A Christian painter explains his vocation

As a teenager I was inspired and helped to pray by a book called Prayers of Life by Fr Michel Quoist. This, his first and most popular book, completed at the age of 33, made him a sort of Henri Nouwen of his day.

Quoist’s father died when he was only 14 and he had to go out to work, and so became involved in the Young Christian Workers movement, eventually embracing a priestly vocation. For all of his life he remained involved in Catholic Action and social issues, becoming parish priest in a poor quarter of Le Havre.

There was a grounded quality to his published meditations which became an informative and useful corrective to my youthful, essentially escapist but sincere fantasies of would-be mysticism. His prayers modelled a way of bringing real-life experiences, and the sometimes disturbing emotions and questions they engendered, to prayer.

In the introduction Quoist makes a pitch for natural theology, saying: “If we knew how to look, all life would become a sign.” I was recently reminded of this simple invitation to contemplation when I attended an exhibition of contemporary Christian art in the parish hall at the Jesuit parish in Farm Street, Mayfair.

Some of the paintings on show were by my dear friend Francis Hoyland, who embodies my ideal of the Christian artist. Painting is for him a vocation, a way of looking at the world so as to see the inscape of the Creator’s loving thought giving form to creation. He gave a brilliant talk at the viewing, a kind of apologia for the Christian artist. It was characteristically modest and shorn of pretension, but of great profundity, and I hope it will be published in full.

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