Visio Divina at Allegheny Pilgrims

On September 12, I gave the keynote during the virtual Allegheny Pilgrims retreat and have been asked to share the text. I tried to make this as interactive as possible, so there are various cues in the text for participants to respond. You can find the slides for this presentation here and the slides for the visio divina breakout sessions here.


Good evening and thank you for being here with all of us on this virtual pilgrimage. I was so looking forward to meeting and visiting with all of you in person this weekend and I’m still a bit sad about that. Attending Mormon feminist retreats are among my most favorite things and interesting things always seem to happen in these spaces—things that surprise and challenge me in good ways. These often come in the form of comments or thoughts, interesting things that happen, and questions that spark my curiosity. I hope that something of connection or reflection can still happen in this online space this evening. I also want to warn you that I am going pause periodically and invite you to take a breath or sit with me in a moment of silence. If we cannot be together with our bodies in the same place, perhaps we can engage our bodies in our own spaces in some kind of collective spiritual action.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I feel like I lost my emotional and spiritual footing, my grounding, like I was in a kind of hovering a space between solid groundedness and something else. When I think of our theme “roots and wings” I feel like I was lost in an in-between space between the ground and flying. And the image that I have of this feeling, of being lost in this space, looks like a tumbleweed, just bounding off of whatever, having neither roots nor wings. Not grounded and not going anywhere with intention. Just a reactionary bouncing plant of chaos. And more than chaos, kinda destructive. I am reminded that I once had a car irreparably harmed by a high speed tumbleweed on the highway – you have to watch out for these things.  

I felt like a vulnerable tumbleweed and I have to say that I still had it pretty good. No one in my house lost their job, but maybe someone in your house lost their job. Maybe you have worried about how to pay the rent or mortgage. Maybe someone in your house got sick. Maybe you have said good bye to people during this time, whether due to the virus or some other cause, and you have worried about the physical and mental health of your loved ones and homeschool in all the ways you never wanted to. Maybe you have protested in the wake of George Floyd’s murder or learned more than you ever knew to about race and racism in the United States and maybe our political situation and the election weigh on your heart. Whether we have lost a little or a lot, it has been a rough year of grief and that grief has shown up in our lives in many different ways. Let’s begin our time together this evening together by acknowledging our grief by breathing together. Let’s take 10 slow deep breaths together to feel the things we are feeling and honor the role of grief in our lives. 

<pause, breathe 10 deep breaths> 

Thank you for participating in this with me. If you would like to share, please go ahead and click on the chat feature in Zoom and share one word that describes a feeling that came up for you as we breathed together. 

I have spent various chunks of the past months feeling my grief and alternatively just wanting everything to be fine. I want to be clear that this evening we are not going to pretend that we are anywhere else but right here, both online and in our various locations, that we are not talking about a time or a place that is outside of a pandemic, protests, or election cycles, but rooted firmly in it. And we are Mormon feminists in this pandemic, believing and not believing —sometimes all at once—active and not, single, married, divorced, living with partner, mourning the loss of a partner, with and without children, queer and not, women of color and white, poor and middle class and wealthy, living with visible and invisible disabilities and not. All of us navigating tricky situations, probably caring for others in one way or another, and spiritually hungry. Maybe even spiritually starving — it has been a long six months. Let’s pause for a moment to take one more deep breath. It has been a long, long six months. 


Our theme for this event is “roots and wings.” And in talking this evening about roots and wings, I want to talk about spiritual practices and art. If you, like me, have resembled a tumbleweed in recent months, then I hope that we can find a way to root ourselves in the metaphorical ground of our lives. Or perhaps we need to take wing and fly with intention. This evening we are going to explore some possibilities, probably some new-to-you spiritual practices, that can assist in this process of grounding and intention, in finding roots and taking wing. 

I would like to begin with a poem by Victoria Safford, who is a Unitarian minister (SLIDE). The poem is titled “Hope” and I think that it helps set us on our path this evening. (See slide for poem).

It is my goal that we can spend some time thinking about the ways that grounding ourselves and finding intention can help us locate hope. And this evening will be all about seeing, all about telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see, and trying to make some kind of meaning from that experience.

Spiritual Practices Wherever We Are On Our Journeys

I think that spiritual practices can be part of our personal journeys regardless of what our faith or activity level in the LDS Church looks like. When I was active in the LDS Church, my spiritual practices were journaling, scripture reading, prayer, and fasting. For a long time, I was a diligent journaler and then for a long time I was a very regular scripture reader. But when I left the church, and for a long while after, I had an existential crisis every time I felt the impulse to pray: do I really think that God favors the people I love best? Does God intervene in people’s lives? What did it all mean? It is a bit much to experience an existential crisis 5 or more times per day, so I mostly stopped praying for a few years. Scripture reading, something I once loved, now felt untrustworthy and truthfully this is still something I struggle with. Right now I am a seminary student and it is very awkward to ask people to stop quoting the Bible at you because it is not comforting or helpful. 

But that old Mormon list of acceptable spiritual practices—journaling, scripture, prayer, and fasting—is by no means a definitive list of the ways in which we can grow our spiritual selves and lead lives that are connected to spirituality. And I think that a fair bit of spiritual adventuring can be accomplished right at home if you find that you are mostly at home these days. And I want to emphasize that I am quite serious about spiritual adventures—there is a lot of space to experiment and explore if we choose the journey.

At Mormon feminist girls camp, I encountered women who read tarot cards to feed their spirituality and others who gave blessings or lead guided meditations. When I first witnessed these things, I was at once horrified and intrigued. It wasn’t long before I had my own deck of cards and was going through the process of trying to give a blessing for the first time. I know people who do yoga and tai chi to feed their bodies and souls, with YouTube videos to guide them, and those who sit in silent meditation, waiting to welcome whatever thoughts and feelings show up. You might prefer hiking or running. When I was a teenager, my aunt introduced me to a labyrinth but I couldn’t figure out what the point was. These days, I must walk every labyrinth I encounter and I like doing it with my church community. My former pastor sees her primary spiritual practices as walking in nature and sewing. I’ve been through periods of writing mediocre poetry and putting together puzzles with many pieces. I know many women who would probably identify quilting or canning or knitting as their preferred spiritual practices. I think that spiritual practices, whatever we choose, draw us into an action that is filled with intention. We attempt to be present with ourselves and our surroundings and attend to the tasks at hand. We focus the attention we have—fighting the distractions all around us. Whether we are looking for God in these moments or not, that effort often reveals things to us or helps us notice things about ourselves that we did not see before. To put it in the language of Mormonism, spiritual practices may help us find personal revelation. 

Spiritual practices do not rely on particular beliefs and belief is not a prerequisite for spiritual practices. For me, spiritual practices help me feel connected to my body and create in me a sense of groundedness through my physical senses, while other kinds of spiritual practices, like journal writing or blessing, help me find my wings by focusing my intention in ways that are both creative and reflective. And so the key to spiritual practices is that we pay attention (SLIDE). If you, like me, like book recommendations, you might start with Jana Riess’ book Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, where she experiments with a different spiritual practice each month for a year. She willingly acknowledges that she fails at all of them, but still finds meaning and personal strength in the trying and failing—it is why I love this book so much. With spiritual practices, it is the effort, the trying that counts, not the succeeding (SLIDE).

Benedictine nun and theologian Sister Joan Chittister reminds us of this in her book In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics. She writes that “the spiritual life is not about perfection. It is about the direction of the mind, the orientation of the soul, and the beat of the heart.” And so I hope to engage your mind, your soul, and your body in our spiritual practice this evening (SLIDE).

Parker Palmer, a scholar and author whose work is in the areas of spirituality and social change, writes in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life that we all have an “inner teacher” whose wisdom is valuable in our lives. So many things in our lives distract us from that inner wisdom, but spiritual practices reconnect us to our inner teacher and create space to hear what that inner teacher has to say. We might think of this inner teacher as our own wisdom, as the universe reaching out to us, as the Spirit, or even as God. 

The Problems of Contemporary Christian Art

And so this evening we are going to engage in a spiritual practice that centers around images. Before we get too spiritual or reflective, I’d like to make a few comments about contemporary Christian art, both inside and outside the LDS Church. Generally speaking, I feel like there is so much of contemporary Christian art that should come with a warning. In the LDS Church, we have favored a particular kind of art that emphasizes both Jesus and God the Father as white men who save us all (SLIDE). Church leaders have felt that emphasizing these kinds of images are instructive in some way, as though what we really need to know about the divine is present in an image that represents divine beings in a very physical way.

And as we look at other contemporary Christian representations of Jesus, we see similar issues and I cannot disagree enough with this approach to Christian art. And so before we dive into some deep reflection, I’d like us to engage a bit in the spiritual practice of loud laughter. 

A central criticism that I have of much of contemporary Christian painting, specifically, is that the form and strength of Jesus are emphasized. His whiteness is emphasized, along with his manhood (SLIDE). And while these examples are extreme His role as *the* white savior is emphasized (SLIDE). And a more contemporary corporate power Jesus doesn’t feel any more appealing (SLIDE). And Jesus hugging people is just creepy (SLIDE). And somehow these artists have managed to represent so many of the things I struggle with in Christianity, without any of the beauty. And if you do find some of these paintings meaningful, that is totally fine. As an art historian of Christian art, I have earned my cynicism. Religious art is never divorced from politics. The choices that artists make about how to represent Jesus and the divine matter. They *always* have.

And because of that, I would like to invite us away from art that represents the divine in an explicit way and toward art that suggests the divine in other ways. 

Introduce Visio Divina

Some of you may have heard of the sacred reading practice called lectio divina, which is a practice that uses guiding questions to move readers from literal interpretations of the text to identify more figurative and then to practical applications of the text. It is the central spiritual practice that my tiny congregation practices most Sundays. Today, we will be engaging a variant of this by focusing on an image—a work of art—instead of a text. As an art historian and a professor, I’ve spent a great deal of time engaged in a variety of close looking practices and teaching students to look, connecting bigger ideas with what they can observe visually. Just as lectio divina invites us to read carefully and attentively, visio divina also invites us to look carefully and attentively.

Me Discovering Visio Divina by Accident

I think I first stumbled into visio divina, though I did not have a name for it at the time, when I was an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I spent one summer in Edinburgh working in the basement of a bank. When I was not in the bank, I was typically in the National Gallery of Scotland taking in the collection very slowly. I became especially enamored with this particular painting in the collection: John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (SLIDE). I was 19 at the time and I was so interested in her expression (SLIDE). Was she coy? Amused? Sad? Disappointed? The more time I spent looking, the more I saw and the painting took on different meanings to me while also holding all of the previous meanings simultaneously. 

I also came to understand that what I was doing in the gallery was not art history. The paintings became a way for me to reflect and that works of art sometimes spoke to my present situation in a way that was outside of art history and closer to spiritual reflection. The following summer I got a job as a security guard in that same museum and spent a great deal of time observing and connecting with art and observing people as they observed art. What I discovered was that most people spend far more time reading the informational cards next to works of art, with a quick glance at the painting and then onto the next informational card. People often seemed in a rush and lacked the time and patience to look with their full attention.

Introduce Visio Divina

Another painting in the same room as the Sargent has stuck with me for more than 20 years (SLIDE). It is Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Trees. I love this painting, in part, for its textures. I can see the tan canvas underneath the paint and the paint is laid so thickly on top of it—think and kinda gloppy. This is not an explicitly religious painting. No one modeled for the figure of Jesus dressed in a bedsheet. But I have always seen it as having deeply spiritual content. I’d like to explore this painting with you through the visio divina process.

Engaging Visio Divina

In our visio divina process today, we are going to move through a series of questions, which I will share with you in the chat and on the screen, so you can refer back to them.

We will ask and answer these questions:

  1. What do I see in this painting?
  2. What does this painting remind me of?
  3. What does the story in this painting have to do with me?
  4. What kind of invitation do I sense in this painting? What is the painting calling me to do?

Let’s come back to our painting. If you want to explore this painting on your own while we do this, there is a high resolution of this painting available through Google Arts and Culture. I will post this link in the chat feature in Zoom

Our first question for today is “What do we see in this painting?” Let’s pause for a whole minute to look closely. At the end of our minute of close looking, we will have the opportunity to share what we are seeing in the chat, but we are only going to stick to simple visual observations. 

<Pause for 1 moment to look closely>

What do you see in this painting? If you want to share an observation that you have, go ahead and share it in the chat.

I can’t help but fixate on this fiery detail in the olive tree, which shines so brightly against the dark colors all around it. It seems like these three brushstrokes are so careful, while all of the rest of them seem more chaotic.

Let’s move on to our next question. Where have you seen something similar? What other stories does this remind you of? Let’s pause again for one minute while we look and reflect. 

<Pause for 1 minute, look in the chat>

In this fiery detail, I am reminded of the story of Moses and the burning bush, where the burning bush is an image of the divine that speaks to Moses, calling him to a new and different path in life. 

I am also reminded of some poorly scripted seminary videos about the pruning of olive trees, but to me, this tree seems wild and untamed, definitely not under the control of the gardner.

With the next question, we ask ourselves what does this story in this painting have to do with us? Again, let’s pause for a minute to continue to look and consider.

<Pause for 1 minute, look in the chat>

For myself, I see the divine present not in those seminary stories of the tame olive tree, but in the wildness of this scene, in its intensity, in the awkward angles of the branches and trunks of these trees. The God of this orchard swirls and hovers with an intensity and energy that I find intriguing. 

Where do we sense an invitation in this painting? What is the painting inviting us to do? 

<Pause for 1 minute, look in the chat>

For me, I feel that the painting is inviting me to see the sacred in the chaos of this larger moment. The pandemic, the election, the fires, the flood we experienced a few weeks ago in my own house, all cause me to fear and grieve. But fear and grief are not the only things present in my life right now, which is also full of small moments of joy and relief from the fear. These moments of relief feel to me like the sacred in the middle of the chaos, which seems both beautiful and a difficult paradox to hold.

This exercise focused on a single painting that speaks to me, but you might find other art, abstract or more realistic, that speaks to your spiritual journey. I have been a big fan of the art in the Exponent II magazine, which represents spiritually-oriented art being created in our Mormon feminist community.

Blessing/Sending Forth

I have more slides available to you for our breakout sessions, with a few works of art and the same guiding questions we used just now. I’m going to post a link to these slides in the chat.

Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts with us this evening. I would like to end with a blessing.

A blessing for learning to see

May we open our eyes wide
Take a deep breath in
Take it all in
May we observe more carefully
Pay attention with more intent
Allow ourselves to make meaning of it all
And not numb ourselves to our own hardships
Lest we cut ourselves off from our empathy
Give us patience and strength to do this without overwhelm
May we see our sensitivity, our grief, our empathy, or anger
As divine blessings calling us to respond to a suffering world
To a suffering self

Nancy Ross
Nancy Ross
Nancy Ross is an associate professor Utah Tech University, where she has been teaching for 16 years. Her Ph D is in art history, but her current research focuses on the history and sociology of religion. She recently co-edited a book with Sara K.S. Hanks titled "Where We Must Stand: Ten Years of Feminist Mormon Housewives" (2018) and has just co-edited “Shades of Becoming: Poems of Transition” with Kristen R. Shill. She is an ordained elder in Community of Christ and pastor of the Southern Utah congregation and works for the Pacific Southwest International Mission Center as an Emerging Church Practitioner.


  1. A new (to me) spiritual practice! Your visio divinia of Van Gogh’s painting is just lovely.

    Also, loud laughing over the Jesus dude pictures in deed!

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