Tools of the Trade: Visio Divina (Prayer and Pixels)

Tools of the Trade is a two-part feature in which a spiritual practice is introduced and explained. Paul then performs the practice for one month, and writes about his experience. You can read the first part here.


The house is quiet. I sit down at my computer and pop my headphones in. I begin playing the same binaural beats track I use when I meditate. I open my Visio Divina folder which has a collection of images I’ve found on the internet, close my eyes, and double-click. An image fills my computer screen, and I lean back in my chair with my arms crossed.

For the next five to twenty minutes, I’ll try to get my eyes to cascade down the picture like a light rain; soft and slow and covering everything. I do my best not to think, critique, or analyze at first. I simply allow myself to be awash with the colors and lines and textures. Eventually, I start looking for technique. I want to see the artist’s individual brushstrokes, I want to understand why the photographer chose to stand in that spot. How was this image made? How difficult was it for the artist to create? From there, it’s only a small jump to “why did the artist create this image?” and finally, “what is it saying to me?”

That’s when things get interesting. Regardless of the artist’s intent, I try to remain a blank slate. I want to allow God to fill my head with a meaning rather than manufacture one of my own. I open Notepad on my other screen and begin typing without taking my eyes away from the image. Long form, stream of consciousness. If someone were to stumble over these files, they would probably think me a loon, but that’s not important now. I keep typing until I finally write the word or sentence that seems… right.

At every image I examine, there’s something in there for me. Sometimes it’s as simple as “peace”, and other times it’s paragraphs of questions or hypothetical scenarios or stories. When I’m done typing, I save the file and look back at the image. I slowly close my eyes and say a quick prayer to thank God for meeting with me. I Alt-F4 out of the windows I have open so I won’t be tempted to peek at another picture so I can be surprised by what I see tomorrow.

For the past month, this has been de rigueur. I’ve found Visio Divina forces me to stop and slow down. You can’t rush through the process; you have to block out a little time in order to really allow the image to wash over you. This is both refreshing, and maddening. 

I’ve discovered I’m something of an information junkie. As I meander the internet, the moment a question pops into my head I find I’ve already pressed “Ctrl+T” and have begun searching for an answer. As you might imagine, the tabs can pile up, and before long I’m buried in ones and zeroes and bits of data. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I feel “connected” when I’m in this mode, but I’m… engaged. My mind is sharp and leaping from thought to thought, even if none of them are particularly helpful or relevant.

And then there’s Visio. Visio is like a giant “RESET” button for your brain. In a world where I can have a nigh-infinite number of tabs open, each displaying something totally different, spending literal minutes of my life looking at one image feels like utter insanity.

Even after a month, the first few minutes of looking at the picture consists mostly of my brain spiraling around the drain of oblivion. It can’t handle the stillness. The quiet. The lack of information. But, after a minute or two, my brain begins to let go. The constant inner monologue in my head starts to simmer down. It begins pointing all that energy toward the image I’m looking at, and that’s when the details really start to pop out.

Some time after that, the stillness I’m trying to inhabit begins to inhabit me and everything slows down. The world gets quiet. I can imagine myself inside the art I’m looking at. I can begin to imagine the emotions and sensations one would feel if they were present. More than once I’ve actually thought I’ve caught a whiff of the ocean or the moist earth.

And somewhere in the middle of all that, is God. Sometimes he wants to chat. Others, it’s enough that we just be next to each other. Visio feels like the microcosm of everything that Hunting for God is about: Finding God in places you wouldn’t ordinarily think to look for him.

If you’re interested in trying Visio, I’ve uploaded all the pictures I’ve used to an album on the HfG Facebook page. Also, I’ve started an HfG Community over at G+ and the pictures are available there as well. (You know you’re looking for reasons to try it, you might as well join the community and add to the discussion.)

Have any of you ever tried Visio before? How did it go? Also, I’m always looking for suggestions for the next Tools of the Trade feature. If any of you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them in the comments.


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