Some people, many of them Catholic, go to great lengths to learn about meditative and contemplative practices. For most of my life, I was not one of them. Rather, I came upon contemplation accidentally, almost despite myself.
As a first-year student at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., I registered for “Introduction to the History of Art,” a course taught by Professor Joanna E. Ziegler. No great aesthete, I selected the class to fulfill the arts requirement for graduation. And as a novice in art history, my expectations were colored by hand-me-down wisdom from my contemporaries. I anticipated a steady diet of names and dates, with which one might catalogue everything from cave paintings to cathedrals. I remember uttering that dismissive (if common) question heard about the liberal arts: “When will I ever use that?”
My expectations were soon shattered. Certain things I remember vividly: Professor Ziegler’s sly smile upon first entering the classroom; her hair, shocking in length and curl and whiteness; her gingerly held cup of tea, steam billowing over its top. Most of all, I remember my elation upon first looking at the “evaluation” section of the syllabus and finding none of the anticipated tests and quizzes. (Things were looking up for art history!)
Instead, we were given the names of three paintings and sent to the Worcester Art Museum. We were to look at each, identify which one most seized our attention and report back. Almost a decade later, I still remember my first viewing of Pieter Jansz Saenredam’s “Interior of the Choir of St. Bavo’s Church.” There is no other way to put it: I was intrigued. The soaring, Spartan interior of the church had a subdued silence about it. And the painting fostered the same in me.
The purpose of this first museum trip was revealed at our next class. We would visit the museum for one hour each week, preferably at the same time of day, to look solely at our selected painting. Notebook in tow, we were to write down what we saw, beginning from scratch each week if necessary. No additional research about the painting or artist was permitted, not even dates. We were even discouraged from reading the work’s identification placard.
For 13 weeks, I gazed at the austere choir of Saenredam’s church. Though I later learned that this was one of his favorite subjects, I knew nothing about it at the time. Sitting before the painting early in the semester, I looked at my watch after what felt like an hour, ready to depart. Fifteen minutes had passed. Mumbling something uncharitable about art historians—or one particular art historian, at least—I stayed put.
To make time go faster, I wrote down everything I saw, noting colors and brush strokes. Was it painted on wood, not canvas? Several weeks later, I saw people in the painting that I had overlooked before. What were they doing? I noted features of the church different from any worship space I had ever visited. What kind of church was this? How did Saenredam convey the vastness of space and the intricate vaulted ceiling with mere paint? Gradually, I became more adept at “seeing” the work, letting it reveal itself over time. I grew quieter, writing less. And what I initially called “the painting” I now thought of, with all respect to the artist, as “my painting.”
Back at Holy Cross, in class and conversation, I learned that this was precisely the point. Professor Ziegler was taken up not so much with names and dates as with how art intersected with contemplation, revelation and mystery. For her, introducing a class to art history involved our learning how to see, understood as both a spiritual and physical activity. We learned, or tried at least, to be attentive and heedful, to wonder at something beautiful.
Our teacher had asked us to become contemplatives.
In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples entreat Jesus, “Master, teach us to pray.” He responds with the words of the Our Father. Many of us learned to pray with these or similar words, schooled by our parents and preachers before even thinking to ask for instruction. With time, these rote formulae can open the way to larger expanses of prayer, to meditation and contemplation, which are considerably harder to teach.
Professor Ziegler’s class and Saenredam’s church were essential for my schooling in prayer. I do not claim to have had some mystical experience in the Worcester Art Museum. Quite the opposite. My recorded concerns were distressingly terrestrial: uncomfortable seating and the stale air proper to art museums.
But like all good introductions, her course laid the groundwork for later growth. This project pointed to the virtues of routine and ritual. Repetition helped minimize the extent to which my own “baggage” in a given week colored how and what I saw. Most important, it underscored that contemplative practice hinges on one’s disposition; that mystery—whether a painting’s or God’s—will be as apparent to us as our attentiveness allows.
Life after college took me into government service and then into the Society of Jesus. St. Ignatius wanted his followers to be “contemplatives in action,” to see this world with different eyes. Most of the lessons I have learned as a pray-er cycle back in some way to Saenredam’s work and my semester seated before it. After all, what is contemplation if not looking and seeing with care, awe and even love? As a Jesuit, I was heartened to encounter a definition of prayer by Walter Burghardt, S.J., as “a long, loving look at the real.”
Professor Ziegler died last November, far too soon. My appreciation for what she was about continues to deepen, however. Since the cornerstone of her course was that our judgments develop with time, maturing as things are revealed to us, this seems entirely appropriate.
“Master, teach us to pray,” the disciples asked. How fitting that some teachers and artists are called “masters.” Both share Jesus’ concern for people who have “eyes but do not see.” And like him, they too can teach us to pray.