With those who wake and watch.… Visio Divina as a Praxis for Caregivers

With those who wake and watch.… Visio Divina as a Praxis for Caregivers

By Dr. Maria Teresa Morgan

The title of this article comes from a prayer of St Augustine: “Watch Thou O Lord with those who wake and watch…” It is here applied to the many who watch over a loved one and who themselves are in need of the benevolent gaze of God. The field of caregiving by family members is engaged in an increased discourse with ethics and psychology. It is more difficult, however, to find accessible spiritual practices that address the journey of those who care for loved ones.1 In this brief article I propose a praxis of visio divina, or sacred seeing as a spiritual exercise for those who tend to infirm family members. My intent is to establish a relationship between art and the love of neighbor, affirming that beauty provides a way into meaning, transforming the long watch over the diminishment of illness and old age into a graced time for both giver and receiver. I will draw upon Hans Urs von Balthasar’s admonition that whoever discards beauty “can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love”2 and upon the implied theological aesthetics of Karl Rahner found in two of his articles: The Religious Meaning of Images and Art Against the Horizon of Theology and Piety.3 My first task, however, is to clarify what is meant by three key terms in my proposal: theological aesthetics, visio divina and praxis.

The Christian concept of beauty is not molded by classical principles of Neo Platonic or Aristotelian paradigms that can be summarized as the aesthetic contemplation of an idealized perfection based on harmony and order. Rather, Christian theological aesthetics draws its meaning from and bears witness to Christ’s redeeming love and is entangled within the human condition of brokenness, suffering and finitude.4 From this perspective, Benedict XVI elaborates his “wounded beauty,”5 and art historians such as E. John Walford,6 as well as the scholar and artist Bruce Herman7 speak of “broken beauty” and “the wounds of beauty.”

Visio divina or sacred seeing is an ancient form of Christian prayer that uses images as mediators of the presence of God. The term parallels the Benedictine tradition of lectio divina but is primarily based on sight and not on words. There are variants of the practice; the one I will model is simple: the beholder engages in looking at an image and attends to the connections between the image and the scriptural passage evoked. In visio divina art transcends its forms, allowing the seer to discover the trace of God in the circumstances of his or her life. The practice is related to iconography and finds its justification in John of Damascus defense of the sacramentality of “matter” as revelatory of the immanence and transcendence of God’s love. Of particular interest for this paper is Rahner’s assertion that “viewing” is “a religious act,” belonging to the “sensory foundation of religious knowledge” that provides an understanding of Ignatian contemplation involving the application of the senses.

Finally I use the word praxis following the methodological sequence of “practice, theory, praxis” wherein the action of caring for a loved one is filtered through the lens of theological aesthetics and becomes praxis in the true theological sense of “a critical action done reflectively.”

Having clarified the three foundational terms of my proposal, I will now attempt to develop the relationship between love of neighbor and visual art, proposing concrete and simple practices in which caregivers can engage.

Rahner’s thought is that the encounter with God is possible for everyone, in every age.10 Presenting Ignatius of Loyola as interlocutor, Rahner affirms that this God who is “nameless and unfathomable… promises himself to us; and in this promise… we become, we live, we are loved and we are of eternal value.”11 Central to Rahner’s anthropology is that, not only is God pledged to us in Self gift, but that the human being is open to this infinite mystery of God, insisting that this transcendent dynamism is always mediated. In his article, “Beauty in a Rahnerian Key?” Ki Joo Choi claims that, for Rahner, the primary mediator of transcendental experience is the encounter with the neighbor and in this love for the other, the beauty of God is manifest.12 According to Rahner, the visual arts also fulfill a mediatory function of transcendence. Stating that, “art is a product of human transcendentality,”13 Rahner further develops the concept that religious images have a “mediating function to the absolute God.”14 The two mediators of transcendence mentioned here: the neighbor and religious images, provide the connection for a praxis of visio divina intended for those who tend to loved ones.

In the proposed praxis of this paper, the fundamental image to be considered by caregivers is, of course, the person receiving their care (Gen 1:27). The sick one is “the neighbor god” in the haunting poem of Rainer Maria Rilke, abounding with rich allusions to Matthew 25; 35-40.15 One need only recall this chapter of Matthew to be reminded of the image of God present in the vulnerable. The embodied interrelations of this gospel passage unveil for us, perhaps like none other, that the recipient of our caring is the locus of what Rahner names the transcendental experience of God.

Other images that can be used for visio divina are ancillary to the image of the neighbor in need. Some of the art I have recently considered comes from the rich and primitive drawings in the catacombs: Jesus healing the blind man, Jesus raising Lazarus, the hemorrhagic woman touching the tassel of His garment. I have also been moved by the Icon of Friendship, depicting Jesus with his arm around the shoulder of a somewhat wearied Abbot Menas. The embrace of Jesus seems to enable Menas to raise his hand in blessing, reminding the perhaps also weary caregiver contemplating this icon that the Christian is called to be a blessing to others (CCC 1669).

But the caregiver need not be limited to sacred images. Rahner asserts that even when an image is not representational of a religious subject, it is rendered religious if it brings about, through the sense of seeing, the experience of transcendence.18 Recently a colleague, who is an award-winning photographer, left a picture at my door of an elderly and disoriented woman stooped over a walker. Unbeknownst to her, I needed to see that picture on that particular day. I keep it in my range of vision so as to memorialize a graced and unmerited instant of compassion.

In conclusion, family members are increasingly called upon to provide care for loved ones, either on a full time or supplementary basis. The challenges inherent in the task, together with the scarcity of spiritual resources addressing their situation, suggested a praxis of visio divina as a support for the journey of “those who wake and watch” over loved ones. Sacred seeing is an aesthetic praxis of transcendence, born of a Christian vision of “the Beautiful” that embraces the frailty of illness, old age and mortality. Through the path of beauty, the vocation by default of caregivers has the capacity to become a space for meeting the ineffable mystery of God-with-us. From this frame of the “wounds of beauty,” the scars of daily life can lay claim to the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Beauty requires as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness.”


1 My theological context for the last ten years includes being a caregiver. The role has been passed down by the women in my family as a vocation born of longevity, absence and necessity. Long before the task was handed to me, my grandmother Serafina showed me the path of beauty and visio divina. She did so by her love and the crumpled images of the Sacred Heart she would bequeath to me through the long years of caring for my dementia afflicted grandfather. 2 Hans urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord; A Theological Aesthetics, volume I, Seeing the Form” trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, ed. Joseph Fessio S.J. and John Riches (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 18. 3. Both articles appear in Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. XXIII, trans. Joseph Donceel, S.J. and Hugh M. Riley ( New York: Crossroad, 1992). I use “implied” because scholars agree there is no explicit articulation of theological aesthetics in Rahner’s work. 4 Referring to Christian theological aesthetics, von Balthasar cites Karl Barth: “If we seek Christ’s beauty in glory which is not that of the Crucified, we are doomed to seek in vain… God’s beauty embraces death as well as life, fear as well as joy, what we call ‘ugly’ as well as what we call ‘beautiful.’ “ The Glory of the Lord, 55, 56. 5 Joseph Ratzinger, The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty, http://www.univforum.org 6 E. John Walford, “The Case for a Broken Beauty; An Art Historical Viewpoint,” in The Beauty of God; Theology and the Arts, ed. Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin (IL: IPA 2007), 87-109. Walford, in turn, attributes to Jeremy Begbie the idea of beauty emerging from the redemptive work of Christ. 7 Bruce Herman, , “Wounds and Beauty,” ibid.,110-120. 8 See also Kimberly Vrudny, Beauty’s Vineyard; A Theological Aesthetic of Anguish and Anticipation (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016).

9 Rahner, The Religious Meaning of Images, 154-158. 10 Karl Rahner, “Ignatius of Loyola Speaks to a Modern Jesuit,” in Karl Rahner, Spiritual Writings, ed. Philip Endean (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2007), 81. 11 Ibid. I am indebted to Susie Paulik Babka for directing me to this passage in Rahner. Susie Paulik Babka, Through the Dark Field; The Incarnation through an Aesthetics of Vulnerability, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), ix. 12 Ki Joo Choi, “Beauty in a Rahnerian Key?; Some Reflections on the Perception of the Beautiful in Transcendental Experience,” in God’s Grandeur; The Arts and Imagination in Theology, ed. David C. Robinson, College Theology Society, vol 52, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2007), 182-186. The insights provided by Ki Joo Choi were key in formulating the correlations present in this paragraph. 13 Rahner, Art Against the Horizon of Theology and Piety, 165. 14 Rahner, The Religious Meaning of Images, 157. 15 Rainer Maria Rilke. From The Book of Hours. The lines follow: you, neighbor god, if sometimes in the night/I waken with loud knocking, I do so only because I seldom hear you breathe/and know you are alone./ And should you need a drink, no one is there/to reach it to you, groping in the dark. /Always I hearken. Give but a small sign./I am quite near.

16 Rahner, “Love” in Spiritual Writings, 56-61. 17 I am deeply grateful to my students for providing these images and insights in the current course on Christology Through the Visual Arts. 18 Rahner, The Religious Meaning of Images, 159. 19 Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 18.