Visio Divina

Over the years, we have seen how God has used the beauty of this property to speak to people.  Whether it is the brook, the outdoor worship center, views of surrounding hills, or the prayer hutch, God very often uses the visual to speak us.  Until a class I took recently, I had never considered this as a spiritual discipline.  Visio Divina means Divine Seeing.  Although primarily intended to be used with icons, we expand this discipline to incorporate nature.

Slowing Down

We are a hurried culture. We are a culture of immediacy. We rush through every aspect of our lives.  I am continually judging an activity, a phone call, a trip with “Am I done yet.”  Visio Divina is a spiritual discipline that requires us to intentionally slow down.  Just as Lectio Divina slows down our reading, Visio Divina slows down the visual images we take into our brains.

I was interested to find that a Harvard art professor sees the need for this with her students.  She wants to encourage them to learn to value deceleration and immersive attention.

Harvard art history professor Jennifer Roberts asks her students to sit–not for half an hour, but for three hours with a work of art before writing anything about it. While some may think that this sounds excessive at first, the students realize that seeing is not the whole story of learning–it takes time to process what we see. When we give ourselves time, on any subject, not just art, a new world of detail and understanding opens up to our consciousness. And she feels that this kind of patience in education–learning how to slow down–is an essential part of a good education.1

Listen to her own words:

During the past few years, I have begun to feel that I need to take a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences of the students in my courses; that in the process of designing a syllabus I need not only to select readings, choose topics, and organize the sequence of material, but also to engineer, in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.

I want to focus today on the slow end of this tempo spectrum, on creating opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention. I would argue that these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they simply are no longer available “in nature,” as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.2

Visio Divina is a way to shape your temporal experience and engineer the pace and tempo of our visual experiences.  It is a structure to help us to really see.

Using Icons in Prayer

I was first exposed to the use of icons in prayer by a little book by Henri Nouwen entitled Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons.  In this little book, Nouwen talks in depth about four Russian icons.  If you are unfamiliar with this gateway into God’s presence, Nouwen’s book is a great place to start.  One thing I learned from a person who was learning to create her own icons is that an icon is written not painted.  They are purposely written to draw us into some truth about God and about us.  Nouwen describes how learning to pray with icons rescued him from this hurried world and helped him enter into the rest of God.

Using Images from Nature in Prayer

When I first became a Christian, I would often bike into school (about 12 miles).  Sometimes I would pass a tree (which had lost it leaves) and just stop and marvel at the form and the beauty as it reached towards the heavens.  Somewhere along the line, this wonder had been pushed out.  I wonder sometimes if this wonder can be recovered.  Visio Divina is one such discipline to help restore this sense of wonder.

Recently I took a class in which Adele Calhoun introduced Visio Divina.  Here are some of her steps to the process.

  1. Find a place where you can be attentive to an image in nature (a sunset, a brook, a tree, a flower, etc)
  2. Let your inside noise quiet and put yourself in God’s presence.  Invite the Holy Spirit to guide your prayer
  3. Gaze at creation with openness seeking to see with God’s eyes
  4. Notice what stirs within you.  What responses, memories and feelings does the image evoke? What connection does the image make with your life?  Take your time.
  5. Respond to God about what you are seeing and sensing.
  6. Let God’s creativity open a pathway to gratitude and worship
  7. Record in your journal what you want to take with you and remember about this time of prayer.  Let the image continue to remind you to seek God.

Here is one other suggested process from the Upper Room:3

  1. Pick out an image, a photograph, painting, or icon [or apply this to some scene in nature]
  2. Look at the image and let your eyes stay with the very first thing that you see. Keep your attention on that one part of the image that first catches your eye. Try to keep your eyes from wandering to other parts of the picture. Breathe deeply and let yourself gaze at that part of the image for a minute or so.
  3. Now, let your eyes gaze at the whole image. Take your time and look at every part of the photograph. See it all. Reflect on the image for a minute or so.
  4. Consider the following questions:
  • What emotions does this image evoke in you?
  • What does the image stir up in you, bring forth in you?
  • Does this image lead you into an attitude of prayer? If so, let these prayers take form in you. Write them down if you desire.

Now, offer your prayers to God in a final time of silence.


Learn More

Visio Divina: A New Practice of Prayer for Healing and Growth, Karen Kuchen; The Crossroad Publishing Company (December 1, 2005)

Visio Divina: A Reader in Faith and Visual Arts, Mel Ahlborn; LeaderResources (June 3, 2009)

Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God (Active Prayer Series), Sybil MacBeth, Paraclete Press (April 1, 2007) This book is extremely helpful for those who express themselves visually.

Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice, Christine Valters Paintner; Sorin Books (April 22, 2013)

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons, Henri Nouwen; Ave Maria Press; Revised edition (September 15, 2007)