Art with Impact Prayerful reflections
The spiritual power of the arts
Finding God in all things. When I reflect upon the relationship between art and spirituality, this well-known Ignatian expression is quite apt. It emphasizes our desire of connection—not only a desire to find God but to be open to where our encounter with God might take place.
In approaching the arts as a means of connection with the Divine, this Ignatian expression conveys the importance of being receptive to the present moment by seeking greater awareness in how God is present to us. It’s important to be attentive to our emotions, desires, and interior movements, which can contain important clues in our relationships with God, self, and others. And this process is key to making art a part of our spiritual lives.
When we think of art and spirituality, our first instinct might be to think only of explicitly religious imagery. After all, what would our experience of Christianity be without Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel or Eastern Orthodox Icons? However we should also be open to finding an experience of God in works of art that may not have any specific religious content. These works, too, might still provide us with needed insight into our spiritual lives.
By engaging works of art, we can experience a sense of comfort and peace, as well as feelings of unease and being challenged. Art invites us to an encounter, which is a gift—a spiritual gift that might bring us into a deeper relationship with God. In addition to cathedrals and mountaintops, we can experience such spiritual gifts in the modern art galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, at a Zen Garden, or watching and listening to a performance of John Cage’s 4’33. An important part of the process of prayerfully engaging works of art is being attentive to how open we are to the work of art itself, as well as being open and attentive to how the art elicits those emotions, desires, and interior movements within us.
“Art invites us to an encounter, which is a gift—a spiritual gift that might bring us into a deeper relationship with God.”— Brother Lee Colombino, S.J.
In addition to finding God in all things, another important theme in Ignatian spirituality is imaginative prayer with the application of our five senses. In praying certain passages from Scripture—especially scenes from the life of Jesus Christ—Ignatius invites us to imagine we are participants within the scriptural scene and to imagine the scene using our five senses. That brings to mind many questions: Who am I in the scene—a disciple? Are my hands and arms sore from rowing the boat? How does the wine taste? What is it like to go from blindness to sight? What is the tone of voice being spoken? What aromas fill the air while eating with tax collectors?
An additional part of this prayer process is to be aware of our interior movements while engaging in imaginative prayer. For example, how did I feel being a disciple? With this kind of imaginative prayer and attentiveness to our interior movements, much fruit can be discovered in understanding our relationship with God, self, and others. And this form of imaginative prayer that works very well with all forms of art—not just the ones that depict scenes from scripture.
Imagine standing before a Jackson Pollock painting. One way of entering into this painting is to consider how the splatter mark-making and colors appeal to your five senses. While engaging those senses, maybe you begin to notice you feel anxious due to the apparent chaos on the canvas—what do you want to do? Do you seek to avoid chaos and go look at a different painting or sculpture? Do you allow yourself to be challenged by feeling anxious in the face of this chaos? What are your life-patterns in how you deal with feelings of anxiety and chaos? Do you turn to prayer during such times?
For me, I may think of Genesis 1 and the chaotic wasteland with a wind moving over the waters. Maybe, if I remain with this painting long enough, the anxiety I feel slowly gives way to a still and quiet spirit, something that surprises me from this encounter with Pollock’s work. By being open and attentive to finding God in all things and by engaging imaginative prayer, art can draw us more deeply into our hearts and minds—and into an encounter with God. Let us pray for the grace to have eyes that see and ears that hear the stirrings of God’s Spirit within such encounters so that we respond in love.
Brother Lee S. Colombino, S.J., currently studies spirituality and spiritual direction at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago.