This is the woodcut image that graces the cover of Heschel’s classic book on Jewish Spirituality called Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Man.
Now, instead of having a conversation on why an understanding of Jewish spiritual practices can better inform our practice of the Catholic faith (except to take a moment to remind everyone of the tradition from which Our Lord Jesus was born) but rather I would like to simply stop and focus on the art inspired by the book.
Why focus on art you might ask? Well, apart from beautiful art having once been the primary teaching tool inside churches for the laity, one thing I see over and over is the need to recover symbolic or metaphorical language in catechesis, as this deficit in artistic understanding proves to be a formidable obstacle in a student’s understanding of Scripture, and of God. Metaphor, poetry, and paradox are all heavy features on rotation in the expression of God’s holy mystery, and the more once can flex that poetic imagination just like training muscles for sport, the more one can see how an invisible God can visibly move through their lives.
Now, keeping in mind the image somehow relays an understanding of the Sabbath, take a moment to rid your surroundings of distractions, ask God to give you eyes to see, look at the image again and ponder the following:
- What does the image first remind you of?
- What might the various creatures mean?
- What might the rose in the center symbolize?
- What do you like most about the image? What do you like least?
- Can you name the thoughts and feelings this image evokes in you?
- What do you think the artist is telling you about the Sabbath?
Now let’s try the same with another image. Let’s take a look without any questions first.
Take a moment, re-orient yourself, and gaze into the following image:
This image certainly gives a lot for the brain to take in, and to make sense of all that activity that is visually portrayed, ask yourself the following whilst looking again at the image:
- How does the image first strike you? How does that initial impression change as you keep looking?
- What do you think the artist is trying to say about the Sabbath in this image? Is there anything about the image that reminds you of Church?
- What are the hands reaching for in the image? What do you recognize inside that circle?
Last but not least, take a moment to re-orient yourself and then take a look at this image:
Looking again at the final image of the series, ask yourself:
- Are there any themes you can detect? Where does the image take you?
- Where does your eye tend to focus in the image?
- Which truth might this image be telling you about the Sabbath?
- Is this image uplifting to you? How?
Congrats! If this is your first time asking spiritual questions with the help of a visual aid, you have just learned a way to pray with religious images. Questions can definitely take you to meet the “heart of the picture” so to speak – and you can see how the image is but a gateway into contemplation of holy things.
Choosing the right images is key – but with such a goldmine of Catholic, orthodox, and Jewish artists out there from antiquity to the modern age – there is no shortage of potential experiences to be had with art as a language of divine instruction.
Joshua Abraham Heschel – The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man