Your Potrait with God: Praying with Visuals and the Power of Daydreams

A modernist painting by Richard Solstjana that expresses the Transfiguration, based on the lectionary text for Sunday, March 6th

If I were to paint a portrait of your relationship with God, what would it look like?  How would you and God be positioned?  How shall I paint your hands and arms?  How shall I paint your postures?  Is there distance between the figures?  Is there a certain intimacy?  What colors would I use?  Warm or cold colors; dark or light?

There are many times in my life when words fail me to describe my relationship of God.  Only a mental picture, painting, icon, or visual aid will do; and, as a lover of art, I can’t help but to think of how I would paint a portrait of that relationship.

In a recent caregiver support group meeting, I tried this exercise and saw how helpful these little visual daydreams can be.  I asked a caregiver the questions above, and she imagined herself standing with God.  She was facing God.  God was smiling, but his hands were at his side.  She pictured herself as a child.

There seemed to be affirmation there, but she noticed that she was not reaching to God no more than He was.  This led us to pray for greater intimacy in her prayer life.

Picturing our relationship with God is not common practice in churches these days; it is foreign even in our private prayer lives.  Yet, so many artists throughout history have tried to express how they see God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  The visual arts, much less daydreaming, can be a powerful catalyst for helping us discern how near or far we feel from God.

Consider Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.  This amazing artist was convinced that God’s creative fingerprints pervaded his work.  When Michelangelo painted God and Adam, the two characters were touching fingers.  The posture represented God’s stamp–God’s fingerprint–on all humankind; we, like Adam, are made in God’s image.

And then there are the many modern and postmodern pieces celebrating the Trinity and the Holy Spirit.  I enjoy paintings that specifically reveal the Holy Spirit as a series of colors that dance in a balanced pattern of light.

Whenever I feel “caught up in the Spirit of God” (Rev. 4:2) during worship, I join in that movement of color and light and joy.

The pictures that most impress me are those that portray Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  We have one painting hanging at church.  Jesus is holding a staff.  Sheep and laughing children surround him.  It invokes Psalm 23 and John 10.

I also have moments of grief and pain in which I have a hard time envisioning any coherent experience of God.  I stumble into the very mystery and silent presence of God, and there is neither form nor balance that speak to my frustrations and anxiety.

During these moments, I think of the artwork of a late member of my church who regained his sight after many years of being blind.  Doctors were amazed that this man could see;Val Kilmer even starred in a movie, “At First Sight,” inspired by this artist’s life.

What he saw frightened him.  Horses, for instance, scared him.  In order to make meaning of his fear, he took up painting and produced art in the chaotic, but deeply symbolic modernist (almost Cubist) tradition.

Though he passed away years ago, one of his paintings still hangs in our sanctuary to this day–it brings me some sense of peace to know I’m not alone in my own anxiety.

When we come to a standstill in our prayer life, I invite you to picture yourself with God.  That portrait may be worth a thousand words.

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