Today’s post is a part of the Lord Teach Us to Pray series, written by Dr. Preston Pouteaux. Preston is the Director of Discipleship Ministry at Lutheran Church of Our Saviour in Calgary, Alberta and serves with Forge Canada, a missional training network. Preston is a church planter, watercolor artist, and overly enthusiastic beekeeper. Preston’s DMin dissertation is entitled, “From Imago Dei to Missio Dei: An Art Experience as Invitation to Spiritual Transformation.” firstname.lastname@example.org
The Imagination’s Delight: Beholding Prayer
By Preston Pouteaux
As I walked back and around to the Sanctuary of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in the Bayeux Cathedral in France, I was met by the same sense of reverence I get when I move through these marvelous buildings. It is usually an awe that comes from cold stone and musty incense – the mystery of ancient religion – gray, huge, and daunting. I soon feel strangely aware that my own heart does not know how to engage in prayer in a places like this. I cannot see.
However, this time something was new. The place was still enormous and foreign. But this time, I saw. In the statue of St Thérèse of Lisieux I saw the face of a young woman who was “the little flower,” God’s beloved. In her was the image of Christ which she reflected by simply living the “little way,” a path of hope and simple presence with God. Standing there amongst the tourists, I beheld Jesus and Jesus embraced me.
The seeing extended beyond. Around me were visitors shuffling by, stopping to read about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and discovering that they, too, can live simply and lively before Christ. They, too, reflect the image of Christ. They, too, are welcome to participate in the life of Christ and live out God’s mission wherever they are. And soon my eyes were open as I turned around to see. The cathedral was adorned in faces; both sculpted and alive, reflecting a story, a reality, and declaring the immanence and goodness of Christ. I was marvelous. The image of Christ all around me was powerful, my imagination came to life.
David Morgan says, “The power of images, therefore, consist in their ability as extended forms of embodiment to provide the touch and hold of what they (re)present” (Morgan, The Embodied Eye, 33). By seeing, I was entering into reality, I was beholding Jesus, and I was enveloped in a new language of prayer.
Being struck by this wonder, I created a prayer experience at Lutheran Church of Our Saviour in Calgary, Alberta, where I serve. I wanted to see how others could engage Jesus in prayer by seeing themselves and those around them in new ways. So I began to paint portraits of members of my congregation. Children and old men, mothers and grandmothers became the subjects of this prayer experience. I created twelve portraits in all and set them up one Friday night. 80 people came to this makeshift gallery and I asked them to write what they saw. Would simple images offer them a new language of prayer and a renewed imagination?
“It’s like seeing these friends for the first time,” came one reply. “I felt a strange sense of community,” came another. Responses were profoundly open as participants said, “it was as if looking at a precious gift,” and, “I was moved to tears.” One participant said that she saw what seemed like the fire of the Holy Spirit moving back and forth along the wall where the images were mounted. Portraits of ordinary church people became prayers, “I felt like I was just with God,” and, “I was entering a room in God’s heart.” Over and over participants saw and beheld themselves, others, and Jesus in a new way. It was a new language of prayer.
The Imagination is a powerful tool for prayer. In the safe corners of our imaginations we can invite Jesus to meet us, speak with us, and comfort us with his presence. Jesus is present as we speak with our next door neighbour or a difficult client. In our imagination we begin to see Jesus standing beside us and “the other,” foreign as they may be. And if we look just the right way, and squint our imaginations just so, we may even see Jesus reflected in them, too.