The Sacred Art Retreat: Praying with Art
For a number of years, Virginia Varley CSJ has brought to the Sisters of St. Joseph (and other interested persons) an eight-day retreat centered on sacred art. Here are the questions Mary Buckley CSJ asked her and her responses.
How did the art retreat come to be?
The art experience in a retreat setting came about as a result of my personal retreat experience with Elizabeth Rosson, artist and spiritual director. I had been attracted by art for years. I had also drawn mandalas in my prayer journal as a way of expressing what I experienced in prayer. I was looking for a way to pray using art as the very language of prayer.
Through the guided retreat with Elizabeth, I began to understand the journey of my relationship with God in a different way. I saw themes that repeated themselves over and over again although at a deeper level within me. The art I was using was not taken from the rich heritage of religious art but the art of my own making from scratches and patches of colour. My spiritual life was enriched by the experience and I continued to pray in this manner.
I was aware that members of my community also used art, sometimes to focus in preparation for prayer and other times to reflect back on prayer, expressing the emotional tone of that time through shapes and color. The desire grew in me to make this retreat available to them. Following discussion with the Sisters in leadership in my community, Elizabeth was invited to guide such a retreat at Invermara, our “summer home.”
How is this kind of prayer a retreat?
A retreat involves having an extended time of solitude — a day, a weekend or a week — away from the ordinary, daily tasks. The time is determined by one’s availability and desire and can happen in a park, by a river or lake, at a cottage or in a retreat house. When I made my retreat with Elizabeth, it was for an eight-day period in a retreat house.
When we pray with art, we give form to spirit. This kind of art is different from what most of us have experienced in art classes and workshops in two ways. First, when we create art as our prayer, we direct our creativity as energy contributing to the world. Secondly, art as prayer is a language whereby we hear the voice of Mystery visually. It is a prayer of awareness where the visual image communicates more deeply than words.
Essential to creating our prayer in an art form is making an overall “intention” to be intimate with God, with Divine Mystery. The art created with that intention provides a vehicle for communion with Mystery. With our intention is a strong sense of expectancy: waiting, listening to the voice of the Divine within. Mystery transforms us. That intimacy is a union with God, with the Divine that is more precious than the result of what has been created, regardless of the final product. I have included one of my early artworks, white pencil on black, which I see as an expression of spiritual energy, see above.
Who attends these retreats?
Initially, the retreat was offered for members of my community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto. In the second year, women of other religious communities attended. Then in 2006, we opened the retreat to the public. We usually have fifteen to twenty people each year. Some artists attend and it takes them a day or two to realize that they are not being taught techniques, but rather are invited to respond spontaneously to the materials provided, and to hold back the intent to create a product that is technically correct.
Why do you continue to offer these retreats?
Perhaps the best way to comment on this is to share some participants’ words:
- “I don’t think I’ve ever made a retreat that hasn’t brought me closer to God, but this retreat was special. I love the term “Divine Mystery.” It allows me to expand my concept of God. It leaves more room for the unimaginable, the limitless, the unfathomable, the wonderful realty we call God.”
- “Feeling somewhat ambivalent, I wanted to be surprised. It took a couple of days to truly enter the retreat, although those first few days were filled with delight in the process. Then a two-fold movement began. Through the art process, the Eucharist, and the sacred Circle, I was drawn deeper and deeper into the heart of Mystery — with Jesus in this intimate center.”
- “It was an experience of coming to a familiar place and realizing that I don’t really know it. It was a kind of knowing without knowing, of discovery rather that learning. It was also a journey of exploration into the depths of my own being, the depths of the universe, the depths of Mystery and discovering for myself that they are all one.”
During these retreats, we have been communicating with Mystery, each in our own way. God, Divine Mystery, has listened and responded in a way that we can understand. That is why we continue to offer the retreat.