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.