What Do You See When You Pray?

One painter depicts his inner imagery when praying Psalm 90.

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Posted in , Jan 29, 2022

Birds flying across the sun

Do images come to you whenever you pray? When I close my eyes and get in touch with the Spirit, I see colors and patterns in my mind’s eye. I’ve never been able to describe it very well. Not until I saw the paintings the artist Bernard C. Winter made of the Psalms.

Bernard is a neighbor. I met him only recently at a workshop on prayer that I gave at the Cabrini Shrine. He mentioned his painting and later gave me the link to his website

At home, I logged on. With wonder and delight. The colors, the shapes, the spiritual messages entranced me. In particular, the series of paintings he did on Psalm 90. Take a look at the video below.

Not long ago I had a chance to talk to him about that particular cycle. It goes back to the spring of 2020, those brutal early days of the pandemic, particularly rough here in New York City.

From his apartment, he heard the constant cries of ambulances rushing the suffering to the hospital—we live not far from New York Presbyterian. The fear, the anguish, the loneliness, the wondering where God could be found in all of it.

Not for the first time did he turn to the Psalms. “They connect me to a Higher Power,” he says. The honesty of expression, the needs, the desires, all we experience are there and have been there, “for thousands of years,” he added.

He found himself asking the same questions the Psalmist did: Where are You, God? I need You. And then, with the talent our Creator endowed him with, Bernard explored the text with paint.

Bernard’s apartment faces the east with a view of the rising sun, and indeed the sun is central to all the panels he paints to illustrate the psalm, that sense of passing time a hallmark of the godly prayer, “A thousand years in Your eyes are like yesterday gone.” 

As did many of us, the pandemic heightened Bernard’s sense of his own mortality. There it is in the Psalm (and in his painting): “We are like the new grass of the morning” (the sun in greenery) “that by evening has dried and withered” (a chilling image of a skeleton inside the sun’s circle).

He paints the words of the Psalm into the pictures, usually slightly condensed, but the messages are convened. And honoring the original language of the Psalms, Hebrew script frames the art.

In one panel it looks like he has put an image of a man, one of us, accompanying the text, “Have pity on us, your servants.” But isn’t that just how we are meant to read these ancient words? Seeing how they apply to our lives.

From darkness, the paintings move into the uplifting message of the later verses, the round sun, always at the center, gilding the canvas with color and light, God’s light.

At the end, the sun is held up by a myriad of hands. “Yes, establish the work of our hands.” Yes, indeed. I could only think of how God has indeed used the good work of Bernard’s hands.

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