Week One: Visio Divina.

To start off my ‘Journey with the Spiritual Disciplines,’ I thought I’d flip through the Table of Contents in Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook to see which disciplines stood out to me. After making a list of about twenty, I asked myself, “Which would be a fun one to start with?” I read some of the descriptions, then decided to begin with one that was unfamiliar to me – “visio divina.” Visio divina is a Latin term, translated in English to “divine seeing.” Sounds a bit mystic, eh? However, I realized it’s actually quite a down-to-earth discipline. Calhoun describes visio divina as “a way to pray with the eyes,” referencing the historical fact that “for centuries church has put icons, the cross, stained glass, mosaics, art and statues in churches as invitations to pray with the eyes” (Calhoun, pg. 47).

I contend that Henri Nouwen (in You are the Beloved) describes the physicality of this kind of spiritual discipline when he writes:

“When we walk in the Lord’s presence, everything we see, hear, touch, or taste reminds us of him. This is what is meant by a prayerful life. It is not a life in which we say many prayers, but a life in which nothing, absolutely nothing, is done, said, or understood independently of him who is the origin and purpose of our existence” (Nouwen, pg. 25).

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Here’s some other basic information Calhoun provides about visio divina (I’ll be providing this information for each discipline in the weeks to come):

Desire: to worship God in the beauty of created things

Definition: In the practice of visio divina we intentionally seek God by praying with images, icons, created media, and creation itself

Practice Includes:

  • Entering the door of praise through the beauty of creation
  • Allowing the creativity of others to open a path to worship
  • Praying with color, with a pencil, paintbrush or felt marker in your hand
  • Intentionally seeking to worship God when you run or hike or exercise outdoors
  • Using your senses to pray
  • Asking God to guide your meditation on images, photos, art, icons, etc. and open your heart to prayer
  • Watching how the God-given cycles of nature can speak to your own growth seasons”
(Calhoun, pg. 46)

When I read about visio divina being an opportunity to praise God through creation, I was a little bit disappointed because, well, it’s winter…in Chicago. Normally, if I wanted to praise God through creation, I would take a nature walk with my mom at our favorite local nature preserve, Lake Katherine. Ideally, we would walk on a warm day with a cool breeze, hearing the quacking ducks splash in delight. Something about that scene makes it easy for me to praise God through creation. However, my first day of practicing this discipline, it was extremely frigid outside, and snow was steadily falling. Also, I had no desire to leave my snuggly & warm home to pray outside. So, I determined that instead of choosing to “run or hike or exercise outdoors,” I would gaze through the window at the falling snow, delighting in its beauty.

In my prayer journal, I started writing:

“Dear Lord, 

The snow is beautiful out today…Wow. If it’s really true that no two snowflakes are alike, then that’s even more beautiful. The snow is flying this way now, towards the front room window, because our neighbor is using his snowblower. Thank You for this beautiful white blanket that helps renew the otherwise very brown grass. Thank You for Your heart for me and that You are patient in my coming towards You – as I’m seeking Your face.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen” 

Something about enjoying the snow, even from the inside of my home, ushered me into a deeper awareness of God’s creativity and His compassion through an otherwise messy & cold season that I tend to wish away.

As another extension of visio divina, I thought it would be fun to freely draw on a piece of paper while listening to a worship song. After doing this once with a song by the Sing Team called “Satisfied in You (Psalm 42), I fell in love with this practice. For three or four minutes, my pen did the praying, allowing me to interpret with pictures what the song was helping me to consider about the character of God. The next two days, I repeated the practice with two other worship songs, awestruck by how drawing out my prayer took away the pressure of finding “the right words” to pray (a pressure I can often feel during prayer time).

Here’s my doodling prayer from “Satisfied in You (Psalm 42)”:

Finally, when I made it back to my seminary campus early this week, I thought I would go for the big kahuna of visio divina – praying by using an icon as a mental guide during my prayer. I’ve heard that praying with an icon can help to focus the heart and the mind upon Christ, especially if one’s mind is scattered about with many thoughts and concerns. I chose to pray with the Jesus Christ Pantocrator Icon, shown below and described here.

This icon is present in my seminary’s prayer chapel. While I’d often noticed it whenever I’d frequent the chapel, I never thought I would decide to pray with it as a guide until beginning this visio divina discipline. Thus, after waiting until I was the only person in the chapel, I hesitantly picked up a floor pillow, aligned it in front of the icon, sat myself down, and started praying to Jesus. Because I’ve spent all my life praying to God without a rendering of Jesus in front of me, it felt pretty uncomfortable to me to stare into Jesus’ eyes in the icon and to try focusing on my prayer at the same time. Perhaps this kind of prayer takes practice. Another hindrance to my focus in prayer was my awareness of Jesus’ expression in this painting (as well as his handlebar mustache, if I’m to be completely honest). In my mental conceptions of Jesus, I imagine that he has a gentle face – one that holds a soft and inviting smile. Clearly, my mental concepts of Jesus’ facial expression were quite different than what is present in this icon. This painting by Nancy Lee Moran is much more comfortable for me:

All in all, though, I can see how praying with icons could be helpful in making prayer feel more physically grounded. Sometimes, it really is difficult to stay focused on prayer when a multitude of thoughts abound. So, thankfully, artists have rendered many Christocentric icons to help individuals focus and more easily engage. Perhaps I’ll revisit this prayer practice in the future.

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I find it fascinating that visio divina focuses on the power of image. Truly, we live in a very image-obsessed age, where visual snap judgments can account for permanent perceptions, prejudices, and conclusions. Perhaps visio divina can be a way for us to reclaim the beauty of image, praying that our eyes might be opened to the spiritual realities of God’s Kingdom – helping us to dream and behold with both physical and spiritual eyes the restoration God is inviting us into, not only for the future, but also for today. And what a joy to think that we have been made in the very image of God, reflecting His glory in our lives. Thanks be to God!

A Journey with the Spiritual Disciplines.

Before I begin, I’d like to thank my dear friend and mentor, Diane Awbrey, for encouraging me two years ago to venture on this blog project. 

As you may know, I’ve been a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary the past year and half, with one more semester until I graduate with an M.A. in Spiritual Formation.  Over this Christmas break and J-term, I realized that I have not consciously practiced any spiritual disciplines – not only in my seminary career but in my entire life.  Ironically, I’ve gotten so caught up reading about ways to deepen my relationship with Christ that I’ve neglected to actually put into practice what I’ve learned. I’ve fangirled over the Christian mystics, monks, and nuns I’ve learned about because of the ways they practiced daily, deep reverence of God, but I have regretfully declined participating in the kinds of spiritual disciplines they lived every day. Why? I think it’s because spiritual disciplines take hard work and endurance. Enduring in hard work is not my strong suit; it hasn’t been since I was a young girl.

I have a vivid memory in the first grade of picking up the class coloring book during recess, examining each fanciful picture and deciding which to invest in. I remember choosing a coloring page with a dinosaur on it; I began coloring the dinosaur purple and green (I’m sure Barney would be proud), but then I got bored. The dinosaur failed to deliver coloring fun, so I did the unthinkable:  I left it unfinished and turned the pages until I found a picture I liked better (sorry, Barney). I thought my class infraction would go unnoticed; however a few days later, another classmate was flipping through the coloring book, and with grief and anger on his face, he called out to the teacher, “Mrs. Aills! Someone didn’t finish this coloring page!” I never revealed my identity because, frankly, that classmate frightened me anyways – even when he wasn’t angry.

Fast forward about twenty years, and this tendency of un-finishing has prevailed in me, especially when it comes to spiritual disciplines. While I’ve sporadically practiced Sabbath, I’ve never dived fully into weekly pools of rest. While I think practicing Examen is a grand idea, I often watch Netflix before bed instead of reflecting with God about my day. My desire is not met by discipline. In this realization, I’ve felt the Holy Spirit gently drawing me to live into spiritual disciplines, believing what is stated in the Live Dead: The Journey devotional

“Discipline leads us to desire, which matures into delight.” 

So, I’ve decided that the time is now to practice a new spiritual discipline each week, using Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us as my helpful guide. And per Diane’s advice, I will be writing about my experience with each practice, inviting you to discover spiritual disciplines you may have never heard of – maybe ones you’ll choose to try in your own life. I plan to continue this journey through the duration of my final semester at seminary, challenging myself to actually live the major I chose to study. After all, what is my spiritual formation study if I’m not being spiritually formed myself?

Among some of Calhoun’s listed spiritual disciplines (she’s written descriptions for 75 of them), I’ve made a list of ones I’ve been drawn to – whether that’s by familiarity, personal curiosity, or nervousness. “What will they be?” you may ask. “Time will tell,” I reply. In the weeks to come, you’ll be sure to witness my honest thoughts about each that I practice. And, warning, it may take awhile before discipline turns to delight. I hope to share with you my struggles with these disciplines – opening the window to my heart so you can authentically see what’s going on.

Through this process, this ‘spiritual discipline sampler,’ my chief goal is for us to experience God together in a deeper & truer way, that through learning about spiritual disciplines, we can truly ‘nestle closer to God’s heart.’ I invite your comments and thoughts throughout this journey.

First up: Visio Divina. Stay tuned on what this spiritual discipline is all about.
One hint: “You’ll see!”
(Note: I am smiling behind this book, not frowning)