How do we pray with sacred art? Judging by the length of some books that have been devoted to this subject alone, one might imagine that the answer to this question this is long and complicated. However, in my experience, much of the content of these books is devoted to discussion of the content and symbolism of traditional imagery, to the question as to why we ought to pray with sacred art, and general information about techniques of prayer that are not specific to visual imagery. This is all good information, but it is available elsewhere and the inclusion of these subjects in one place creates thick tomes and gives the impression to the person who might be curious that you need to be a bookish academic to be able to do this. However, once we focus on the actual engagement with visual imagery during prayer, then the subject becomes much simpler.
So simple in fact, that I would say that the short answer to this question is just this: pray as you would normally, but look at sacred art as you do it. Good sacred art will promote a right attitude in the one who prays through the combination of its content, compositional design, and stylistic elements. In this sense, the artist does the hard work in advance to make it easy and natural for us. I will write another post soon, called (How Artists Create a Dynamic of Prayer Through Style and Content in Sacred Art) that will explain this further. This will be, I hope, useful for artists and interesting to the curious, but I will happily say in advance, not actually necessary for the one prays.
I am assuming also wisdom on the part of the one who chooses that art and its placement in the place of worship or prayer. Style, for example, can be distracting even if the content is right. When we choose art for home this is a personal choice, but I would be far more conservative if choosing art for a church as it has to appeal to as many as possible. The traditional styles are more likely to do this. You can decide whether or not this modern style is distracting or supportive of your prayer.
If you are praying to the Virgin Mary, look at the image of her and treat the image as you would her, with the greatest respect. We can kiss or bow to image on the understanding that we are offering that respect, appropriately, not to the image in isolation, but rather to the one portrayed through the image. When the right image is placed in such a place that, for example, when we wish to pray to the Mother of God in the liturgy we do so naturally and easily, then very little instruction is needed. I would be more inclined to choose a traditional style even for home, such as this:
The hierarchy of prayer and how sacred art harmonizes with this
In his little paper on the New Evangelization written in the year 2000, Benedict XVI (writing as Cardinal Ratzinger) gives us a lesson in prayer. He does this to make the point that in order to be evangelists, we must first be transformed supernaturally ourselves, and we do this through prayer. He describes a three (or perhaps two)-tiered hierarchy of prayer. Highest is the worship of God the Father, through the Son in the Holy Spirit in the liturgy; second is what he calls para-liturgical prayer which is prayer in common derived from popular religiosity and devotions (such as the rosary or the divine mercy chaplet); and third, or perhaps equal second, is personal prayer, carried out in the ‘in the quiet of one’s room, alone in front of God’s eyes’.
Each form of prayer has a value in itself. God is not limited by his sacraments or the liturgy and the connection to us can be profound and real if He wishes it. But as a general principle, their greatest value is in the enrichment of the highest form of prayer. By all prayer, we are formed as lovers capable of an ordered reception of Him and the giving of ourselves back to Him in the liturgy. In turn, it is the liturgy which forms us most powerfully to be lovers of our fellows and neighbors in the world.
The Church tells us that art is not just desirable, but necessary to prayer and to the liturgy. We have a problem in the Roman Church, at the moment I suggest in that we seem to have forgotten how to engage with art in the context of the liturgy. In my observation, this can be as true of pious traditionalists as it is of liturgical liberals. Even when the church is beautifully adorned with high-quality art, and the liturgy that takes place in that church is dignified and orthodox, very rarely do I see anybody engaging with art in the Mass itself. As a result, the art is reduced to something that creates a mood-setting beautiful backdrop - not altogether useless - but still underutilized. Contrast this with an Eastern Church where typically every time the Mother of God is prayed to, the image is incensed by priest or deacon and all turn and address the Theotokos through her image. We need to find ways that this can happen too in the Roman Church.
As a lay person, I have no power over what the priests do and can’t, for example, direct them as to when we might process to and incense a particular image so I leave it to any priests or seminarians who might be reading this to think about what I am saying. However, there are other things that I can focus on. I can develop the habit of looking at the imagery at appropriate junctures. I don't need permission from anyone, when the Father is addressed, for example, to look to the image of Christ (those who see the Son, see the Father); or at the same image when Christ Himself is addressed, or Our Lady and the saints or Our Lady are mentioned. I am free to turn to their images and bow as the prayers are said, and so on.
Compressing many truths into a single visual ‘utterance’
There are also things we can do outside the church in order to make this engagement in the liturgy more fruitful. That is to practice praying with sacred imagery in front of the icon corners at home. We can choose art to accompany all our prayer at home. By developing the habit of praying with visual imagery whenever we can, aside from being an additional source of inspiration for our prayer, the image becomes associated in our minds with all the words of our prayers, meditation and inspirational thoughts that occur during those prayers. Each time we see that image, or another of the same subject, all those memories a re-presented to us. So, for example, if we simply ensure that we look at a single image of Mary when praying the rosary, then all the truths associated with the rosary and our reflection on the mysteries will be associated in our minds with the picture of Mary. At a certain point, simply seeing the image brings to mind in a single moment all that we know about her and that we know about her Son through her. It is as though all the time of that prayer is compressed into a momentary sight of the image. It is just like when we see a person we love from whom we have been separated, all that we know about that person is with us in the joy of seeing that person again.
The hope is that we can be like this in the liturgy. We look at Our Lady when her name is mentioned, perhaps on a feast day dedicated to her, and all that we know about her is made present in our minds in some mysterious way and then added to and reinforced by our experience in the liturgy itself.