more than just the death of Jesus on the cross – it also reveals Christ’s incarnation and identification with suffering and the material world, of which I am a part, and his resurrection.
After my time of solitude in October 2016, I was restored to a new and deeper relationship with God and started spending every Friday at Mt St Bernard’s Abbey nearby. Over the next few months, I read two books exploring the Trinity based on Rublev’s icon (The Circle of Love by Ann Persson and The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr) whilst also using the icon for reflection and meditation.
Both books start with the Old Testament story of Abraham giving hospitality to three men (or angels) who are also discerned by Abraham as being “the LORD” (Genesis 18:1-16). In the Old Testament, “the LORD” is used to talk about God whose actual name, YHWH (Yahweh) was too sacred to speak out. It is this story, usually interpreted as Abraham’s experience of the Trinity (three men but one LORD), that Rublev has painted in his icon, illustrating God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit sitting round a table in a circle of love. “Iconographers…. seized on this story as a symbol of the Trinity and the hospitality at the heart of it. Between [the three persons] there is union and communion, and this hospitality is not only given to one another but, remarkably, extended to the world.” (CoL)
Rohr writes: “Abraham does not join them in the meal [that he has provided for them] but observes them from afar, standing ‘under a tree’. A place at God’s table is still too much to imagine. Abraham and Sarah seem to see the Holy One in the presence of the three, and their first instinct is one of invitation and hospitality – to create a space for food and drink for them. Here we have humanity still feeding God; it will take a long time to turn that around in the human imagination. ‘Surely, we ourselves are not invited to this divine table’, they presume.”
When describing Rublev’s icon and the significance of different aspects, including the circle formed by the figures, Ann Persson says: “There is a space in the circle: if I, as the viewer, step into the space that is offered, I enter the circle – the circle of love…. The Trinity is not just a concept or an idea. It is a way of being.”
“In God there is life, relationship, vitality, movement…. Just as Rublev’s icon leaves a space for us to enter the circle, so the Trinity makes space for us to join in.” (Rohr)https://wp.me/P8zWGa-ef
On my Fridays at Mt St Bernard’s Abbey during February, I started making a drawing which somehow combined the Port Eynon driftwood Cross and Rublev’s icon of the Trinity as a way of trying to make sense of it, reflect and come deeper into the presence of the Trinity. I found drawing was a much more effective way of engaging with God and drawing closer to him although I have never done anything like this before. I spent several weeks working on it, adding to it and changing it as I had new insights.
I placed a loaf of bread and a cup of wine on the table, as more obvious reminders of the Last Supper and Communion than appear in Rublev’s painting, and draped the white grave cloths over Jesus on the cross to somehow convey the resurrection as well as the crucifixion. The light of the resurrection casts a shadow of the cross over the table and onto the ground in the empty space left open for me to draw near and join them. As Jesus said, “No-one comes to the Father except through me” – that is, through his death and resurrection. I am not worthy to enter into the intimate relationship that Christ has with God the Father and the Holy Spirit except through faith in Jesus and his death and resurrection.
I must add at this point that I don’t think that what Jesus said was that the only way to know and believe in God is through coming to Jesus in faith. He did not say, “No-one comes to God except through me”. I think Jesus was saying that only those who know and experience him as the Christ and part of the Trinity can enter fully and deeply into a really intimate relationship with God as Father and know that they are forgiven and accepted. There are countless people throughout time and the world who know and love and worship God in various ways. John writes in his first letter (chapter 4, verse 16) that, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him.” Christians do not have a monopoly over love – or over God. Clearly, the world is full of loving people who are not Christians but who reach out to God and others in love, and worship God in various ways. After death, we shall all know God fully, and ourselves as God has always known us, so that “all beings will bow down at the name of Jesus and every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil.2:10-11) We shall all enter the intimacy of the Trinitarian Circle of Love, in the presence of the Father, Christ and Holy Spirit.
I took my drawing, which I called The Circle of Love, with me when I went to spend a few days with Felicity in March 2017. I needed time to reflect and pray to be able to forgive certain people who had betrayed me and hurt me deeply.
I had read what Richard Rohr wrote about “The Welcoming Prayer”. “The ‘Welcoming Prayer’ encourages you to identify in your life, now or in the past, a hurt or an offence or someone who has done you wrong or let you down. ….. Jesus revealed to us how to bear the pain of the world instead of handing on the pain to those around us. When you stop resisting suffering, when you can really do something so foolish as to welcome the pain, it leads you into a broad and spacious place where you live out of the abundance of Divine Love….. Because the hurts of life are so great, you cannot let go of the pain on your own. At that point, you need to draw from a Larger Source. What you are doing with forgiveness is changing your egotistical investment in your own painful story – which too often has become your ticket to sympathy and sometimes your very identity. Forgiveness is one of the most radically free things a human being can do. When we forgive, we have to let go of our own feelings, our own ego, our own offended identity, and find our identity at a completely different level – the divine level.”
It’s necessary to “welcome” the pain first before being able to let go of it. Enter into the darkness.
Remembering what Jesus experienced on the Cross, I recalled some of the words he spoke from the Cross, which seemed relevant:
“Father, forgive them.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “Today you will be with me in paradise.” “It is finished.” “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
I laid my picture of the Circle of Love on the floor. It was a long time (spent struggling and trying to get in touch with my feelings of pain and hurt and anger) before I knelt on the floor and moved towards the picture. Slowly, with great difficulty, in silence, I held my hands out towards the table in the middle of the Circle of Love (under the gaze of the Father, Jesus on the Cross and the Holy Spirit) as a symbolic act of laying the pain ‘out there’ and letting go of it. It was actually more of an act of will than an emotional outpouring and although I had wept a few tears earlier, there were no tears at this point.
The next day, I again spent time in front of the drawing with Felicity. I felt I was being invited to enter fully into the presence of the Trinity sitting around the table with enough space for me to join them at the table.
The words of a hymn came to me:
“Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidst me come to thee…..
Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come.”
Felicity asked me, “Does anything need changing in the picture now?” I replied, “The bread needs to be broken.” “Why?” “So that it can be shared – and so that it can be eaten”
Did they want me to share in the bread with them? I realised I needed to change the drawing and break the bread. That evening, I went across to Felicity’s church for a service of Holy Communion. Some words from the liturgy, “wine outpoured”, struck me – the half-filled cup needed to be changed as well in my drawing. The bread is broken and the cup of wine is overflowing – they are not whole and static as I had drawn them.
When I got home, I read about the importance of foot-washing, which John describes in his account of the Last Supper without saying anything about the sharing of bread and wine!
So I changed the drawing again and ‘broke’ the bread, ‘filled’ the cup and ‘made it overflow’, and put a bowl of water on the ground in front of the table with a towel on the table. My final alteration was to add more resurrection light into the darkness, to give a sense of the light overcoming the darkness.
Jesus said to Peter, when he resisted having his feet washed, “Unless I wash your feet, you can have no share with me.” I realised the bowl of water is a vital part of the Circle of Love and a necessary process for entering into it.
So, have I been able to enter into the Circle of Love and join them as a result of all this time over the past year spent in prayer and drawing and Bible reading? It hasn’t always been easy or possible.
I have also realised that there is a sense in which I am already somehow in the drawing, actually in the Body of Christ. This is an awesome mystery. Corporately, the Church, the People of God, are the Body of Christ. The broken bread is also the Body of Christ – another mystery – or part of the same mystery?
St Paul explains in the Bible that there is a personal, individual identification with the crucified and risen Christ through baptism and faith: “If we have been joined to Christ by dying a death like his, so we shall be by a resurrection like his; realising that our former self was crucified with him, so that the self which belonged to sin should be destroyed and we should be freed from the slavery of sin.” (Romans 6:4-6) Jesus, who lived in a particular time and place, is the human embodiment of the eternal Christ, the Word who existed from the “beginning” and through whom everything was created. He is God himself who gives himself completely, totally, fully to his creation. “There is only Christ: he is everything and he is in everything.” (Col.3: 11b)
Perhaps the best definition, or understanding, of “sin” for me is “separateness” – being separated from the Trinity, creation, other people, myself. When I glimpse Christ, acknowledge him, recognise him, acknowledge my separation, allow my feet to be washed by Christ himself, give myself to him, I can somehow enter (under the shadow of the cross), or let myself fall into, the Circle of Love and become part of and involved in the eternal Trinitarian Circle of Love – part of Christ, part of his ‘Body’. No greater intimacy is possible.
Another quote from Richard Rohr: “We’re standing in the middle of an awesome and major Mystery—life itself—and the only appropriate response to this is humility. If we’re resolved that this is where we want to go—into the Mystery, not trying to hold God and reality but to let God and reality hold us”, then I can experience falling into the Circle of Love.”
I have also been finding the picture very helpful when praying for others, especially when I don’t know how or what to pray for them. I can just bring them into the Circle of Love, into the presence of the Trinity………
The idea of falling, or being drawn into the Circle of Love inspired me to try and express that in another drawing.