One question I get asked the very most (besides what the heck spiritual direction is) is for resources and ideas to make prayer practices and disciplines a little more colorful. In a very broad brush, the modern evangelical church in America has limited many to a linear and reason-based (or more broadly: intellect-based) experience of God through the Quiet Time (the reading and studying of Scripture by one’s self). However, there are SO many other practices and disciplines for daily experience of God that are a little more geared towards the abstract mind and the imagination, BUT are still rooted in Tradition and doctrine that most of us can get behind.
If sitting down to work your way through the Study Bible sidebars of an entire book of the Bible for a whole month at the same time every morning is your jam… these practices probably won’t be the most fun for you, but they could be extremely beneficial. If you’re a visual learner, aesthetically oriented, an abstract thinker, or people have said you ‘have a colorful imagination’ then these may be a staple for your rhythms of life with God.
With any prayer practice: do as you can, not as you can’t. Start small: don’t expect to jump into a new contemplative or prayerful experience for 2 hours the first go, or don’t expect to have a page full of instructions from God on what your life is going to look like tomorrow. Contemplative space varies every time and it’s a practice… it takes practice to get deeper into the space. If the practice is a little awkward the first few times you try it… you’re probably doing it right. New practices take time to sink in with us. Give yourself ample grace especially if you’re trying something out of your comfort zone.
Here’s a short list of some creative prayer practices with which to sprinkle your days.
Latin for “divine seeing,” Visio Divina is a great practice for the visually oriented or picture-processors. If you’ve practiced Lectio Divina… you get where I'm going with this one. Visio Divina (like Lectio Divina) is a long-practiced spiritual discipline. Start the practice by choosing some visual form of media. I usually suggest a painting or image of a scene from Scripture, and for new practicers a scene with Christ in it is great for this exercise. A great go-to of mine is Rembrandt’s depiction of Christ calming the storm.
Allow yourself to process the image on deeper levels:
- Enter into a prayerful space. Get into a relaxing position that you won’t fall asleep in. Acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s ability to communicate with you through this time and this image. Open yourself up to the space and the One you hope to meet there.
- Slowly allow yourself to look over the image. Don’t get caught up in judgment thoughts like the quality, talent, or your taste of the image. If you’re an artist, it can be quite taxing to avoid your historical or compositional analysis of the image, but illustrating your knowledge is not the intention of the exercise. Like other meditation forms, allow the thought to come up, and gently let yourself move past it.
- Notice color, texture, line, emphasis or other visual story-makers without diving into the actual story quite yet. If you know what the image is intended to be about, submit yourself to simply taking initial observations. What are you most drawn to in the image? Do you have a more visceral reaction (be it positive or negative) to certain aspects or portions of the work? What is bringing your attention to the things you notice?
- What is your initial emotional response? What do you feel?
- Spend some time wondering at the things that stuck out and the feelings that were initially evoked.
- Then return to the image again for more reaction and response within yourself. What you are struck by or what stands out in the image and within yourself may change. Stay open to the process. Look at the forms, colors, and textures again: what impacts you?
- Enter a prayerful space around what was brought to your attention. What does the image have for you? What is being communicated through the image?
- If you use an image with Christ in it… where is He in the image? What is He doing? What is His demeanor and what is He conveying? If you were in the image, what or who would you be? What is your vicinity to Christ?
- Does the practice open up longing or desire in you? Are you experiencing hope or loss? What would Christ say to you if you were in the painting with Him?
- Take some time to process what you’ve experienced and felt. Make some journal notes if that helps you process or to remember your time in this space.
Praying in Color:
During my time in seminary, a mentor of mine told me about Praying in Color. Sybil MacBeth has created books to outline the practice and guide individuals through the practice. You can find out more information about Sybil and Praying in Color here. I was actually drawn more to the Praying in Color book for children versus the book for adults, so be open to possibilities. Your soul wants what it wants.
Praying in Color combines the act of doodling with the act of prayer. If you’re one of those people that doodles while you’re in class or workshops and retains information better this way, Praying in Color would probably be great for you. If you have a hard time focusing while praying and find that you often don’t pray for others or specifics because you get sidetracked, this practice may help you focus by drawing you in via the doodles. Sybil has created a great method of outlining greater thoughts and getting more specific. For example, you could start with a shape and name it after your friend then you could draw spirals off of that shape and name them things that you know your friend needs or wants, or things you hope for, for that friend. Overall, Praying in Color is a great little way to get the imagination to meet your prayer life and vis-a-versa.
Blind Contour Drawing:
Contour drawing is one of my favorite prayer exercises. I originally practiced blind contour drawing in my art classes growing up. It’s not an easy practice for those that are fearful of relinquishing control. The first time I engaged blind contour drawing as a spiritual practice was in a spiritual direction session with my first Spiritual Director. The director had me close my eyes and draw how I felt about a tricky transition in my relationship with God. Boom. I know. That’s what’s so fun about this practice: you can take something very abstract and process it cognitively through a very abstract, artistic process. Drawing with your eyes closed allows freedom for your mind to work in different ways, and therefore process what you’re feeling from a different cognitive perspective.
And so, it’s as simple as it sounds: take a blank piece of paper and your choice of drawing utensil. Close your eyes and begin wherever you desire on the page. In utter freedom, move your drawing utensil around the page freely but in a controlled manner as you allow your mind to meditate on a specific phrase or topic that you want to emotionally process. The two biggest things to remember with blind contour drawing is to never pick your utensil up from the page (you’ll lose your spot entirely and probably end up drawing on your table), and never open your eyes before you feel you need to be done. If you open your eyes before the practice is finished, you get all up in your head about everything and start getting into a judging mindset.
Examples of what to process with this practice would be: how you feel about a happening in your life, how you feel about God and how He is handling or not handling (in your perspective) something, how you feel about something someone has done to you or someone else. Notice this practice is mostly geared toward processing or letting out your emotions around something rather than discovering a deeper meaning or insight. However, the practice can be quite insightful.
….But as a meditative experience. Draw something instead of saying something. The Spiritual Director that introduced me to blind contour drawing as a spiritual practice, also had me draw in our sessions together. I remember one session, my director had me draw my relationship with God. I know, right?! What?! I freaked out when she told me what we were doing that day. I flipped into insecure diva mode: “you know I’m a photographer, right?! You know I don’t draw for anyone, right?” She didn’t care. And thank God! It was one of the most vulnerable things I’ve done, but it was insanely insightful to get to see how I was projecting Who God was in my relationship with Him. It allowed our direction session to go to depths it otherwise may not have reached because in conversation I have defense mechanisms and other tactics of self-preservation.
Even if you have zero drawing talent at all and rely on stick figures to visualize your thoughts and feelings, this can be a great practice to get the mind and imagination thinking in a different way and a great way to challenge your own self-preservation tactics. Drawing as a spiritual practice is a great way to release control and engage your creative self.
Give some of these practices a try and let me know what you think. Let me know the little twists you’ve made to make it your own and some of the things you’ve gotten out of time in these spaces!
I hope these are helpful and that through some of these engaging exercises you may get to experience deeper pieces of Who God is, Who He says you are, and His love for you.