Personal experiences on praying with visual imagery
When I first started painting icons I was, of course, interested in knowing as well how they related to prayer. I was referred by others (though not my icon painting teacher) to books that were intended as instruction manuals in visual prayer. I read a couple and perhaps I chose badly, but I struggled with them. One the one hand, they seemed to be suggesting some sort of meditative process in which one spent long quiet periods staring at an icon and experiencing it, so to speak, allowing thoughts and feelings to occur to me. Being by nature an Englishman of the stiff-upper-lip temperament (and happy to be so) I was suspicious of this. I had finally found a traditional method of teaching art that didn’t rely on splashing my emotions on paper, and here I was being told that in the end, the art I was learning to produce was in fact intended to speak to us through a heightened language of emotion. Furthermore, the language used to articulate the methods always seemed to employ what struck me as pseudo-mystical expressions and which, I suspected, were being used to hide the fact that they weren’t really saying very much.
So I started to ask my teacher about this and to observe Eastern Christians praying with icons. What struck me was that prayer for them seemed to be pretty much what prayer was for me. They said prayers that contained the sentiments that they wished to express to God. The difference between what they did and what I did at that time was that they turned and looked at an icon as they prayed. Also, when at home, often happily and without embarrassment they sang their prayers using very simple, easily learnt chant. Before meals, for example, the family would stand up, face an icon of Christ on the wall and sing a prayer of gratitude or even just the Our Father.
As I learnt more about icons through learning to paint them, I realized that every aspect of the style of an icon is worked out to engage us in a dynamic that assists prayer – through its form and content the icon will do the work of directing our thoughts to heaven. In short I don’t need to ‘do’ anything. The icon does the work for me.
The iconographic form is not the only one to do this. The Western Catholic tradition is very rich and has also the Baroque and gothic art forms that are carefully worked out to engage the observer in a dynamic of prayer, although in different ways. If the icon draws our thoughts to heaven, the baroque form is designed in contrast to have an impact at a distance in order to make God present on earth. The gothic figurative art is the art of pilgrimage, or of transition from earth to heaven, and stylistically it sits between the iconographic and baroque. It is the ‘gradual psalm’ of artistic form. Just like the spires of its architecture, it spans the gap between heaven and earth so that we have a sense both of where we going to and where we are coming from. I will discuss how the form of each tradition achieves in the next articles I write.
So the advice I was given was to ditch the books about praying with icons, and learn first to pray. Then as I pray always aim to have visual imagery that I allow to engage my sight and which assists. St Augustine said that those who sing their prayers pray twice. I would add that those who look at visual imagery as well pray three times (and if we use incense four times, and consider posture five). This process of engaging different aspects of the person in addition to the intellect is a move towards the ideal of praying with the whole person. This is what praying from the heart means. The heart is the vector sum of our thoughts and actions. It is our human centre of gravity when both body and soul are considered. It is the single point that, when everything is taken into account, defines what I am doing. It is the heart of us, in the sense of representing the core. This is why it is a symbol of the person. It is a symbol of love also because each of us is made by God to love him and our fellow man. It symbolizes what we ought to be rather than, necessarily, what we are. The modern world has distorted the symbolism of the heart into one of desire and ‘heartfelt’ emotion, precisely because these are the qualities that so many today associate with the essence of humanity.
The liturgy is ultimate form of prayer. By praying with the Church, the mystical body of Christ, we are participating in ‘Christ’s own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In the liturgy, all Christian prayer finds its source and goal.’ Therefore, the most important practice of praying with visual imagery is in the context of the liturgy. For example, when we pray to the Father then we look at Christ, for those who have seen Him have seen the Father. The three Catholic figurative traditions in art already mentioned were developed specifically to assist this process.
Just as the liturgy is the ‘source and goal’ of prayer, so liturgical art is, I would argue, the source and goal of all Catholic art. The forms that are united to the liturgy are the basis of Catholic culture. All truly Catholic art will participate in these forms and so even if a landscape in the sitting room, will point us to the liturgical. We cannot become a culture of beauty until we habitually engage in the full human experience of the liturgy. In the context of visual art, this practice will be the source of grace from which artists will be able to produce art that will be the basis of the culture of beauty; the source of grace and from which patrons will know what art to commission; and in turn by which all of us will be able to fulfill our vocation, whatever it may be, by travelling on the via pulchritudinis, the Way of Beauty, recently described by Pope Benedict XVI.
Of course, each individual (depending upon his purse) usually has a limited influence on what art we see in our churches. However, as lay people, we can pray the Liturgy of the Hours and control imagery that we use. The tradition of the prayer corner, in which paintings are placed on a small table or shelf at home as a focus of prayer, is a good one to adopt. We ‘orientate’ our prayer towards this, letting the imagery engage our sight as we do so. We can also sing, use incense and stand, bow, sit or kneel as appropriate while praying. A book I found useful in this regard, which describes traditional practices is called Earthen Vessels (The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition) by Gabriel Bunge, OSB
Does this mean that meditation of visual imagery is not appropriate? No it does not. But as with all prayer that is not liturgical, it is should be understood by its relation to the liturgy. So just as lectio divina, for example, is good in that it is ordered to the liturgy because through it our participation in the liturgy is deepened and intensified. So, perhaps, should meditation upon visual imagery should be understood in relation to the use of imagery in the liturgical context. Also, I would say that it is useful, just as with lectio, to avoid the confusion between the Western and Eastern non-Christian ideas of meditation and contemplation are. I was recommended a book recently that helped me greatly in this regard. It is called Praying Scripture for a Change – An Introduction to Lectio Divina by Dr Tim Gray.
 CCC, 1073