Having Difficulty in Prayer? Try Praying with Sacred Art

W. P. Bennett

Having Difficulty in Prayer? Try Praying with Sacred Art

Prayer can be tough. In addition to finding the time to actually pray, what we do with that time can be hard to figure out. Some people pray the rosary, some read spiritual books or other writings. But others often are at a loss of what to do during their time set aside to pray. If you find yourself in this situation I have one simple question for you- have you ever thought about praying with sacred art?

Art is one of the greatest treasures of the Church. Throughout history the art produced by the Church includes not only paintings and sculptures but also music and literature. All of these can be used for prayer. But many people often don’t know where to get started when praying with art. So, to show you one way to do this I want to invite you to join me in praying with art today. I’m going to present five pieces of Christian art and provide a little guided meditation on each of the pieces of art. Pray along with me. If you find yourself praying on something else and going on a different thread- GO! Don’t be limited by my words, but rather allow the art and the Holy Spirit to guide your prayer.  

Let’s begin by looking at one of the most famous paintings of a Gospel story we heard about recently, the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

First notice the worn, loose shoes worn by the son. Worn down by the running away from the Father as well as returning home, they are the shoes of a journeyman. We too have been on a journey and have parts of us that are worn down from the journey. In the arms of the Father is where we can finally let go of those worn down things, just as one of the shoes of the son has come off. 

Also notice the difference in the clothes of the Father and the son. The Father is dressed in a beautiful cape whereas the son is in shredded garb. The son is most assuredly dirty and his clothes absolutely stink. The Father is clean and washed. But yet the Father doesn’t hesitate to let his son back in. Do we sometimes let the dirtiness of our life keep us from the Father because we think we are too dirty, too smelly? That our sins would embarrass the Father? Let God the Father simply embrace you like the Father embraces his Prodigal Son here.

The Pieta, Michelangelo

The Pieta by Michelangelo

First notice the smoothness of the entire sculpture. Now think about how hard marble is. Yet, despite how hard it is the artist has made the piece so smooth that it looks almost wet. Has God ever taken our own hardness of heart and smoothed it out? Is there anything in my life that currently leads me to become hardened to God that I need to turn over to the greatest artist, God, and allow him to smooth me?

Look at the tenderness in Mary’s face. She holds her Lord and Savior, and her Son, in her lap. Imagine what she is feeling at this time. She knows that her Son is the promised Messiah but now she holds his dead body in her arms. What kind of faith it must take to continue to believe in the promise despite what she is feeling as her son’s dead body lies in her arms. What kind of faith might Christ be calling us to in our life where the evidence points us somewhere else?

The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio

The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio

First, look at Jesus Christ as he points his finger at Matthew. The hand of Christ should not be illuminated as it is in the darkness, yet the hand is bright. Christ doesn’t need to be illuminated by anything here on the earth, He himself is the source of all light. What in our own lives do we keep in the darkness that we need to let our Lord shine his light onto? What can Jesus point to in our own lives?

Now look at Matthew, the man in black pointing to himself. His face shows surprise and shock and his finger points at himself in shock that Christ is calling him. He knows who he is, he is a tax collector and knows that Jesus, as a Jew, should not like him; but yet he is the one who is being called. Going through his mind might be all his sins and failings and wondering why, despite all of these, he is being called. We are the same way. We know our own failings, we know where we’ve failed, but yet Christ still points at us and says “You. I want you.” We are desired by Jesus Christ even though he knows all our faults.

The Madonna of the Cherries, Joos van Cleve

Madonna of the Cherries by Joos van Cleve

Look at the red that bursts forth from this painting. Red comes from a few places in the painting, from the cherries themselves, from Mary’s dress, especially around her breasts, and the lips of the child Jesus and Mary. Might these red be places of nourishment in our own prayer lives? Not only from literal food, but from the words of Jesus Christ and Mary? Food for our spirit that comes from their lips? In times of being down do we allow ourselves to fall into the embrace of Mary and allow her to comfort us like she would have comforted the baby Jesus by holding him close to her breast?

Look at the sleeve of Mary. Crumpled and showing signs of work from Mary. What kind of work was Mary doing in caring for Jesus? Her fiat, her yes, meant that she would have to work; just as our own fiat, our own yes to Jesus means work on our part. Work on developing our relationship with Christ, the work of charity, and the work of worship. But all work that points to one end, the same end that Mary’s arm points to: the person of Jesus Christ.

Hopefully these examples can help you find ways to pray, especially using art. Almost every Catholic Church has pieces of art that we can gaze upon, begin to meditate on, and allow the art to become a doorway to deepening our relationship with Jesus Christ. I encourage you to try it sometime, for any effort to grow closer to Christ is appreciated by our heavenly Father.