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Art & Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God

by Msgr. Timothy Verdon

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

I received this book from my Spiritual Director. He is a person who understands beauty through art, music and all the beauty of the liberal arts. The beauty of turning to God becomes evident in the way he prays the Mass. This book pours that beauty over us.

Msgr. Timothy Verdon, the author explores these essential interaction in this magnificent book Explaining that images work in believers as tools teaching them how to turn to God, and aided by illustrations of fine art throughout the centuries, this book explores in detail how prayer can become the fruit of a sanctified imagination—away of beauty and turning to God. The author begins the book: “Prayer, the center of life, is often represented in art. Indeed there is a bond between prayer and lif which art exalts that is the theme of the book”.

To pray is not difficult, nor does it require special learning. To turn to God to confess limits , t ask help, to thank and praise him is in fact natural for human beings, a spontaneous impulse in women and men of every culture and civilization in every historical period. Even when adverse circumstances, ignorance of sin, refusal of a given religious idea or of all forms of religiosity, inhibit prayer, people pray all the same; when they look around themselves with attention, open themselves to the beauty of creation, and allow themselves to be touched by the suffering of others, in a certain sense they pray. There is in fact an art of prayer that can be transmitted from masters to disciples as from parents to children. The places designated for its transmission are indeed, first, the family where children initially learn words and gestures with which to enter into relation with God, and then the community of other believers; in Christianity , the Church, considered mater et magistra (mother and teacher) of faith. Ecclesial tradition also recognizes a “law of prayer” whose function is to shape faith, as suggested by the phrase Lex orandi, les credenda (Literally: the law of praying is the law of believing) expressing an idea that goes back to early Christianity. It is not an actual legal norm but a rule in the service of creativity, for faith and prayer in effect are creative responses by which creatures made “in the image and likeness” of the Creator relate to him with the help of imagination.

In the long history of the Church, the “art of prayer”-the system of words and gestures with which believers turn to God- in fact has often been transmitted through the visual arts and architecture, “which are “stimuli” for everyone and in every age characterize man’s encounter with God as “a feast.” Generation after generation, sacred images have taught believers here to behave at this feast, showing poses and facial expressions-bodily attitude and gazes-in which even nonbelievers immediately recognize a spiritual presence. In practice, sacred images—also teach viewers how to pray, and, for those who see them, living, believing, and praying seem to be the same thing.

I spent an hour each day for two weeks reflecting on this book. I could have spent much more. It is an extraordinary form of prayer. For example, the painting that introduces the preface is an example. It shows a Christian woman of the third century with her hands raised in an ancient gesture of prayer, the same which an artist of the fifth century would attribute to Jesus in a wood panel of the doors if the basilica if Saint Sabina on the Aventine Hill. The subject of this panel is the Crucifixion, and the Savior’s raised hands allude to his voluntary gift of his life for sinners, the “evening sacrifice” he offered at Golgotha. The woman in the first illustration also “offers her life,” though raising her hands between two other scenes that show her first at the moment of marriage and then with a child in her arms. The woman’s prayer, that is, springs from the ordinary sacrifices and joys of family life, and her solemn, veiled figure as the center of the composition expresses the final state to which these sacrifices and joys have brought her—the painting in fact adorns her tomb. These two early Christian works invite a reflection useful at the beginning of a volume dealing with prayer. On the cross where he gave his life, Jesus prayed, and it is his prayer that Christians are called to reproduce in their own lives. In every period of history, to disciples who ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus in fact teaches how to give one’s life. The art that springs from this gift of life and that describes it—Christian art—thus necessarily celebrates prayer. This book is important to everyone in their hands and eventually on their book shelves. The words and art in this book are transformative to the human heart.

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