Minnesota Contemplative Outreach sponsored an event called “Praying with the Eyes of the Heart.” We gathered at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and began with Centering Prayer and then went in groups of four into the museum, each group guided by a “museum sage.”
The idea for this event was presented to our servant leadership team by one of our members, Adam Gordon. Adam had personal experience with the Museum Sage program and suggested combining it with Centering Prayer because of the simplicity of both practices. In presenting his idea, he explained that opening to God's love and action within during Centering Prayer could help us open to insights, and meaningful connections both with art and with those around us. This activity could extend the power of community we feel during Centering Prayer gatherings into another activity, offering a tangible experience of the fruits of our practice.
Adam shared this with us about his experience: "Just as it doesn't matter what word we choose for our sacred word, the piece of art we land on really doesn't matter: it is a symbol of our intention to open to deeper insights. In addition, Centering Prayer tends to happen in special, private places -- in the sanctuary or parlor of a church for example. Though our centering in the museum took place in a private room, we then moved out into a public space, which was novel and thrilling. Finishing a Centering Prayer session, then moving out carrying that intention, holding that intention, is unusually powerful. Finally, I was looking for something completely experiential, something that wasn't 'about' the practice of Centering Prayer, wasn't analytical, but was about taking part in an activity where we could experience the fruits of the practice."
There were 50 of us—10 guides and 40 participants. I loved the experience for several reasons. First, it was exciting to see who chose to come to this event. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I would go and would invite two artist friends who also practiced Centering Prayer. Some of the people who came were Minnesota Contemplative Outreach “regulars,” but others were people with a Centering Prayer practice and a curiosity about how it could connect with art.
As we gathered there was a certain light heartedness in the group, perhaps a playful expectation to be surprised. We began our session of Centering Prayer in a large oval in the community room. Adam briefly explained the four guidelines for those among the Museum Sage guides who were not familiar with Centering Prayer. Then together we held the stillness for 20 minutes.
At the end of our Centering Prayer session, we broke into groups of four, each assigned to a guide. The guides, all members of the Museum Sage program, had been trained to lead an individual to a work of art and then to ask questions to help the individual look closely at the piece of art in a way that lead to personal insight.
To begin, our guide instructed each of us to think of a question we had been grappling with—something we had been thinking about and seeking an answer for. Once we each had a question, our group went out into the museum to take turns considering our question with a work of art. The first to volunteer was told to close her eyes and take the guide’s arm as he led her through the various galleries. He instructed her to tune into her senses of hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting until he brought her to a particular work of art. Then we gathered around her as the guide helped her observe the piece of art in terms of her question. The rest of us watched and listened. Eventually, the person was asked if she was willing to share her question. In our group, everyone chose to do so. After the question was shared, the guide asked if comments from the others would be welcomed. Again, everyone in my group chose to hear comments from the others. Even before any comments were offered, however, there was a palpable feeling of support in the group. For me it was a grace-filled experience, both when I was a supporter and when I was standing before “my” work of art with my question.
That was the process, but the experience was so much more. As we each took our turn bringing our own question to a work of art, the others listened deeply, exploring with us, looking for insight to the question we had posed. In the end, the experience felt like stepping out of the usual, taking a chance on something new with four other people, and a felt-sense of being guided by their love.
After each person in our group had a turn, we quietly walked back to the community room. There we gathered with the other groups to share our experience. We had all been on an adventure, exploring with a team of friends. Now we each had a new friend—a specific work of art that finds its home at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. And my old friends? We share the memory of this time together to pray and to open ourselves to each other in a unique way.
Carol is a member of the facilitators team of the St. Olaf Centering Prayer group in downtown Minneapolis; a member of the servant leadership team and past co-coordinator of the Minneapolis/St. Paul (Minnesota) chapter of Contemplative Outreach; a commissioned presenter of Centering Prayer; a member of the Centering Prayer Introductory Program service team; and a member of the Coordinator/Contact Person Support service team.
Over the last several years, a similar practice of Visio Divina has been offered as part of some of the online courses offered by Contemplative Outreach, particularly those during Lent and Advent. Images are included along with Scripture passages, the teachings of Thomas Keating and other contemplative voices. Participants are invited to prayerfully receive these teachings, along with an image for the day.
Visio Divina facilitates a relationship with an image or subject, patiently being with it, receptive in mind and heart, perhaps even in dialogue with it. In stillness, we allow the image to reach beyond the intellect and into the unconscious level of our being, a place that can't be accessed directly. In wonder, we are invited to look at every aspect of an image and ponder it as an encounter with God. It is a way of seeing an aspect of ourselves in God, at the non-verbal, heart level. The image then becomes alive with personal meaning, meant just for us. This is the same movement of the Spirit we can experience with Lectio Divina and Scripture – gazing, reflecting, responding and resting.
This practice does not require any special knowledge or appreciation of art, just a willingness to interact with the colors, textures, forms and overall impressions.
We start by simply gazing at the image, taking in the entire composition and registering what it depicts. As we continue to gaze, we begin to reflect on the deeper meanings that present themselves. Then we gaze at each of the component parts and see beyond seeing how each part contributes to the whole. As we ponder the image and observe every detail we may place ourselves in the scene and see and feel from this perspective. We observe our responses. A prayer or an inspiration may arise. The possible messages are endless and very individual – there is no right or wrong way of seeing.
This practice, along with Musica Divina, acknowledges and invites the presence and action of the Spirit within us and around us as we move through life and the beauty that presents itself. The possible extensions of the practice are endless.