Creative Prayer: Art as Symbol and Metaphor

by Hilary Horn

By Lynne Baab

I fell in love with Australian aboriginal art the first time I saw it as a young adult. I love visual patterns, and aboriginal art is full of them. A highlight of our first trip to Australia in 2001 was the art museums and art galleries where I got to see a lot of examples. I bought a book about aboriginal art and learned that many pieces are actually maps, representing the land forms, human settlements, and animals of specific places.

In 2011, my husband Dave and I began a new habit which we have continued. Several mornings a week we pray silently together for 20 minutes. We do it in the late morning when I am ready for a break from working in my home office. In the first few years of that practice, I often picked up a book of art prints and prayed using the prints. Last week, I wrote about doing that with paintings of biblical scenes.

One morning during our silent prayer time, I picked up my book on aboriginal art. I thumbed through it, marveling at the shapes and colors, thanking God for the creativity of aboriginal artists. My eye landed on a 1987 painting called Emu Dreaming by Darby Jampijinpa Ross. You’ll see the painting at the top of this blog post. For many months, Emu Dreaming stimulated my prayers in unexpected ways.

I know that my interpretation of the painting bears no resemblance to the intent of the artist. I find myself hoping that my great love for the painting would please Darby Jampijinpa Ross anyway.

Emu Dreaming – Darby Jampijinpa Ross

You’ll notice a circular center with eight wavy lines coming out of it. Seven of the eight lines end in a  spiral. In New Zealand Maori art, that spiral is a symbol of new life, modeled on fern fronds in the spring. In my symbolic interpretation of the painting, the circular center of the painting is God. The eight paths are various things we do in our lives. If we want the freshness of new life, we have to say connected to the center.

However, one line moves from the center to the upper right of the painting without ending in a spiral. This helps me accept that sometimes even when we are connected to the center, our actions don’t bear good fruit that’s visible to us.

The three black circles that are detached from the center circle represent to me the good things that God can spin off of our actions, blessings and good fruit that originate in our God-centered actions but take on a life of their own apart from us.

Between the wavy lines that are connected to the center, we can see eight sets of straight black lines with what looks like arrows on either side of the straight lines. The arrows are pointing away from the center. To me, those arrows represent the deep truth that when we get disconnected from the center, so many forces within us and outside of us want to move us further and further from the center.

Emu Dreaming has called me, over and over, to stay connected to the center. My center is God in Christ, experienced though the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. The painting has helped me pray about the connectednesss of components of my life. Are various aspects of my life connected to the center, or are they actually like those thick black lines that want to draw me away from God? The painting has helped me evaluate and pray about habits, Christian ministry, and the relationships that shape and sustain me.

The painting has called me to confession. It has helped me renew, over and over again, my commitment to stay connected to the center so that I might experience new life in the various components of my life. It has helped me accept that sometimes – not often but sometimes – I engage in actions that result from my connection with God, but good fruit is not visible.

Thank you, creative God, for Darby Jampijinpa Ross and other aboriginal artists in Australia who delight me with the patterns they have painted.


This post, Creative prayer: Art as symbol and metaphor, is reposted with permission from Lynne Baab’s personal blog, It is part of a series on creative prayer. Here are the other posts in the series.

Creative prayer with colors
The psalms and music
Walking and memorizing psalms
Creative prayer nurtures stopping
Creative prayer as remembering truth
Apples and wings
Learning from mindfulness meditation
Returning prayer
Relinquishing and welcoming
Prayer cards
Pressing pause
Creative prayer with Jeremiah
Submitting and entreating
Creative prayer: Seasons
Creative prayer without codependency
Creative prayer in a foreign language
Creative prayer while walking
Creative prayer using the imagination
Joy spot sightings
Creative prayer in a hospitable spirit
Creative prayer using our hands
Prompts for prayer
More prayer prompts
Creative prayer for creation care
Creative prayer: Art as symbol and metaphor
Creative prayer

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Herbert B Orr September 25, 2019 - 11:48 am

I am sure that we can use the work of art as being evidences of God’s wonderful creation: being nature scenes, or aspects
of people dressed in beautiful colors which are like the rainbow God created as the sign that He would never destroy the world with a flood.
Using an example of another thing like this complex work of art is the Country Music singer using a deck of cards to expaain Christian Bible truths.

Herbert B Orr September 25, 2019 - 11:51 am

I failed to state that works of art called still life are pictures of flowers or fruit in a bowl are also, evidences of God’s wonderful creations.

revrodneymarsh September 29, 2019 - 5:44 am

I recommend that you buy a wonderful book, Lynne – “Our Mob, God’s Story – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists share their faith” , Shermann and Mattingley. It was published by the Bible Society in Australia and the artists come from the many indigenous nations of Australia. The book contains stunning art pieces based on Bible verses. A brief biography of each artist is included. The works are all stunning and so varied. They feature traditional symbols and the convey a deep conection with the land, animals and plants that have sustained the oldest living culture in the world. A deeply Christian book of immense strength and hope. Miriam Rose Ungunmerr wrote in the Foreword: “There are deep springs within each of us. Within this deep spring, which is the very Spirit of God, is a sound. The sound of Deep calling to Deep. The sound is the word of God – Jesus. I am beginning to hear the Gospel at the very level of my identity , I am beginning to feel the gret need we have of Jesus – to protect and strengthen our identitiy; and to make us whole and new again.”
The strength of the connection to country is the gift the Aborginal people have to offer to Australia and it is a precious gift that requires us to listen to the Land and Aboriginal people.
PS You will find a very helpful explanation of the many symbols in “Emu Dreaming” in this book. The songlines of the land in paintings like this criss cross Australia and the health of the land and animals was maintained by this (usually) ephemeral art and ceremony.

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