ODILON REDON’S painting The Mystical Boat is a picture of hope, wholeness and integration. The colours and the two people in the stern of the boat speak of reconciliation and unity. It has real power to evoke meaning for us because of the buried feelings it draws out of us – the longing and yearning for such a picture to represent our own life course.
The symbolic paintings within us that speak of our own sail boat journey of life are then brought into focus.
Redon (1840-1916) is one of the outstanding figures of French Symbolism. During the 1890s after a religious crisis and serious illness he turned to painting and a dormant talent as a colorist emerged.
I saw The Mystical Boat recently for the first time and it spoke to my deep self, that part of me made in the image of God. It resonated with great power because over the last few months I have started drawing sail boats with me in them.
Since Noah’s ark boats have been a powerful sacred symbol. When they emerge in our consciousness it is worth looking at the reasons. There is a strangled Argonaut in each one of us, and a golden fleece we need to seek.
Except we have to journey on our own. One of the highways of the sea that lead us to God is the awareness that for much of the journey we are alone and responsible alone.
Often the golden fleece is only found in darkness. We usually flee from that darkness rather than seeking it out. Which is why the bright yellow of the sail, symbolic of God’s presence is so comforting, for we need to take His light with us into the dark places of our soul.
I started drawing small sail boats with me in them after reading Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea this summer. Written in the 1960s for children it is a book that can lead anyone to their deeper self. The hero, Ged, who is everyman or everywoman, lets loose a shadow in the world that hunts him and from which he flees.
The turning point of the book is when Ged receives a word of life from a wise old man, that he must turn around and hunt the shadow, ‘the hunted must become the hunter’.
He makes a small boat with a sail and sets out on the sea and the shadow flees from him, as it begins to take on his likeness.
We all have a shadow side that we deny, but needs to be reintegrated. The Mystical Boat is the journey after that hardest work has been done. When Jesus stands on the beach of John 21 and says to Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ Simon Peter is forced to face the shadow of his betrayal, and his words of love to Jesus in response now include the painfully acknowledged dark thread of betrayal as well as the deep blue of faithfulness to follow.
In religious life we are all prone to creating a shadow, the parts of ourselves we have repressed for fear of rejection or being judged. Another way of looking at it is to say Christians often have a front-stage that conforms to the perceived morality of their community, and a back-stage where the hidden life is. Hidden addictions like alcohol, drugs or pornography is shadow work which has not been done.
This summer I realised I needed to launch a boat and sail in it to track down my shadow, with the fear of rejection lurking at the heart of it. Only then can we begin to move on from Paul’s cry, and all of our cries, ‘For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ (Romans 7:15). Only then does the cry, ‘I do not understand what I do’, become a cry of understanding and metamorphosis.
We can use the language of sin and old self but our task is to find new words to say those things, words that resonate with people in our culture without watering down the meaning God intends. The water must still be salty sea water that stings and heals us.
And not all of our shadow is about sin. I have repressed creative aspects of myself like writing poetry or painting pictures to express what I feel because I have been told these things are not ‘real’. How many of us have these parts of our self waiting to be released?
In the last few weeks on retreat at Worth Abbey I felt I had to paint a second picture of me in a sail boat, but this time in an embrace of reconciliation. The embrace was inspired by a sculpture at Coventry Cathedral, a duplicate of which is in the Peace Garden in Hiroshima, Japan.
This picture too is one of hope, a picture of now or a picture of the future. The embrace could be with my shadow, someone I love, or God, or all of them.
It was after I had painted my two paintings, hunting my shadow, and the embrace of reconciliation that I came across The Mystical Boat. I was suddenly filled with tremendous hope that wholeness, reintegration, reconciliation was possible and could be the next painting representing my journey towards God. I suddenly had insight into what my paintings might mean for me.
In The Mystical Boat the person sitting next to you could be your shadow, someone you love, or God. The sail is the golden fleece of God’s presence. It is only by His light that we overcome the darkness and our wounds are healed.
Redon himself wanted to ‘place the visible at the service of the invisible’ and in this painting he has done that.