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Barbara Hepworth's Spiritual Vitality

I've been staying a stone's throw from Barbara Hepworth's studio and museum in St Ives. So, before the crowds arrive each morning, I slip alone into her extraordinary garden - a captivating blend of sculpture and exotic planting. Her working spaces lie undisturbed as if she has just popped out for a moment to fetch milk for morning tea, or perhaps in her case a packet of cigarettes. The early morning light in St Ives is clear and full of promise, with a hint of the as yet unknown mystery of the day ahead. I find the garden, most unexpectedly, has a similar effect on me as a monastic retreat place. It feels serene, creative, authentic, purposefully walled in to encase the arena of sacred work, not to exclude but ultimately to embrace the world, and full of a presence and awareness of the depth of life. It stimulates me to prayer and reflection, and encourages me to contemplate my own human creative capacity and outflow.

I've never related to sculpture before, my own artistic talents being rather limited. But Barbara's work catches my mind and touches my soul. It intrigues and draws out something in me; her sculptures almost seem to have a numinous quality. So I decide to buy a book and delve into her thoughts to explore further this effect on me and all its spiritual resonances.

Barbara's work is the exploration of form and spaciousness experienced in humanity's relationship to geographical landscape. Yet she goes further. In experiencing her relation to external elemental forces she also explores the inner world, and touches our spiritual beingness, expressing all this in her bio-morphic sculptures. She understands that, ''Sculpture communicates an immediate sense of life - you can feel the pulse of it.'' And I certainly do feel that vitality in the garden, vitality which she sees as ''not a physical, organic attribute of sculpture - it is a spiritual inner life.'' Her work, she describes, ''Springs from innate impulses towards life, towards growth - impulses whose rhythms and structures have to do with the power and insistence of life.'' She seems, to me, in touch with the same divine essence described by the 12th century Christian mystic St Hildegard of Bingen:''I am the fiery life of the essence of God; I am the flame above the beauty in the fields; I shine in the waters; I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars. And with the airy wind, I quicken all things vitally by an unseen, all-sustaining life.''

This vitality calls me toward my own need of deep connectedness to Source, the divine life-force at the core of our being, to revitalise my somewhat ailing, tired and dry self. Somehow, through the daily demands of life, it can be so easy to become disconnected. I am reminded of the image in the biblical Song of Songs of the female lover, symbolic of the human soul, pictured as an enclosed garden at the centre of which is a spring of Living Water - a deep vital source of never ending life-force at our core. In the Old Testament Hebrew, God is sometimes referred to as the 'Watersource of Life,' the source of our vitality and true life, and there is something about Barbara's work that calls me back to centre myself again in God and drink once more of this renewing living water. Jesus' words echo within my spaces: 'I have come that you might have life, and have it in abundance.' Perhaps too often we can forget our call to life and vitality which, as Barbara recognises above, springs from an inner spiritual pulse and force.

Barbara is also drawn by the importance and quality of light in relation to form. She comments of her work, ''People often think that light is a kind of chocolate, beautiful and precious which one can enjoy. But it's not really that at all: it's a very hard master and teacher.'' This conveys much truth, and resonates with those on a spiritual path seeking the revelation and demands of God as Light. She goes on,''So often one is satisfied by forms and textures on a grey day, and then when the full sun and clear brilliance - which we have very often here - when it arrives and you look at the forms, they don't seem strong enough or pure or strong or tight enough and one has to work to intensify and release the forms.... Here in St Ives I appreciate every moment of the brilliance and clarity of the forms, for the space that one wants to make, within the forms and through the forms.''

This short 4 minute video below, an intriguing period piece from the British Film Institute National Archive1953, is rather wonderful for capturing a sense of Barbara's work in relation to its natural inspiration and surroundings in St Ives. I particularly love seeing her sculpture in its natural settings of water and rock towards the end.

One thing that distinguishes Barbara Hepworth's work is her willingness to pierce form in her sculpture, to enable her, and us, to explore its inner light and spaciousness; to comprehend and express the meaning of space in form and the shape of the displacement of forms in space, which she feels to be part of primeval life and which are a vital necessity to a full apprehension of space and landscape: ''There is an inside and outside to every form, the play of light and every shadow cast by the sun reveals the harmony of the inside to outside.'' In reading these words, I instinctively put 'human' in front of 'form' and a capital 'S' on Sun, remembering God as the 'Sun of Righteousness' in Malachi 4:2, rising with healing in his wings. The deep insight of these words resonates with my own spiritual journey, and all I am privileged to hear and understand in the life journeys of those I seek to accompany as a spiritual director. The light and the shadow of life, cast by the Sun, reveal the harmony (or not) of our inside to our outside as we seek to grow towards Life in all its rhythms, impulses, structures and fullness. Harmony brings wholeness, wholeness is the fruit of harmony.

Barbara understands that the vitality of form is revealed by the interplay between space and form. I cannot escape here the profound spiritual insight she explores. Many artists and musicians understand and explore in their creative work the interplay of form and space - the silences that make the music, the gaps that allow the words on the page to come alive; in Genesis, the bringing forth of matter and life from the womb of 'emptiness.'

There is something about the energetic union of form and space that is central to much of life, inwardly and outwardly, that touches our human notions of wholeness; the mystics understanding of union - conjunctio - with the divine. For some, including in part Barbara Hepworth, spaciousness/ emptiness has a feminine quality to the masculine nature of form. The solid form of the masculine yearns to be embraced and received by the spacious openness of the feminine, which in turn longs to receive the solid form of the masculine. The natural attractiveness between masculine and feminine draws them irresistibly into union. There is no form without spaciousness and no spaciousness without form; form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form. Barbara also explores this by the strings held in tension that she often places through the spaces, connecting them to the surrounding form. In my Living with Paradox blog I also explore further the Old Testament Hebrew sense of our wholeness as coming from the balancing and unifying of polar forces within us, including the masculine and feminine.

I also see this notion of union and wholeness emerging in Barbara's work in other ways. In the sculpture 'Foursquare Walkthrough,' here on the left, we have the union of the square and circle. For Carl Jung, the union of the circle (the symbol of infinite life) with the square (the symbol of embodied wholeness) speaks of the natural wholeness of the self being realised in finite human consciousness. He understood this as being why the circle often appears alongside the square in religious symbolism, and why mandalas combining the circle and square are often used in indigenous healing rituals and in meditation to restore a sense of wholeness, inner harmony and balance.

Certainly, in her garden full of form and space, light and shadow, square and circle, I begin to feel a restoration, a re-centering of my inner harmony and balance.

Neither can I escape the resonance of the sculptural form being 'pierced' to reveal its inner life, with the Christian understanding of God, in the human form of Jesus Christ, being 'pierced' on the Cross to reveal the true heart of God as self-giving, life-saving Love. Medieval Christian mysticism was fascinated by the wounded side of Christ pierced by the spear on the Cross, seeing this side wound as the gateway into the heart of Christ : 'Enter entirely by the door in His side and go straight up to the very heart of Jesus. There, burning with love for Christ Crucified, be transformed into Christ,' says St Bonaventure in his 13th century spiritual handbook for monastics 'De Perfectione Vitae ad Sorores.'

The passage from the wound to the heart, from the outside to the inside, represents the passage from the physical to the spiritual, not so much as an escape from the physical as discovering the spiritual through the physical, something Barbara Hepworth I feel truly understands. Bonaventure urges the nun to imitate Christ's passion not by mortification but by a process of spiritual transformation. The pierced side, however, is only the passage to the heart which is the true locus of mystical union, also understood as the seat of wisdom - the sweetest fruit of the contemplative's garden: 'Thus there grow in you a fountain called ''God of Wisdom,'' that is the wisdom that is born in holy hearts as an invisible paradise.' Back to our image of the Fountain of vital, energetic Life again... but this time with the notion of Wisdom, which is not about our knowledge or intellectual prowess, but about sapience as engaged, embodied knowledge that connects us to God, like the lover to the Beloved in the Song of Songs. It's about our direct experiential knowledge and relation with Ultimate Reality; the strings in tension, exploring the spaces in-between, being an expression of our desiring, yearning need of embodied connection with God, latent within every human form.

So much of Barbara's work explores the natural elemental forces of earth, water, fire, air and space within human and geographical form. For some cultures, earth is also seen as solidity, water is cohesion, fire is temperature, air is motion and space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four. She shows an extraordinary openness to these forces inherent in landscape, saying: 'A sensitivity to landscape is in one's ability to feel with one's body: to feel with primitive humility a response to life and location, a response to form, texture and rhythm, and a response to the magic of light, both sun and moon.' Barbara is deeply sensitive to the felt presence of elemental subtle energy within her body and in the natural environment. And the result of years of this exploration through sculpture leads her to the mystic understanding of oneness: 'I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and contour,' as distinctions between outer and inner cease to be meaningful.

So much of our western Christianity in modern times simply sees nature as the backdrop to the human drama of salvation, consequently our experience of nature has become spiritually arid. Yet early Christian thinkers, such as St Irenaeus and Origen, understood clearly the revelation and presence of God within the 'Book of Nature.' Bonaventure said, 'Throughout the entire creation, the wisdom of God shines forth from Him and in Him, as in a mirror containing the beauty of all forms and lights and as in a book in which all things are written according to the deep secrets of God. ... Truly, whoever reads this book will find life and will draw salvation from the Lord.' The more contemporary Christian Celtic John O'Donohue further writes: 'For the Celtic people, (the great divinity called) nature was not matter, rather it was a luminous and numinous presence that has depth, possibility and beauty.'

We do not succumb to pantheism to learn from Barbara Hepworth, Bonaventure and John O'Donohue to open ourselves to the experience of God's onening presence with us in and through the forces inherent in all creation. Indeed Barbara goes on to challengingly say, 'We shall lose our capacity to live unless we feel at one with all the rocks and the timelessness of life with its perpetual movement and rebirth.' And if Barbara has shown me anything through her work, it has been about connecting to and embodying the spiritual vitality inherent in all of life.

I woke up a little in Barbara Hepworth's garden this past week, and this St Ives pilgrim for one is very grateful for all her creative work brings out in my spirit. As Hildegard of Bingen says: 'The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature,' and the Spirit's creative presence and self-revelation in Barbara Hepworth's sculpture has unexpectedly touched and reinvigorated my soul, inviting me onward to inner wholeness, oneness with all that is God in Christ.

We awaken in Christ's body,

As Christ awakens our bodies.

There I look down and my poor hand is Christ,

He enters my foot and is infinitely me.

I move my hand and wonderfully

My hand becomes Christ,

Becomes all of Him.

I move my foot and at once

He appears in a flash of lightning.

Do my words seem blasphemous to you?

-Then open your heart to Him.

And let yourself receive the one

Who is opening to you so deeply.

For if we genuinely love Him,

We wake up inside Christ's body

Where all our body all over,

Every most hidden part of it,

Is realized in joy as Him,

And He makes us utterly real.

And everything that is hurt, everything

That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,

Maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged

Is in Him transformed.

And in Him, recognized as whole, as lovely,

And radiant in His light,

We awaken as the Beloved

In every last part of our body.

Symeon's hymn 15 in 'Hymns of Divine Love,' Byzantine Christian monk & theologian, 949-1022AD

If you would enjoy seeing another wonderful documentary on Barbara's work from the BBC archives 1961 by John Read, containing much in her own words, please go to this link on BBCiplayer.

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