Good Zeal

Tracing the Image

Tracing bird imagesA favorite thing for me to do on a rainy day when I was young was to trace images from books. My family had a small collection of treasured books in our home, and my favorite to trace from was a large edition of photographed birds of the world. Laying the translucent onion skin paper over the page, I especially delighted in pushing my pencil nub against the outline of the golden crown crane and the frigate bird, neither of which I had ever seen in my backyard.

As I lifted the tracing paper away from the book there was always a moment when I noticed that the image I had transposed never looked quite like the photo in the book. It puzzled and disappointed me to find I could not replicate the photograph, no matter how hard I tried, even filling in the outline with color from my crayons or paint box.

Years later as an art student learning the elements of design, I became entranced with form as I realized the importance of light and shadow, and how positive and negative space relate to one another, causing form to take shape. The birds I had been tracing as a child lacked the nuances of depth and dimension formed by perspective and other elements because I had been intent on tracing only the outline of the bird.

When I began reading the Rule of Benedict, I was distracted by the many details and what seemed like countless admonitions intended to bring order and harmony to life within the community. Chapters were devoted to specifics regarding the order of worship, the chanting of psalmody, the importance of tending to tools, types of clothing, sleeping arrangements, meals, and attending to visitors—everything seemed accounted for and structured. Soon I found myself wondering how the Rule applied to my life as a lay person and later as an oblate living in the world. How did this expansive, all-inclusive guide for those longing to live close to God and others apply to my daily life?

Reading more about the Rule and Benedictine spirituality over time, I sought out role models and mentors. I became attuned to the outline of the image presented by St. Benedict in his life and his Rule for beginners. Studying the Prologue, I was encouraged to find the depth that had been missing from my earlier readings and encounters. At first, reading the Rule had been like tracing those unusual and unfamiliar birds, capturing only what appeared most clearly through the film of semi-transparent paper. I knew there was more to those images than I could capture with my stubby pencil. Later, I learned to look through trained eyes and I could see how the bird was formed, from light and shadow, space, and volume. I developed an understanding of perspective and how to achieve it.

The Rule came to life for me as I learned the counterpart to seeing with the artist’s eye is learning to listen with the ear of the heart. The outline of an image, as the Prologue in the Rule, contains within it all the attributable features relevant to the spirit of the Rule. Capturing all the details and replicating them in a concrete, evidence-based way is not as important as paying attention to the substance within the form. The bird soars off the page when our eye takes in the amassed details of what comprises a bird, just as the Rule comes to life as the ear of the heart listens for the Gospel note woven into each moment.

Imprinted on our hearts, the Rule instructs us to attune ourselves for listening through the circumstances of our days, each moment rendered accountable to what Love speaks into it. The bird comes to life for me as I see it in its entirety, just as the Rule comes to live in me as it becomes more than an outline of elements for how to live.

By Noel Poston, Oblate OSB

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