From the Editor: The Galaxy Within Us
Sri Lankan-born artist Nalini Marcia Jayasuriya is an Asian Christian nurtured by a Buddhist culture, a woman receptive to the world’s many modes of spiritual inquiry. The result is not confusion or ambivalence but confidence and generosity, a distinctive sensibility at work in her art, illuminating the power of vocation and calling.
She once wrote:
As Time spread lighted wings and flew over all the world, the Voice spoke, and I heard, as I stood listening on the Seashore of the world:
“Go,” the Voice ordered.
“Do not walk in the footprints you see. Make your own footprints in the Sand. This will be your Covenant and your Reward.”
That notion of the sea – the shoreline’s calming eternal cadences – speaks to her Asian island identity and her transnational Christian mysticism. “The Sea flows in my veins,” she declares. “The Sea breathes in me. In this timeless spaceless power I live and live again. … Murti, the Asian concept of ceaseless Becoming, is the Sea.”
She is unafraid of any tension between the spiritual styles of East and West. Her art, its colorful flow and simplicity, is often a fusion of traditions. She has made a vocation of pursuing the world’s secret beauty and its savior God, sharing her responses and inviting ours.
“The needs of all people are the same,” she writes in A Time for My Singing: Witness of a Life, published in 2004 by the Overseas Ministries Study Center, based in New Haven, CT.
“They need protection from fear and a hope for blessing. There is a galaxy within us – an unpredictable portion of our being, beyond the constraints of the rational and the reasonable that can surprise the world with profound expressions of faith.”
A Time for My Singing features not only an impressionistic memoir of her international life as musician, lecturer, and artist, but also her paintings, mostly on Biblical themes. A gallery of her work can also be seen at OMSC.org/art. (Her book can be purchased at http://secure.omsc.org/node/137 for $19.95) This Reflections reproduces two of her works that speak to the theme of calling and decision.
There is a special affection for Jayasuriya at OMSC, where she was artist-in-residence from 2001-03.
“In an age when our cultural image makers manifest an almost pathological preoccupation with the terrible, the dysfunctional, and the tragic, relying as they do for their very livelihood on the human fascination with shocking spectacle, Nalini offers us, through her art, the gift of peace,” writes OMSC executive director Jonathan Bonk in the preface to A Time for My Singing.
Affection for her extends down the street at Yale Divinity School, where she earned an M.A.R. in 1984. Her YDS friend and professor John Cook, now Professor Emeritus of Religion and the Arts, characterizes her work: “Out of her own culture, shaped by Buddhist forms, she finds a way to tell the Christian story.”
In an essay in the book, Cook writes: “It is remarkable that underneath the multicultural life she has lived is a deep, mystical, steadfast sense of being that resides in all that she does.”
Encountering her work in recent months, I am struck by a spirit of serenity and resolve in her images, the drama of endeavor for redemption. Her themes – Annunciation, Magi, Last Supper, Gethsemane, Emmaus Road – clear an interior space where the numinous might pay a visit. They create a zone where the soul’s dreams might breathe, a still point where it is possible once again to listen.
Contemporary anxieties or impulses that quaintly reduce religion to psychological need can make that internal place harder to find and inhabit.
“Hovering between the elemental and the sublime, man searches the pathless way to freedom – will he ever find it?” Jayasuriya asks. “Will he ever silence his mind well enough to know himself?”
That quiet interior space, pursued in her art, has traditionally been known as the staging ground for hearing the divine call and discerning vocational identity.
The subject of vocation, embraced from many angles in this Spring Reflections issue, can quickly widen onto a vast number of debates. Competing definitions of vocation have been promoted or challenged for centuries. Worries resound that modern spirituality is confused about the meaning of calling. Questions from the economy lurk close by: are the distant forces of a globalized marketplace putting vocational dreams out of the reach of millions, or creating new ones?
Yet as the writers and poets testify here, the notion of vocation proves resilient, a mysterious source of gospel renewal. Nalini Jayasuriya, now residing again in Sri Lanka, is witness to that glittering gift of the spirit.
“Art imitates, sublimates, and exalts life,” she writes in A Time For My Singing, “freeing the vision from anecdote and offering its radiant peace to all who would receive it.”
We at Reflections thank the many voices assembled here for their particular insights and arguments. A special thanks goes to YDS Dean Harold Attridge, who steps down this semester after ten remarkable years as head of a dynamic divinity school and as publisher of this magazine of theological and ethical inquiry. As he resumes full-time teaching and research at YDS, we are grateful for the strong editorial instincts and sponsorship he has lent us.