A picture’s worth a thousand words, they say. And recently, I’ve been using the practice of Visio Divina (“divine seeing” in Latin) to help me focus more fully on God in prayer. Drawing on the principles of Lectio Divina, Visio Divina is the slow, thoughtful contemplation of a picture, photo, work of art, or really anything visual that invites God to speak to me in a deeper way.
I first learned about Visio Divina from a church worker named Adrian Wyatt who had begun exploring the practice using his own photographs. Now, he runs courses for others to do the same. Since I was already practicing Lectio Divina, I was fascinated to know more about how I could reflect on visual prompts in a similar way. So I gave it a try, using published photos at first, but then widening my prompts to include artworks, textiles and some of my own photos.
Visio Divina can be done in a group with others or practiced alone. And it works for any age too – even kids can engage with this practice at their own level. An illustrated Bible is the perfect starting point.
So here are a few tips for getting started with your own Vision Divina practice:
Inspirational prompts can include photos, images, fine art, or textiles – in fact, almost any visual media, pictorial or abstract. For example, centuries ago, illuminated Bibles were created by monks, featuring flawless calligraphy and colorful decorations as a way to honor the Bible’s special status as a holy book. One of the most inspirational sources I’ve found is The Saint John’s Bible, a stunningly beautiful handcrafted modern illuminated Bible. This amazing work was commissioned at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the first to be created in more than 500 years.
I found it easier to begin by following some guided sessions. The University of Portland has videos based on The Saint John’s Bible which are a great place to start. But now, I’m beginning to develop my own practice.
I’ve created a small portfolio of images to choose from, such as greetings cards, photos I’ve taken, and even images torn from magazines.
Open with a prayer
I begin with a short prayer before choosing my source. I ask God to help me find a prompt that nourishes my soul, and one that will provide the insights God knows I need, not necessarily what I think I need!
I might say “Please help me choose the right inspiration for today, so you can speak to me,” or “Please prompt my decision today.”
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Choose your inspiration
Next, I look through my online sources or leaf through my little stash of images, still mentally asking God to help me choose the best one for my situation. I don’t usually spend too long on this – if something catches my eye, that’s the one I go for.
I might stick a photo or notecard in middle of a plain scrapbook page, so I can annotate around it, doodle while I’m contemplating, or record scripture verses. If I’m looking at wall art or something online, I make sure I’m sitting comfortably so I can focus. Then, I follow this structure loosely:
Consider your first impressions
Let your eyes stay with the very first thing you see in your chosen image. Perhaps you’ll notice a small detail like a tiny bird in a vast blue sky, or maybe one vibrant color in an abstract pattern may catch your eye. Don’t let your eyes wander around the rest of the image (not always easy!), but stick with your initial focus. I find that slowing my breathing, and continually bringing my attention back when it strays, is helpful. Consider what thoughts come into your mind and what emotions you’re feeling. Ask God to speak to you through what you’ve noticed and then take time to listen. I usually take around five minutes to do this, but there are no hard and fast rules.
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Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings
Then I’ll let myself begin to take in the picture as a whole, considering other things that catch my attention. I’ll ask myself how the entire image makes me feel, whether it provokes any questions, or if it stirs up memories.
Sometimes a verse of Scripture will come to mind, such as a verse from the Psalms about the glories of the heavens to accompany an image of the starry sky.
Listen for God’s voice
Silence is an important aspect of practicing Visio Divina. Again, taking time to be still helps me to be more aware of any message from God and often helps me to think carefully about how I should respond to what God has revealed to me. Try taking notes or journaling to crystallize your thoughts. You might even feel inspired to create your own artwork in response to what you’ve experienced.
Respond to Visio Divina
I usually finish my Visio Divina session by praying about what I’ve experienced through focusing on the image. Once I’m done, it’s all too easy to get on with the rest of my day and not give my Visio Divina time another thought. But if possible, I leave my prompt where I can see it – pinned to the fridge, tucked in the corner of a photo frame, or placed next to me on the couch – so I can continue to ponder throughout the day.
It’s sometimes tempting to “hurry through” the steps, but I’ve found that allowing around half an hour for a session allows me time to consider things at a deeper level.
Visio Divina is quite new for me, but I’ve found it’s opening up a whole different way of communicating with God, and I’m keen to keep exploring. So, why not give Visio Divina a try for yourself? You might find it deepens your relationship with God, too.
Originally published April 1, 2019