Happy childhood? No. But quite a happy ending! Although, not without turmoil. With low self-esteem and no inner-stability I was, putting it kindly, a bit of an outcast. This world didn't work for me.
I began to seek a world beyond this one. Did one exist? I still don't know. But, I found one inside of me where I, the outcast belonged.
What was needed was a miracle. Something to tether me tightly to terra firma. It happened. (Hear the angels singing?) It happened in the sacred city of Philadelphia. This, you might say, is my Philadelphia Story:
A Gothic Cathedral (I love big canvasses.) I walked into the chapel and felt--- what do they call it?---- “love?”. I sensed a Presence (more angelic voices), a Divine One. I was hooked. Every Sunday!
Prayer became my life-line. Prayer became my rock. The “monk” of the Painting Monk, had been seeded.
In the 6th grade, the monk inside of me was birthed, in everything but name. There, I made an adult (serious!) commitment to enter the ministry. I entered the ministry at age 20. But, it didn't last. Married, with two children, my closet was bigger than all of us. I came out. The church that had been my salvation, rejected me. It hurt. Deeply.
For the next many years I wandered. I often felt like I was Frodo, bearing the weight of the ring. And yet, with this burden, there was something else: That sense of The Divine Presence? It continued. It strengthened. It deepened. It was bigger than the church I loved that now despised me.
I still prayed, and now prayed more. How I prayed! Sitting quietly, prayer was my calling. Prayer was calling me.
“Can one earn a living praying?”, I heard a maternal voice cackle. Is there something other than a beggar bowl that the monk-in-me could take up?
Yes. I was to take up a paintbrush. The Divine Presence, I was to soon discover, was also a Creative Presence. An Artistic Presence. A muse? Indeed, I was amused.
How, after multiple careers as a minister, therapist, consultant and even a bus driver, could I, in 1999, with nearly fifty years of experience being an outcast, re-cast myself in a 5 year apprenticeship to Master painter Niko Choceli, to learn how to draw? I don't know, but I did.
How in 2005, could artist Ann Packard of Provincetown, MA decide to coach me to find my artistic voice? “Too much information. I want to see your soul on paper”, she said. Robbed of my voice in childhood, Ann, God bless her, breathed it back into me.
How in 2006, could I be set completely free, in a workshop with Irish painter Tim Hawksworth. “Art is a shamanic journey! People don't go to art museums to see human bodies that look like human bodies.”
From church to pagan?
These three mentors became a collective choir in my head. Hours of experimentation followed in various media: watercolor, pen and ink, oil, charcoal, figurative work and mixed media.
My inner instability became stable. My toes touched the ground.
I am married again, to Jeff and it's great. Oh, don't mistake me. I am still an outcast. But now, I'm recast. Ah, the precious feeling of belonging.
Art is now my church. The Painting Monk was seeded, birthed and is fully alive. I draw. I paint. I pray and pray and pray. I infuse my every single work with prayer, until my every single work becomes a prayer. People sense it.
In the studio my focus turns to the person or event I am, praying for. Staring at the blank paper the prayer emerges, followed by an image. I follow the prayer. I paint the prayer. People receive their painted prayers with tears, delight, and a host of other emotions. The prayers do not always make sense to me, but they do to the recipients.
My studio is my monk's cell. I pray with pen or brush in hand. Each stroke is a prayer. I'm not a monk that makes copies. I'm one that makes originals.
Around me the world is still going insane. (Not much has changed in this respect since my childhood.) I still sit in prayer.
It is impossible to pray the wrong prayer, because it is the painted prayer, praying me. I am its conduit. I experience the truth of Romans 12:2. “And be not conformed to this world; but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
I get out of my way. I am blessed. I am . . . because God is praying me.
Thank you for reading this. May I return the favor? Do you need someone to pray for or with you, artfully?
I am Stephen Heilakka.
I am the Painting Monk.