How to Pray in Front of a Painting

A lovely, contemplative moment of prayer with eyes wide open.

Posted in , May 15, 2018

Looking at a painting

So often I think of prayer as something I do with my eyes closed but recently I was reminded that it was easy to do with my head up, eyes wide open and my gaze directed at a painting.

I was at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia on a Friday afternoon, delirious at the magnificent art on the walls. I sat for the longest time in one sky-lit room where dozens of paintings were hung. My eye lingered over an old favorite.

Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Here was Nicodemus the Pharisee meeting with Jesus at night–for fear of being seen with the Lord at any other time.

Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner 


What happens when fear gets in the way of faith? Can’t darkness be a blessing, giving me the chance to go where my daylight self would rather not wander? Like the old song goes, “Hello darkness, my old friend.”

God, show me the way in the dark.

In the painting Jesus is infused with light. Some of it comes up the stairs but also some of it comes from Jesus’s own luminous presence. It’s as though Jesus lights up at this chance to share God’s message with a new follower.

You are the Light of the World. Light up my life with understanding and clarity.

Nicodemus leans forward to hear as Jesus tells him, “Unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asks, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

Jesus answers, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.” I can see that reassurance and challenge in Jesus’s face.

Let me see Your face in all the people I meet today.

Later in the Gospel of John it is Nicodemus who defends Jesus against the Pharisees and then after the Crucifixion he brings 75 pounds of myrrh and aloe to Jesus’s burial site. That nighttime visit changed him.

When I rose from the bench, I found I could take the images from the painting with me. Staring at it was a lovely, absorbing contemplative moment of prayer.

See, you can pray with your eyes wide open.  

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