The Role of Art as Meditation in the Beautiful Life of Sister Dorothy Stang, Eco-Martyr

In this series of Daily Meditations we have been attempting to lay down the groundwork for what constitutes true practice and true training for making mystics and prophets.  We have considered the return of the Divine Feminine and the renewal of a Sacred Masculine.  And most recently we have been developing ideas and practices around “Art as Meditation: The Way of the Prophets” drawing on psychologists, activists, poets, potters and theologians—people like Thomas Aquinas, M. D. Chenu and M. C. Richards, Walter Brueggemann and Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mahatma Gandhi (for whom return to the spinning wheel was part and parcel of his non-violent revolution against the British empire), Martin Luther King Jr. and Audre Lorde, David Palladin and Meister Eckhart, etc. etc. 

To me it is not a theory or hypothesis that “extrovert meditation” or “art as meditation” is the way of the prophets—it is a fact. 

One more powerful example and model of this truth is the late Sister Dorothy Stang, martyred in the Amazon fourteen years ago for defending the forest, the peasants farming in the forest and the future of the forest.

Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dorothy Stang in her dorm room in 1992 at the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names University, in Oakland, California. Photo by Sharon Abercrombie, courtesy of the Global Sisters Report.

Shortly before her assassination Sister Dot attended my Master’s program in Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, California.  That program was designed to bring right and left hemispheres of the brain (the intuitive or mystical and intellectual sides of the brain) together with seminars in the mornings and art as meditation in the afternoons.  It was designed to train mystics and prophets.

It was an important year for Sister Dot; her brothers tell me that it deepened her courage and resolve to return to the Amazon even though her life was in danger.  Art as meditation was a critical part of her spiritual growth there.

A drawing by Sister Dot in her book of Hildegard of Bingen’s meditations. Photo: David Stang

Consider this fine article written by a classmate of Sister Dot’s at ICCS who was a journalist and who, sadly, is now deceased, Sharon Abercombie:

Painting, dancing were Sr. Dorothy Stang’s lesser-known passions.

One of the highlights of this article is the following.  “We thirsted to become mystics, to allow our souls to free-fall and sink into this deeper dimension of spirituality through ‘art as meditation.’ This was a practice designed to access the right side of the brain through music, writing, clay, drumming,  painting and dance as doorways to the divine.

I recall how Dot’s face lit up during our Sufi and African dance classes, how she moved in perfect rhythm to the music.  Dot also plunged into painting with enthusiasm, regularly turning out depictions of the multiplicity of blooms she lived with every day in her tropical forest home…. 

A drawing by Sister Dot in her book of Hildegard of Bingen’s meditations. Photo: David Stang

When Dot returned to Anapu that summer, she packed her paintbrushes and paints. From then on, ‘she painted her prayers,’ her brother Dave said. 

He recalls seeing many of them hanging on the dirt walls of Dot’s home.  When he returned to Brazil two weeks after his sister’s death, Dave found a particularly heart-shattering painting. The vibrant finger painting shows women dancing with joyful abandonment around a bonfire in the light of the moon and stars.” 

She danced often in the forest at night and urged visitors to join her.  “Even with a price on her head, Dorothy Stang danced with joy.”

Yes, my friends.  That Art is Meditation, the way of the prophets.  At her funeral a peasant farmer declared publicly: “Sister Dorothy, we are not burying you; we are planting you.”  May all of us be planted too in the deep roots of prophecy, mysticism and the art as meditation that feeds both.

Drawn from Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest, pp. 341-343, 433, 448.
Banner image: “Women Dancing around a Bonfire” by Sister Dorothy Stang, SNDN

For Deeper Contemplation

Meditate on the life and work and joy and creativity and death of Sister Dorothy Stang. 

Ask her to deepen your own journey and battle for justice and eco-justice.

Recommended Reading

Matthew Fox’s stirring autobiography, Confessions, reveals his personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey from altar boy, to Dominican priest, to his eventual break with the Vatican. Five new chapters in this revised and updated edition bring added perspective in light of the author’s continued journey, and his reflections on the current changes taking place in church, society and the environment.

By Roseanne Murphy

The murder in 2005 of an American nun, Sister Dorothy Stang, focused the world’s attention on the plight of poor farmers in the Brazilian Amazon and their struggles with rapacious developers. This book presents the inspiring story of a woman who died defending the poor and God’s creation.

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6 thoughts on “The Role of Art as Meditation in the Beautiful Life of Sister Dorothy Stang, Eco-Martyr”

  1. Avatar

    Such a beautiful tribute for an extraordinary life lived with courage and joy and in accordance with her higher self and divine purpose. I am sorry for her death but grateful to have learned about her beautiful life and spirit. I will honor her life as I follow my own path and refuse to live in fear. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Lynn,
      Thank you for sharing your respons to the arts as meditation in Sister Dorothy Stang’s life. Finding joy in this life in these times is a radical act as we “allow our souls to free-fall and sink into the deeper dimension of spirituality.” May your art lead you into your higher self and divine purpose – without fear.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the DM Team

  2. Avatar
    Madeline Beaudry

    Thank you Father Fox. Many years ago I was a sister of Mercy. I felt called to serve as an artist and contemplative realizing that some of the greatest poverty people experience is the lack of soulfulness in their lives. There was no place for me to do that. I have spent my life trying to find my path and finally at almost 70 am getting there. Thank you for affirming the ministry of art!

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Madeline,
      Thank you for your steadfastness in promoting the ministry of art for so many years. How could it be that people would not understand your ministry earlier in your life? BUt, I know from my own experience that art was considered an expression of the mind, not the soul, and an elite pastime for those who could afford the time. May your work now blossom as you bring your contemplation and your art together as you continue to follow your spiritual path.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the DM Team

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Sharon,
      You are very welcome. It is good to have your appreciation for art as meditation among us. Please remember that you have mystical suppport for your courage from people who share your compassion and energy throughout the Creation Spirituality movement.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the DM Team

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