Visio Divina: Sacred Seeing to Encounter God
Just as lectio divina invites people to meditate on scripture, visio divina helps people pray with art. Visio divina, which translates as “divine seeing,” uses silence and images to help worshipers reflect and respond to God in ways other than listening to a sermon or singing praise songs.
Dallas International University wanted its chapel services to help build spiritual readiness among students training to work cross-culturally. Lexington Christian Academy sensed that teens might engage more in chapel if the primarily word-based culture was enriched with multisensory worship. North Decatur Presbyterian Church leaders saw their congregation as committed to peace, justice, and welcoming all, yet having room to grow in biblical, liturgical, visual, and creative literacy.
Each worshiping community proposed to explore the arts to deepen worship in its context. Each received a Vital Worship Grant from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And each grant project included visio divina, though not always as a dominant element.
Their experiences may inspire your worship community to try visio divina, which is also known as divine seeing, sacred seeing, praying through art, and praying with the eyes. This spiritual practice offers permission to experiment in ways that open the eyes of the heart, use all the senses, and lead people to see more clearly who God is and what God is doing in the world.
Permission to experiment
"Our Vital Worship Grant from Calvin gave me permission to experiment with things that would normally be hard sells in our chapel context. Through improvised stories, movement, hip-hop, visio divina, and more, our school community expanded our repertoire of worshipful responses to the One who makes all things new," says Christopher Greco, grant project director at Lexington Christian Academy, an independent college prep school in Lexington, Massachusetts (Greater Boston).
"And then," Greco adds, "COVID-19 made improvisers of us all." The grant project directors in Dallas, Texas, and North Decatur, Georgia (metro Atlanta), also note that while grant projects give worship communities reasons to innovate, so do church seasons, such as Advent and Lent. Maybe the pandemic forced your worshiping community to explore virtual worship, become more comfortable with screens, and seek visual ways to engage worshipers who couldn't physically gather.
Perhaps reconstructing worship during the pandemic reminded you that God uses imagery in scripture, fills the natural world with beauty, and created humans with different learning styles, including visual learning. Although visio divina is a relatively recent term, Christians have been contemplating God through art and nature for millennia. Early Christians painted Bible scenes in catacombs. In the Middle Ages, stained-glass cathedral windows and illuminated Bible manuscripts helped worshipers experience God in nonverbal ways. Venerating icons is an important way Orthodox Christians pray.
Visio divina is based on lectio divina, a practice that Benedictine of Nursia established in the sixth century to help people imaginatively enter into and meet God in a Bible passage. Since there's no single correct way to do visio divina, there's room to improvise. Whether alone or in a group, people often focus on a single work of art, often with a biblical or religious theme. You can also pray with your eyes while walking through a garden or urban neighborhood. Some visio divina experiences include guided prompts or time to share insights.
Here's one way to do visio divina: Ask God to open the eyes of your heart. Spend a minute or two looking deeply at an image (in whole and in part) and enjoying the time with God. Ponder any emotions, pictures, insights, or invitations the image evokes. Offer these to God in prayer, and ask God how you should respond. For example, as this Global Worship blog post suggests, the image might move you to confession, repentance, gratitude, praise, forgiveness, lament, or service.
Opening the eyes of the heart
"Using visio divina at our first chapel service set the tone for a unique spiritual experience for the community," says grant project director Beth Argot. She teaches world arts and is associate director of Center for Excellence in World Arts (CEWA), which offers degrees, short intensive courses, and other training at Dallas International University (DIU).
DIU's grant project emphasized "historically informed spiritual formation using arts in worship" in its thrice-weekly chapel services.
"DIU is very ecumenical yet leans heavily toward a very cognitive-oriented faith,” Argot says. “Experiencing God through more contemplative, affective worship practices opened the door to understanding that God speaks in many ways beyond what they had experienced so far. This was especially evident when combining visual arts and silence—not just talking to God, but learning to listen. Worshiping with our many students from non-Western cultures revealed differences in how others approach and know God."
During its grant year, DIU used visio divina in chapels and classroom devotions. It experimented with "visual stimulation to enhance the reality of scripture and God's presence," used guided prompts for meditating on visual art, and included times of sharing in smaller and larger groups about what God revealed during visio divina. These approaches worked well even when the pandemic forced a move from in-person to virtual experiences.
Sharing visio divina responses during open-mic times made DIU chapel worship feel more communal. "Hearing what God reveals to individuals created a sense of unity. Others are encouraged by seeing God work among them. They say it stretches their 'spiritual muscles' and 'spiritual imagination,'" Argot says.
"We use visio divina and other arts engagement for classroom devotions in our intensive courses (Arts for a Better Future and Ethnodoxology), because we have found that it helps people to experience a real paradigm shift," says Robin Harris, CEWA director. Students often tell Harris that they've "learned to connect with God in worship in ways other than music."
Argot recalls teaching Ethnodoxology through Zoom to students in Hong Kong. She used visio divina for classroom devotions before teaching on art and theology. She got an "overwhelming response" from students who said visio divina helped them heal from trauma related to childhood abuse, relational challenges, and Hong Kong's uncertain future. The grant year response to visio divina inspired Argot to seek and receive a Vital Worship Teacher-Scholar Grant to research how historical worship practices and the arts can bring about trauma healing and worship renewal.
"God is anything other than boring and predictable," Christopher Greco says. He is director of theatre, manager of the Cross Worship and Performing Arts Center, and arts division head at Lexington Christian Academy (LCA) in Massachusetts. The school website promotes "creativity that honors the Creator." Yet Greco noticed that, as in many Christians schools, students from 6th through 12th grade sometimes felt apathetic about weekly chapels.
Not all LCA students are Christians, but most who are attend contemporary churches. Like those churches, LCA chapels focused mainly on singing hymns or contemporary worship songs and listening to a message. Greco wondered whether helping students pause and notice God's glory—and making room for their creative gifts—might invite them into more participatory worship.
He designed LCA's grant project "to break down barriers of age, ethnicity, and worship tradition by engaging and theologically reflecting on the arts, theater, and music in worship. We explored ways to combine Old Testament multisensory worship with a New Testament worship focus on ideas and words," he says.
Greco has nearly 25 years of experience as a church worship pastor, but calls LCA's visio divina chapel service one of his "favorite worship services of all times." That January 2020 chapel service used images from a December 2019 LCA gallery show of Mary Kocol's photography, mostly from her Ice Gardens series. Kocol had previously done visio divina in a garden for a church small group.
The visual divina chapel layered Kocol's photography and commentary with student contributions of scripture reading, instrumental and choral music, and reflective silence. At the same time, a student created a painting of a baby nestled in flowers.
"This chapel is based somewhat on the tradition known as lectio divina,” Greco explained to chapelgoers. “In lectio divina, scripture is read aloud more slowly than usual and read multiple times. Rather than listening to the scripture for content as we normally do, we are listening deeply and intently for how God may be speaking through it directly to us as individuals.
"The musical interludes give us time to reflect on images or words that particularly struck us. So the 'message' comes not directly through a single sermon or teaching, but indirectly through multiple voices and images," he added.
Looking back, Greco says, "The visio divina chapel was contemplative, elegant, and beautiful. Its progression was unfamiliar to 90 percent of the people there, and it asked people to fill in the blanks. Yet it was accessible because you always knew what was going on." As LCA readjusts to in-person education, a new school chaplain, and COVID-19 protocols, Greco hopes to eventually plan another visio divina chapel.
Next steps, seeing more
North Decatur Presbyterian Church (NCPC) in Decatur, Georgia, included visio divina in “God's Creative Story,” the title of its Vital Worship Grant project. The grant helped people engage with the Spirit, scripture, images, and each other.
"We're a small church, very committed to peace and justice and welcoming everyone,” says project director Ellen Gadberry. “But we needed to prime the pump, be inspired, and find new ways to glorify God in worship. Visual art can do that."
The NDPC worship committee has traditionally dealt more with usher schedules, communion logistics, and altar flowers than with liturgical arts. So the grant team started with what was already present: new screens, their preachers' eagerness to explore visuals, and congregants' expressed desire to include contemplative silence in worship.
"Early on we invited Art & Theology blogger Victoria Emily Jones to lead a lunch-and-learn about gazing as a spiritual practice,” Gadberry says. “She also led a visio divina exercise in a morning worship service. Several of us began subscribing to her resource-rich blog. We started using visio divina in our Artistry of the Bible adult education class."
Weekly artmaking groups created art for the worship space, such as a string art rainbow to remember God's covenant and Eastertide "blooms" folded from old bulletins. When the pandemic ended in-person worship, Gadberry and her crew delivered Eastertide blooms to parishioners' porches, asked them to photograph the paper flowers in their homes, and showed those photos in virtual worship services. Ever since—even after the grant year ended—Sunday worship often ends with a montage of photos by church members, shown during the musical postlude.
"We're now doing hybrid services, both livestreamed and in-person, masked and socially distant by family group,” Gadberry says. “David Lewicki, one of our co-pastors, often chooses a single image on the screens for most of the service. We haven't yet repeated visio divina with guided prompts in a worship service, but this is an iterative process. We are slowly but surely opening our congregation to visual awareness and more acceptance of visuals in worship. They're allowing images to inspire and be present. And the grant helped more of us see congregational liturgical art participation as an act of worship."
Explore different ways to do visio divina with Behold (a women's prayer program), the Being Benedictine blog, InterVarsity Women in the Academy and Professions, The Upper Room (global United Methodist ministry), and blogger Victoria Emily Jones (cached article). Besides meditating on biblical art, you can do visio divina in an art gallery, out in nature, and through contemplative photography.
If you'd rather watch and listen than read, you might appreciate:
- Candler School of Theology chapel segment with guided prompts (3:25)
- Two videos (6:19 and 23:42) from Coracle, a nonprofit ministry that connects contemplation and action
- Video from The Upper Room (visio divina portion starts at 3:37)
- University of Portland videos based on The Saint John's Bible (about 15 minutes each)
- Video on visio divina as a prayer form (19:53) from Catholic Diocese of Biloxi (Mississippi)
Find images for visio divina by reading Victoria Emily Jones' blog, Art & Theology. Other excellent image sources are Caitlin Garrett's Visio Divina images collected on Pinterest, Catholic Association of Religious and Family Life Educators of Ontario (CARFLEO), Harvard Art Museums (Old Testament stories), and The Saint John’s Bible (handcrafted modern illuminated Bible),
Remember to use visio divina images from many cultures as the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (Anglican Church in North America) does in connection with cultural heritage months in the U.S. and Canada.
Beth Argot is working on a Vital Worship Teacher-Scholar Grant that explores the relationship between historical worship practices and arts and trauma healing practices. She also teaches an Arts and Trauma Healing intensive course through Dallas International University's Center for Excellence in World Arts.
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute this story at a meeting of your staff, board, or education, worship, or arts committee meeting. These questions will help people start a conversation about visually experiencing God in worship:
- How does your worshiping community include visual experiences in worship?
- What concerns or hopes arise as you consider using silence, contemplation, and visual art in worship?
- Might there be parallels to how you encounter God in the natural world and ways you might expand worshipers' responses to the Creator?