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Eight-Legged Stick Figure

On drawing.


Once, on an evening that has since passed into convent lore, the sisters decided to play a game together. It goes like this, and if you’re a schoolteacher or work with children, you’ll probably know the gist already. The players sit in a circle, and the first person draws a cartoon on a piece of paper before handing it to the second person. The second captions the cartoon, then folds over the paper so that just the caption is visible, before handing it to the third person. The third draws a new cartoon for the caption. The game continues until the paper is filled, at which point it is unfolded and passed around the circle. Everybody is amused by the discrepancy between the first picture and the last. All is lightness and whimsy, and the sisters go forth to Adoration and Compline in a spirit of communal cheer.

 In theory, at least. What actually happened was that the whole enterprise descended into chaos within minutes. As a British person I have an entrenched cultural bias against the idea that some things are too embarrassing to be funny, but that evening was certainly a contender. Most of the drawings that the sisters produced were simply incomprehensible. I feared that one sister—who at the time held two master’s degrees and a theological license—was going to have a panic attack. “I can only do stick people,” she said. “Is that okay? Can I just do stick people?” Others agonized over their drawings, offering apology after apology for their poor drawing skills, before finally committing to a few hesitant, wobbly lines. One sister who had only drawn for leisure once or twice before in her life (she grew up in the midst of a civil war where carving out time for play was, for obvious reasons, not a priority) was helped along by another sister, who explained to her that a drawn image is normally intended to correspond to a recognizable feature of reality, and that is why you should draw heads at the tops of bodies, arms somewhere in the middle, and legs coming out of the opposite end. The sister in question smiled and nodded patiently, as one would if humoring a small child or a raving drunk, before adding a fourth set of legs to her stick person.

 The next morning I went back to tidy up the room where we had played the game, and took one last look at the piece of paper before I threw it out. It struck me that, if I had not been present at our games evening the night before, I never would have known that these pictures were drawn by adults. If asked, I would have guessed they were the work of seven-year-olds, or perhaps precocious toddlers. All things being equal, it is easy to distinguish the handwriting, reading comprehension, and speech of a small child from that of a grown man or woman; these are all skills which the vast majority of us begin to develop at a young age, and usually make steady progress in as we grow. Yet there are other skills and habits we begin to develop in childhood, such as drawing, where progress does not continue into adulthood and is not necessarily expected to, and the fruits of this great discrepancy between chronological age and ability were the sorry set of cartoons I was transporting to the waste-paper basket. 

 It’s easy to understand how this happens. We grow up, for the most part, among adults who speak and converse like adults and who form their letters like adults; when we become bored with picture-books, the reading corner in our classroom will always have another shelf containing books with bigger, longer words. If we begin to fall behind, teachers intervene to bring us up to the standard of our peers. Thus we progress, slowly and steadily, as we grow to adulthood.

 But drawing is different; it is simply how little children occupy themselves before bigger and more important things begin to encroach on their world. It is a dead-end pastime. Absent the encouragement of artistic parents or the drive of innate talent, we do not know where to go next, or even become aware that there is somewhere to go next. We are not surrounded by adults who draw as adults, even though we are surrounded by adults who speak, read, and write as adults. With these skills, there is always a next step. Yet the gulf between our childhood scrawlings and, say, a good amateur sketch, let alone the drawing of a professional, is for most people incomprehensibly vast. Hence it is perfectly normal for an adult to exhibit a level of competency in art indistinguishable from that of a child in his or her first year at school.

 As I looked at our drawings, I tried to think of other areas of adult life where we remain stuck, often through no fault of our own, at the level of children. The first that sprang to mind was our practice of the Catholic faith.

 Attend a Sunday Mass at your local parish and you will probably not find the adult parishioners crawling under the pews, pulling each other’s hair, and crying to go home. This is not how adults behave. Yet among those same parishioners will be those who (for instance) believe that the moral life is a set of rules, and pray primarily in order to ask God for something until He changes His mind about giving it. To be clear: it is a faith that is genuine, sincerely held, and precious in the eyes of God, Who has bestowed it upon them as His gift. But it could be so much deeper, so much freer. It is the faith of Catholics who have experienced growth and maturity in their social and professional lives but not spiritually.

 In the film Waking Ned (an implausible convent favorite), Jackie and Annie, a middle-aged married couple in a small Irish village, have committed identity fraud to claim a six-figure sum illegally. One night, they find themselves in the throes of a fit of conscience. Jackie, the husband, suggests that they both pray to help them to find a way out of the moral dilemma in which they have entangled themselves, and this (paraphrased) is the prayer they rattle off: God bless Mummy and Daddy, uncles and aunties. The scene is funny not only for its absurdity but also its familiarity. This is the prayer of people we all know (and we ourselves might be among them): people who have not engaged with the faith in any meaningful way since their First Holy Communion or, at a push, their Confirmation. It is the spiritual equivalent of the eight-legged stick figure drawn by somebody who has not drawn or been encouraged to draw for fifty years. But what other option have they? If a child is not surrounded by adults who pray as adults, who worship as adults, who live their life in Christ as adults, how are they expected to know what the next step is—how, in fact, are they meant to know there is a next step at all?

 It seems to me that in Europe and North America (the only parts of the global Church with which I am familiar and thus in any position to pass comment upon), the Faith is often understood to be the equivalent not of reading and writing, but of drawing. Growth in spiritual maturity is not seen as a basic aspect of our development, a lifelong growth in holiness to which all the baptized are called, but a hobby we grow out of; an extracurricular activity for children making their First Holy Communion. Thus, many Catholics see Mass as a chore and prayer as a kind of talking-inside-your-head for the same reason that most of us draw houses as squares with two windows and a triangle on top. Nobody told us, and nobody showed us, that there is so much more to experience, to enjoy, to learn, and to grow in.

 Several months after the sisters’ foray into drawing games, a friend of mine (perhaps in an effort to protect the community in the event we ever tried the game again) told me about Dr. Betty Edwards. Edwards is an author and a teacher of art who, in the late Seventies, wrote a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The book provides a method for teaching art to those of us who have stalled at the level of stick people and right-angled houses. It works by swapping out one form of cognition for another, essentially forcing the brain to engage in the act of drawing in a different way. The way Edwards achieves this neurological short-circuiting is by asking her students to draw upside-down. Take the image or the object you wish to copy, and start drawing it the wrong way: bottom of the object at the top of the sheet of paper, and top of the object at the bottom of the paper. Why? Because normally, when drawing right-way-up, our temptation is simply to draw the object or the image in its totality: here we are looking at a vase, or a bottle, or a photo of a child, and now we shall simply set the whole thing down on paper. But when drawing upside down we are forced to examine each individual part, each line, curve and patch of negative space, on its own terms. This is what we are called to see and to observe and to understand: not our prepackaged, preconceived notion of the object, but the unexpected wonders of the object itself.

 I have never actually attempted Betty Edwards’s method of learning to draw, probably to my friend’s chagrin, but I have used it to form some (I hope) useful conclusions from the analogy between drawing and the practice of the faith. Learning to draw maturely, for Edwards, does not involve complex methodology and clever gimmicks but simply looking at the same thing in a new way. Perhaps the same can be said of learning to live the Catholic faith. It is a question of simply looking at the same thing in a new way: a way that encourages us to examine in detail what is truly there, rather than work from our unwieldy, unhelpful, and perhaps inaccurate perception of the whole.

 In my experience of evangelization and catechesis, huge strides can be made in spiritual development by encouraging people to put aside their big-picture ideas of what the Church is, who God is, what prayer is, and examine each line, each color and shape: sacraments and the liturgy, the words of Scripture, the lives of the saints. Invite them to look at it all with fresh eyes. As catechists, we want to catch the attention of the people we are catechizing, and bring them to a place of wonder and genuine interest. But I have found that engendering wonder and interest need not put any burden on a catechist’s creativity because so often the basic content of the deposit of faith and the raw experience of true prayer prove utterly astonishing to somebody who has never been given the opportunity to see them for what they are.

 The sisters and I have never gone back to our drawing game; we’re content to remember, in a spirit of healthy self-deprecation, quite how shambolic the first attempt was. But now whenever I go to a parish Mass or give a talk in a church hall, I like to remind myself that simply assuming—let alone demanding—any level of spiritual maturity among adult Catholics is as tone-deaf and thoughtless as asking a group of Dominican sisters to draw pictures. As somebody who draws like a seven-year-old, I can sympathize with Catholics who practice a stick-people-and-square-houses spirituality. I know that they are not to blame because they have never been shown the next step. Instead, the responsibility lies on me to make that invitation to turn the paper upside-down and see the Catholic faith anew.

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