Contemplative prayer is a time of silence and solitude in God’s presence, setting aside time and place to be present to God as God is always present to us, a holy time of listening to Spirit, deepening our experience of divine love. Christians have long used art as companions for contemplative prayer.
Visio Divina may be a doorway that leads you into your inner prayer room. It is one prayerful approach to listening to God, because art offers an invitation to be attentive. It is a gentle and beautiful prayer of contemplation, when we sit in stillness and gaze reflectively with the desire to see and hear God clearly. In many ways it offers an opportunity to open ourselves to God’s loving gaze on us. Praying with a piece of art as a focal point is simply using the art as a “soul window” through which we may look to God and look at ourselves and life. We believe that God’s Spirit may reveal much that we need to know during this sort of contemplation and prayer. As with all forms of prayer, Visio Divina give space, time, priority, and welcome to the One who knows us best and loves us unconditionally.
Symbolism in paintings and sculptures are thus a visual “language” of sorts that is used to convey a message. Images are a powerful tool to communicate truths and stir emotions, often evoking deeper responses than words can contain. Prayerful reflection on art and scripture is one practice we may use to encounter God, to structure our dialog with God (prayer), and to deepen our relationship with God.
In Praying with the Arts,M. Louise Holert, Praying with the Arts: Illuminating the Church Year with Sacred Art (Abbotsford, BC, Canada: Infocus Publishing, 2018): 4, 134, 135. Louise Holert states that artists “painting by faith and for faith, impart their visual interpretations of the Biblical text. By providing images to stimulate the imagination, they help us experience the text, moving from the abstract to the concrete….Restoring sacred art to its intended purpose assists us in remembering, reflecting upon, and responding more fully to our triune God. Sacred art invites us to contemplate our personal faith journey in a larger context….”
Holert goes on to describe sacred art as “a means of grace” that may operate in these ways:
- Grace to stop and listen
Art offers us the opportunity in the midst of our frenetic lives, to be still, to reflect, to hear in a concentrated way.
- Grace to respond from the heart
Art facilitates movement from the head to the heart.
‘Listen to your heart. It’s there that Jesus speaks most intimately to you. Praying is first and foremost listening to Jesus, who dwells in the very depths of your heart…. His voice is an unassuming voice, very nearly a whisper, the voice of a gentle love.’—Henri Nouwen
- Grace to experience doctrinal truth as relational reality
By inviting our participation, art encourages us to move beyond a propositional approach to truth. It invites us to respond with our intellect, emotions, and will, to an interpersonal intimacy with the Trinity. It opens us to a holistic relationship with God.
- Grace to see depth
Sacred art illumines Scripture, and Scripture illumines art. Art gives new insights to familiar truths.
‘Art draws us deeper and further, takes us beyond the surface in some sense to see or experience something which otherwise remains hidden from us.’—Trevor Hart
- Grace to engage the imagination
- Grace to be transformed
Sacred art is a means of God’s transforming grace. It elicits a response; it opens us to receive God’s grace. As we reflect upon a piece of art, it will plant itself in our minds and become our companion and counselor on our spiritual journey…sacred art provides images of God’s love, truth, and beauty for the ‘art gallery’ of our minds—images of God’s transforming grace to satisfy our deepest hunger, hunger for a relationship with the One who created us and who alone can fulfill and transform us.
- Grace to worship
Sacred art nurtures receptivity to the transcendent mystery of God, to pure and absolute love, leading us to adoration, praise, and increased love of the three Persons of the Trinity.
In Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional, the authors feature visual images that suggest that
Art and prayer have shared an intimate relationship since God appointed the skilled craftsmen, Bezalel and Oholiab, to create the artistic designs for the Tabernacle in Exodus 31:1-6. There are many ways that art and prayer are interconnected. Both are types of language – one is a visual language and the other [is] a verbal language. Both languages speak and can give glorify and praise to God.Kathleen Schwab and Therese Kay, Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional, Vervante, November 8, 2017
In the thousands of years prior to the invention of the printing press, storytelling and visual representations were the means through which the Bible and Christian faith were available. This provides us with a wealth of religious art. God is not tied to or limited by these images, but Spirit can speak through it if we are open to Spirit led “surprise and transformation. …Visio Divina [is] a practice that encourages deep prayer and communion with God while gazing at art and other visual images.”Ibid, Schwab & Kay.
In The Art of Curating Worship, Mark Pierson says: “I believe art is capable of far more than communicating a message: it is capable of conveying the voice of God and harboring an encounter with God.”Mark Pierson and Dan Kimball, The Art of Curating Worship, Sparkhouse Press, Minneapolis, MN, Nov 15, 2010
Christine Sine adds:
We often engage in prayer as an intellectual exercise rather than a relationship-building practice. But prayer is meant to open to us a mystery that cannot be reduced to thoughts and words. And to fully enter into that mystery we [can benefit from] images that speak to our hearts and open our minds to the wonder and glory of God.Christine Sine, “Visio Divina – Praying with Art,” September 6, 2011, godspacelight.com
Tim Mooney writes beautifully about this prayer practice:
Visio Divina (Latin for “divine seeing”) is a method for praying with images or other media. While the Orthodox tradition has long practiced praying with images through icons, the western church, and Protestantism in particular, is less comfortable with this type of prayer. But as a cursory glance through scripture will show, images have been an important part of God’s way of communicating. Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones, and Peter’s dream on the rooftop in Acts 10, are just two instances of how images and prayer are vitally connected. With our culture becoming more and more visually oriented [and the resource of digital access to works of art]…Visio Divina invites us to see at a more contemplative pace. It invites us to see all there is to see, exploring the entirety of the image. It invites us to see deeply, beyond first and second impressions, below initial ideas, judgments, or understandings. It invites us to be seen, addressed, surprised, and transformed by God who is never limited or tied to any image, but speaks through them.
Images are like dreams, they are not truth, but they can point us to the truth. Often, the rational mind can only go so far. …We may come to an understanding of something through symbol. We see an image and have an emotional or kinesthetic response. Holding the image contemplatively before trying to define it with words allows the new understanding to take shape, to deepen.Tim Mooney, “Praying with Art – Visio Divina,” Patheos (January 1, 2000) https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2000/01/pray-with-art
Speaking on the purpose for art, C. S. Lewis wrote:
The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.” He noted that we can view a work of art without any expectation at all, except that it has something unique to impart to us. “The best way to approach art … is to ‘receive’ [it]. When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist.” He believed there is an inherent message in every work of art, we must allow it to be revealed, and the message God intends to impart through a work of art “bubbles up” in subtle ways.C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961).
02. Visio Divina: A Brief Approach
Close your eyes, clear your mind of distractions, get into a comfortable position, still your body, and focus on breathing deeply.
Open your eyes and scan the image. Take time to look closely at the image. What do you see? What draws your interest? Take more time to continue to scan the whole image. Close and rest your eyes a minute.
Open your eyes and focus on the part of the image that drew your attention and name it. Close your eyes, seeing that piece of the image in your mind.
Open your eyes and look again at the piece of the image that caught your eye. Allow it to bring forth a word, image, or emotion. Close and rest your eyes. What do you hear? What is the message for you? What is God speaking to you today through this image? What is God prompting you to notice as you pray with the aid of this image?
Open your eyes and gaze again at the image. Respond in prayer. Consider writing your thoughts, feelings, and prayers in a journal, or drawing, collaging, or creating a visual expression of your prayer.
- Rest in Contemplation
Open your eyes and gaze at the image. Rest into the art. Rest into what you have experienced. Rest into God’s loving Presence. Give some time to simply being, enjoying divine hospitality and the blessings of this prayer experience.
Shaleen Camery-Hoggatt serves as a Spiritual Director, retreat speaker/facilitator, and ministry lay-leader. She has an M.A. in College Student Development with a focus on faith development, has worked at colleges and universities on both coasts of the U.S., taught elementary school for 20 years, has been married to the love of her life for over four decades, raised three children, and welcomed their spouses and three grandloves to the family.