Using Art, Music and Poetry in Our Prayer

Yesterday was the second session of the four week fall series I’m giving at St. Edward’s parish on prayer. The idea of the series, which I’ve offered in different forms in the past, is to expose the participants to forms of prayer that might be new to them. Last week, I talked about Ignatian Contemplation and the participants spent the week, engaging in that form of prayer.

Our subject yesterday was praying with poetry, art and music. I spoke about the ability of these media to evoke an affective response in us that helps us deepen our appreciation of God’s unconditional and boundless love for us. After my talk, participants prayed with either a piece of poetry of an image from among those I provided.

During our sharing afterward, I was struck, as I always am during programs that address this subject, by the depth of the prayer experience of those who were there. For many, this was a new form of prayer. But all responded at a very deep level to the material they prayed with.

If you have not before used poetry, art or music as part of your prayer, I strongly encourage you to do so. Although I did not record my talk yesterday, I have previously posted both a podcast of a talk on this subject and some prayer material. You can find them here.


Beauty as a Way to God

Occasionally I give talks on praying with art, music and poetry. Each evokes an affective response in us that allows us to access God’s love in a deep way.

In a recent general audience Pope Benedict spoke on this theme in a way that expresses well my own experience of poetry and music and what I try to convey when speaking on this subject. He said

Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another – before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music – to have experienced a deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter – a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds – but something far greater, something that “speaks,” something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.

The Pope’s description of his reaction to a concert performance of Bach’s music resonated with me; there is something in a beautiful piece of music (or a poem or a painting) that causes our soul to exapnd, that “irresistibly expresses the presence of God’s truth.

The Pope urged his audience to “rediscover the importance of this way for prayer, for our living relationship with God.” Good advice to follow.

You can find a podcast of a talk I gave on this subject a couple of years ago here.

The Holy Family

The current issue of America magazine has a piece reflecting on a painting by Janet McKenzie, The Holy Family. As the writer observes, many of the pictures of the Holy Family that we see in museums show a fair-skinned Jesus and Mary and an elderly, also fair-skinned, St. Joseph.

The McKenzie painting (which is hangs in Loyola School in NCY and which you can see a representation of here), looks nothing like so many of those depictions of the Holy Family. As the author of the America piece observes, McKenzie picture is of “a group of poor people who have the features of the African or perhaps the Mexican or Peruvian.”

It is no more likely that Jesus, Mary and Joseph looked African, Mexican or Peruvian, than northern European. Yet, as the author observes, “forcing us to recognize both similarity and difference…[compels us] to think again and to look twice…It is as if the unknown reality of those first-century peasants has been transposed into another key, one to which we can genuinely respond.”

I had a number of things I thought to say about this painting. But instead, I invite you to take a look at it yourself, and reflect on what you see there. On how it is both the same as and different from other depictions you’ve seen. On what it is that draws you to it.