Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what makes Shalem such a unique mental health agency.
I recently attended a remarkable art exposition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto called “Mystical Landscapes.” The exhibit covers the period from about 1890 to 1920, when artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keefe and many others sought somehow to capture, especially through the use of light, the luminous mystery of the Creator that enlivens the earth’s landscapes. It is as if they wanted to reach through the landscape itself to touch the face of God, even as God seems to be bursting through their landscapes to touch us.
It struck me that art historians and critics typically minimize or outright ignore the explicitly spiritual quests of artists like these.
It further seems to me that, like the land, the heart has its own shapes, each of which is itself a mystical landscape. A landscape has a defined shape, and that shape gives an indication of how we ought to enter it, traverse it, move through it. Like the grain of a piece of wood, a landscape provides a direction, an opening, an invitation, a hint of how to travel through it. You can see a way across it. If there is a hill to go over, you climb it. If there is a path, you take it rather than beat through impassable barriers. You don’t go against the grain. The landscapes of the heart, even though so mysterious, unnamable, and elusive, do provide those openings, those directions.
At Shalem, we try to find those openings in order to traverse the landscapes of the heart. We try to go with the grain. All of our programs—some of which you read about in this issue of The Shalem Networker—are attempts to traverse the landscapes of the heart towards wholeness. But let’s be clear: the programs themselves are not what is important. If they are not effective, if they somehow do not go with the grain, then we need to discard them or find better maps. The point is to stay alert, attentive to the openings and the directions that the many landscapes of the heart offer us, and respond accordingly.
In these journeys, we are dazzled by the elusive mystery, movement and proximity of God in the ways of the heart. It is as if the people we are privileged to work with, and we ourselves, want to reach through the heart’s landscapes to touch the face of God, even as we experience God sometimes bursting through each configuration of the heart to touch us.
Generally, we find that many mental health practitioners—social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists—typically minimize or outright ignore the profound pursuit by so many people of the mystery of God animating the landscapes of our hearts.
In the broader configuration of the mental health system, that is part of what makes Shalem a precious place to be.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M,Ed, R.S.W. is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network.