Joan Wright Howie’s SWell art of spiritual expression

By Mikaela Turner

Those who know Habitat Uniting Church minister Rev Joan Wright Howie have noticed a change recently. Joan has been told she looks lighter, more inspired, rejuvenated even.

You may be wondering what brought this on and probably be surprised to discover the answer is further study.

Joan recently returned from Britain where she had a two-month sabbatical at Westminster, the United Reformed Theological College, Cambridge (URTC).

She researched processes for spiritual formation to share through her congregation’s spirituality and wellbeing centre, SWell.

Joan has a particular interest in the relationship between spirituality and religion, which engages the same elements of human experience.

“People have this desire to find out who we are through being connected with that which is beyond the self,” Joan says.

“Humans desire and need spirituality.Spirituality and religion overlap, both are about people’s connection with a source that lies beyond the human self. Religion is a container that facilitates this engagement with the divine presence.”

Joan is a self-described “bad scholar” who has dyslexia so, rather than only sitting in a library researching and writing, she has developed a unique way of taking notes – painting.

After researching ideas on spiritual formation at URTC, Joan would go into the art room and paint expressions of those ideas.

“I feel like what I brought back may not be a scholarly piece of work, but an experiential awareness of spiritual formation,” Joan says.

Joan painted nine pictures and three are distinctly dark. Joan says these speak to an old Celtic awareness of three entwined ways of knowing God.

One is through matter, the things we can see and touch; another is at the sacred places of altar; but there is also the way into the nothing, an empty vastness. The paintings tell stories representing a God that is not “domesticated” or “tame”.

“We try to make God in our image and shrink God down into something we can find manageable, but I suppose it’s this feeling of this vast unknown presence of powerful, energetic light,” she says.

“Dark is not necessarily bad. The light is great, but there is something about our eyes adjusting to the dark as well. In adjusting and being able to see in the dark we can see the things hidden.

“For Christians who seek to follow the way of Jesus, Jesus did not walk, first of all, into resurrection, he walked through crucifixion, being betrayed and a huge amount of painful darkness, facing the worst in humanity.

“So I suppose there’s something about having to do that work in ourselves if we want to find a space of light. That is the path of spiritual formation.”

One painting (below left) depicts a trip Joan took to St Brigid’s Well in Ireland, a popular place of pilgrimage.

“I went into the grove and felt this very powerful prayer being prayed in that space and, when I gazed into the well, I felt that I was looking back into this space of ancient prayer and ancient presence,” she says.

“I also felt that the ancient ones were looking back at me. It’s very inviting, but also incredibly scary.”

Joan says her studies have proven to be transformational.

“I have a much clearer understanding about my own identity and role and the contribution I’d like to make,” she says.

“I feel rested and renewed and very grateful to my congregation and the Uniting Church for giving me this opportunity.”

One of Joan’s paintings (above right) emerged out of her research into spirituality and religion and how the two intertwine.

Here Joan explains the thought behind the paint brush:

Many people say they are spiritual, but not religious, yet both concepts are very similar. At their core, both are about people’s inner-life connection with a source that lies beyond the human self.

In his book Psychology Religion and Spirituality, Frazer Watt says they both engage the same three dimensions: experience, practice and belief. After reading his book, I painted these elements as colours in a mandala. The shape of the painting is reminiscent of the shape of the human brain.

  • The experiential encounter that evokes a felt sense is pink.
  • The immersion in practice and space for ritual is yellow.
  • The intellectual engagement with ideas calling for ideological adherence of belief is white.

Spirituality and religion both emerge from a common human longing to experience connection, the search for identity in life practices and the quest to understand our purpose and place in the universe, and clarify belief.

Down the ages, religions have provided a dwelling in the spiritual life. They offer experiences, practices and beliefs in the context of community. They provide a common language describing the Source we all seek as God.

More than 80 per cent of people across the world identify with a religion. For some, religion is the practice of traditions; others a pattern or rule of life; and for others, religion is simply their cultural identity. Those who say they are spiritual but not religious are choosing not to connect into a structured dwelling place in the seeking of connection with a Source beyond the human self.

The painting shows a person walking into the sphere of spiritual and religious life. It is in the yellow space where most people find their way into a relationship with God. Here, people participate in communities who share common practices. By osmosis, they absorb a set of values and a faith perspective through engagement, developing identity and a sense of belonging in God.

The figure has hair-like links into the white space and the exploration of ideas. Some people come to faith using the tools of reason and are converted by intellectual assent to concepts and ideas.

A third way is through experience. Some people encounter God in lived experience through moments of revelation, but there is a difference between spontaneous religious experience and experience during religious practice.

Running through its core, the painting has a blue path and a central foetus. As a Christian, the foetus is the incarnational Christ growing in me and in the world. The core blue pathway, is the mission Deo: God’s mission. As people remember and nurture Christ, the Wisdom, Word, Womb of God unfolding in our lives, we become God’s mission in the world, we become the church.

If people are intuiting God’s presence, and the felt sense awakens a closeness to God that is not reflected in their ideas about institutional religion, it is not surprising they will move away.

It might be that this contributes to the growing number of people describing themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Part of Joan’s studies were funded by the Florence and Alec Yule Memorial Scholarship, which is open to graduates of Pilgrim Theological College. 

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