I started gazing at an early age. Terrified of the dark, my dad held my hand and guided me out to the backyard. Swaying back and forth on the swing, he taught me names of the constellations like Little Dipper, Big Dipper, and Orion. I found Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. He taught me to locate the North Star, Polaris, by aligning the Big Dipper gourd with the handle of the Little Dipper. Although he tried to impress upon me the importance of the North Star for navigation throughout history, I know Dad was relieved that I overcame my fear of the dark. Stargazing has become a lifelong passion.
Cloud gazing became a frequent daylight pastime. Dad taught us how to predict weather by observing the sky and cloud formations. As the clouds rolled by, we identified clouds by type and created imaginary characters from cloud formations. “Oh look, that stratonimbus looks just like a dog!” Or “Look, that cumulus is shaped like a dragon!”
We also gazed indoors. My parents were parsimonious, but their one indulgence was a subscription to Arizona Highways, featuring sweeping landscapes, nature, cacti, rock formations, and deserted ghost towns by famous award-winning photographers. We never threw them out, we continued acquiring them. The scenery was breathtaking, and I found the pictures calming. As I matured and was confronted with the demands and stressors of teenage life in the sixties, I realized that Arizona Highways provided temporary respite. For a little while, I could forget about my parents breaking up, my grades, boys, school, my future, and our dwindling finances. Looking at those magazines, I developed an awareness of the presence of God.
Decades later, while preparing for my oblation, I found phone apps for gazing, meditation, and respite. A favorite for waiting rooms and stalled traffic is Vatican.va, where the Sistine Chapel can be viewed in 360 degrees. Meditating on a panel or pretending to be alone there, I contemplated the artist, his intense labor and sacrifice, the artistic gifts bestowed upon Michelangelo, the biblical stories depicted, and the overwhelming beauty of this sacred place. Even the tiled floor is a wonder to behold. Although I prayed during my virtual visits, there was no structure to it and no connection to the divine office.
Sister Mary Jo Polak, OSB, in our October oblate retreat, Visio Divina ~ Praying with Your Eyes, guided us through purposeful exploring, “looking at all of life,” gazing at art and creation. Unlike my previous virtual visits, visio divina is aligned with Benedictine principles. Applying the elements of lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio, and actio [reading, reflecting, responding, resting in God, and action], visio divina unfolded before me. Through the observation exercises, I encountered depth, meaning, respite, and a profound awareness of God. Sister Joan Chittister wrote, “Benedictine simplicity gentles us into the arms of God… God is in our present, waiting for us there” (Chittister, 2004, p. 180 & 27).
A famous painting by John Rogers Herbert titled, “Laborare est Orare” [to work is to pray] is one of my Lenten visio divina contemplative artworks. Created in 1862, it depicts Trappist monks gathering the harvest near Leicestershire in England. Another contemplative visio artwork is “Journey of the Magi” by James Tissot, painted in 1894. While the artwork descriptions provide interesting background information and artistic critique, it is the application of reading, reflection, responding, resting in God, and acting that has allowed spiritual growth. As I scrutinize the art, I ask, “Where am I in this painting? How do I feel about the people? What details do I notice? What is God saying to me? What is actionable and how can I apply it in my life?” To my amazement, each visio divina devotion creates different responses, although I am observing the same two paintings.
The last two years have been filled with challenges and blessings. Challenges from the pandemic and blessings for a deepened spirituality and comprehension of the Benedictine way of life. I suppose my gazing tendencies have influenced my appreciation of visio divina. I know for certain that it has had a profound impact on my spiritual growth.
By Jan Vinita White, Oblate OSB
Chittister, J. (2003). The Rule of Benedict. Insights for the Ages. Crossroad Publishing.
Journey of the Magi. Retrieved from https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4436
Laborare est Orare (photo above). Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/herbert-laborare-est-orare-t01455