The Artist As Contemplative – Part 1: The Proper Approach

All artists, by their very nature, contemplate. They are natural born contemplatives.

In its dictionary definitions we see that the word contemplate means: 1) “to intently look at something, 2) to study carefully, and 3) to have in mind the possibility or a plan of action.”

A person whose artistic skills are expressed through photography or the enhancement of physical beauty through fashion or cosmetics can certainly contemplate the meaning of beauty and maintain its traditions or break out and establish new ones. The same is true of a sculptor, painter, musician, needlework artist, poet, writer or any person working within other artistic mediums. For they, too, can “look intently at, study carefully, or have in mind the possibility of a plan” to create beauty or a new interpretation of it. As you see, at first glance there is no overt mention of religious or spiritual themes in these definitions.

Now let’s go a step further and ask a few questions: 1) Can the Christian artist (who has a natural contemplative spirit by virtue of being an artist), establish the artistic process as a vehicle for authentic prayer and union with God? 2) For example, did our friends Vincent Van Gogh or St. Andrei Rublev experience authentic prayer moments in their creative process? 3) When we look intently at  Starry Night or Christ the Redeemer – the Savior of Zvenigorod (seen below) do we feel comfortable using them in our conversation with God, and if not, why not?

Okay, as the old saying goes, “What does this have to do with the price of eggs?”

Young or old, there are times in our lives when we put up barriers in our minds to pursuing some study or some plan of action. This is especially true when it comes to the whole idea of prayer, and specifically, meditation and contemplation. People have a tendency to say, “Oh, that’s for holy people. I’m a sinner. I could never do it nor do I have the skills to do it. Bottom line, no one has ever taught me how to pray other than saying rote memory prayers.”

Good point. That perception is held by many people, especially Christians that have fallen away from the church of their ancestors. But is that belief just another mind barrier?

It is an established fact of being a Christian that we can be in touch with God, specifically His Divine Son, Jesus. We do believe, if we are Christians, that we all have the ability to enter into deep spiritual union and friendship with God by virtue of our Baptism. Baptism was the first very important step, and then, after that, the friendship of Christ is developed through our weekly worship and daily prayer life, our Scripture study and our Sacramental life. It takes effort, yes; but as Christians we understand that we enter into that relationship with Christ by walking with Him through His ministry and onto the path to Calvary.

The reader might say, however, “I am not a Christian. What does this have to do with me?” Even if the artist is not Christian they have the ability to enter into deep spiritual union with God through their own faith traditions. All the major religions of the world speak of and promote prayer; and all artists, even if they are not Christian, can enter into spiritual union with the Divine through the creative process.

But there is a little known maxim in Catholic Christian prayer practice: if you can think and if you can read (at the second grade level) you are capable of meditation; let me repeat, you are capable of experiencing authentic, prayer filled, and profound contemplation of God.

A quick example of this is the story that Father Peter-Thomas Rohrbach, in his important and delightful book Conversation With Christ that I discovered forty-five years ago. He tells of a young Catholic girl’s experience on receiving her first Holy Communion. He says, “The story is related of a small girl who, after the reception of her first Holy Communion, was questioned tenderly by her parents as to what she had done when she arrived back at her pew and prayerfully bowed her head. The girl hesitated momentarily, and then said in her thin, small voice: “‘I prayed to Our Lord for Mommy and Daddy, and for my sister Helen, and my brother George; and then I recited the alphabet to Our Lord and told Him a ghost story.'”

Father Rohrbach continues, “We, of course smile indulgently at the naivete and innocence of the small child; but after reflecting on the story, we might suddenly wake to the realization that the girl possessed the proper approach to prayer – she was actually talking to Our Lord. What she said to Christ was relatively unimportant, what she did was decidedly important: she entered into immediate contact with her Friend, Christ. If we could learn to converse with Christ as she did, we would be making successful prayer; if we could adopt her attitude for the conversation period of our meditation, our problems in this regard would be at an end.”

So, this is what we hope to accomplish in this blog’s series on The Artist  As Contemplative – to learn and develop the proper approach to prayer. My posts over the next month or two will deal with different approaches to prayer that an artist might use to assist in their artistic creativity and in their prayer life; and ultimately, to explore and apply the idea that contemplative prayer is unspoken prayer of the highest order; for it is in contemplative prayer that a person is united to God and ponders His truth, goodness, and beauty.

My next post will discuss the eight simple steps of prayer that has been promoted by the spiritual studies and athleticism of the nuns, brothers, and priests of the Roman Catholic Order of Carmel – Discalced Carmelites – over the last four hundred and fifty years. It is my perception that these simple steps are essential in mastering the procedure of spiritual contemplation and meaningful prayer with Our Lord. Subsequent posts will demonstrate other approaches to Christian prayer, some new, some very creative, and others ancient tried  and true techniques that the Church – both Eastern and Western Rites – have expressed over the last two thousand years of its history.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

4 thoughts on “The Artist As Contemplative – Part 1: The Proper Approach

  1. This is very interesting to me: learn and develop the proper approach to prayer. Thank you for this post.

    • Hello Douglas,
      Thanks for the question. Yes, if you view the life and spiritual motivations of great Carmelite saints like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross you see that they were outstanding spiritual athletes. What do I mean by that? We need to go back to the letters from St. Paul (1 Corin. 9: 24-25) in which he speaks of running the race to win the crown of glory – the crown of living the Gospel life on earth, and upon our death the crown of eternal life with Jesus Christ. So yes, they are ascetics, and, athletes, too! Peace, Deacon Paul Iacono

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