Experience the Holy Spirit in Contemplation | 02

AUTHOR: Holy Scripture

READ:

Read or listen to Isaiah 6​.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above him; they each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies;
his glory fills the whole earth.

The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.

Then I said:

Woe is me for I am ruined
because I am a man of unclean lips
and live among a people of unclean lips,
and because my eyes have seen the King,
the Lord of Armies.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand was a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said:

Now that this has touched your lips,
your iniquity is removed
and your sin is atoned for.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord asking:

Who will I send?
Who will go for us?

I said:

Here I am. Send me.

And he replied:

Go! Say to these people:
Keep listening, but do not understand;
keep looking, but do not perceive.
Make the minds of these people dull;
deafen their ears and blind their eyes;
otherwise they might see with their eyes
and hear with their ears,
understand with their minds,
turn back, and be healed.

Then I said, “Until when, Lord?” And he replied:

Until cities lie in ruins without inhabitants,
houses are without people,
the land is ruined and desolate,
and the Lord drives the people far away,
leaving great emptiness in the land.
Though a tenth will remain in the land,
it will be burned again.
Like the terebinth or the oak
that leaves a stump when felled,
the holy seed is the stump

 

How did God engage Isaiah’s physical senses in revealing himself to him? How can you use your senses to increase your awareness of God’s presence in your daily life?

The written Scripture is CSB, however, the audio Scripture is ESV.

FOCUS:

Read or listen to the blog. What is one thing you learned about what it means to lovingly gaze on Jesus? How can you incorporate what you learned into your daily routines? For example: I will meditate on Psalm 1 today during my run.

The Discipline of Contemplation:
How Gazing on Art Helps us Gaze on God

By Gabe Coyle

 

God is more sensual than we can often take. 

It’s altogether too easy to think of God constrained to the invisible realm like a wind that stopped blowing. Not only can you not feel it at the moment, but neither can you see it. And while there are some kinds of prayer where it’s good to close our eyes, sometimes the best prayers are done with our eyes open and our senses engaged. 

Christian contemplation or contemplatio involves a “gazing at” or “awareness of being with” God. Too often we think of contemplation only in the ethereal, but for followers of Jesus throughout history, this was a matter of earthy, embodied matter. Contemplating God involved our physical senses: the vibrations of eardrums, contracting irises, tingling touch, olfactory nerves, and sweetness of wine. Some mystics even surmised that the soul had corresponding senses that were intertwined with the physical. 

Within the Christian mystics there are two main groups, apophatics and kataphatics. Apophatics highlight the unknowability of God. God’s transcendence and goodness is so beyond our categories even our best thoughts cannot exhaustively guide us in knowing him (Ephesians 3:19). Usually the practices of pursuing union with God for apophatics involve emptying ourselves of shallow, insufficient categories. 

On the other side of the spectrum are the kataphatic mystics. In comparison to the “negative” language of the apophatic mystics, which highlights what God is “not,” they tend to use “positive” terminology and practices highlighting and revealing who God “is.” Kataphatics leverage truth claims, promises, images, ideas, and symbols when approaching God. 

There is goodness and an appropriate time for both thought processes. When ideas limit God more than Scripture permits, apophatics remind us he is bigger than our ideas. When apophatics tend toward an overly dark unknowing, the kataphatics point to God becoming flesh (John 1:14) and the brilliance of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8). 

I go through this interesting—at best—taxonomy, or classification of terms to highlight a battle within the Christian faith for millennia: should Christians have images when they pray? The reality is, we all see something when we pray, something we sense or have seen at some point in life. The question is whether it is in line with Scripture or not. 

Isaiah, in chapter 6 of his writings, has a glorious vision of God on his throne. But where is he? In the temple of course. The place where God dwelt for the ancient Hebrews. The place where Isaiah dwelt. The brick and mortar that he touched and walked around regularly gave him the capacity to see God in his grandeur and interpret what his presence there meant. 

Christians throughout the ages have had images of biblical history, saints, the Triune God, and Jesus’ passion to shape their imagination, remind them they are part of an historical cloud of witnesses, and experience unique union with God. 

It is to this last point, which we turn. Dr. Curt Thompson in his book The Soul of Desire, lays out the practice of “gazing.” God has designed us in such a way that when we gaze into another’s eyes, we feel a deep connection. He then goes on to say how the same is true with works of art. Sitting and gazing at a work of art can have healing and reparative effects. This is partly because of what Ian McGilchrist explains in his The Master and His Emissary. McGilchrist reveals through neuroscience that the brain actually interprets works of art as someones, not somethings. We long for connection and find it in the expression of someone in art. The Christian, though, knowing the author of beauty, goes one step further. 

It makes sense that our brains and bodies are designed to experience wholeness in beauty, but Christians throughout the ages say there is more here. In prayer with beauty before our eyes, we not only look “at” beauty but look “through” beauty anticipating God’s loving gaze in return. Good art when approached with eyes wide open to God’s presence, can be an avenue of experiencing more than mental stimulation. Gazing at beauty in art can be the Spirit’s avenue toward an awareness of union with God and your spiritual wholeness. 

In 1956, this happened to Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel. He was contemplating the stations of the cross, a series of artworks that visually depict the passion narrative of Jesus, and a powerful experience of the personal love of Jesus grabbed him. He wept and wept, and it was there that he heard God’s confirmation that he should be in ministry. 

Prayer with eyes wide open to the beautiful one. 

This has become true for me as well. There was a season where a certain work from artist, Kelly Kruse, was hanging in my office. I selfishly asked her if she wanted to “store” it in my office until it was sold. 

The painting was shades of black except a tear down the middle with golden thread sewing it mostly shut. It was the death of Christ. Sometimes I would sit and stare at it; other times it caught my eye. When things seemed dark, I thought of the tomb presented before me. The death was only holding in the light, but it could not contain it. I gazed at God through that work and felt his presence regularly there in my gaze. 

The hard, but good, news is that Kelly sold the painting, and I found myself so grateful for the time but also grieving the transition. This poem I wrote below of saying goodbye to a work of art that had become like a friend may best depict how art can become an avenue of communing with God. 

Saying goodbye to a friend unforeseen 

You’ve been there
When I noticed you
And when I didn’t.
Hanging around
Whispering death isn’t the end
A golden tear sown.
But not closed.
Always anticipating
Reminding me that there is always more
In the darkness. 

But soon you’ll be gone
Carried away
Your message of brilliant death
Whispering in another’s ear
Carrying them to their daily dying
and rising. 

So before you go
I want to just look at you
once more.
Or maybe let you look at me.
See my sin
See my shame.
See my fear, hate, and misguided hopes
And invite them to die.
Once more.

Invite my heart into your darkness
and whisper life is coming soon.
And when you say “it is finished”
We will be done
You will be gone.
But I will close my eyes
And see you forever.
A friend that daily walked in my death. 

I hope that after reading this, you’re more willing to open your eyes when you pray every now and then. I hope you find a work of art wherein God communes with you. I hope you take the chance to contemplate God through beauty. 

Who knows what God wants to show you?

PRAY:

Holy Spirit, increase my awareness of how God reveals himself through my physical senses. Help me see God’s face in the unhoused image-bearer across the street, hear his whisper in a baby’s laughter, sense his nearness in a friend’s gentle touch, taste his goodness in a home-cooked meal, and smell his grace in a blooming rose bush.

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Week 2 of 5 Contemplation

2 Comments

  1. Rachel Gatts

    Thank you for pointing us to ways we can connect with God through these senses He’s given us. I have a picture of Jesus, holding the lamb, half burying his face in the lamb’s fur, and the lamb has an expression of such peace and joy. It always stirs my affection for Jesus, and my sense of being beloved by him.

    I also greatly appreciate you sharing the poem. What a good gift that season of hosting the piece of art was!

    Reply
  2. Paige Wiley

    Oh Gabe, this is such a stunning piece on reflection. Thanks for sharing your own personal experienc with art. So helpful to hear.

    Reply

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