“Your life is perfect. It must be the vows.”
Michael Reyes, OFM, was struck by this declaration from a parishioner, shared with him after a particularly poignant confession.
“I don’t remember how I responded to him,” said Michael. “His comments got stuck in my head, and it weighed my heart down. For some reason, it felt like I was punched in the gut. Those words bothered me.”
As an artist, Michael took this unsettling feeling to his preferred medium of communication: his canvas. The resulting paintings, featured below, served as a focal point of reflection for friars during the Extraordinary Chapter earlier this month at Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y.
“There are tons of resources about the religious vows. Books, articles, and academic discourses have already been written and published about them,” he said. “But the beauty and power of visual art is that it is capable of going beyond the limitations and precision of written words. All of the viewer’s interpretations of my work are valid and true. Especially for those coming from their own lived experience of the religious vows, from their own narrative.”
Michael, who is stationed at Sacred Heart Parish in Tampa, Fla., notes that people viewing his work for the first time often comment about the darkness of the paintings. “Where are the blue skies, sunflowers, and friars running in the hills?” they ask. “Wrong artist!” he replies. “The vows, like life, are not always sunny and bright: that is just the perception of them. They are invitations to a deep self-reflection that reveals a nuanced experience that is no different or complicated than any other life.”
Rather than focusing on the communal aspect of vowed life, at least on the surface, Michael emphasizes the sense of contemplation he hopes the paintings evoke. “It is when you are alone in prayer, when it is just you and God, that you can really see yourself and can feel the effects of the vows in your life… and for someone new to religious life, the vows can be seen as things that impose limitations. It was this sense, and these more complicated relationships with what some can see as either freeing or binding limitations, that I sought to explore.”
To better elaborate on this theme, Michael referred to the image of life as compared to a river described by Jesuit theologian Fr. John Foley, SJ. Fr. Foley wrote, “There are two conditions to river life: the first rule is that the river must receive its very self from others. It draws from the high lake, the rains and snows, the estuaries and the oceans. Cut the sources and you dry up the river. Second, a river must at every moment in every way continuously release absolutely everything that it is. A wave must pass its very substance on. It can hold on to nothing at all… By these two conditions, the river has its self.”
Michael finds this metaphor of a life of constant receiving and giving an apt one to describe the vowed life. This idea is captured in his use of both light and dark vertical lines, which represent the reception of life and the giving of life in a constant cycle. “As vowed religious, we are constantly welcoming new people into our lives, and then having to let them go,” he said. “The same goes for ministry opportunities. The life of a friar is an indigent one, and as such, like the river, we must learn to both accept God’s gifts and to let them go entirely.”
This life of receiving and giving is rooted in Jesus’s teaching that to gain life, we must first lose our life, and that the least shall be greatest. Rather than sugarcoating the difficulties inherent in such a life, Michael embraces them in the images.
“In many ways, we religious lose our life in the sense of a private life: we can often feel that we are constantly being watched and are constrained by the expectations of the Church – from parishioners, laypeople, members of the Church hierarchy, even the secular world,” he explained. “On the other hand, we also experience the sometimes lonely process of looking out of the church windows toward those who seek us on the other side, into the ‘real’ or ‘outside’ world and can feel left out or out of touch.” To capture this ambiguity and unsettling sense of place in the world, Michael included the windows of a church in each painting – though it is unclear whether one is looking into or out of the church.
The vowed life is not all bleak, though, Michael is quick to assure the viewer.
“We obviously do not live perfect lives, but the vows allow me to be aware and mindful, and, most of all, grateful for the many comings and goings in my life,” he said. “Is it challenging? Of course it is, but I am not alone. I am grateful for the many friars whose lives have inspired me and continue to inspire all they meet. Like the river, our lives are always on the move, always flowing towards the great sea of our good and loving God.”
To help open up the paintings to the viewer, Michael has provided the following reflections to accompany each image. The viewer is invited to reflect on these paintings and to ask how the vows of religious life speak to his or her own experience.
People’s first impression of the vow of poverty tends to be that it is the easy one: we’ll be taken care of and simply let go of material things. But I’ve realized after being a friar for 10 years that poverty is more than just material things. Poverty can also mean attachment to people: as friars we are called to separate from those we love and to move to where we are needed, not always together. Poverty is learning to let go of both material possessions and those we love, and it is both freeing and difficult. By learning to open ourselves to the practice of giving that which we have back to God, we allow ourselves to be open to receiving new gifts from him as we journey along our path of faith. In this, we are able to offer our whole selves to God and his people in their service, free of those things that might otherwise constrain our ability to serve with abandon or distract our focus from those we seek to serve.
Many people who see this piece for the first time often describe it as “erotic,” “sexual,” or “suggestive,” and they ask with some incredulity, “That is chastity?” I find it interesting that when most people consider the vow of chastity, their first thought is “no sex!” What I am trying to accomplish with this piece is an invitation to the viewer to look deeply into the image, to look beyond the physicality of the painting and the vow – because there is more to it than genital or romantic pursuit and responses.
The vulnerable and naked figure in the image signifies a complete trust, faith, and vulnerability with God – a total devotion to the very core of our being. By extension, we can only truly love the other by being vulnerable to the other person, as Christ was with us on the Cross. By surrendering ourselves completely and humbly, as symbolized by the downward gaze, we enter into the vow of chastity understood as a gift beyond the sacrifice of romantic love and genital experiences, but as a total self-giving of ourselves to God, and, thus, to his people.
The vow of chastity thus invites us to move beyond ourselves, to learn to offer back to God what has been given to us so that we might be open to the movement of His Spirit and the needs of the many.
Obedience comes from the Latin words “ob” and “audire,” which mean “to listen to.” There is always room for discussion in our vows, but sometimes we are asked to do something we don’t want to do, and we don’t want to listen – which is a struggle. The smoke in this painting represents the Church, or our superiors, asking us to do something with what appears to be vague or incomprehensible motives, and we respond by just wanting to ask “why?!” The subject in this image is huddled and closed off, resisting what he is hearing. Yet, his fingers are open – he is hearing what is being said. He is learning to be obedient not like a child, who constantly needs to be told what to do, but as an adult who is called to bind his will to those of others out of humble love; who respects the wisdom and will of the guardian, superior, and provincial as the guides leading their brothers on their vital and ever-moving journey to God.
— Benjamin Simpson is the office administrator for the Holy Name Province Vocation Office, where Michael’s paintings are on display.
- “Friars in Florida, South Carolina Host Guests Interested in Franciscan Life” – Feb. 22, 2018, HNP Today
- “Vocation Ministry Concludes Year with Retreat in Boston” – Dec. 20, 2017, HNP Today
- “Michael Reyes Ordained a Priest” – Jan. 27, 2016, HNP Today