These days, I rarely pray with words. To be honest, the only time I really do is when someone asks me to pray out loud before a meal or at a gathering. When it’s just me though, I don’t really “talk” to God—not even silently in my head.
When I was younger, I would have considered that a mortifying and shameful thing to say. I put so much pressure on myself to say a silent “hey, God…” every night before I went to bed. I rarely remembered to do it. I thought God was disappointed in me, so I made sure to throw in an extra “I’m sorry I’m bad at praying” next time I did remember.
As I’ve grown and gone through formal and informal theological education, my understanding of prayer has changed a lot. Do I know why exactly we pray, or what exactly happens when we pray? No (nor does anyone, if they’re being fully honest.) But I do know that, at its best, prayer brings comfort, hope, inspiration, and courage to persevere through the hardships of life.
There are so, so many ways to pray. I now know that it’s not shameful that one way of praying (with words, for example) doesn’t really work for me. I have tons of options! And so do you.
Now, there’s no one correct answer to how you should pray if you, like me, don’t like praying with words. But, if you have an appreciation for art and you enjoy finding meaning in images and symbols, you may want to give Visio Divina a try.
What is Visio Divina?
Visio Divina, or “sacred seeing,” is a contemplative practice of inviting the Divine to speak to you through art. So often, language falls short as we try to describe our experiences, understand our emotions, or explore our own relationship with the holy.
Maybe your internal dialogue is running so quickly that it becomes really easy to overwhelm your mind with thoughts and ideas. Or, maybe you find yourself without the chattering mind but you struggle to put words to your feelings and emotions. In both of these cases, art can help us connect with a different part of ourselves than the language-processing part of our brain—a part that feels and senses the world rather than thinks its way through it.
Like it’s cousin Lectio Divina, Visio Divina isn’t in a hurry. You may not find meaning in an image immediately, and that’s okay. It also doesn’t rely on external knowledge. You can practice Visio Divina with nothing but a piece of art and your own life experience.
So, how do I do it?
There’s lots of ways. Are you tired of me saying that yet? But really, you have the freedom to shape this practice in a way that works best for you. However, sometimes it is helpful to know the rules so we can break them. So, here are some general guidelines for practicing Visio Divina:
Set a timer if you’d like to set aside a certain amount of time. Get comfortable. Take some deep breaths to calm and center yourself.
Begin to gaze at a piece of art of your choosing. Don’t force yourself to make meaning out of it immediately. Try not to get frustrated if it feels like nothing is coming to you. Simply sit with the image, taking in the colors, textures, and subject material.
Ask yourself things like: What do I think is going on in this image? Are any of the symbols or elements familiar to me? Does this image arouse any particular emotions for me?
Reflect on how might the Divine be nudging you through this piece of art. How does your experience with this piece of art shape the way you understand or feel the Sacred in your life?
When your practice is coming to an end, either by a timer or your intuitive feeling that you’re finished, say thank you (silently or out loud) for whatever you’re feeling grateful for—the time you’ve set aside for this practice, the ability to cherish and appreciate beauty in the world, the mysterious workings of the Spirit in this world, the wisdom you’ve encountered during your time of contemplation, or anything else!
Okay, sounds cool… Why are you telling me all this?
Yes, Visio Divina is just really cool in and of itself, but I also have a reason for sharing this with you—I would love to introduce you to the Visio Divina tool I’ve recently created.
Up until now, I’ve been describing the general practice of Visio Divina. This practice can be done with any piece of art, or for that matter, anything that is visually inspiring to you (even a beautiful view outside your window)! You don’t have to use a tool specifically created for Visio Divina. And even if you decide the tool I’ve created isn’t for you, I hope you’ll try out this practice with something else.
If you want to check out my creation though, my new Visio Divina deck, called “Sacred Seams,” is a tool to assist you in this wonderful practice. The deck consists of 30 unique images of my handmade textile collages. I filled these colleges with both common and unusual symbols that carry all sorts of different meanings, all depending on the person viewing them.
The cards don’t have any inherent meaning in themselves; in other words, you bring their meaning to them! Of course, each card has some kind of meaning to me that revealed itself as I was making it. However, that doesn’t mean that my interpretation is the right or only way of understanding any particular card.
Here’s an example of how the same card could carry very different meanings to different people.
This card depicts a turtle on some kind of path. (Or maybe it looks like something totally different to you, and that’s just fine! But for the purpose of this illustration, let’s go with a turtle.)
One person seeing this card may remember Aesop’s Fables from their childhood and feel that the meaning for them is “slow and steady wins the race.” Perhaps they’re feeling stressed or rushed to get a bunch of things done in their life, so their intuition leads them to remember to slow down and take some small steps toward their goals rather than racing to the finish line.
Another person could see this card and remember back to a few days ago, when they were driving down a winding road and saw a turtle crossing the street. “Be careful!” or “Hurry out of the road!” they may have screamed at the turtle as they passed, knowing of course that it couldn’t hear them. Perhaps the wisdom they find in this memory is that they sometimes feel unappreciated or worthless when they try to assist others who won’t or can’t listen to them. They could then reflect on the question, “why is it so important to me that others let me help them?”
A third person may see the two green strips of fabric crossing the path toward the top of the card. “Poor turtle,” they might think. “There’s a roadblock ahead and she doesn’t even know it.” Maybe this reveals some anxiety about unexpected challenges coming up in life. Or maybe it shows us that we pity people who seem to go down certain paths without first seeing the big picture of potential consequences. “Do I often think I know better than others, even when it comes to their own lives? How is the Spirit leading me to explore that today?”
These are only three specific examples out of many, but I hope they demonstrate that this practice is about following the threads of wisdom that arise for you individually, not prescribing a particular meaning onto a certain image and trying to force wisdom out of it. If these examples seem silly or like a stretch to you, give it a shot. What does the turtle card make you think of? Could the Divine be speaking to you through any of these thoughts or memories?
How can I use this deck?
Each deck comes with a small and concise guidebook, which walks you through some suggested steps of how to use it.
In the guidebook, you’ll find suggestions for choosing a card to contemplate, a few short prompts for reflection, and more. Feel free to create your own list of prompts or gather them from different sources; don’t feel restricted to using just mine. If you’d like me to create some more Visio Divina prompts, perhaps thematically or seasonally, let me know!
How can this practice, whether with this deck or not, enrich my spirituality?
Visio Divina is a wonderful way to practice trusting ourselves and trusting the Divine spark that exists within each of us. Its fluidity allows us to shape the practice in a way that feels most holy and beautiful to us, while believing that sacred wisdom will meet us in whatever container we create.
For those like myself who have felt shame or guilt for not living up to the standards of our religious or spiritual expectations, it is my hope that this practice can lead you to respite. For those who feel restricted or bored in your spiritual life, Visio Divina can help you by introducing some creativity. And for those who are simply looking for something tangible and colorful to play with and be inspired by, I hope you find this to be a fun and accessible tool!
Where do I get it?
If you want to buy “Sacred Seams” for yourself or a loved one, you can find it on my website at molliedonihe.com/shop. And until September 21, 2021, it’s on sale!
I would love to answer any questions you have about my Visio Divina tool. If you get it and want to share your experience, please send me an email or reach out via social media. Feel free to share images of the deck on Facebook or Instagram (tagging me in your posts would be much appreciated). I can’t wait to see and hear about your practices.
Comin’ through my speakers: Kacey Musgraves’ new album, “star-crossed,” of course.
What’s resonating with me lately: Being kinder to myself (which, let me tell you, is a JOURNEY).
One thing I’m creating these days: Still finishing up a handful of custom orders before creating some new things for the holiday season.