I was asked by Congregation of Religious and Secular Institutes to share about how I live out my religious and artistic vocation in a country like Norway; during World Meeting for Young Consecrated Men and Women.
You find my testimony below:
I am Dana Benedicta, a Dominican sister from Oslo, Norway.
My witnessing will be linked to artistic expressions, as this is my profession and my first vocation being recognized.
I am Polish and I joined the Dominicans after living for some years in Norway. My testimony might be special for this reason that even as I now have become a part of the history of this country, I am still a newcomer who is learning the tradition, culture and the nature of this nation and its people. I can shamelessly say that I love Norwegians and, so far, I can easily connect with their spirit, which I find very open for transcendence.
I believe every human being has the seed of faith in their hearts, and what often can wake up this seed, is a Christian who enjoys looking at this seed with humility and respect. For us, religious is not enough to be in love with God. I think that my great sister, Catherine of Siena would agree with me, that we have to pray for a gift of being in love with human souls, too. And to remember St.Augustin’s words: «there are many outside who seem to be inside and there are many inside who seem to be outside»
We hear about Norway as one of the richest countries in the world. Who knows, maybe this is right? The only question is: what is really wealth and who is the richest in this world? I have experienced both material and spiritual poverty myself, and I do believe that material poverty is not killing as many people as spiritual poverty does, as spiritual poverty is simply destroying the heart of your existence: your soul. It is as difficult to find God when You have no choice, as when you have too many. Just imagine people who have no strenght to stand up from their bed and see the meaning in life and reason for living. So, still possessing nothing, but having everything, I want, together with Peter (Acts 3:6), say:
“I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”
And maybe the first thing you can do for others is to smile, or share the moment of seeing something touching and beautiful, or maybe carrying the cross with someone… God is not a question. He is an answer: I believe our deeds are the Gospel we write with our lives. It is in this spirit that I try to bring Joy, real joy to people: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Without any fear! The world is full of people giving their lives for the Love of Jesus Christ. So shame on us if we are afraid of becoming fools in some people’s eyes because of our faith.
I always wanted to work with arts. And I did.
When I was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, Poland I realized, after the lecture of John Paul II ”Letter to Artists”, that I have a great job to do: that by receiving talent I received responsibility as well, as every gift in Church must develop and bear fruits for others. I thought I was called to live my life as an artist with personal vows, helping people spiritually, and – if possible, materially, too. So I had my plans.
As I was about to defend my master’s degree, moved by the example of Padre Pio and Teresa of Avila´s writings, my life turned upside down. I would give up everything for the possibility of being able to pray for people. But no longer through the arts. I would like to pray through my life, to give my life for souls, together with the Crucified Lord and His Mother. I thought that joining the monastery was the only reason for my life. And the arts which I spent many years to learn were no longer important to me. It was a form of death in a way, as being an artist is very much connected to your identity. But – once you find a pearl, you just sell everything to buy it. No question.
When I joined the Dominicans in Oslo, I gave up arts completely. I knew that I wanted to stay flexible, obedient, and have as little expectations as possible. Besides, it sounded quite impossible to me: to combine two vocations in one. But what is so special about the Dominican order, is this belief in what St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Grace does not destroy, but builds upon nature “. In other words, “Grace perfects nature”. And that is why my sisters were trying to wake up the artist in me again, convinced that this could become a part of my apostolate. Gradually, I began to understand that they were right. Arts worked as a fishing rod in my hands. Beauty is attracting people as it mirrors a glimpse of Infinity and reminds us of the deepest need in our hearts: our relationship with God, and relations with others in God.
What we call fine arts is a pure act of prayer, and does not have to be nice to look at. As a prayer, it only has to be honest. Fine arts have no other function than providing aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual stimulation to the viewer while works of applied art are more or less functional objects – the church is full of this kind of art – beautiful objects. I would like to stress this as many artists are misunderstood here and assumed certain expectations they cannot fulfil. It is quite a mistake to ask an artist who is knocking at the monastery´s door to make pious pictures imagined by someone else as a way of testing her or his obedience. Some artists can only pray through arts, and are neither gifted or skilled in the area of applied arts. We do not ask a dentist to do surgery on someone´s heart even if technically a dentist is also called as a “doctor”. This is very important.
Being an artist is rather looking in a creative way at life than making something new. This is supporting the act of creation mostly by listening, and having love for the truth. In this light all people are creative, whether they have some manual gifts or not. All people are artists, as we are created in the image and likeness of God. It is at this point where my apostolate as a trained artist begins: with the key of art open up people in their depths and awaken their consciousness, so they can find God themselves, and in return, they may be able to do the same to others.
In my video art school, I introduce some techniques and always put some “salt” of Gospel in what I teach. This is what distinguishes my way of teaching artistic techniques from any other artist without faith.
For one year we ran a small art school once a week, and it gave us an idea for building a workspace where we could invite people for regular art courses. I have no ambition in training professional artists but my aim is to use arts as a key to foster silence and solitude. Our present world is full of noise and distractions, and I believe that one way of bringing back the silence, discipline and good solitude in our lives might be through learning and doing arts.
I was very lucky to meet my sisters who had no expectations with my arts and they gave me freedom and their trust. This is probably the most beautiful side of my community: we are supportive of each other and we respect each other’s work.
Out of a population of about 5 million, we are 130.000 Catholics and 130 religious altogether. 70% of all Catholics are migrants to Norway or born in migrant families. Religious life mirrors this internationality very well. In my community – we are 10 sisters – while the majority are Norwegians, we also have one Vietnamese sister, one from the Philippines and two with Polish background.
In a Church as small as in Norway, religious people know each other more or less, and this gives the Church in this country a special atmosphere. We, indeed, “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Rom.12:15)
My concern includes artists in Norway. Artists from different fields. I do believe that the arts are completely useless for this materialistic world, and even if some artists are earning good money, the bigger part of them will remain materially poor, but they will still enrich others.
The real art tolerates no lie.
And so, there is no truth without Jesus Christ,
and no truth without Love,
and no Hope without Faith,
and no Faith without Hope.
“But the greatest of them is Love” (1 Cor. 13: 13)