Works by KPB Stevens. This exhibition will be available to view in St. Stephen’s sanctuary during the Season of Lent, March 2 – April 16.
I created these works over the last six years, using different mediums and methods as I worked. Making them was a form of prayer for me. During those same years, I found myself often writing and thinking about the people in the Bible. I wrote this poem in the persona of the Prodigal Son, and it gave me the title of this exhibit.
The Prodigal Son
by KPB Stevens
You are always with me
and everything I have is yours
yet I squander and don’t know why.
The sky is cold again.
This morning the sun, though bright, is small.
I imagine little kindnesses without acting on them –
an old man needs to be cared for in his loneliness,
which is my loneliness, and so I care.
I sometimes suspect that it lasts forever – loneliness,
like the sunlight on the wall,
blocky and brazen and returning every day.
How can I be lonely when everything I have is yours?
Or pretend that you aren’t with me when I dissipate
into other bodies, itchy and restless as my own?
It seems to me that I must be always prodigal,
and always coming home.
As I pray through the Stations of the Cross each Lent, and create works of art to accompany them, I often find myself reflecting on how the story recycles itself. Jesus knows what is going to happen to him in advance, then it happens to him, and then we repeat it every year. I think that he is very aware of his coming agony when he meets with Pilate, and the near future plays through his mind like a memory.
Sometimes in these paintings I painted the cross very small. I wanted to illustrate how our encounters with our personal crosses usually begin in a manageable, maybe even minuscule way. We make some slight error or someone says something in passing, and then the ramifications of that small event begin to grow and grow. To other people, it might look like we’re carrying these small crosses easily. They seem to fit in our palm, or in a pocket. But to us their weight is growing.
Jesus falls three times on the way to the cross, but I’m only including two of the falls here. In this first one, I wanted to create a sense of encroaching darkness and dread.
In this second depiction of him falling, the cross is only a negative space on the ground. A null space for him to fall into. A kind of obliteration. As if he were going into shock.
Although his journey to Gethsemane has been very lonely up until this point, now other people begin to appear and support him. We often don’t want to burden other people with our sorrows or our loneliness. Yet they want to hold us, to care for us. Why do we feel embarrassed by our weakness, and unwilling to accept the gift of someone else’s strength? In the painting, Mary carries his cross for him. It is smaller for her, so easier for her to carry. He will have to take it back eventually. We can never truly give our burdens over to other people. But they are willing to shoulder the weight with great regularity.
Again, Jesus is accompanied and comforted on his way to the cross. The women of Jerusalem give him solace by their presence. When we are alone and suffering, people often appear to comfort us. Maybe it’s just a kind word in passing, a smile, a thoughtful note. Sometimes it’s taking time — hours, days — to sit with us in our grief. I see a kind of heroism in this, because comforting someone requires us to share some portion of their suffering. Those who comfort make a choice to set aside their own joys and priorities, and present themselves as a gift to another person.
These two works are from a series I created to illustrate Brother Lawrence’s book Practicing the Presence of God. I include them in this exhibit as part of my overall commentary on loneliness and suffering. I often wonder what gives us the strength to hold suffering, to accept it, to help other people with it. I had to learn not to run away from suffering in my life, or try to hurry through it. Suffering requires patience and attentiveness. These are qualities that prayer and contemplation teach us. I have a sense that many of our quieter practices of prayer prepare us for moments of suffering by training our souls to accept what life gives to us and respond to it with a sustaining love.
The man nailing Jesus to the cross looks so distracted. His eyes are wandering away from his work. His death-dealing has become routine, unimportant to him. Yet Jesus also looks distracted, his eye staring at something beyond the painting. These two people are deeply disconnected from each other, and there is a return to loneliness in this painting. Cruelty alienates us from each other. Perhaps it is at the root of most alienation, and therefore at the root of loneliness. Small cruelties. Not noticing someone in need, not meeting someone’s eye because you don’t want to get involved with them in any way.
I end where I began, with the Prodigal Son. He is so lonely in his dissolution and destitution. He has made his father lonely, too. In the parable, Jesus describes the moment in which he chooses to return to his father as him “coming to himself.” When the Prodigal Son came to himself, he became aware of his condition, the harm he was causing himself, and the harm he was causing his father. The call to us, this season, is to come to ourselves, step out of our isolation, bear each other’s burdens, and allow ourselves to be welcomed home.