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By Carlos E Chuquihuara SJ
Mar 12th, 2019

“May they encounter the beauty of God’s love through the bearings of Human Creativity”

Before the start of the Lenten season, myself and the lay chaplain in my school started to discuss what will be the best way to encourage prayer among pupils and staff. After banging our head against the wall (metaphorically speaking of course…) we decided to offer short prayer times during school’s short morning breaks. Even though some of the activities did not really pick up as we expected, one of them did capture pupils’ attention: Visio Divina or praying through art.

In the Catholic tradition, many of will be familiarized with Lectio Divina: the ancient tradition of praying with Scripture (and other spiritual texts). In Lectio Divina, the reader enters into prayerful space by letting his/her eyes “fly” towards a particular phrase or word in a Sacred text.  In this regard, Visio Divina (i.e. praying through sacred art) operates under the methodology of Lectio Divina but with a different substrate: Sacred Art.

During my time as a Jesuit philosophy student in Toronto, I was very moved by an exhibition in the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) called Mystical Landscapes.  This exhibition consisted of a collection of paintings that did not explicitly touch on Christian themes but rather expressed the notion of mysticism through means of light-contrast and symbolic imagery. One would wonder how such an exhibit would appeal to a mainstream audience that appears to be disengaged with the narratives of faith and of the transcendentals. As it usually happens in life: God meets people in unexpected ways…

Despite all odds, Mystical Landscapes attracted more than ¼ million visitors, Consequently, it became the most successful exhibit in the history of the AGO. Personally, Mystical Landscapes impressed me in two ways. First, I was most very surprised by how artists as different as Gaugin, Monet and Emily Carr could express the complexity of a mysticism through the means of colour and shape. However, what I was most impressed about the exhibit was how my non-religious friends who attended the exhibition were moved towards faith, depth and hope in a godly-like manner.  This awareness of the power of art to “speak” of God as a transcendental reality stay with me all the way to my first Lent as a regent at Coláiste Iognáid SJ in Galway, Ireland.

Even though the notion of Visio Divina has emerged in the last few decades, the tradition of praying through art is as old as Christianity itself. In the Early and Medieval Christian tradition, artistic expression was the prime way of exegesis. In other words, from the early days of the Church, Christian communities learn and pray about the message of salvation through the art in the Church walls.  In this regard, in modern times, we seem to have underestimated the power of artistic beauty as a means to encounter the Divine. Yet, I was most surprised to see how Visio Divina engaged my generation Z pupils into prayer.

In our post-modern world, where most messages are transmitted through speech, text and or enhanced reality, some of us could easily override the idea that Sacred art as an instrument for evangelisation. My experience leading Visio Divina sessions in my school has made me realized that sacred art is a powerful vehicle for God to meet a generation that appears to be disengaged with faith. Therefore, I think that Visio Divina yet another way to infuse our students the Ignatian worldview: that they may encounter the beauty of God’s love through the bearings of Human Creativity.

Through this article I would like to share the Lenten Visio Divina Lesson Plan and the Visio Divina Leaders Handout. The aim of this Lenten resource is to allow the students to experience God through the means of contemplating Sacred art.

At the end of the day, we all (Christians or not) seek the same things. In this world, we all search for what it is true, beautiful and good. In this regard, I hope that during this time of Lent, this Visio Divina lesson plan may allow you and your students to encounter the transcendent presence that moves in all creation and the creativity of artist: The God of Surprises.