Only Wonder Understands

Mel AlhornBy Mel Ahlborn

In the days that followed CIVA’s “Matter and Spirit” conference, SEEN Journal invited six first-time conference participants to tell us what they learned and experienced during our June gathering at Biola University. The best kind of learning is learning that follows us home. Here, then, is a conference “exit strategy” for Mel Ahlborn as she returned to her more regular routine.

Fibonacci seashell spiral

Have you ever had this happen: you hear or read a parable and, before you know it, there’s a breadcrumb trail within you, a path with its own momentum that opens up within you like a Fibonacci spiral? Minutes, days, weeks pass and you are still going over it in your mind? This happened to me at Biola this year, when one of CIVA’s conference speakers shared this quote from Gregory of Nyssa, “Concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.” You’ve got to admit, there is a parabolic, ponderable quality to this quote. And it is perfect for me, the artist, precisely because its wisdom rests just beyond the reach of my understanding. The Parables – they’ve been known to save lives.

Nyssa’s words really sum up my experience at CIVA’s “Matter and Spirit” conference. The planning team, led by Cameron Anderson, placed wonder and discovery entirely in my hands. More than once I wished I could bi-locate to sit in on two events that were concurrent. The artists of ‘Matter and Spirit’ create radically new work, and it evidences the presence of faith in their lives and in their art. Their dance and their music and their paintings and their metabolic sculptures and their architecture and their short subject films continue to inspire me. It is now much easier to spend nine hours in my painting studio after seeing Tim Lowly’s paintings and watching Karen Castleman dance. Karen, when you reprise WHBIT? count on me for two front-row tickets.

For my “exit strategy,” I am pouring my experiences into some collaborative work for an upcoming art program at a parish in lower Manhattan. Friends there tell me that their Arts Committee will focus on icons and iconography for their upcoming seasons. Do I have a contribution? My first answer was and is still, “yes.” Yes I have Madonna paintings that I so carefully copied from Caravaggio and Mantegna last winter that speak to their theme. But do I have anything contemporary to share, especially after experiencing “Matter and Spirit?” How might the Mother of God of the Sign be contemporary, bringing her perfect beauty through time into a visual aesthetic that is, at once, theologically faithful and visually evocative circa 2012? That image saved my life once, much like living with CIVA artists for a week did in June 2011. Can Christ Pantocrator, new or old, speak to a viewer who does not yet know the Name of who it is that they seek? I don’t know the answers, and I don’t expect that I ever really will. Paintings don’t talk, after all. And like Gregory of Nyssa says, concepts create idols, even sacred concepts. Only wonder understands anything. Count on it.

Mel Ahlborn is a visual artist with a studio in Oakland, California and she blogs at

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