Art: A way into prayer
ART HAS ALWAYS PLAYED a major role in my prayer as a member of my religious order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Carmelites have as their reason for being the work of prayer: praying for the church and for the needs of the whole world. To this end we are an “enclosed” community—that is, we do not leave the monastery except for essential business. Far from being a restriction for its own sake, it is designed to free us and all our energies for our great task of prayer.
In everyday terms it means we follow a strict timetable, known as the horarium (from the Latin hora—an “hour”), which revolves around the singing of the Divine Office of the church and one hour of private, silent prayer every morning and evening. Each person has her own way of being during this silent prayer hour, and it is probably true to say that there are as many ways of praying as there are people committed to prayer. Fortunately for me I discovered meditation using pictures.
You don’t have to be an expert
This monastery has always encouraged looking at art in the form of reproductions either for its own sake or as an aid to prayer. We are fortunate in having a large library of well-illustrated art books, and sisters regularly give talks about or write commentaries on pictures that appeal to them.
|Of prayer with Mark Rothko’s Orange and Yellow (1956) the author says, “I can imagine entering into that space as surely as in my prayer I enter into the very Being of God and am held there.”|
Get to know it
It has been suggested that the best way to write a book is simply to sit down and begin. Similarly the best way into using art as a pathway to prayer is simply to try it out. The first thing is to find a picture—be it of a drawing, painting, or sculpture—that you like, and then to spend time with it. Using the internet can be helpful: There are thousands of photographs of paintings and sculptures online as well as a wealth of information about each work and every artist, and that is certainly valuable as background information. But to pray with an image you need to have it, if not actually in front of you, then at least securely in your mind’s eye. So I think an actual reproduction is essential. I keep it propped up in a place where I can see it often so that I can think about it often. Gradually it, too, speaks to me.
|Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669)|
Over the years I have used a wide variety of pictures in my prayer, from Old Masters having a specifically religious subject—for example Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son—to abstract works by contemporary artists. Sometimes I find that nonrepresentational, modern art gives me a greater freedom of interpretation—or is simply more restful. I might, for example, choose a very simple painting by Mark Rothko. I have never seen an original Rothko. I can only imagine how powerful one of his enormous rectangles of almost translucent color could be, but I can imagine entering into that space as surely as in my prayer I enter into the very Being of God and am held there.
|Child with a Dove by Pablo Picasso (1901)|
What a challenge this protestation of extravagant love is to us—and how we need to hold fast to it! As that great Carmelite saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, knew only too well: Growth in the Spirit relies on “trusting to the last in His fatherly goodness.” So hard, and yet that is all there is to it.
An image I have turned to again and again over the years is Remember This, a strikingly beautiful yet very simple picture of an empty bowl by the contemporary American artist Loretta Roome. The title of this painting seems to suggest a past association, but for me this picture is all about the future, about potential. I may see it as the bowl of my “daily bread”: an empty bowl, which I hold up in trust, each day, to my heavenly Father, knowing that he will fill it with nourishing bread. “What father among you would give his son a stone, if he asked for bread?” (Luke 11:11). What a challenge to faith when what I get seems to be very far from good, satisfying bread.
There are many ways in which an artist may let us see a picture. Whether we know the artist’s personal point of view does not necessarily matter. It may be of interest—but it may also inhibit my own response. A true work of art surely has a life of its own, and when I really engage with it, with all humility, openness, and a readiness for God, then something happens and I am truly enriched.
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