Tag Archive | art

The Art of Prayer

LaTour still life

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 –1904)


Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

My prayer at times is calm, a

still life, fruits and flowers

carefully arranged, pastel

petals of gratitude shaping

trust and dropping peace;

quiet listening for that

whisper from beyond, elusive

though it be.


At other times, I pray a

Jackson Pollock kind of

prayer; jagged lines of grief

and questions slashed across

the canvas of my life; daubs

of anger, neediness, and greed

flung onto the walls that shape

the contours of my soul.


A mystery, this business of prayer;

I do not understand, but yet I pray;

not as a master artist; more like a child

offering crayoned sketches to her mother’s

love; yet pray I do; paint my longings

and my needs, my tangled fears,

my angers, and my joys; and like that child,

simply trust that kindly, grace-filled eyes

will see and treasure all my brush strokes,

all my reaching—for a presence,

for a wholeness, for a beauty,

in my life and in my world.

Jesus Laughing


(Rembrandt van Rijn)


     “Jesus laughed.”  With all the tragedies of our world today—the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, the horrific tornado that flattened Moore, Oklahoma, to name just a few—it may seem a little strange to be thinking of Jesus laughing.  But laugh I’m sure he did, and I find myself wishing that at least one of the gospel writers had penned the words, “Jesus laughed” at least once.  I grew up with a sober Jesus.  And I’m afraid I often preached a sober Jesus.  Very sober.  Very serious.  Of course, it’s true that in story after story, teaching after teaching, Jesus is presented in all four gospels as a very sober, very serious man.  Nowhere is there a recording of Jesus’ laughter.  Jesus does tell his listeners at one point that those who mourn now will one day laugh.  But we never see or hear him laughing.

          And that seems strange to me.  And yet not so strange either.  Jesus was, after all, the “man of sorrows,” one “acquainted with grief”—and not just his own grief, but the grief of every one of us.  From early on in his active ministry Jesus was aware that one day he would  face a cruel death.  Aware that he would one day serve as the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  So yes, in a sense, it’s really not so strange that we don’t see or hear Jesus laughing in the gospel stories.  He did carry a very heavy load through his life.

          But he must have laughed.  For while his life was truly a difficult one, his task immensely sobering, he did love and affirm life.  All of it.  Spoke of lilies and sparrows.  Was a frequent guest at dinner parties.   And loved children.  Held them and blessed them.  And all of this without a laugh?  With face rigidly set in somber stone?  I don’t think so. 

     For when “the Word became flesh,” that Word didn’t just take on our somber moods, our gravity and grim solemnity.  That Word took on our sorrows, to be sure, but took on as well our laughter and our joy, our dancing, our delight.  And that Word came to be with us, to relate to us, in every aspect of our lives—the happy as well as the sad, the joyous as well as the somber.  That Word came to affirm that all of life is sacred, and I think that herein lies the importance of picturing Jesus laughing at times.  It can be all too easy to isolate our “religious” life in a somber realm of darker colors and drab tones, to be open and aware of the Word living with us almost exclusively in a sepia world isolated from our fuller lives.  And wonderful as it is to know that the Word made flesh does indeed walk with us in all our sorrows, wonderful to know that this Word weeps with us as we watch tragedies unfold in our lives and around our world, it’s also wonderful to know that this Word also shares our joys.  To know that this Word longs to skip and dance with us to make our every laughter deeper, fuller, richer, an echo of the joyous laughter of the God who looked with delight on all that God had made. 

     In almost all classical depictions of Jesus, Jesus is pictured as a deeply solemn man.  Note Rembrandt’s pensive portrait above.  And grateful as we can be for all these rich classical images, I’m also grateful to the contemporary artist Jean Keaton who has reverently moved beyond this classical art to capture some of the joyous laughter of our Lord in her art.  In a number of beautiful pencil drawings, she depicts the delight that I’m sure was very much a part of Jesus’ life.  These drawings give us a fuller sense, I believe, of just who Jesus was in his time here on earth—a man acquainted with grief, to be sure, but a man also who echoed the joy of God in his smiles and his laughter.  Here’s a sample of her work, and you can see more at her website: http://www.jeankeatonart.com.


     To be sure, faith is a serious matter.  To be sure, faith in the Christ of the gospels calls for sober commitment.  To be sure, faith is never to be taken lightly.  But I do believe that our faith and life will be ever so much richer as we become better acquainted with the Man of Sorrows who not only bore the weight of our sadness and our sinfulness, but who also laughed with joy at the goodness of life as he walked the earth so long ago.  Who continues to walk with us today.  To challenge us at times.  To comfort us at other times.  And yes, to laugh and smile with us as well, whether we are responding to the needs of those struck by a natural or man-made disaster, or are simply relishing the beauty and the joy of life in this lavish, exuberant world in which we live.

Advent Darkness and Light


“The Newborn”

Georges de la Tour (1593-1652)

Georges de la Tour’s painting calls me to a profound stillness before his riveting portrayal of the stark contrast between the darkness and the light.  The darkness is so deep.  The light is so bright.  And while there is some debate as to whether or not the artist was actually depicting the Christ child with his mother and St. Anne or simply a French village birth, we certainly can see the gospel story of Christ’s birth imaged in this intense focus on darkness and light.

There is so much darkness in our world today as we approach the holy season of Christmas.  Not just the darkness of the shortened days huddled around the winter solstice, but a deeper darkness.  Wars continue to rage across the globe.  Illness and financial worries darken many of our personal lives.  Poverty persists behind the bright rich facades of so many cities.

I recently read the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo.  It’s a book that tells the story of teen-age Abdul and his family and neighbors, and it powerfully depicts the darkness of life in Annawadi, a wretched slum in the shadow of the airport in Mumbai, India. Abdul’s “job” is to collect, sort, and sell the recyclable garbage scraps thrown out by the airport and the luxurious airport hotels.  Alongside these hotels, flashy billboards advertise elegant tiles that promise to be “beautiful forever” for those who can afford them.  Abdul’s mother longs to have some of these tiles for her tiny slum shack.  Instead, she daily sweeps her uneven stone floor, not-so-beautiful, knowing that, no matter how hard she works, she never can sweep away all the forever grime that seeps into the lives of her family.  Life is dark and difficult and ever so precarious for the citizens of Annawadi.  As it is for so many who live in the slums of big cities around our world.

As it was in that murky stable so long ago when Mary cradled the infant Christ and watched with wonder as Light shone into the gloomy darkness of her world.  Shone and continues to shine, as it shines so vividly in de la Tour’s beautiful painting of the newborn.  Shines in the love we share with each other in these holy days of Advent and Christmas.  Shines in the joy and hope that Christmas renews in our lives.  Shines in every act of kindness, in every step towards justice for which we work and pray.  Shines and points the way to a world in which Abdul will no longer awaken each day to the dark bleakness of his poverty.

Christmas lights cannot hide the darkness lurking behind all the “beautiful forevers” of our world.  Christmas carols cannot muffle the anguished sighs of Abdul and those like him around the world.  But neither can all this darkness extinguish the Light that we celebrate with our Christmas lights and carols.  For “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

It can be so disheartening to look across our broken world and see all the dark shadows that cloud so many lives. We know we won’t be able to right all the wrongs or cure all the maladies.  But maybe we can learn anew to focus on the Light that shone in Bethlehem’s stable long ago.  On the Light that de la Tour so hauntingly portrays.  On St. John’s sure promise that darkness will not overcome that Light.  And as we focus on that Light and celebrate all that Christmas means in our lives and in our world, maybe we can once again bring to the manger the gift of ourselves and offer “our hearts and minds as channels of the Light that wants to flow through every available opening” (from Robert Corin Morris’ Wrestling with Grace).

Still Life

“Still Life with Pears and Grapes”

Claude Monet, 1867

“Only in your solitude will you come upon your own beauty.”

“There is a lantern in the soul, which makes your solitude luminous.”

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara

My illness demands I rest—aggressive rest,

they say, and I do rest…a lot,

but too often rest is rest-less-ness, and

tangled in pools of dark, I can feel

useless, worn, and broken,

frayed at the edges;

hollow at the core;

longing to “do” instead of simply to “be.”

I’d like that to change, like to find that

stillness that glows in Monet’s

spotted pears, in his grapes and apples that shine from within.  I’d like my

restless rest to grow into a solitude that

is at peace with all that is, with

all that has been, with

all that will be; a solitude that

savors all the good, that

sifts the not-so-good into the hands of a

greater Solitude that holds and

shines in all, shines even in

me, Lantern glowing gently

in my sometime darkness.

The Ringing of the Angelus

“The Angelus”

Jean-Francois Millet (1857)

I’ve always loved this painting—peasant man and woman, as they hear the ringing of the Angelus bell, humbly pausing near the end of a long day in their fields, to acknowledge the Source of the goodness they are reaping, even though that goodness seems rather scant, given the size of the tiny basket of potatoes at the woman’s feet.  In spite of this, the peasants pause, and the quiet humility of these two, heads bowed, man holding his cap in his hand, woman with hands held prayerfully together, becomes itself for me the gentle chiming of a silent bell that calls me to a deeper reverence.

I’ve always assumed the couple was praying a simple prayer of thanks and sending up a request for help in all their labors.  But recently I’ve learned more about the Angelus bell, and that has made me re-think my assumption.  The ringing of the Angelus bell dates back to sometime in the 12th or 13th century, and it is a bell that calls for the faithful to remember the visit of the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary to tell her that she was to give birth to God’s son.   In some places (contemplative monasteries, e.g.) the Angelus still rings even today, at 6 a.m., at noon, and then again at 6 p.m.

So Millet’s peasant man and woman are not simply saying “thanks” and “help”; they are most probably praying a prescribed litany written to help them recall the annunciation story and to help them hear anew Gabriel’s “blessed are you” and then Mary’s “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  I hope as they reflect and re-imagine this story of old, these hard-working peasants are also able to put themselves into the story, able to hear God’s word spoken, not just to Mary, but also to them as well: “blessed are you, you workers weary at the end of a long day of toil; blessed are you, for God’s grace surrounds and fills you, and truly God is with you, even as God was with Mary.”  We cannot see their faces, but I like to think they are quietly smiling, truly happy and humbled as they listen to this gracious benediction.  Their bearing certainly suggests that their response to God’s blessing of them is an echo of Mary’s submissive response to Gabriel: “Here we are, God, your servants; let your will be done in our lives.”

I don’t live where I can hear the chiming of any Angelus bell.  But I think I would do well to listen to an inner Angelus, maybe even three times a day(!), to listen and to pause in my labors to recognize God’s presence and God’s gracious blessing in my life.  Pause and offer thanks that God continues to be with me and to overshadow my life with God’s constant attention and care.  Pause as well to reaffirm my desire and my intent to say with Mary, “Here am I, your servant; let it be with me according to your word, and let my life give birth anew to Christ’s love for those around me.”

Recently I’ve put a small copy of Millet’s “The Angelus” on my desk.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t ring 3 times a day to call me to reflection and prayer, but I look at it often, and I pray—often—that I will learn to live in the quiet reverence of Millet’s peasant farmers.  They make it look so easy!  But I think we all know it’s not.