Seeing art with prayerful contemplation

Detail from Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent at Tate Britain - Creative Commons
Detail from Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent at Tate Britain - Creative Commons

A workshop on art that is incorporated into a nine-month course at the Mount Street Jesuit Centre (MSJC) has inspired a group to organise a day out at Tate Britain, where they spent time ‘Praying with Art’. The MSJC runs the ‘Deepening our Awareness of God Within Us’ course annually between September and July; and, as part of it, Audrey and Eamonn Hamilton – members of the Spirituality Team with a particular interest in art – lead a study day at the Tate Britain.

Ignatian imaginative contemplation invites the praying person to place him or herself within a Gospel scene, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, and thus encountering Jesus in a deeply personal way. And Audrey believes that art can become a form of prayer when we use our imagination in a similar way to engage with a painting or sculpture. “In our imagination, we can walk through the landscape that we see on the canvas, or engage in dialogue with the group of people painted there, or participate in their activity,” she explains. “As with praying with Scripture, we are attentive to our feelings and our responses to what we behold.”

Audrey graduated in 2014 with an MA in Christian Spirituality from Heythrop College, where her special interest was in the Christian mystical tradition. She also has a keen interest in art, particularly in its potential to connect with the spiritual. She and her husband Eamonn regularly help groups to explore the use of art in prayer and reflection. They recently facilitated a day at the Tate, in which 12 people sought to experience the art, to feel and relish it at a deep level; this then became prayer as they opened themselves to what God was saying to them as they beheld a particular work.

Sharing from the heartTate Britain - Wikimedia Commons

“Since the purpose is prayer, to encounter the God who speaks to us in all the circumstances and activities of our lives, there is no requirement on the part of the participants to have any particular knowledge of or background in art,” says Audrey. “Indeed, as St Ignatius of Loyola says in his Spiritual Exercises which underpin all that the Mount Street Jesuit Centre is about: ‘it is not much knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul but the inner feeling and relish of things’ (Ex 2).”

The group were given some reflection points as they contemplated a specific painting or sculpture for a short while in silence; they were then invited to share their reflections and their experience. This was not an invitation to open a discussion but to allow a safe space to share from the heart, which all seemed to find enriching, according to Audrey. “All found aspects of God in their chosen painting. For some of us, praying with art was a new experience; but all seemed to find it enjoyable and rewarding.”

Audrey Hamilton was recently invited to share the experience of the ‘Praying with Art’ day at Tate Britain on CTS Catholic Compass, the blog site of the Catholic Truth Society. “We have recently renewed our blog,” says their Social Media Administrator, Cristiana Ferrauti. “The aim of CTS Catholic Compass is to offer extra content, news, practical help for our prayer life, and a space for more connections within the Catholic world.”

Find out more about courses and workshops at the Mount Street Jesuit Centre >>