Conor SweetmanComment

Sanctified Imagination

Conor SweetmanComment
Sanctified Imagination

By Josh Tiessen

Meditation has become somewhat of a buzzword, conjuring up images of yoga and Zen. It’s understood by most as an Eastern religious practice repackaged for the enlightened of the West.  Within the Church, meditation has often been ignored or feared, considered to be the domain of New Age spirituality.

I was surprised to discover that the two Hebrew words for meditation occur 58 times in the Old Testament. The Psalmist penned, “Oh how I love your law!  It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97 NIV). Christian meditation is not about emptying our minds, but rather filling them up with God’s truths. It is not about performing mental gymnastics to induce a trance-like state, or to acquire superpowers like Doctor Strange or Kung Fu Panda. Put simply, it is about growing in obedience and faithfulness to God.

But here’s my confession: as a visually-geared Christian I find it hard to close my eyes and meditate. Images flood into my mind and distract me. Among fellow artists, I am not alone, and the majority of Millennials and Gen Z’ers can also relate. I think it’s safe to say that meditation needs to be aided visually for a lot of people. As a professional artist, I interact with many in the field and often hear statements like, “art is very meditative for me.” I find myself resonating with this, yet it can come across as merely an ‘art speak’ platitude.

I would like to share a few of my paintings and devotional practices that show how art can be a conduit to meditation, with some applications for transforming the ‘art as meditation’ platitude into reality.

My family contracted Chronic Lyme Disease in Russia, and years later we were able to get treatment in the U.S. During three months of daily IV infusions stronger than chemotherapy, after long days at the clinic I would putter away on a large painting entitled Whale Hymn. This work provided a therapy of its own, through a very challenging time. I had imagined the concept for the painting a year earlier, before finding an architectural reference from the ruins of a 12th-century cathedral in the heart of London, England.  It had been transformed into a peaceful garden intertwined with ivy, red roses and fallen petals, historically symbolic of the Passion of Christ in European art. This reference would provide an intriguing exterior for an ocean scene emanating through stained glass. Meditating on this surreal environment as I painted temporarily transported me to another world.

I became interested in Humpback Whales while watching the BBC series Ocean Giants, which recorded epic sights and sounds of the largest mammals to ever live on the planet. The behaviour of whales, specifically their vocalization, remains somewhat of a mystery to scientists. Many believe their ‘songs’ may be more than mating calls, for the non-utilitarian act of expressing emotions. In contemplating this, I looked back to the gothic cathedral, a space for praise where parishioners sang hymns to their Creator. Metaphorically, the haunting chants from the giants of the deep bring honour to their Maker. For me, the painting serves as a reminder to bring honour and praise to my Creator regardless of the circumstances.

Another of my paintings, Ahoy Sleeper, is an example of how meditating on Scripture with a visual mindset can enhance insight. I have been intrigued by Ephesians 5:14, which states, “Awake, O Sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”  When reading it, I would always have a strange picture in my mind of a diver rising upon a seaweed shore with a bird flying above.  Eventually, this verse and the visual idea for a painting converged. Developing this piece conceptually, I began to see the metamorphosis of the aquanaut emerging from the depths of the ocean into an unknown light, with an illuminated Common House Martin ascending into the sky. By excluding the face and skin colour, the figure becomes a metaphoric archetype for spiritual transformation, arising from the deadness of soul into a new life in Christ.

Because painting has become my career, it has meant being vulnerable in sharing my art and accompanying ideas with the public. Personal devotional art has become an increasingly meaningful practice for me, which has thankfully found widespread acceptance among my collectors. I usually start with a biblical concept, then prayerfully interpret it in my sketchbook. Whether these sketches become paintings or not, I have found this meditative process both worshipful and personally enriching.

If you are not inclined to creating art, but appreciate how imagery can be incorporated into your spiritual life, may I suggest the practice of Visio Divina, Latin for “divine seeing.” While I would never advocate images being used as a replacement for Scripture, this supplemental practice helps train the imagination to visually dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8). 

For me, the process of Visio Divina first includes selecting an image, like Jan van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Lamb, van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. I then pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal truth through the work, as I meditate on Scriptural references or theological concepts the painting evokes. To keep from getting attached to one particular image, I recommend changing up the visuals you are meditating on, which will prevent idolatry (and breaking the second commandment). Throughout Scripture, we see many examples of how images played a crucial mediatory role: from the tabernacle and temple, to prophetic visions, and most importantly Christ, who is the ikon (Greek for image) of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).

In the Visual Age, a vital component of ‘being transformed by the renewing of our minds’ is to download spiritually life-giving images to our mental hard drives. We sanctify our imaginations while creating art, and intentionally meditating on art that draws us to God. We honour our Creator by learning to see reality through His eyes, recognizing the fallenness of the world and the hope for its redemption.