Some new age philosophies say that the five senses are the tip of the iceberg and that there are deeper realities beyond our bodily senses. I think St. Ignatius would agree. Indeed, he stresses the importance of the physical senses and feelings—gifts God has given us—in tapping more deeply into our understanding of God and those deeper realities ourselves. And while Ignatian prayer is best known as the prayer of the interior imagination, of the mind’s eye, it can also be activated from the exterior visual sense, through art.
Art has long been a way the Church has tapped into the divine. For centuries artists and sculptors have been commissioned to add this divine life to grand cathedrals and churches. The Vatican houses thousands of pieces of art in its museums, which are visited by millions of people every year.
What’s the big deal? In one sense, art can unlock the secret depths of the heart. Though a painting stimulates the visual sense, there’s something about a painting that somehow touches the more interior parts of us too.
I once had a group of university students meditate on a painting by Albrecht Dürer, of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. What in the picture stirred them? One noticed the intentionality of the donkey’s stride. Another was touched by Joseph’s calm yet concerned look back at Mary and the baby Jesus. Mary’s clothing is rippling in an apparent breeze, yet the baby is asleep. The small family seems calm, but there’s that unspoken sense of fear for the child’s life.
Such meditation can be a powerful experience.
Aristotle thought that an image or color being perceived by the visual sense changes us physically. There is something of the image that becomes part of us. Perhaps he was onto something deeper!
Whatever the painting, even if it’s abstract, praying with art offers an opportunity to reflect on different subjects, note our feelings, and tap more into the divine.
You might also be interested in the Arts and Faith series by Loyola Press.