‘Visio divina’: divine prayer with art and sculpture

James Tissot’s painting ‘The Ointment of the Magdalene’ can be seen at the Brooklyn Museum in this undated photo. (CNS Photo by Public Domain)

In recent years, the term “visio divina” has gained ground in the Catholic lexicon. Like “lectio divina,” which is a way of praying with scripture, “visio divina” translates to “divine vision” and is a way of praying with art or other visual media alongside scripture.

I first encountered visio divina in June 2021 at Forum GIVEN, a conference dedicated to helping young women activate their gifts for the good of the church and the world. One of the projects inspired by the 2016 forum was Katie Weiss’ Behold, a ministry that uses visio divina to help women “encounter the beauty of God and themselves, and move forward in world by sharing this beauty.

Stages of visio divina

During the forum, Katie guided attendees through a moment of visio divina. She showed us a picture of the painting by James Tissot, “The ointment of the Madeleine”. Then she walked us through the following steps (which can also be found on her website):

Video: We were asked to spend time looking at the image and “praying that it speaks to (our) heart”.

Meditation: Katie then read us an accompanying Bible passage (Jn 12:1-10) and invited us to reflect more deeply on the board, guiding us through questions for reflection. As we could experience during the lectio divina, we were asked: “What strikes you in this image and in the Scripture?

Pray: We were then invited to enter into dialogue with the Lord on what spoke to us about Scripture and painting.

Contemplation: Katie describes this stage as “a simple rest in God” and “a moment of divine intimacy”.

Stock: The last question of our prayer was, “How can you experience the fruit of this meditation?” The purpose of this stage is for the word we read and the image we look at to take root in us and change us, and call us to some kind of response.

Powerful experience

Praying with this painting was powerful. I was struck by Mary Magdalene’s total surrender to the Lord, as well as the shocked and somewhat disapproving faces of the people around Jesus.

Jesus, however, reaches out to her, perhaps pointing out to those gathered his example of humility. He is not at all bothered by the fact that his hair is draped over his feet. In this moment of abandonment, Mary has given all her material and spiritual possessions to the Lord, and the sweetness of the ointment fills the room.

During the meditation, one of Katie’s questions was, “Is there anything stopping you from receiving your gifts?” This led me to reflect on areas of fear and lack of confidence in my own life and bring them to prayer, and to discern the action of finding a spiritual director so that I can more freely empty my jar of alabaster on the feet of Jesus.

Prayer experiences with art

In June 2022, I had the chance to sit down with Katie to discuss her own experiences of praying with art in more depth. Prior to founding Behold, Katie spent time with a religious order to discern her calling. Although she struggled to pray with scripture alone, she found prayer came more easily before Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation.”

“It gave me permission to feel what I felt,” Katie explained. “I felt I was not called to the religious community I was with, but I was afraid to see that.” Praying in front of this painting gave him permission to recognize hard feelings – like fear and pain and, in this case, the courage to discern religious community.

More recently, art has helped Katie overcome the deep grief of her miscarriage. An artist herself, she felt called to paint in the weeks following her loss: “I painted this picture of Mary holding our baby, Lucy. It was really soothing to acknowledge a loss and express how I felt inside.

Help others

Art has been a catalyst in helping Katie grow in intimacy with the Lord, and her ministry is guided by the belief that she can do the same for others. Behold served post-abortion women and also provided opportunities for small groups to pray through the mysteries of the rosary with art and to use handwriting to pray with a scripture verse.

Katie describes these experiences of creating or engaging more meaning while praying with art as embodied. It’s also part and parcel of Catholic tradition – while researching Behold, Katie found a book on Eastern Catholicism that mentioned the practice of praying with icons and scripture.

Even stained glass, Katie says, is a visual way to engage with scripture and, when it was first used, would have helped a largely illiterate population engage more deeply in the faith.

‘Visio divina’ explodes

Since launching Behold in 2016, Katie has seen the term “visio divina” explode. She believes the Holy Spirit uses this way of praying to touch souls.

The beauty of our church is that it holds a rich treasure of ways in which we can draw closer to Our Lord. Visio divina, I have found, brings scripture to life in a vibrant way and invites the viewer to rest in the visual poetry of an artist’s inspiration.

Visit www.beholdvisiodivina.com to learn more.

(Weishar is a poet and freelance writer.)

Previous Art exhibition inspired by literature is coming to Cheltenham
Next A Banksy painting could add $14 million to the value of this building