In our zeal to articulate how Christianity has shaped civilization, we are apt to neglect the specific role of prayer. The good, the true, and the beautiful fostered by our civilization have been initiated and sustained by prayer. If one does not pray, what measure of human cultivation is one missing?
Art and Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God, by Monsignor Timothy Verdon (320 pages, Paraclete Press, 2019)
When man realizes that his worldly plans and ambitions are an illusion, when he at last senses his utter helplessness in the face of the ultimate forces, when he is overcome with joy and gratitude for what no human being gave him, he naturally has recourse to prayer, which is a turn inward as well as a turn outward to God. As Monsignor Timothy Verdon declares in his recent book Art and Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God, prayer is natural to man and endemic to every culture and civilization in history. More, prayer is an exercise of creativity and the imaginative faculty: “Faith and prayer in effect are creative responses by which creatures made ‘in the image and likeness’ of the Creator relate to him with the help of imagination.” This might come as a surprise; isn’t prayer a chore that we perform? Isn’t it simply conversation with God—a regular check-in with the Divine Physician? Yes, indeed. But there is an art to prayer, and it offers satisfactions that are spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual. When understood rightly, prayer can sustain human life and indeed civilization. I am surprised that prayer is not spoken of as a constituent of civilized life, in addition to the spiritual life.
Msgr. Verdon’s book focuses on the connections between art and prayer and is magnificently illustrated. But it has a quality common to many books today: It is so well-written as to be overwritten. One can be inundated with culture and thought; the book could have been much shorter and packed even more power. Yet there are shining insights along the way, such as his chapter on the practice of lectio divina. This ancient spiritual exercise involves prayerful meditation on scripture in a series of graded stages. The Catholic Catechism characterizes it as engaging “thought, imagination, emotion and desire,” which resonates with Msgr. Verdon’s statements on the imaginative content of prayer. To practice this “divine reading” you first choose a short scripture passage, read it slowly and reverently, reflect on its meaning both in the biblical context and in its application to your own life, pray to God about the themes contained the passage, and finally rest in the quietude of God’s love. The traditional Latin names for these steps are lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. The essential difference between the second and fourth stages is that in contemplatio all active and self-conscious thought has ceased, and one simply rests passively in the divine embrace (more easily said than done, given our hyperactivity and love of self-sustaining effort—I believe it was Fulton Sheen who said that in the Western world man does everything and God does nothing).
Now, what might be the benefits of such an exercise for civilized life? It combines disciplined organization with a certain freedom and spontaneity. It combines objectivity—the subject matter is limited to the words and themes of scripture—with one’s personal input and, yes, imagination. When doing the meditatio on a scripture passage, say the scene of Christ’s arrest, one can place oneself in the scene and allow the full play of emotions that flow from it. Such a practice cannot but increase one’s sympathy, patience, depth of insight about the world around us, and perceptiveness about words and language.
Msgr. Verdon says that “our prayer… must draw on memory and imagination. It must open itself to sentiment, seeking God in those human experiences that everyone remembers in his own life.” It is this that raises it above the level of a rote exercise and allows the full participation of the human will, imagination, and emotion.
This brings up the possibility of the use of images of art as a springboard to prayer (the Latin imago after all lies at the root of “imagination”). Iconography and statuary have certainly always been used this way in the Christian religion. But where is the dividing line between prayer and the aesthetic appreciation that one practices, say, when at a museum or listening to a concert? Can a prayerful meditation of the mysteries of life and religion pervade other phases of life when one is not formally praying? Without denying the technical distinction between prayer and non-prayer, it is a Christian truism that the spirit of prayer should pervade one’s whole life, and that one should approach every phase of life with prayerful receptiveness. And spontaneous (ejaculatory) prayers can and should arise from any situation. So aesthetic experience can give rise to meditation, even if not attaining the level of conscious communication with God that we associate with prayer.
This is a complex issue, because we tend to spread a religious aura over ostensibly secular cultural things. Consider how the experience of listening to music has been considered a heavenly transport or communion with divinity, especially but by no means exclusively in the Romantic age. Here is how an 18th-century listener reacted to hearing one of Handel’s oratorios:
[I was] transported into the most divine Exstacy [sic]. I closed my Eyes, and imagined myself amidst the angelic Choir in the bright Regions of everlasting Day, chanting the Praises of my great Creator, and his ineffable ‘Messiah.’ I seemed, methought, to have nothing of this gross Earth about me, but was all Soul!—all Spirit.
Perhaps experiences like this suggest that prayer is the state to which our human nature aspires, in every phase of our lives. This is unsurprising if, as religion teaches us, we are made precisely to praise and worship God for all eternity. Thus, various human experiences, while not being prayer in themselves, may induce a prayer-like state and raise us to a reminder of our true end.
In praying one can experience beauty as well as render beauty to God. Prayer is both beautiful in itself, having beautiful sentiments or words or imagery, and draws sustenance or inspiration from beautiful things, whether artistic or musical or poetic. I find it surprising that more aestheticians have not considered prayer as a phase of the beautiful (surely the phrase “ugly prayer” is an absurdity).
Another striking insight from Msgr. Verdon’s book that prayer embodies limitless, boundless space. This a powerful idea. In praying, time is suspended; one briefly transcends the drudgery of temporal succession and enters a space similar to eternity. Although one can use predetermined formulas in praying, one can also make it an unstructured rumination so that it stretches out to Wagnerian lengths—or perhaps better, one is unaware of the length. Prayer is perfect freedom, since the God we pray to never tires of hearing us and the time never runs out; further, one can share any thought, even doubt, that is in one’s mind. Even before the most trusted doctor or therapist one might have some reticence. With prayer one enters another realm, untouched by earthly stresses. It is, one might say, a limitless resource.
Prayer arises from beauty, is beautiful in itself, and is in turn a source of beauty in civilization. We know of the many works of charity and justice throughout history, like the abolishing of slavery, that have had their impetus in prayer. We know that it was those in cloistered religious orders who preserved literature and literacy during the Middle Ages, after the period of relative darkness following the fall of Rome. And, of course, they didn’t stamp out their classics in cheap paperbacks; they painstakingly created gorgeously intricate manuscripts that we still cherish as works of art. The monks’ life of prayer and concentration gave rise to great beauty. And we know of people in all occupations who have commended themselves to God in prayer before undertaking their work (recall the Soli Deo Gloria that Bach inscribed on all his manuscripts).
In our zeal to articulate how Christianity has shaped civilization, we are apt to neglect the specific role of prayer, the primal fact that comes before all definitions of doctrine and all practical action. The good, true, and beautiful fostered by our civilization have been initiated and sustained by prayer. Before they engaged in the things of the mind, the monks and theologians were first and foremost men of prayer; and one recalls Aquinas’ mystical vision, after which he declared that all his works were so much straw. One might plausibly argue that prayer is everything, the summum bonum; and if one does not pray, what measure of human cultivation is one missing?
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.