Visual Prayer

Those of us in the Western world have forgotten a lot of what we once understood about visual pathways. Before written language became the focal point of communication, people used symbols, signs, and objects to express their needs, their memories, and their prayers. Now I can go to some ancient site and look at pictorial stories done in sketches and carvings—and have no idea what they mean. I am somewhat illiterate when it comes to visual cues.

Thanks to computer technology, the younger generations are reclaiming some of their visual abilities. They can see icons scattered across a screen and intuit which image will help them do the task they need to do. I still need a drop-down menu with words on it; even icons that are obvious to most teenagers remain meaningless to me. And, as much as some of us complain about the quality of movies, television, and other social media—thank God for the artists who continue to explore transcendence through film, visual storytelling, and mixed-media presentations. Consider the peaceful revolution that has occurred since the video “Happy” was released. Pharrell Williams’s little dance video has inspired people across the globe to provide their own version of movement and joy to the soundtrack he provided and the original choreography that helped the music leap into the collective consciousness.

One thing I know for sure: I have spent most of my life quite dependent on words for any sense of spiritual growth or understanding. There are entire religious cultures, mainly the fundamentalist ones, that have turned sacred writings into idols, rejecting any other means through which God might speak to us. In my view, this is a serious problem. What are we missing because we look past visual signs and wonders? What might this gap in our spiritual literacy mean for prayer?

Certainly Catholicism loves words: Scriptures, literature, and writings of our fathers and mothers in theology, mysticism, and catechesis. But the Church has kept alive the sensual aspects of faith, including visual riches: icons, frescoes, sculpture, architecture.

  • This week, look for spiritual nourishment in something that does not use words.
  • Please report back on what you discover.


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