Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 19, 1999
Tapestries of Faith
Pastor's prayer gives birth to vivid testimonies to the Gospel
By CHARLES WECKEND
Special to the WCR
Alive on the walls of St. John's and St. Paul's churches in Fort McMurray are the tapestries of their pastor, Father Gerard Gauthier.
The original works, begun in 1984, each unique in style, depict the Gospel of John, the story of the Prodigal, Mary in the Gospels, the Stations of the Cross, the Apostle Paul and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
With mass-produced religious objects and images so widespread today, I have found it a rare privilege to be nourished by Gauthier's genuine works of art.
Their beauty, according to the priest, lies in their simplicity and imperfection, seen through God's eyes. I would add that the prayer that created them is the beauty that shines through them.
A farmboy from Boyle, Gauthier was ordained in 1982 and has been pastor at Fort McMurray for nine years. His full beard reminds one of the missionaries of old to this northern bush country.
Yet he is thoroughly in touch with the pulse of this youthful, industrial city. A recent visit with him revealed that he senses its mystery and the mystery of its people, a sense mediated by his art.
The clearest indication of this sense of mystery lies in his tapestry, Mary in the Gospels. It is a striking Marian meditation whose scenes and images come from the nearby native community of Fort McKay.
After contemplating it, you cannot view Mary or Fort McKay in the same way. This tapestry is a graphic lesson in "Augustinian prayer" - the capacity to see the Gospel alive as it would occur, or better, is occurring today.
And that takes us into what might be called Father Gerard's Way, a way of prayer, ministry and life. When you ask him about his art, he inevitably describes how it is conceived and born.
You get the sense that, for him, the journey or process is as important as the destination or end product. Ask him about his art, and he will, with unhesitating clarity and depth, lay out for you what amounts to a threefold spiritual path.
First, there is the interchangeability of prayer and art. One is reminded of, and Father Gerard explicitly refers to, the makers of icons. Prayer creates art and art makes visible the prayer.
Months, even years, of reflection and contemplation go into each piece.
An example is his current work, a bright and hopeful one, on The Book of Revelation. It had been in gestation for two or three years. Over that time he kept a constant eye out for images and ideas, insights and reflections on the Apocalypse. These fragments were duly jotted down and filed.
Always the question was, "How would I depict this?" Then last June, he took a day off in a city park and, pen in hand, read the book of Revelation. Still not quite ready, he returned to various sections, and, with the aid of Bible commentaries, clarified their meaning and portrayal.
Finally, Feb. 4, he started weaving. The long gestation period in conceiving these tapestries is one prayer component in their creation. Another is their birth or production.
Indeed, Father Gerard experiences the call to weave as a call to prayer. The actual weaving is a daily sustenance and peace for his spirit.
Secondly, there is the way ministry and art flow into each other. To a friend who suggested his art would afford him a good living were he ever to leave priesthood, he responded, "No, I couldn't do it if I wasn't in the priesthood. To me, it's the dialogue between my life and ministry, and it's because of my ministry that I can do the tapestries, and if I didn't have my ministry, I'd have no purpose to do it.
"For me, it's not a craft; it's an art and it's prayer."
It's not that the artist has to be a minister, but when a Christian experiences the beauty of God it leads to service. That service further reveals the divine beauty. Christian art can be nothing else than an expression of this rhythm of revelation and service.
The tapestries are meant to serve his community as a kind of visual catechesis, like that of the cathedrals of old. But, in various ways, the community is present in his work. In his Stations of the Cross, a work portraying Christ's passion solely through images of hands, members of the community "lent their hands" to be traced and transferred to the tapestry.
His work on the Prodigal was dedicated to a teacher dying of cancer, though, following the tradition of anonymity in icon-making, both his dedication and signature were hidden on the work in braille.
In his Apostle Paul, the image of Paul and names of places connected with Paul came from ethnic members of the Fort McMurray community. The native images for his work on Mary in the Gospels, as mentioned, came from the native community of Fort McKay.
Finally, like a seamless garment, he describes how the prayer and work on the tapestry become interwoven with his life. An example is his work on the prodigal son. Each frame, while depicting Christ's story, also tells his own.
It's the kind of prayer that St. Ignatius of Loyola practised, where you place yourself in the Gospel scene.
With a twinkle in his eye, Father Gerard says these works are so much a part of his life that they are, in a sense, something as personal and intimate as his own children. That's why he doesn't sell or give them away.
However, I think that, through them, one could say he gives away much of himself.