I have recently been reading the book Contemplative Vision, by Juliet Benner. It is a wonderful book of writings reflecting on works of art based upon scriptural narratives. This book was written after Benner came to see the “enormous potential of physical seeing as a gateway to spiritual seeing.” She writes from perspective of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition which use images as aid in contemplative prayer. Brenner says that these images are not ends in themselves, but rather means to end for the purpose of connecting to the Lord in prayer and discerning what He might be saying to us through contemplative looking.“As we carefully gaze on the painting,” she says, “we enter the scene it depicts—into its time and place. When we do this all time becomes present time, and we are led into the eternal presence—into the One who is ever present to us.”
The first chapter gives a wonderful apologetic for contemplative, listening prayer. It seems that, for the most part she is writing to evangelical Christians; many of which do not value the use of silent, meditative prayer, much less, gazing at images to aid prayer. Many of the evangelical Christians I know might see this kind of prayer as “new-agey”. I am a part of this evangelical tradition myself and would love to see my brothers and sisters come to see the transformational power of this kind of prayer. Bennett’s book has given me some ways to integrate these things into my own life and my own church tradition.
The rest of the book follows with chapters focusing on specific works of art that depict a narrative story or scene from scripture. Brenner encourages the reader to read the scriptural passage from which the painting is made, then spend time in silence simply gazing at the painting and reflecting what one sees there. She then begins to discuss various aspects of the painting that she picks up on. I have made it a point to not read her insights before spending some time looking, listening to and journaling about the painting myself. It is interesting to note that there were some things Benner noticed that I did not; and some that I noticed that she did not. In my mind, this proves that the Holy Spirit is definitely engaged in this process. He speaks to everyone in the place where their heart presently resides. It makes sense to me that He would use great works of art to do this.
Following is a reflection on one of my favorites in the book so far…
Jesus at the Home of Mary and Martha by Johannes Vermeer.
My initial observations:
Mary sits inactive, low, at Christ’s feet, while Martha actively stands above; Christ sits in the middle gazing at Martha with eyes of compassion as he gestures toward Mary. Mary leans forward resting her cheek upon her hand, gazing up at Jesus. Martha also looks to Jesus while he gestures toward Mary with an open inviting hand. I notice that Christ’s hand not only points and invites; it also receives.
The composition is triangular. I noticed this right away. Brenner points out that there is also a triangle within the triangle. Right in the center, where Christ gestures with his hand there is another triangle made of the white tablecloth. The triangle, Benner points out is a kind of invitation for us, the viewers, to enter into this space. The triangle also reminds me of the Trinity. I am invited into this contemplative space shaped by the trinity. I am invited to give to Christ the only thing I can truly give; my contemplative presence and attention.
Another thing Benner points out is the fact that Christ is wearing the garb of his own time and place and the sisters are wearing the garb of their own time and place. She notes that Christ comes to us in our own time and space; there is a kind of timelessness to this painting.
The major thing I noticed about the painting is the fact that Martha brings Christ bread. It is ironic to me that she would be serving bread to the “bread of life.” We cannot give to Christ what he has already made provision for in our own lives. Then I notice that the space they are in is the same color as the bread Martha is serving. The space is small and intimate and the color of the bronze freshly baked bread Martha serves. It would seem they are not only with but also surrounded by the presence of the bread of life himself.
Many of us are more willing to do things for the Lord, rather than just be with him. Even my prayers can be an attempt to “please” and “serve” the Lord. I am worried and distracted over how I form my prayers — the words I use— I somehow feel that my prayers are not sincere enough, there is not enough groaning in them. I want to just be with Christ, but find it difficult to simply be when i am so distracted by my many preparations to please him.
But, like Martha, in the painting, offering bread to the bread of life, it is absurd to think that I can give to him what he has already given me; what his is to me.
How can I just be with you, Lord, without inner dialog questioning everything I do or say or think; oh to simply be with you. I can be distracted by preparations in my mind. I often ask, what am I getting from this time of prayer; of scripture reading? when what I really desire is to simply be with God.
Interior silence; interior contemplation. When I have this I can listen to the voice of God, I can be with Christ even in the midst of noisy distraction. Mary is not worried of defensive in the painting when here sister comes to complain. She remains so focused upon Christ and responding to his invitation that she is oblivious to the complaints of her sister.
Lord, I want to come to a place in my life where I can just be with you so intensely and intimately that I do not feel a need to be defensive. I want to be like Mary in this painting; only gazing upon you, Lord.
Right now, as I write this I am sick. I have been for two days. I hate being sick. The thing I hate about being sick is being needy. I do not like to be needy. I want to be the caregiver; I want to be needed; not needy. That is the Martha spirit in me. And yet, Jesus says: “blessed are the poor in spirit…” it is the needy who Jesus says are the owners of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps this is why Jesus said Mary has chosen the best part.