Visio Divina– where a picture is indeed worth a thousand words

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a workshop teaching the practice of Visio Divina—praying with art, sponsored by Women of Faith out of Marlborough, Massachusetts (The Sisters of Saint Anne).

The presenters

Sr. Yvette Dargy and Sr. Pauline Laurence, Sisters of Saint Anne, presenting on Visio Divina.
Sr. Yvette Dargy and Sr. Pauline Laurence, Sisters of Saint Anne, presenting on Visio Divina.

The workshop was led by Sr. Pauline Laurence and Sr. Yvette Dargy who are both educators, community leaders, and pastoral ministers. They have served in local dioceses and in home missions in West Virginia. These innovative sisters are the founders of Vacations That Give, a ministry of the Sisters of Saint Anne, which offers a faith-based experience for adults integrating travel, work, prayer, and play.

Why pray with art?

A core part of Vacations That Give takes place in the evening when participants, after a day of service, talk about the gospels and how they connect to real life. As they saw participants struggling with understanding the Word of God, Sisters Pauline and Yvette formulated a practice of Visio Divina as a means of helping people connect the gospel with their lives.

Visio Divina is a contemplative practice meant to develop ways of seeing holiness in our everyday lives. By meditating on photographs, scenes in real life and icons, you can learn to penetrate the surface meaning and unearth what God means for you to hear and learn.

What grabs you?

Sr. Pauline teaches on praying with images.

The sisters taught that the first step is to find an image that grabs you, that makes you stop and look again. Using a series of questions as a guide, we were led to discover just what spoke to us through the images. The practice is simple: once you enter into the presence of God, you discern what the image is telling you. What is holy is what speaks to you and captures your heart.

Unraveling the mystery of contemplation

Contemplation is not as mysterious as it sounds but you do have to develop a practice of it. Once that door is open, you will find God speaking to you through the mundane, the joyful, the sad and the horrific.

Being over doing

The sisters presented sources to further explain what contemplation entails. Abbey of the Arts, a ministry of author Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, describes contemplation as countercultural, “a deeper way of life where less becomes more and the goals are slowness rather than speed, and savoring rather than productivity.” (from The path to contemplation). In essence, it is being more than doing, resisting the temptation of busyness which our world fosters.

Simple things

Illuminated Life--Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light by Joan Chissister
from Amazon

In Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light, Joan Chittister writes that the contemplative way of living is about about basic things: seeing God in everyone, finding God everywhere and responding to all of life as a message from God. Contemplation is not a road show of visions, not an exalted state of being but rather a simple consciousness of the Ultimate in the immediate.

An ancient art

imaging the word
from Amazon

In a series of books known as Imaging the Word, contemplation is described as an ancient art which encourages the participant to slow down, read the Bible and other books and take time to be with others. We learn to be open to our own particular way of contemplation as provided by God.

Its use in ancient days

Visio Divina is indeed an ancient practice which benefitted the masses that for centuries were either illiterate or had no means to acquire a Bible. The use of icons and stained glass windows imparted the faith along with preaching and the oral tradition.

Biblical examples

The Burning Bush by Ruben Alexander
The Burning Bush by Ruben Alexander

Are there examples in the Word of Visio Divina? The sisters examined The Call of Moses in Exodus 3: how Moses saw the burning bush and how the colors, actions and sounds from the bush focused Moses on the Lord. Realizing something holy was occurring he removed his shoes. He heard God within himself and was able to reflect and respond to God’s grace.

Using the concrete to explain the spiritual

Jesus also made use of the visual in his parables, describing things people were familiar with: lilies of the field, sheep and shepherds, wine and bread. St. Francis did this with the creation of the manger, to bring home the story of the incarnation of Christ.

Too many images?

We however face a problem that previous generations did not: that of being bombarded with images! Sisters Yvette and Pauline counseled discernment, learning to choose which images we keep and which we discard from our memories since images can enter into our unconscious and disturb us without our even knowing it.

The results of Visio Divina

sr. yvetteThey further taught that images are direct and brief. Visuals speak to us first by grabbing our attention on an emotional level. As you spend time gazing at the image, your prayer goes deeper, uncovering unconscious thoughts and feelings that you need to address with God.

You need to form a response to the image that calls you. In the process you will be addressed, surprised and transformed by God just as Moses was with the burning bush.

Speaking, calling, directing … this is the move of God. The adage of a picture being worth a thousand words certainly fits with Visio Divina, telling us about God and about who we are with God.

Sister Pauline and Sister Yvette prepared a series of questions meant to guide you through your prayer with images. You can download them here. There are many wonderful sources for images from the aforementioned Imaging the Word to your own collection of pictures in your home including family albums. Going out for a walk and being mindful of what you see has unlimited possibilities (as does kayaking or canoeing). Searching on Google can also be quite productive.

Try for yourself

Following these suggestions for praying with images by Sr. Pauline Laurence and Sr. Yvette Dargy, I invite you to try with these three photographs I took on a kayaking trip last summer. Choose the one that captures your imagination and go with it:

640 mill pond


640 turtle


640 yellow flower1

What did you learn from your time of prayer?

Women of Faith have a Lenten day of prayer coming up in March. To find out more visit Women of Faith and ask to be put on the mailing list.

Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

Art/Photography: All photos by Susan W. Bailey except where noted.

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Learning to forget through your prayerful imagination

My monthly column on The Catholic Free Press and

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Learn to forget? Seems to me I have to first learn how to remember! Those of us past a certain age know that feeling well. So do young mothers, workaholics and anyone else who is overly busy. We all know that sinking feeling when we’ve forgotten an appointment. How many of us search for a word in the middle of a sentence, only to have it pop into our heads hours later?

Then again, there are things I would like to forget. That scary movie I saw just before bedtime. The dirty house that I have no energy to clean. The accident I had last summer that now makes taking any left turn into traffic an ordeal.

And then there are regrets, some from many years ago, that periodically remind me of pain I would like to leave behind. Saying no when I should have said yes. Talking behind a colleague’s back. Not having spent enough time with my children. Deciding not to visit my mother one last time because it was too hard, only to find out later that she had died.

It doesn’t make much sense to confess to the priest and receive reconciliation if I have no intention of letting go of the sin. Since God has already chosen to forgive me, who am I to disagree?

How can we hope to forget what we can’t forgive? How can we learn to let go of those words and actions that weigh us down and block that life-giving joy that God so wants us to receive?

Sometimes our own imaginations can provide the way when used as a form of prayer. In his famous Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius encouraged the use of one’s imagination in meditating on the life of Jesus and the saints. He encouraged people to place themselves into Gospel stories – in essence becoming the characters – and experiencing their feelings and reactions as they interacted with the Lord.

In the spirit of this kind of prayer, I imagine the following:

It was the end of the day and the sky was orange, reflecting the setting sun. The air was warm and thick, the trees laden with leaves. I am sitting on a dock by a river, swinging my feet back and forth as I listen to the water rippling by underneath. I watch a leaf drop slowly to the water only to be carried out of sight.

David Stanley Sunset Over the Rupununi
David Stanley Sunset Over the Rupununi

I turn to see a barge by the dock, filled to overflowing with rubble—pieces of wood, open crates, blocks of concrete, broken bottles, stacks of newspapers. I notice an odor rising from the barge that suggests garbage lying beneath the rubble. It is an ugly sight, marring the otherwise peaceful scene. I want to get rid of that barge. I try pushing the rim with my feet but it will not budge.

Mark Morgan 0522 Rust Barge
Mark Morgan 0522 Rust Barge

In my prayer Jesus sits down next to me on the dock. Instinctively I lean upon his shoulder and point to the barge beside us. He places his feet upon its edge and motions me to do the same. “Push,” he says and we both push hard, stretching our legs out as far as they would go. Slowly the barge moves away from the dock into the river and, caught up by the current, proceeds downstream, meandering out of sight.

As I continue to lean on the shoulder of my Lord I can feel a burden lift from my heart, placing itself on that barge as it drifts away. I look up into his face as he says to me, smiling, “It’s okay, you can let go, I have forgiven you.” Tears coming to my eyes, I thank him and kiss him on the cheek.

I repeat this exercise periodically as regrets come to mind. It reminds me that I am forgiven and I need to claim it.

Perhaps you too can sit with Jesus and push away your barge full of rubble as your way of learning to forgive and forget.

For a brief overview of Ignatian spirituality, visit

Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

Art/Photography: Sunset Over the Rupununi, Name – David Stanley, PD/CC/SA, Flickr Creative Commons;
0522 Rust Barge, Name – Mark Morgan, PD/CC/SA, Flickr Creative Commons

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