Liz Matney graduated from Bellarmine’s MAS program in 2006. She is a graduate of the Shalem Institute’s program for leading contemplative prayer groups and retreats. Liz is senior business development manager for Networld Media Group. She loves mixing photography and spirituality in what is now popularly termed “contemplative photography.” She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Photography is the art of exclusion, made so by the fact that it forces us to place what matters inside a frame, excluding all else. It’s a story-telling device of extraordinary elegance and simplicity. And by that act of exclusion we point more powerfully to the things within the frame, saying without words, because they aren’t needed when the photograph is clear, Look at this!” – David duChemin, Introduction to Seven
We are bombarded with photographic images today. Almost everyone has a phone with a camera. Images are posted on Instagram, Facebook, FlickR, blogs, websites, etc. We see images on TV, in magazines and newspapers. The photos are of friends, food, family, pets, vacations, weddings, war, bombings, tornadoes, floods, famine, etc. How long do you spend looking at individual photos – seconds? Do you pause and consider an image deeply – or glance quickly? Do you notice details in the photo – or do your eyes dart to the next image?
You may argue that the type of image matters. How many photos of your friends’ food invite you to look deeper? If you look at these photos below, you may think “cute cat” and move on to the next photo within seconds. But I offer an opportunity to explore an image for a bit longer. I challenge you to look inside the frame of the photo below and “Look at this” in the same manner as reading scripture using the practice of Lectio Divina. This goes by several names, some of which are “praying with images” or Visio Divina. I’ll go out on a limb and say it could be considered a version of praying with icons.
“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.” – Juliet Benner, interview in the journal Conversations
I invite you to use this attentive seeing and enter into the contemplative prayer practice of Visio Divina using the image and the five steps outlined below.
(It is helpful if the photo is printed out so it can be held, or placed on a table in front of you. An electronic device can be used, but be sure it doesn’t automatically turn off.)
- Explore the image. Look at everything within the frame – objects, patterns, shapes, textures, lines, light, and colors. Look for at least 2 minutes. Journal any notes you wish to make about the image.
- Look deeper. Where are your eyes drawn? What feelings or judgments arise? Engaging your imagination, enter the image and walk around. Where are you? What are you doing? Do you see something differently from this vantage point? What relationships do you notice? Look deeply for at least 3 minutes. Journal your reflections.
- Allow the image to lead you into a time of prayer. Silently, offer prayers to God of gratitude, intercession, lament, confession, or praise – whatever wells up in you. If you wish, journal these prayers.
- Adjust your sitting position so that you are comfortable. You can continue looking at the image with a soft gaze, or close your eyes. Release tension in your neck, shoulders, arms, hands, legs and feet. Breathe deeply and slowly. Find your quiet center. Rest in this quiet for 10-15 minutes, being open to God’s presence within you. Allow thoughts to drift past you as if they were clouds. If your mind wanders, with soft eyes, look at the image again, or bring an awareness of the image into your mind. At the end of this time, slowly open your eyes. Breathe deeply. Journal any insights you want to remember, actions you are invited to take, and any thoughts or feelings that are present. You may have only had random thoughts flying though your mind the entire time. Journal about that. Be gentle with yourself and have no expectations of grand revelations. The point is to practice and to offer quiet time to be attentive to God’s presence.
- Close by offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God.
Consider offering this time to be with God a few times each week. Consider using images to enter into prayer. Take time to learn what God wants to say to you through a specific image.
But I’m realistic and know that we don’t always have 30-45 minutes for this prayer practice. So I offer some options when you have less time, or are not in a situation that would allow you to close your eyes:
- Have a few minutes while waiting for an appointment? Consider the photos stored in your phone, tablet or computer. Select a photo of a loved one, looking deeply, offer prayers of intercession or gratitude.
- Reading the newspaper, a magazine or the news on the internet? Look at the images, selecting one that draws you in. Spend time with that image and offer a prayer for the person/people, situation, or place.
- No camera? It doesn’t seem like the right time or place to pull out your phone and snap a photo? With your mind’s eye, “take” a photograph of what’s in front of you. Image a frame. Hold that image in your mind. What attracted you to this “image”? Why did you include – or exclude – objects, people, animals or things? Offer a prayer to God about this “image.”
- At a museum? Take time to look deeply at art – photographs, painting, sculpture, etc. The Louvre reports that the average time spent in front of the Mona Lisa is 15 seconds. When I was at the Louvre there was a long pushy line, so I can understand this short viewing time. However at most museums and galleries, you can find a piece of art that allows you to spend more time viewing it. If there is a seat, sit and look deeply at the artwork. Take it in. Explore it. Offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God, the artist and the museum. If you have your journal, or a piece of paper, journal your thoughts and feelings about the experience.
I hope that exploring and praying with images in this manner helps bring to you an awareness of our ever-present God. I hope you begin a practice of seeing within the frame to “Look at this” and open yourself to God through Visio Divina. For “In prayer we see all things in a new light” - Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs