The Practice of Visio Divina:
Seeing with the Eye of the Heart

by Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler

It may be said that the spiritual journey is a conversion of heart, which can be inspired and supported by art, beauty and quiet joy in the ordinariness of everyday life.

Over the last year as part of our online course series with our partner, Spirituality & Practice, Contemplative Outreach has been exploring the use of art in the contemplative journey through the practice of Visio Divina. Visio Divina facilitates a relationship with an image or subject, patiently being with it, receptive in mind and heart, perhaps even in dialogue with it. In stillness, we allow the image to reach beyond the intellect and into the unconscious level of our being, a place that can't be accessed directly. In wonder, we are invited to look at every aspect of an image and ponder it as an encounter with God. It is a way of seeing an aspect of ourselves in God at the non-verbal, heart level. The canvas then becomes alive with personal meaning meant just for us. This is the same movement of the Spirit we can experience with Lectio Divina and Scripture.

For our 2014 Lenten online retreat, we used the stain glass artwork The Stations of the Cross by Frederick Franck. An artist and mystic, Franck was founder of Pacem in Terris in Warwick, NY, and author of several books, most notably the Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation. Seeing/drawing was his form of meditation. This practice brought him in direct contact with the Divine within, and trained his artist eye to see God manifested in his surroundings. “[B]efore I start drawing, it often happens that suddenly the utter poignancy of a cloud sailing through the sky, of a child with its balloon-treasure moves me ... and I hear myself say, ‘Oh God’, I, who when asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ am most apt to shrug:

‘I believe in nothing but God!’” Retreat participants were guided in practice and encouraged to develop their own capacity for Visio Divina, seeing God in all things.

In our Advent 2014 online retreat, we incorporated the art of Fra Angelico, and began with the well-known painting, Annunciation from the Cortona Altarpiece. Fra Angelico lived a devout and ascetic life and all of his paintings were said to be divinely inspired. Humble works in simple colors, his paintings came out of deep prayer and many exude this quality. The intentions of his paintings were to bring an incident in the life of Jesus Christ into the presence of the viewer for their reflection and prayerful consideration. We continued the practice of Image Gazing, which starts by taking in the entire composition and registering what it depicts. As we continue to gaze, we begin to reflect on the deeper meanings that present themselves. For example, we may wonder how it demonstrates consent to the will of God. Then we gaze at each of the component parts and see beyond seeing how each part contributes to the whole. As we ponder the image and observe every detail we may place ourselves in the scene and see and feel from this perspective. We observe our responses.

A prayer or an inspiration may arise; we may receive a glimmer of how consent manifests and how the Spirit of God presents opportunities for us to deepen our relationship with ourselves, others and God. The possible messages are endless and very individual— there is no right or wrong way of seeing.

During our six week 2015 Lenten online retreat we practiced Visio Divina with the collection of William Congdon, who painted over 200 crucifixion images. Congdon once said, “[N]ow, without looking for inspiration elsewhere, I always paint the Crucifix, because in it lies everything I have seen and lived so far ... and everything [I] shall ever see in the future; sum of yesterday and prophet of tomorrow; death and Resurrection.”

Fr. Thomas teaches that the purpose of Lent is the purification of the unconscious. Congdon, an Abstract Expressionist and a contemporary of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, was primarily interested in exploring the unconscious, which was the impetus for his art until his conversion to Catholicism in the 1950’s. After spending time in Assisi and Subiaco, Italy, he was baptized, and as he was transformed, his artwork transformed. Many of his images emerged from the silence of the monastery where he spent time to find himself. In so doing, he found Christ and thus devoted himself to painting the crucifixion as a path deeper into himself, and himself in God, in search of inner balance and harmony.  

Each of these three artists expressed their deep relationship with the Divine, creating from a deeply interior, meditative place within, where each in their own way encountered God.

Here are a few more suggestions if you would like to practice Visio Divina:

Take the time to gaze at an image and allow it to speak to you, first on the level of what is seen with the eyes of your rational mind, the literal details of the image. When you are ready, allow those sights and thoughts to pass by, making space for the inner eye of the heart to open and interact with the image.

You may wish to sketch the image and experience your own non-verbal response. You do not have to be an artist to do this—you simply follow the lines as you see them, tracing them on paper. Or, you may trace the image with your finger, or both.

Be patient. Stay with your experience. Settle in and rest in the presence of the image. See beyond seeing and allow the image to speak its truth to you. You may also journal, and/or use these questions to inspire your reflections: How does this image inform or illume your relationship with God? How does it speak to you of your spiritual journey now? How does this experience support your willingness to be opened, to be healed?

In order to see with this inner eye we need to take time away from the pressure of busyness and the need for stimulation. Spiritual practice is our daily pilgrimage into silence and stillness. Over time, we can be at rest, at ease within ourselves within the present moment, in stillness. Over the next few days, practice stillness within the routines of daily life. If you feel drawn to Visio Divina, then give some time to this practice of seeing with the eye of the heart.

from the Contemplative Outreach newsletter, June 2015