URC :: Spirituality

broadening and deepening prayer
United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Praying with a painting

Mark Argent
8 August 2021

Art has long been a stimulus to prayer. That includes religious art, which can invites because of its subject matter, but it’s possible to pray with any painting. Curiously, one of the suggestions I sometimes make to people on retreat is to look at the art around the retreat centre, find what attracts them most and least, and then to pray with both.

I’m often a little vague about the best way to pray with a work of art, which is to leave space for people to find their own path. When pushed, the suggestion is to use it to draw them into stillness. People often find that place easiest to enter if they begin by focussing on one thing (which is to withdraw the focus from other things) and then move past the thing focussed on. In this case one approach is to begin by treating the work of art as abstract and let the eye wander round the edges, then across it, taking in the shapes and colours. If the sense is that it is wanting to become something — perhaps because it is clearly not abstract — let it be seen as that thing. Then ask ask “Where would I place myself in this work of art?” and let the eye rest there for a while.

In effect, the final resting place of the eye is what pulls into stillness. But it is often a very dynamic stillness, where lots can happen, opening a path to visions and awareness so that it is both a stillness and a perceiving-beyond.

Encouraging people to pray with what they like and with what they don’t like unleashes a great deal because the exercise actually just needs a reaction, whether positive or negative. If someone can get past the first shock, it is often the work of art that repelled them which has the most to give in prayer.

Either way, it often helps to rest in stillness for a while and then to see what scripture comes to mind. Far from being a random process, the scripture that surfaces tends to have a connection with what’s been going on in response to the art and so lets the journey go further.