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Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer

Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer
by Juliet Benner
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010
191 pages
Reviewed by Jacqueline Leksen

“Come and see!” invites seasoned artist, educator, spiritual director, and retreat leader Juliet Benner when she puts on her docent hat to walk the reader through a virtual gallery of some of the world’s most beloved works of sacred art. Benner is a guide into the heart of contemplative prayer. The book cover’s painting, by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, provides a distilled image into the essence of Contemplative Vision through its portrayal of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, sitting in rapt stillness and attention, listening at the feet of Jesus. Benner encourages us to emulate Mary, to “bask in the presence of our Beloved and then to take that presence with us as we live our daily lives in the world” (54).

The author asks us to read her book slowly, contemplatively, and prayerfully as we take in each work of art and read the accompanying scriptural passage and reflections. Her goal is to open our eyes to “new ways of seeing” that will lead us “into the eternal presence, into the One who is ever present with us” (19) in the “inner stillness and attentiveness that is … contemplative prayer” (21). When we gaze in focused stillness at each painting, “what we [will] have been doing throughout this book is prayer” (167).

Benner shares her historic understanding of the role of art from the earliest days of the Christian tradition, when it was a primary way of mediating God’s presence, especially for the illiterate. She recounts how a shift to focus on words and reading occurred during the Protestant Reformation, when many pieces of biblical art were lost or covered over as “seeing and knowing were replaced by listening and believing” (16). For example, Rembrandt’s rendering of huge, splashing waves threatening to capsize the disciples’ fishing boat and Caravaggio’s depiction of Jesus’s tenderness as he guides Thomas’s finger into his wound after the crucifixion speak eloquently for themselves without words. Her experience as an educator is evident in each chapter’s reflection and discussion questions, together with her suggestions in the appendices of ways to use the book for group discussions and spiritual direction.

While the book’s black and white images are accompanied by links to view them in color online, I wish that these exquisite paintings had been reproduced in all their color and glory. The ability to ponder and savor these masterpieces within the context of each chapter, along with the author’s vivid and author’s vivid and prayerful reflections, would enhance the reader’s contemplative practice and reflection.

“The world is charged with the glory of God—it will flame out like shining from shook foil” (34, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur). So it is that the reader will see glory shining out of these eye-opening, exquisite works of art and in the reflective, contemplative writing that will open your soul to the sacred presence of the Beloved.

Jacqueline Leksen completed a master's degree in transforming spirituality with an emphasis in spiritual direction at Seattle University, Washington, USA. She offers spiritual direction in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

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