This column is written by Baya Clare, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet who lives and works as a photographer, artist, and web developer in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
This week's image is in the sanctuary of a church. I'll supply more context about it in my next column, but invite you to contemplate it first without that context. What do you see? How do you feel about this image? Do you like it? Hate it? What would it be like to see this every time you came to church?
And why am I even asking you such questions?
I'm asking because intentional, regular, prayerful time spent contemplating images we find personally attractive can lead to greater self understanding.
The "affective richness" (Margaret Miles' phrase) that can be gained from such contemplation is rooted in and informed by our bodily experience. It's rooted in attention to our senses and to whatever pleases or delights us. Despite what you may have been taught, our body's responses are to be noted and heeded, not suppressed or ignored. We can learn about God by paying attention to our bodies. Indeed, there is no other way.
Feelings evoked by artwork really matter. If engagement with an image over time, while paying attention to those feelings, helps you become holier (i.e., kinder, more generous, less angry, less judgmental, more concerned about others, etc.) then engagement with that image is a good thing. Holiness and contemplation are really as simple as that. If you don't like or are bored by an image, then you just need to find a different image.
And what about the artist, the story, the period, the style, the cost, the tastefulness? Again, interesting, but not really so important, especially if that information is going to lead you to suppress or ignore your felt responses.
So, back to the questions. What do you see in this image? How do you feel while looking at it? What memories or associations does it call forth?
Don't try too hard to get this all into words or think you have to come up with some pithy insight right away. In fact, I think you should be suspicious of those. This process takes time, and the result is like dissolving salt in water. It should slowly become evident throughout your entire life, and can't necessarily be expressed in words.