Dear saint benedict’s table community,
My name is Samantha Klassen and I have been attending saint ben’s since September 2014 when I moved to Winnipeg to study at Canadian Mennonite University. I am writing to tell you about an art project I am embarking on, specifically a kind of liturgical origami art project. Let me tell you a little bit about how this project has come to be, and what exactly it entails.
Many of us fold origami as children – paper airplanes, fortune tellers, and some basic traditional Japanese forms like cranes and hats. For me, origami stuck, and when I showed continual interest in it, my parents bought me more advanced instruction books of complex fish, birds, and insects through which my skill developed. I found origami to be both relaxing and energizing, requiring deep concentration and precision to follow the detailed instruction, but also care and gentleness in the manipulation of delicate paper. I would quickly find myself caught up in “the zone” where time was inconsequential – a place I loved and still love to inhabit.
In my high school years, the process of folding began to take on new meaning for me, becoming a prayer practice. I experienced a significant amount of anxiety, often worrying intensely about friends and loved ones and finding it impossible to pray. To soothe the anxiety I turned to origami, and started to realize that not only could it be an outlet for my worry, but I could turn it into an expression of prayer. The emotion I was feeling about troubling situations could be pressed into the creases of the paper and then released to God. I would fold cranes, a pattern I had long since memorized, and the finished bird would seem to fly away at the end of the prayer, carrying the burden away from me and entrusting it to God. The cranes became my priests, my intercessors, and they carried many of my troubled prayers throughout those years.
As the practice of origami grew in significance for me, the more I wondered if there was a way to share with others the deeply meaningful process of folding. This summer it took on a new level of significance when a podcast with Catherine Keller introduced me to Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical concept of “the fold,” and a notion of relationships that are enfolded in one another. We are complicated in each other, Keller explains, for pli is the Latin word for “fold”. We are not just “many,” we are a “multiplicity.” This excited me because as a Humanities major I am continually seeking to understand where theology and philosophy (as well as language, history, literature, etc.) intersect and influence each other, and here the two seemed to be converging in origami, of all things. Not only theology and philosophy, but mysticism was showing up in the threads of thought that all of this was provoking, and I began to take the whole thing more seriously. It seemed to be drawing together all kinds of worlds which I had been exploring already, not knowing they implicated each other.
A few more months passed and sometime in November while browsing origami tutorials online I came across a particular three-petal flower which I was immediately drawn to. I folded it and later in the day began to notice some interesting things about the pattern. For one, three-petal flowers are not common, especially when, like this one, they are folded from a single uncut square (the traditional way). The reason this works is because one of the corners of the square is tucked away, hidden out of sight in the finished model. It was that hiddenness that first caught my attention. In a class on biblical Wisdom Literature that I took last year, we talked often about the hiddenness of God and of wisdom. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings,” says Proverbs 25:2. Or in Job 28 the speaker asks, “Where then does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell? It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing, concealed even from the birds in the sky.” Here in this flower, the very hiddenness and mystery of God seemed somehow to be present.
Next I noticed the obvious thing, that the three-petals suggest something Trinitarian. And yet, the paper still has four corners. Folding with a square feels very complete to me, and in the first steps of the crane pattern which I have used as prayer I am often reminded of the gathering of the four corners of the earth in Isaiah 11 and elsewhere. That this flower contains both the three and the four is rich.
I began to conceive of a liturgical art project involving this flower, thinking that maybe it could be the starting point to talk about theology through origami, and to share with the church community some of my ponderings from all these years. I thought a good place to start would be to fold more of these flowers as prayers and let the pattern seep into my bones the same way the crane has, so that I can listen for what it may have to say. To make it more than my own prayer, I decided to include the Prayers of the People which we are led in every Sunday at saint ben’s, to write them onto the paper and then fold a flower for each week’s prayers. I also wanted colour, so I experimented with some lino-cut block printing equipment I have. The photos here are the first one I have come up with, and I was amazed as I folded at the way the patterns and words became complicated together in beautiful patterns. What the flowers will become is still a mystery, but for now I will fold and do my best to be attentive to what goes on in the process.
I would really like this project to be not just mine but part of our community life. My idea is that each week I will put the origami paper next to the prayer box at the back of the church where everyone will be invited to write a short prayer, the name of someone in need, or whatever else folks feel compelled to add to the paper. That way the Prayers of the People and the prayers of the people will be folded into each flower. Secondly, I am hoping to lead a workshop about origami as a prayer practice sometime in the coming months so that others of you can have the opportunity to encounter the divine in a new way through paper and pressed prayers. Thirdly, I hope to find words, whether in writing or video or both, to share some of the threads and tangents of theological and philosophical and artistic meaning in origami that have been stirring in me.
This project has been a long time in the making already and has no foreseeable end, so stay tuned as it emerges and flowers in mysterious ways.
Blessings to you,
*Flower design credit: Marcela Brina (Artis Bellus). Find her design and instruction video by clicking here.