Experiencing Beloved Community with Our Eyes
How can the art in our sacred spaces help us experience what it means to be part of a Beloved Community?
This summer and fall, as many of us have cautiously returned to worship in our churches, we are once again experiencing the joy not only of being present with each other, but of being present with each other within our sacred spaces. It’s an unusual moment in history because we have the unique opportunity to bear witness to our mutual delight in this long-awaited return. As we do so, we are awakened in new ways to how much the continuity of gathering in these “prayer soaked” places connects us to those who have gone before and to those who will come after us.
Church is not, and should never be, limited to what happens in our buildings. But the art and the buildings themselves do influence and inform what it means for us to follow Jesus in community. In September of 2018, I founded the Contemplative Gaze, an art teaching ministry that leads groups inside their own sanctuaries to contemplate art and architecture together. It is a ministry and practice that speaks well to this moment in time. The Contemplative Gaze is not an exercise in art history. Instead, it allows us to make overt—and to celebrate—the ongoing process by which the visual bounty of our churches helps create Beloved Community.
A typical session of the Contemplative Gaze gathers community members and invites them to spend a significant amount of time intentionally and prayerfully looking at specific works of art together. This process allows a dialogue to develop not only between the viewers and the artwork, but also between the members of the group. When we give ourselves permission to really look; when we intentionally slow down and open ourselves up; when we stop to listen to what others see, the hidden treasures of specific works emerge.
Perhaps the light changes in a stained-glass window, highlighting something that was not even visible a few minutes before. Perhaps someone in the group is a gardener, and able to identify a particular plant that has symbolic meaning in the story the art portrays. Perhaps someone in the group has lived through an experience that opens up an entirely new avenue of interpretation for others.
When we choose to be playful, when we listen to what others are experiencing, we begin to see through each other’s eyes. There are no right or wrong answers. We approach each piece with curiosity instead of judgment. The Contemplative Gaze helps us ask fundamental questions about the role of art within our worshipping communities. How does the art and architecture of our sacred spaces inform and enhance our liturgies? What concepts are we internalizing about God and the human condition through what our eyes encounter? What do we learn about each other when we allow ourselves to hear what other people see? Engaging in this practice is a heart-centered experience that “opens our eyes to behold God’s gracious hand in all God’s works.” It is also a process of community building. Invariably, when we engage in this practice, the Spirit is very much amidst us.
Everyone can relate to the pleasure of re-encountering a particular window, niche, or sculpture that they have loved for years. Such joys have been intensified by the prolonged pandemic absence from our churches. Now that we have returned, are we not finding that God has, once again, made all things new? What kinds of shifts are we noticing in our relationship to the pieces we know and love, now that we are living through a time of unveiling, of apocalypse, in this country and around the world? How has the ongoing pandemic shifted our appreciation of and understanding of community? Images that were familiar may have different resonances for us now. Looking with new eyes, we are discovering that we are not the same people we were before March 2020.
Regrettably, due to the still uncertain nature of the pandemic and the need to sit more closely than social distancing guidelines allow, the Contemplative Gaze has yet to return to active programming. We very much hope that we will be able to resume gathering safely in the spring of 2022. Please be in touch if you would like to talk about having a session in your sacred space. The website for this ministry is here: https://contemplativegaze.org. The best contact is: [email protected].