Last summer, I was visiting family in Cleveland and visited an exhibit called “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse.” Travelling through the exhibit was like a pilgrimage through garden after garden of spectacular beauty. The ability of the French Impressionists of the 19th century to see, and to capture their sight (or insight) in colour laid down on canvas, was an experience of prayer for me. It took me into the heart of God’s creation, and showed me the beauty at the heart of human beings who are so open to the divine image that they can reflect it in their art.
After journeying through a series of galleries, I ended up in the “holy of holies,” as it seemed: a room at the end that was the climax of my pilgrimage. Facing me on the wall were three giant paintings of Monet’s water-lily pond. Together, they stretched about 42 feet across and 6 ½ feet high. The three paintings were originally meant to be part of an installation at L’Orangerie in Paris, but Monet ran out of money after the first World War, and the paintings he had completed were divided up and sold to three museums in the United States. In the special Cleveland exhibition, they were reunited for the first time since the war.
I sat and gazed at this stunning triptych for a long time, perhaps half an hour. It drew me into the beauty at the heart of the universe. It was an experience of prayer.
Contemplative prayer is like that; it has no object other than to gaze upon the beauty of God and to rest in the awareness of my own beauty as a creature of God. St. John Vianney, the 18th century French priest who was the Curate of Ars, was famous for a response he made when a parishioner asked one day, “What are you doing when you sit in the back of the church before the Blessed Sacrament? You don’t say any prayers aloud. You just sit there.” “Oh,” answered the curate, “I just look at him and he looks at me.”
The gaze of love. It’s a gaze that draws us into relationship with the God of love. That relationship — like all relationships — takes intentional time devoted to being together, and like any human relationship it develops over the years, slowly, patiently, as we become more comfortable with the solitude and silence needed to hear “the still small voice,” to become aware of the stirring of the Spirit.
This kind of contemplative prayer reminds me of a blog post written by an art student at the University of Toronto called, “The Art of Slow Looking.” That is a perfect description of contemplative prayer. Slow looking involves just being with a painting, perhaps for as long as an hour, not analyzing but being with a beautiful work created by a human being created by God, impressed with the image of God. In slow looking, we see ourselves mirrored in an act of creation. In “slow praying,” we need do nothing but listen “with the ear of our heart,” as St. Benedict said, sitting in silence, looking at God and knowing the loving gaze of God on us.
But how, you might say, do I learn that kind of prayer? I know how to tell God my needs and those of others, and I love the prayer and praise in Sunday worship. But how do I sit and let God look at me and me look at God?
Try this for a few days: find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed for five minutes (your living room, outdoors as the weather warms up, at your desk, or at the library). Even sitting on the bus or in the bathroom, you can close your eyes and just “be” for 5 minutes without anyone being suspicious that you’re doing something weird. Be aware that God is present in that moment. Prayer is simply being aware that God is always with us. Read these verses from Psalm 139:
O Lord, you have searched me out and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
Just sit and look at your beloved looking at you.
And if this is just two weird, in subsequent articles I hope to offer some practical, hands-on suggestions about the art of “slow prayer.”