Painting beckons to a life full of meaning

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 23, 2004

A few columns back I mentioned that there are two paintings in my office that guide me in the embrace of life. I described in some detail Thomas Cole's 1842 Voyage of Life.

This week I want to tell you about the other painting, a combined Father's Day and birthday gift this year from my family.

The Empty Vessel is a 9x13 inch (22x33 cm) water colour and acrylic on paper by Cochrane artist Marie Sigurdson, co-owner of Paintbox Artist Supplies.

The image is profound in its simplicity: earth, sky, ladder and pot, brought together in a spirit typical of the Santa Fe, New Mexico area.

Stretching across the bottom sixth of the painting is a foreground stripe of tan, dusty earth, a few small pebbles scattered to the right.

Above the ground, a cloudless blue sky spreads upward, beginning with turquoise and intensifying into a deep, mysterious cobalt blue.

A rustic five-rung ladder stands upright, centered on the line between earth and sky, its poles converging into the cobalt blue.

On the ground in front of the left side of the ladder sits a bulbous earthen vessel, its wide mouth missing part of its rim.

When I first saw this painting nearly two years ago at Paintbox, where it hung behind the counter, it immediately spoke to me of an intriguing line in the Hebrew wisdom book of Ecclesiastes:

"He has also set eternity in the hearts of men."

(This statement follows soon after the often-quoted passage: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.")

I saw in the damaged vessel a symbol for our mortal existence in this realm of time and space, symbolized by the ground. The blue sky spoke of Holy Mystery, and the ladder spoke of hope – of the linking of eternity in our hearts with our Eternal Source and Destiny, and especially of life after death.

However, when I mentioned my interpretation to Marie after my family gave me the painting, she pointed out that the ladder goes both directions – not only up, but down, too. The vessel was open not only to life after death, but to an infusion of life and eternity in the here-and-now!

Yes, I reconsidered, the sense of eternity in our hearts is not just about a longing for heaven, but an openness to bringing heaven to earth, even in our brokenness. Is this, I asked myself, what Teilhard de Chardin was getting at when he said, "We are spiritual beings having a human experience"?

I discussed this further with some other Cochrane-area coffee companions the other night, drawing from various religious traditions.

Michael and Judie Bopp brought my attention to another statement in Ecclesiastes, one which calls us to mindfulness of eternity in the present:

"Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, 'I find no pleasure in them'... Remember him – before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it."

Of the fear of death that holds so many back from fully embracing life, Pat Verge quoted from a Bahai'i writing: "To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage."

All of which brought me back to The Empty Vessel's engagement of eternity within our mortal existence, set free from fear. In this light I read afresh the New Testament verse:

"God is love, he is, so are we in this world."

When I bounced these comments off Marie, she reminded me of the importance of her title for the painting: The earthen vessel was not merely open; it was empty.

"When a vessel is full," she said – full of busyness, negativity and the like – "it leaves no room for the true meaning of life to come in."

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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