Prayer and art: two sublimely transcendent gifts. When they fuse, their coalesced dynamism seems like a limitless, though often untapped, source of spiritual expansion. And so as I opened my copy of Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer by Juliet Benner, my hopes for a rich and eloquent meditation on the symbiotic relationship between communion with God and resplendent creativity swelled. I was thrilled to have been given a guide in how to better plumb the entwined mysteries of these gifts.
But as I read, it became clear that my vision for a book with such a title was quite different than the author’s. The title is not misleading, just very literal. Unlike Thomas Merton’s more philosophical Contemplative Prayer, Benner’s book is little more than a syllabus in how to spiritually reflect upon her selected 13 paintings. Each chapter is devoted to one painting—works that range from Brugel to Vermeer to Caravaggio to He Qi—and spends time in general explication of the biblical passage that inspired the religious works and then shares Benner’s thoughts on how readers can spiritually relate to the characters in the paintings.
The approach is not a bad one, just a limited one. The lessons are not loathsome, just lack depth and fresh insight. The overall effort of the book is not misdirected, just a bit narrow. And so the success of this book lies more in the readers’ expectations than in its actual merits.
Juliet Benner, a retreat and workshop leader who is “a consultant in art and spirituality” at the Carey Centre of the University of British Columbia, clearly has a passion for art and meditation. If anything, her book reveals just how much she wants to share that passion with others. Her heart for the Lord and love of art are evident on every page. But that is not enough to make this book a memorable and challenging course on how to use art as a tutor to prayer. It is more an elementary course on art appreciation than a paradigm for inviting art into the soul.
The book is, however, a helpful discussion guide for anyone who wants to host a group that hermeneutically looks at paintings with a Christian lens. In fact, the book is equipped with suggestions on how to lead such a discussion and each chapter ends with a list of questions. Benner does offer some wise foundational tools for how to locate the meaning and symbolism of a painting in one’s own life, including a repeated emphasis on the importance of spiritual vision. “If we go through life oblivious to the things that our physical eyes invite us to notice, it is almost impossible for us to be truly attentive to spiritual realities,” she writes. But her broad strokes beg for more color and amplitude, which a group of readers could easily provide themselves with Benner’s leading.
Still, one can’t but help feel a little disappointed that this book does not deliver more. Art indeed can be a striking aid to prayer and spiritual growth, worthy of reflection and study in how to fuse the two. But if one already has a general grasp of art appreciation and has a prayer life that doesn’t need more clichés but more nuance, this is not the book for them. If, however, one is interested in dipping their toes into art history for the first time and is seeking a basic vocabulary for prayer, Benner’s simple, passionate book might serve such a reader exceptionally well.