Column: The eyes have it

by Father Mark Goldasich

You may find this hard to believe but a nun, Sister Wendy Beckett, got me hooked. And it’s become worse as the years go by.

I’ve written here about Sister Wendy before, but it’s been ages ago. She was born in South Africa, moved to Scotland with her family, joined the Sisters of Notre Dame and taught for about 15 years in South Africa. Ill health caused her to “retire” to England where she became a hermit, living in a primitive house trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery.

Sister Wendy always had an interest in art and, in the 1980s, she began to write essays on the subject for British journals.

One day, she was overheard by a British Broadcasting Company producer commenting on a piece at an art exhibit. He was impressed and, shortly thereafter, Sister Wendy had her own TV series about art, which aired for nine years. The Encyclopedia Britannica described her insights as “eloquent and down-to-earth commentary that made art accessible to everyone.”

Sister Wendy certainly did that for me, primarily through her books. I started out with her “Grand Tour: Discovering Europe’s Great Art,” then bought her “Book of Meditations,” “Book of Saints,” “1000 Masterpieces” and “American Masterpieces.” When her “Bible Treasury” came out about a year or so ago, I just had to get that, too.

I suppose, as addictions go, this is a healthy one. Sister Wendy taught me to look deeply into art — its background inspiration, composition and messages.

Little did I dream that there was a more formal description to viewing art like this. My classmate and friend, Stephen Binz, widened my perspective in his new book, “Transformed by God’s Word” (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press; 2016; 210 pgs.; $16.95). Like many Catholics, I was familiar with “lectio divina,” or “sacred reading” — a method of studying and praying with the Scriptures. There is, however, another way to experience the Scriptures called “visio divina,” which Binz defines as depicting “visually what the church teaches verbally.” Visio divina is formally experienced through icons, which he describes as visual Gospels.

Lectio divina developed primarily in Western Christianity, while visio divina was more typical of Eastern Christian spirituality. Binz’s book is an invitation to bring both together, “so that one day soon, the church will be one, breathing fully with both lungs as the body of Christ.”

This book on prayer is suitable for both the beginner and the veteran. Inside are 20 beautifully reproduced icons that express the story of the Incarnation — from the Annunciation to Mary’s coronation in heaven. The icons, written by Ruta and Kaspars Poikans, are found in the Mary of Nazareth International Center in Nazareth.

Binz helps readers to navigate the six movements of lectio and visio divina for each of the icons. Those movements are lectio (listening to the Scripture reading), visio (gazing at the icon), meditatio (reflection), oratio (prayer), contemplatio (contemplation) and operatio (witness).

Don’t worry if you’re not sure what those Latin terms mean. Binz walks with you in each movement. Everything you need is in this book: the Scripture text depicted in the icon, the icon reproduction, questions for meditation, a “starter” prayer, an idea to help with contemplation and, finally, a suggested action to live out the message of the icon.

Binz writes that the Scripture passages should be read aloud, so that as many senses as possible can be involved: “seeing the text with your eyes, vocalizing the text with your lips, and hearing the text with your ears.”

This book can have a profound influence on you and affect how you see all of life.

The other day, for example, as I was about to swat a bothersome housefly, the words of a British scientist in National Geographic came to mind: “A housefly can make six turns a second, hover, fly straight up, fly straight down, fly backwards, do somersaults, land on the ceiling, and perform various other show-off maneuvers. And it has a brain smaller than a sesame seed.” Joel Achenbach, the author of the article, went on to note that “in addition to their compound eyes, which permit panoramic imagery and are excellent at detecting motion, [flies] have wind-sensitive hairs and antennae . . . [and] three light sensors . . . on the tops of their heads, which tell them which way is up.” (Found in “1001 Stories That Connect,” edited by Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof.)

Seeing that poor fly in this way, how could I just swat such an awesome creation? Instead, I coaxed it to the door and let it free.

So, are you up to sharpening your eyes this summer? Take a welcome break from the heat, plop down with Sister Wendy or Stephen Binz and just “see” what develops.

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