Conversatio Divina

Part 7 of 16

Vision And Prayer: How Art Stimulates Our Senses

An Interview with Juliet

Juliet Benner & Heather Parkinson-Webb

For many years Juliet Benner chose the beautiful art that graced the covers of Conversations and wrote the “O Taste and See” reflections that appear in these pages. As we reflect on the body in this issue, it is appropriate to consider our physical sense of vision and how the soul is moved by art. In this interview, Juliet discusses her new book Contemplative Vision and how art can stimulate our prayer.

Conversations Journal: How can art help our prayer life?

Juliet Benner: The process of looking at art slowly and meditatively is the same process that is involved in prayer. Spending time gazing at art that is supported by Scripture provides the space where we can be fully present and open to whatever God wants to do in and through us. You can almost say that art is prayer as we enter that same state of quiet stillness and solitude when we engage with a piece of art. Then, creating our own art in response to our reflections on other works of art is also a way to engage prayerfully with art. We become co-creators with our Creator God when we do.

CJ: We tend to think of great works of art as being meant for museums, but they were originally displayed in churches. What happened to change that?

JB: Before the Reformation and before people were able to read and write, churches were repositories for the arts. They were considered to be the “poor man’s Bible” and were used as tools of religious instruction. The Reformation brought an emphasis on the Word alone, privileging hearing over seeing. Consequently, images in churches came to be considered idolatrous and were therefore destroyed or whitewashed. What resulted was an experience of God that was limited to the rational and analytical, as well as a loss of experiencing God with all the senses and the imagination.

CJ: What do we lose when we stick to communication through words and reason alone?

JB: When we approach God with words and reason alone, we miss out on God’s invitation to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We limit our experience of God to the head alone, and God becomes someone we can somehow control or “get,” instead of God get-ting us. When we open all of ourselves—our head, heart, mind, senses, body, imagination—to God in prayer, we are drawn closer to his heart, and complete wholeness is made more possible. Art reaches us in places that are deeper than those reached by reason alone.

CJ: What was writing the book like for you?

JB: Writing this book was certainly a stretching experience for me. Finding art to support biblical texts can sometimes be difficult, but once I settled on those, the rest seemed to flow naturally. I tried to create a progressive structure where each chapter could be read sequentially but could also be read at random. As my editor put it so aptly, “It is like beads on a string,” connected but separate, and I think it works well.

CJ: What was your writing process like?

JB: When I create art in calligraphy, I always treat it as a kind of lectio divina, praying through the process. I did this also with writing this book. I meditated on each text for a period of time, then looked at the accompanying painting, again in a contemplative, lectio divina fashion before I would begin to write. All of the meditations that grew out of these times of quiet reflection and prayer became the material that formed each chapter. The resulting insights and observations are therefore very personal.

CJ: Can the readers of Conversations look forward to any surprises in it?

JB: Definitely! Although some of the art meditations appeared previously in a similar form in Conversations, there are many more new ones, and all have been expanded and reworked. So readers will have some wonderful and startling surprises there, especially in the art—but to keep the suspense, I won’t give any examples. I have also included an appendix that offers ways to use the book for personal reflection and prayer, for individual spiritual direction, and for group spiritual direction. I think this will provide a great help to those who are seeking to use it in these ways. Finally, I include some more personal reactions to the art and texts that may make it feel more accessible.

CJ: For this issue on the theme of Spirituality and the Body, what three pieces of artwork would you have chosen for the cover?

JB: I like the art that was chosen. It celebrates both life and the body, and it reflects the freedom of life in Christ and affirms the incarnational grounding of our lives—Christ in us, the hope of glory. It is definitely one I would have considered if I were still selecting cover art.

Another I would have considered is Grunewald’s The Crucifixion. This might seem like an odd choice (to those who are familiar with it) because it may be the most horrific image of Christ in Western art. Here the emaciated and distorted body of Christ hangs from a cross. His flesh is depicted in ghastly green hues and is covered with lacerations and sores. The reason I am moved by it is that it depicts Emmanuel, God with us, so powerfully. Created for a monastery that treated patients dying of a severe skin disease, it shows Christ’s body as being plagued with the same suffering. It indicates to me that he identifies completely with them and also with us to the point of taking all our infirmities upon himself.

Another part of this same altarpiece is Grunewald’s depiction of the Resurrection. What an amazing contrast! The newly resurrected body of Christ is uplifted in dazzling light, completely transfigured and gloriously triumphant. Again, he transforms our being in its totality (body, mind, spirit) and lifts us out and upward into his glorious life.

All three express what the Incarnation is all about— that Jesus came as a human being, bringing dignity to our human condition, yet entering our every experience and lifting us up to new, celebrative life in him—not merely in the life to come, but right here in the midst of our lived reality. If we are called to be imitators of Christ, then these works also invite us to show compassion to others (to suffer with them as Christ suffers), to express the resurrected life in all areas of our life, and to celebrate this life as we invite others into the great Dance of Life.

CJ: Can physical seeing impact spiritual seeing?

JB: I firmly believe that our spiritual seeing is conditioned by our physical seeing. As Christians we believe that God’s presence is very near us because “in him we live and move and have our being.” Yet most of us are asleep and unaware of God’s presence in our midst. We easily miss God in the ordinary events of life because we are oblivious to everything around us. It takes practice in learning to see God, and it can begin with first simply learning to see with our physical eyes. Once we begin to open our eyes with awareness to the world around us and see God’s handiwork and presence there, we may be amazed to discover how much our spiritual eyes become opened as well. Attentive physical seeing opens a doorway into spiritual seeing. Practice in this kind of seeing opens our spiritual eyes to see beyond the surface of things to the deeper spiritual realities that lie beyond and beneath.

CJ: Your book is called Contemplative Vision; can you talk more about what contemplative prayer is? Why is it important to the Christian life?

JB: Contemplative prayer is a prayer of being that is nurtured in a posture of inner stillness, silence, and solitude. It is simply being quiet before God in silence, lovingly attentive to whatever God wants to give you and receptively open to anything that comes in this time. It is like spending intimate time with a good friend, listening to and enjoying being with each other. It is about making space for God.
The Christian life is about a relationship with God that implies conversation and intimacy—a time for listening and a time for speaking. So often our prayer life is filled with words—chattering at God, filling our prayer time with lists of requests and petitions, endless repetitions, and so on. Although we are invited to come to God with worded prayer, we often neglect the important practice of simply being with God in wordless presence. The rea-son contemplative prayer is important to the Christian life is that we need to spend time just listening to God. In any conversation, we would be considered rude if we just talked all the time, not allowing the other person to get a word in or to respond. We need to learn to spend time just being with our Beloved, who wants to be with us more than we can imagine. Contemplative prayer offers the necessary space where this can happen.

CJ: How does your training as a visual artist help you as a spiritual director?

JB: Artists have the unique ability to see deeply into and beneath the obvious. Creating art as well as working as a docent in an art gallery for many years has made me realize the importance of being keenly aware of God in all things. As a docent, I guided people through the gallery, teaching them how to look, how really to see what was before them. What I was teaching was how to be attentive, how to notice not only the obvious but also the subtler nuances of the artwork that would remain hidden unless one spent time gazing at it. This same process of teaching how to see and look carefully transferred easily into my practice of spiritual direction. In a sense I was inviting directees to look at their lives as works of art where much was going on that could easily be missed unless together we stopped and looked carefully and prayerfully at it. I encourage those who seek spiritual direction from me to look for and find God in the midst of their lived experience.

CJ: Do you need to be an art lover to read Contemplative Vision?

JB: Not at all. All that is necessary is an open heart and mind and a willingness to experience God with all of your being, alert to whatever God wants to do in your life. All that is required is a willingness to sit in stillness and openness to the art along with the Scripture on which it is based. All that is required is to be present to the God who is eternally present to you.

CJ: Do you have a favorite work of art? Perhaps a “go-to” piece that you look at and reflect on when you want to feel closer to God?

JB: This is a hard question since my faith journey is so varied, and each experience so different. If I have to choose one in particular, it would be Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. It offers me the hope of forgiveness, comfort, love, and life in the Father’s embrace and is always a good reminder to me that I am always held there. But I have to include two others as well for different reasons: Rubens’ Descent From the Cross because it unites me with others in the community of faith, in the suffering and death of Christ, and it allows me to visualize in concrete form the immense significance of the Eucharist as I partake of it every week. The other is Van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan because it constantly calls me back to live my life more passionately and with more compassion and love, with new and transformed eyes and heart in the midst of a sad and needy world that longs for healing and wholeness.

CJ: What are some of the more memorable responses to art you have received in your workshops?

JB: At an all-day seminar I gave a few years ago, a woman came to me expressing her mistrust of my inclusion of art within a session about prayer. She didn’t want to attend but was encouraged by her friends to do so. Reluctantly she sat at the back and paid attention to what was going on but did not entirely allow herself to participate vocally when others were doing so. Gradually she found herself drawn by the art into a deeper place where her heart was opened enough for God to show her hardness of heart. The art touched her at a very deep level and made her more soft and malleable. At the end of the seminar, she approached me with tears streaming down her face and told me that had she not come to this workshop, she would have missed out on the transforming experience that God had begun in her.

At a three-day retreat that I was leading with my husband, a young man came up right at the start to tell me that he had no interest in art and was there just to learn from my husband’s talks. Since every teaching session of the retreat was reinforced with visual art, he was pretty much obliged to stay for the whole thing. We always end our retreats with the Eucharist, and at the end of this time, the man came up to the Communion table, ate the bread and drank the wine, and then proceeded to prostrate himself on the floor, sobbing loudly. He later shared with me that somehow the art had spoken to his heart far more deeply than anything he had heard during the entire weekend. He felt an almost physical drawing by God to go deeper into God’s heart and stay there in stillness. The power of art to transform!

Both these accounts move me deeply and leave me profoundly humbled and grateful to God for God’s grace and goodness.

CJ: What is your hope for those who read your book?

JB: My deepest hope and prayer for those who read my book is that they will be drawn closer to God in stillness; that they will experience a deeper awareness of God in the midst of their day-to-day lives; that their eyes will be transformed to see God in all things, no matter what the circumstances; and that their hearts will also be transformed to respond in love and compassion to the world as God would respond.


Juliet Benner is a retreat and workshop leader, whose travel in recent years took her to Singapore, Malaysia, Norway, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. she also worked in art education, serving for twelve years as a docent at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Canada. Her primary training in spiritual direction was at St. Joseph’s Centre for Spirituality (Hamilton). She served as a consultant in art and spirituality at the Carey Centre on the campus of the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) and Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre (Hong Kong). She lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, with her husband, David.

Heather Mascarello, who conducted the interview on behalf of Conversations Journal, is Communications Director at the Christian Church of Clarendon Hills. she formerly worked as the print publicity manager at InterVarsity press. she lives in Burr Ridge, Illinois.