by Moira Cullings
ATCHISON — Sacred art has always played an important role in the Catholic faith.
And over the centuries, different forms of art have transformed the way people pray, meditate and draw closer to God.
Sister Melissa Letts, a Benedictine Sister at Mount St. Scholastica monastery in Atchison, has witnessed this firsthand. As an artist herself, she has even wound up facilitating that transformation and the journey of prayerful discovery through two totally different styles of art.
The first style is an ancient one, and even predates Christianity: the labyrinth.
Labyrinths are typically thought of as mazes. They contain irregular paths that lead to a certain point. Sister Melissa uses them as what she calls “a meditative walk.”
There are different types of labyrinths. One of the most famous, of course, is the ancient one inside the cathedral of Chartres, France. Some, like Chartres’, are life-size, where participants physically walk the paths.
But others are small enough to hold, so “people can do it inside if they’re handicapped and can’t walk,” said Sister Melissa. “They can still use their fingers, and still get the benefits.”
In both cases, “the purpose is for prayer,” she said.
Sister Melissa began creating labyrinths after she saw one in a magazine about 15 years ago. With little experience as an artist, she decided to try it out.
In the process, she learned a great deal about the history of labyrinths.
“One of the first [seven-circuit] ones they found was in Crete,” said Sister Melissa. “And then the eleven-circuit ones were found in Notre Dame.”
“What they would do in the Middle Ages would be kind of like a penance, and asking for spiritual guidance,” she continued. “But during Lent, they would walk [the labyrinths] on their knees.
“And if they had planned on making a trip to Jerusalem and offering their life in service to God, but they couldn’t make that for whatever reason, they would walk [the labyrinth].”
“It was a sign of sacrificing of self to God, asking for God’s help and direction,” she said. “There’s many twists and turns to the pattern,” and the paths ultimately lead to a central point.”
“It’s like meditating on the idea that we are called to that quiet place in the center of our own being.”
Sister Melissa makes each labyrinth by hand. The small ones, she said, might take two to three hours to make. She then waits for them to dry before they are fired, glazed and fired again. The entire process takes one to two weeks, depending on the size.
The labyrinths are popular with RCIA groups, children preparing to receive their first Communion, retreat groups and children preparing for confirmation.
The second outlet for her artistic energies starts with the simple gourd. From there, Sister Melissa crafts these gourds, which come in various shapes and sizes, into bowls, vases, ornaments and more.
Sister Melissa’s inspiration, she believes, comes from God.
An Oklahoma native, she draws not only on her Benedictine spirituality, but also from her Native American heritage.
“I never thought of myself as an artist until I started doing it, and it was the quiet and the prayer time that started developing [as a result],” she said.
Sister Melissa also runs a workshop, teaching others how to create gourds.
“[Participants] say, ‘I don’t have any talent,’ and I tell them they don’t really need it,” she continued. “It’s about getting in touch with that creative part of who you are.”