Calvin University, James K.A. Smith

Grand Rapids, Michigan

To prepare an essay that explores how contemporary visual and literary art fosters contemplative habits, an inviting 'preamble' to spiritual contemplation involved in both personal and communal liturgical practices.

    Project Summary

    My project is to research and write an article (that will become a chapter of a planned book) at the intersection of art and contemplation. The project will argue and illustrate the ways contemporary art (both visual and literary) encourages dispositions and habits of attention that are distinctly contemplative, and hence how contemporary art can function as both a “preamble” to spiritual contemplation and an aid in both personal and communal contemplative practice. 

     What questions about worship and your discipline will be guiding your project?

    Fundamentally, at the heart of my project are questions about the possibility of prayer. In particular, what postures and habits of mind can be cultivated to enable the sort of prayer that is participation in the divine life? At this early stage of the project, before getting to contemporary art, I am returning to masters who are both wise and honest about prayer and contemplation, particularly Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. For example, in his "Geneses Diary," Nouwen discusses the challenge of what contemplatives call "nepsis"--the control of thoughts. This isn't just a matter of will, but habit. And yet our cultural habits mitigate against this. How to swim against the tide? 

     How do you envision this project will strengthen the worship life of congregations?

    My ultimate hope is that congregations will find new ways to incorporate contemporary visual art into their worship practices--in gathered worship on Sunday mornings, but also in other worship spaces (such as Stations of the Cross and Tenebrae in Lent, prayer retreats in Advent, and more). If the project could also be an opportunity for Protestants taken with the "vita activa" to entertain the "vita contemplativa," that will be an added benefit.

    What do you expect might be your greatest challenges (or challenging opportunities)?

    I expect two primary challenges: one personal, one cultural. First, personally, I worry that, like Nouwen, I am more inclined to learn about prayer than to pray, more inclined to write about contemplation than contemplate. I am genuinely hoping this project, like Nouwen's sabbatical at the Genesee Trappist monastery, could in some small way be an opportunity to find a new way of being. Second, culturally, contemporary art is largely unfamiliar or alienating for a lot of people. In addition, contemporary visual art can be very "inside baseball" and thus feel exclusive and hence excluding. I will need to find creative ways to push past that. 

    What do you hope to learn from the Grants Event and other grant recipients?

    I look forward to learning from other grant recipients, particularly those working on prayer and those incorporating visual arts.