When I met Father Matthew Fox at Holy Names College in Oakland, California, I know immediately I was talking with someone who had genuine interest in my work. He encouraged me to describe in detail the ideas I had developed using the arts as healing. Others had listened to these ideas with a mix of skepticism and polite indifference but Matt (I had already dropped the Father Fox formality) got excited and started asking engaging questions particularly about my life on the farm and my work in art and dance with cancer patients. During the course of our invigorating exchange I began to realize what I had been doing for many years was spiritual work although I had never called it that. Suddenly my work had a new context, one that felt right like none before. I had just met this man but his words set a new direction for my work and life. At the end of our conversation Matt said if I ever moved to the Bay Area he would like me to get back in touch with him about the possibility of teaching a class at the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College.
On the plane back to Minnesota I began to calculate ways I could relocate to California. I knew I wanted to pursue Matt’s interest in what I had to offer but I had financial and family matters to consider before a move from the farm would be possible. Teaching a class or two would only be possible if I had other work; I could see the demand for my consulting services was nothing I could depend on. When the plane landed in Minneapolis the temperature was minus 10 with a wind chill factor of 40 below. Within three months of that year, 1984, I was living in California directing a small county museum. The following summer I taught my first class for the Institute in Oakland. An ever-challenging and exciting journey in teaching and learning had begun that continues today. It started because Matt was able to see my greater story and had not trouble finding a link between cows, the arts and healing.
In planning that first summer of teaching Matt asked if I could teach body prayer. “Surely,” I said, “But what is body prayer?” Matt’s reply was of the kind I had nearly given up hearing. “You’re a dancer and an artist,” he said, ”I’ll let you decide what it is.” Since that day I have taught body prayer to hundreds if not thousands of people in this country and abroad guided by an ever-evolving definition that began with a moment of trust.
Of course, this trust has not been limited to me. Matt has recognized a treasure trove of artists who have become colleagues in imagination, opening doors to creative experiences in the art-as-meditation dimension of Creation Spirituality study and practice. He has the particular ability the gifts of intuitively astute people and to speak the language of contemplative artists. He does this at ths same time he works along gregarious and highly visible public figures.
As an artist I ‘ve experienced many times when people are suspicious of my intentions, work ethic, ability, or even sanity. No matter how off-the-wall my ideas appear, Matt trusted that I was keeping in context of appropriate goals and had the ability to realize the ideas that I imagined.
Opportunities are rare for artists to share their mystical heritage in contemporary culture. The spiritual contributions of artists often has been ignored. Signs of change are appearing all around us. Art programs are reappearing in the public schools after having been eliminated almost entirely. In many communities the arts are experiencing a renaissance of interest and vitality. Everywhere in the art world new signs of spiritual expression are becoming increasingly present.
It is hard to say what role Matt has played in the renewed interest in the arts and spirituality. There is one factor that indicates his contribution may be significant. He has been keenly aware of the need to balance what is often referred to as right brain, left brain thinking. He has almost insisted in providing adults with a way of learning that involves the whole person. To this day educational opportunities that recognize the importance of combining book learning with the direct experience with the creative process is considered experimental and rarely available anywhere in the world in the direct way that Matt has established it. Through his writing, lectures and workshops, Matt has been able to show the ancient roots of such learning practices. It is not wonder individuals who are searching for a holistic spiritual life travel to study in the presence of Matt. Students, many in mid-life and beyond, finally find a way of learning that revitalizes their energies and rekindles their interest in creativity. It takes little time before the student become teachers with a fresh definition of education.
When I look back at the past 15 years of working with Matt I see the faces of students in my art and movement classes that belong to teachers, clergy, therapist, social workers, lawyers and many others who have gone back to their communities with a new love for the arts, unafraid of the power of the creative process. How many emissaries there may be out there doing good work touched by the programs of Creation Spirituality will never be known but it is certain that Matt has been a part of their lives in person or through his writings.
His support encouraged me to risk and reach for new ideas. I was eager to hear his new ideas as well. Taking risk that ultimately offer students enticing challenges to extend their thinking and encourage deeper creative expression often has been the topic of the exchange between Matt and me. What exciting gymnastics it has been to walk on the edge with Matt.
It is not unusual for an author or leading thinker to reach many people at great distances through the effortless travel of the printed word.. But for a leader to be continually present to crowds of interested people, it takes enormous effort. Matt’s extensive travel, his involvement as a lecturer and workshop leader at conferences and his willingness to talk informally with large numbers of individuals has always amazed me. Clearly it is impossible for him to give time to everybody who wants him, yet it seems as if he does. My experience is that this is not some sacrifice he is making but a sincere interest in people spurred by his constant quest for understanding the stories of the individuals who are drawn to Creation Spirituality.
I recall in the late 1980’s while teaching summer workshops in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Montana, British Columbia or any number of other places, Matt would fly in on the first day of the workshop. This following a series of speaking engagements in Europe then would teach the remainder of the week at the workshop. “ Doesn’t he know about jet lag? “ I would think. Surely he was exhausted yet he was so highly motivated he was ready to go again after a few hours sleep. He was very thin, gaunt looking at times. We were all worried that he was working far too hard and was becoming frail. Our concerns often were washed away in a matter of minuets when he latched onto an idea that could convey a deeper understanding of earth justice or holistic education or mysticism. Suddenly he would appear to have the energy and strength of a star athlete.
In the mid 1990’s I retreated to the wilderness to spend time concentrating on my own spiritual and creative growth. During this time I had limited contact with my family and friends including Matt. While this act of pulling away was seen as some as too extreme, I was encouraged by Matt to do what I needed to do to further my spiritual life and he came to visit me at the cabin where I lived deep in the woods.
It was not long after I had come back to civilization that I learned that Matt had aquired a building in Oakland and was going to begin his own university. I met the news with the thoughts that he must be crazy. Finally, I thought, he has lost total perspective on what he may be able to make happen. These thoughts soon were stilled by knowing that if anybody could start a university, Matt could.
I now celebrate the many pleasures of teaching at that university. I have found the students, faculty colleagues and staff to be gifted, generous and insightful people. They are dedicated to educations and to this end surely are among the leaders of their field.
Not long ago I stopped by Matt’s office to share with him a realization I had just had. He was working alone at his desk. I opened the door enough to stick my head in and say, “ You know what you did? You started a damn (brand new) university!”