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  • Writer's pictureJean Brender

Visio Divina: A Way of Seeing With Our Eyes


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Have you ever gazed at a scene in nature or on canvas and been moved by what you saw? When I was a child, my mother read me stories out of a Bible storybook that had beautiful illustrations to go with the texts and narratives. One of my favorite pictures was that of Jesus walking through a field full of brightly colored lilies. The picture brought Jesus’ words recorded Matthew 6:28-29 alive for me:

 

            So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they

            grow: they neither toil or spin; and yet I say to you even Solomon in all his

            glory was not arrayed like one of these.

 

I felt remarkably close to Jesus as I gazed at that picture (shown above) and realized, even as a small child, that if Jesus cared about the flowers, he surely cared about little children like me.

 

            Little did I know at the time that I was engaging in the spiritual practice of visio divina that Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes as intentionally seeking God by praying with images, icons, created media, and the earth itself (1). In his book Transformed by God’s Words: Discovering the Power of Lectio and Visio Divina, Stephen Binz notes that the early Christian church not only communicated the good news about Jesus in writing but also expressed the gospel stories through images of art, such as through icons (2).

 

Icons are sacred images representing historical saints, Christ, the Virgin Mary and scenes from Christ’s ministry on earth (3). These were developed by the artists in conjunction with the church, especially that of the Orthodox Christian tradition, to help people increase their attentiveness and to become more present to the word of God (4). Visio divina might be considered as “holy seeing” and a way for us to pray with our eyes.

 

So how can we engage in visio divina? It may be as simple as meditating on an image that has spiritual significance or an image that brings life to a biblical passage, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan. Such images can stimulate our imagination, help us feel more part of a spiritual truth or story, awaken our emotions of love and awe, and deepen our understanding of God.

 

Calhoun suggests the following steps to engage in visio divina (5):

 

1.    Move into silence and invite the Holy Spirit to guide your prayer.

2.    Pray with openness that you can begin to see the image and its significance with God’s eyes.

3.    Pay attention to what is going on within you. What is stirring within you as you gaze at the image? How does what you are seeing fit in with your memories of the past, your present context, and your hopes? What connections do you sense with God and the people around you?

4.    Linger with the image and what you are noticing about God and yourself. Even after engaging in visio divina with an image, you may find the picture coming to mind later along with a renewed sense of God’s presence with you.

 

Juliet Benner and Stephen Binz have published books that combine the reading of biblical passages with mediating on Christian art - Benner’s book with copies of paintings displayed around the world and Binz’s book with icons created by Ruta and Kaspars Poikans.(6,7). Benner notes in her book on Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer: “As we prayerfully gaze on the painting, we enter the scene it depicts – into its time and place. When we do this, all time becomes present time, and we are led into the eternal presence – into the One who is ever present to us” (8).

 

I never forgot the image of Jesus walking among the lilies of the field in my Bible storybook from childhood. I was thrilled to find it online recently and am sharing it in this blog with you. I invite you to spend some time contemplating what this image stirs up in you.

 

Cited:

1.    Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (Revised and Expanded) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 46.

2.    Stephen J. Binz, Transformed by God’s Word: Discovering the Power of Lectio and Visio Divina (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2016), 9.

3.    Brooks, Sarah. “Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/icon/hd_icon.htm (originally published October 2001, last revised August 2009).

4.    Stephen J. Binz, Transformed by God’s Word, 19.

5.    Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 48.

6.    Juliet Benner, Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).

7.    Stephen J. Binz, Transformed by God’s Word.

8.    Juliet Benner, Contemplative Vision, 19.

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