The Angelus, Jean-Fançois Millet
Pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God for you in Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 5:17–18
At first glance, ceaseless prayer seems both impossible and impractical. Even faithful, frequent prayer is difficult. How could we ever set aside our entire day for continuous prayer? We have families to care for, jobs to fulfill, and livings to make.
The answer to this question lies in understanding the nature of prayer. “Pray without ceasing” is an invitation, not a command. God invites prayer that initiates quiet awareness of the divine presence in the midst of our daily lived experience. We are called to live out our lives in the world but not of it. To do this, we need a quiet center in the midst of a busy and active life and world. It is out of this still center that we are enabled to live with authenticity and compassion as we are drawn closer to God by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Millet’s painting, reproduced on the front cover, presents us with a way to create that space for God in our lives. Viewed contemplatively, it offers us help in turning our attention and heart to the Lord as we pause to take in the wonder and mystery of Christ’s life.
The Artist and His Faith
Jean-Francois Millet (1814–1875) was born into a French peasant family, his parents working long hours each day as laborers in the fields. His love of nature and the Bible were instilled by a devout grandmother and parents who nurtured him in the faith.
Millet was particularly attracted to the beautiful engravings in the family Bible. These became the inspiration for many of his paintings as he used his artistic gifts to reproduce the world around him. His talent was recognized by his father and the parish priests who provided him with the advantages of an excellent education. Steeped in mythology, Greek and Latin, Shakespeare and Milton, the literature of the classic spiritual mystics, and the Bible (which he called “the painter’s book”), Millet was urged by his family to grow in his faith and to live so that “all your desire should be to praise God by thought, word and deed.”1
His grandmother was a source of particular spiritual encouragement, telling Millet to “paint for eternity . . . and to never lose sight of the presence of God.”2
Many of Millet’s paintings depicted the life of the peasant, causing him to be often called “the peasant painter.” But this was the world into which he was born. He knew first-hand the hardships of working the land. The painting we are considering is very much a reflection of his personal experience. It was his family’s practice to observe the traditional prayer of his faith and culture.
But before turning to Millet’s painting, there is one more important piece of context that we must consider. It is the Angelus prayer itself.
Originating in the thirteenth century, the Angelus is a prayer practice that remains current for many Christians around the world and that holds promise for all who seek to live ceaseless prayer. It was a simple prayer, suitable for peasants or anyone who was willing to turn their attention toward God three times each day— morning, midday, and evening.
Rich in doctrine and devotion, the Angelus commemorates three important mysteries of the life of Christ—the Resurrection in the morning prayer, the Passion in the noon prayer, and the Incarnation in the evening prayer. These times of prayer were announced by the ringing of the church bells, three tolls for each invocation, and nine for the concluding prayer. Their call prompted participants to stop their activities and recite its set versicles and responses. They were times for acknowledging and thanking God for the saving work of Christ. Millet himself observed how his own father never failed to respond to the bells, stopping his work wherever he was, to pray the Angelus every day, “piously, hat in hand.”
Pausing to Look and Listen
Take a few moments to look carefully at the painting on the front cover. It depicts two peasants in a field near the close of day with the faint outline of the city behind them in the distance. Take note of the focus of the painting and the surrounding landscape. What is most striking to you about the figures in the scene?
Millet’s two peasants dominate the landscape, their monumental figures almost silhouetted against the flat farmland which surrounds them. This is a moment of deep and quiet reverence. All work has abruptly stopped as both the man and the woman stand bowed while they reflect on the Incarnation of Jesus, the meditation for the evening prayer. Privately each prays and meditates on the Scriptures that remind them of Mary’s visit by the angel to announce her call to be the bearer of the Messiah, of her willing surrender to God’s will, and of the Word who was made flesh. The man, hat in hand, stands in devout humility and worship. The woman also bows her head, her hands tightly clasped in prayer close to her chest. It is an intensely private moment for each of them, yet their shared prayer unites them together in a holy alliance where God is present.
Notice the setting in which these two figures are placed. At their feet is a large basket of potatoes, which they have temporarily left unattended to observe their evening ritual. Beside the man is his pitchfork, which he has set aside, stuck upright in the ground. Behind the woman stands a wheelbarrow with bags containing the fruit of their labors. In the misty distance, we can see the spire of the village church emerging from the horizon. It would have been the bells from this steeple that summoned these people to prayer. The sky is golden with the light of the evening sun, and birds flutter away in the right corner of the painting.
Everything in this work invites us to stillness and meditation. The figures are immobile. The tools of their trade are abandoned. The landscape is completely flat and unpeopled except for these two who hold our attention. There is no movement at all except for the barely visible birds in the distant sky. We are aware that this moment in time is sacred. For these people of prayer, with the eyes of their hearts turned toward God, the world has indeed grown dim, dissolved in heavenly light. The blaze of light behind them, symbolic of the radiant glory of God, seems to transfuse their humble daily tasks with dignity and nobility.
As we look at this painting, we can almost hear the fading echoes of the church bells which have prompted these people to pause for prayer. The warmth of the glowing evening sky that envelops this couple also reaches out to invite us to rest for a moment from our busy activities and turn our attention to God.
Take some time to allow yourself to be drawn into the scene. Your life experience may be different from the one depicted here. Yet as you consider setting aside little moments to focus on God through your day, how does the scene change for you? As you reflect on the things which make up your inner and outer landscape, what would you include in this painting if you inserted yourself in it?
How can you build reminders into your day that would call you back to prayer? What things would you have to lay aside in order to have hands empty enough to receive God’s grace? How would attending to God’s presence throughout the day transform the way you live your life?
Turning Our Attention to God
The practice of the Angelus may not be a part of your tradition. But it is a reminder of the value of setting aside specific times during the course of the day, as brief as these may be, to turn attention gently toward God and acknowledge his presence. These are moments to thank God for his grace and allow him to change our inner landscape and transform our awareness of others and our world. They also begin to move us toward ceaseless prayer as our attention is more and more oriented toward God.
Join the farmers in this painting, and in silence wait upon God. Listen and look for him through your day in the people around you, in the circumstances of your life, and in the depth of your heart. Even if you have trouble recognizing him, thank him for his love and for his presence.
Thomas Green speaks of prayer as listening to God: “opening of heart and mind to God.”3
He adds that such an understanding reminds us that receptivity and responsiveness to God are at the very heart of prayer. All that is necessary is for us to turn our attention gently toward God throughout our day. We may not have church bells that invite us to pray, yet we can establish a rhythm of prayer within our day which allows us to “pray without ceasing.”
By deliberately and consciously turning to God at regular times in our day, we begin to discover the extraordinary reality of divine presence in the midst of ordinary experience. After four weeks of turning his attention to God for one second out of every waking minute of the day, Frank Laubach said, “I feel simply carried along each hour, doing my part in a plan which is far beyond myself. This sense of cooperation with God in little things is what so astonishes me, for I never have felt this way before.”4
Allow yourself to be carried along as you cooperate with God in small moments of turning your mind and heart toward him in prayer each day. Spend brief times throughout your day meditating on the wonder of the Resurrection, Passion, and Incarnation of Jesus. Frequent recollections on the gracious and generous love of God for us in Jesus Christ will keep drawing us toward him until we find that we are praying without ceasing—and more attuned to his presence in the midst of our lived experience.