(pronounced VIZ-ee-oh di-VEEN-ah)
An ancient form of divine seeing where we use our heart and imagination to enter into a sacred image
SPIRITUALLY REBELLIOUS VARIATION
Dip into the age-old practice of divine seeing, using our modern devices and collodion photography
Spirituality is like art—there is a world of difference between studying it and experiencing it. Predictably, artists agree. Wassily Kandinsky said, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” Pablo Picasso offered, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” These masters of the visual remind us that art is about more than what we see. Yet so often, we whip through life, spending only seconds looking, missing the opportunity to engage with the wonder. Especially when it comes to art.
Consider the Louvre. As the largest art museum in the world, it covers 782,910 square feet of space and contains 38,000 pieces of art. The National Museum of China is just slightly smaller in size, but its permanent collection includes over 1 million pieces. Closer to home, The Met in New York features more than 2 million items. When visiting, we speed through, glancing for a second or two at each piece, perhaps longer for the most famous ones. We miss the spiritual moments hiding in the paint. Spirituality and art have been connected since humans started drawing on cave walls. Sacred art appears around the globe, from thangka (sacred Tibetan Buddhist painting), sand mandalas, Islamic calligraphy, Byzantine mosaics, and murti statues of India to the influential paintings of the Renaissance masters and rebelliousness of contemporary outsider artists.
Visio Divina (divine seeing) is a style of looking at art from a sacred perspective. Traditionally, this practice used religious icons, but many of us may not be particularly comfortable with overtly religious imagery. Growing up Protestant, I developed a discomfort around religious art and icons in particular. I just wasn’t quite sure what to with them. Were icons the same thing as forbidden idols? Why did they seem to stare so intently at me? What exactly are you supposed to do with them?
Icon is the Greek word for image. Interestingly, icons are “read” rather than “viewed,” since they usually illustrate a piece of a sacred book. Thus, an icon is a visual interpretation of sacred words. Icon painters are trained through lineages, learning specific symbols, figures, and styles. In traditional icons, there is not a particular light source—so you won’t see shadows. Instead, the light permeates the entire piece, suggesting the uncreated light of divinity. Usually the focal point is a face, with eyes designed to gaze at you, as you look back. The mouths are closed, inviting us to stare in silence.
The goal of Visio Divina is not to be just a drive-by art viewer, but to build a relationship with the image through meditative gazing. This practice can be expanded way beyond tradition- al religious icons, of course. Art museums, sculpture gardens, and illustrated books can be excellent places to engage in a sa- cred moment.
For example, in his stunning art book Yoga: The Secret of Life, Francesco Mastalia captures a mystical state of being through the 19th-century labor-intensive—and incredibly fragile—photography technique known as the collodion process. His antique camera is a sight to behold, standing tall on three legs, made from gorgeous wood framing a black, expanding accordion. The process begins by pouring an emulsion and light-sensitive salts onto a sheet of black glass. Rather ceremonially, the plate is then bathed in a solution of silver nitrate to render it sensitive to light. The plate is then inserted into the camera; with the subject holding perfectly still, the lens cap is carefully removed from the antique brass lens, and the plate is exposed to light for up to 10 seconds. Next, the glass plate is developed. Originally appearing as a negative, the plate is immersed into a fixing solution, and as it clears, the image magically comes to life.
Through this intricate process, Francesco’s incredible photographs are not just instant snaps, they are sacred art. Since the light exposure is longer than that of our ultra-fast modern cameras, collodion-process images capture the play of light, matter, and motion in a distinctive way. It’s as if a twinkling of divinity has been caught—the invisible made visible. Francesco suggests, “The charismatic force of the collodion process propels us into the union of a known and unknown world.”
Francesco described for me why he thinks this is: “The world is constantly moving, nothing is ever stopped. In the origins of photography, they always used time to capture an image. And now we just use a fraction of a second. We’re just freezing a moment in time, and so we’re unable to capture the energy that takes place over a 10-second exposure.” Eventually, our conversation headed towards the metaphysical: “Light is energy,” Francesco told me. “There’s energy coming from the sun, which comes down to the Earth, which I feel comes through the subject, which comes through my lens onto the glass plate through me to the person who is viewing it. And it is all just one exchange of energy. It’s the flow of life.”
He hits on an important point here. Often, in the West, yoga is lumped into the category of exercise or wellness. (And I admit, I spend a great deal of time each day walking around in comfy “yoga” pants, which are honestly also my sleepy pants. The irony of that is not lost on me, since the guys who invented yoga didn’t even wear pants.)
Though it is true that yogic poses can have amazing benefits for the body, the true spirit of yoga is connection to [x]. The postures use the body to prepare the mind for spirit. Francesco’s work helps remind us that the word yoga means union and connection. In fact, for many who practice yoga as a spiritual discipline, the most important pose is sitting on your butt in meditation, connected to something bigger than ego.
So I wasn’t surprised when Francesco noted that many of the 108 yogis and yoginis featured in his book did not want to be photographed in a challenging asana (pose), but rather in the act of yoga as spiritual connection. In my humble opinion, those photos are the most compelling. Rather than having the “Wow, that guy is super bendy!” reaction I have to the full-body photos, when I gaze at Francesco’s close-up portrait images, I feel that I’m connecting to the divine energy coming through the sitters’ eyes. I get the feeling that I am relating to something vaster than me. I enter into a relationship with the subject, the photographer, and the energy flowing through the exchange, in visual union with the invisible.
Today, dip into the age-old practice of divine seeing, using your modern device, putting it to a wonder-filled purpose.
Excerpt from Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Finding Deeper Perspective and Higher Purpose by Sarah Bowen. Get book.
HOW IT WORKS
Silence all alerts on your phone or computer.
Close your eyes for a moment and tune in to the flow of life force within yourself.
Breathe to get your flow going.
Select an image from the follow link: http://www.francescomastalia.com/yoga_project
Make it full frame on your screen.
Gently direct your gaze to the image, which will serve as your icon for today.
Approach the figure with reverence and openheartedness, and gaze upon it in silent meditation.
Next, explore the icon. Move your eyes around for a while. Focus on different parts. Alternate between softening your gaze and sharpening it. Look for the invisible.
When your practice feels complete, close your eyes and sit for a few more moments in silence.
Record any reflections or aha!s. Note how your mind and body feel.