Author draws on artistic approach to prayer

Published May 1, 2008

Mathematics teacher and prayer-workshop leader Sybil MacBeth knows about math-anxiety. “It’s like a panic attack in the face of pages full of numbers and equations,” she writes, describing the “allergy to math” response she sometimes meets in her students. “Some of us,” she suggests, “respond the same way to prayer.”

For those who find prayer difficult, or who are simply looking for a new prayer technique to add to their spiritual tool-box, Ms. Macbeth recommends a new approach in her book, Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God.

[pullquote]Ms. MacBeth herself admits to dwelling on shaky ground in the prayer department, though the assurance with which she writes about her technique hints that she’s standing on a firm foundation of practice and research. In Praying in Color, she outlines a process of prayer that involves playing – drawing and coloring, activities that many of us have not engaged in since childhood. In case of art anxiety, she says right at the beginning that you don’t have to be able to draw to do this. No skill required.

The introductory section, presented in a few ultra-short and snappy chapters (numbered quirkily from minus five to zero), argues that reading the book through to the end and giving the technique a try will help those who, like herself at one point, “thought about bagging the whole prayer exercise.”

In spite of having a fascination for different prayer forms and a thirst for workshops and books on the subject, Ms. MacBeth claims a short attention span and a tendency to daydream. Still, as a priest-friend of hers said once, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.” She describes the genesis of this practice as her own attempts at keeping focused on her relationship with God.

So – on to the exercise itself. Gather some art supplies – markers, paper, colored pencils or crayons if you like. Draw a shape on the page, write the name of a person you want to pray for in or near the shape, add detail, add color, all the while keeping that person in mind. When you’ve finished, add another. And so on.

This is introduced as an intercessory prayer technique, which can be used when praying for countries, political issues, world crises, “or even pets.” The steps are outlined simply, with graphics and helpful, bite-sized comments at the bottom of each page.

The technique can also be used as a focusing aid while praying though Scripture, giving thanks, working out personal dilemmas in prayer, and so on – it seems to be remarkably flexible. Ms. MacBeth is particularly effective at marrying her Praying in Color technique to the practice of lectio divina.

As a prayer manual, this book is wonderfully accessible and full of humour. The technique may appear somewhat shallow at first glance, but need not be so. I introduced the Praying in Color technique recently to a group of older men and women participating in a parish Quiet Day. Some participants didn’t find it helpful, saying that they preferred to pray with their eyes shut and the exercise was distracting. Others had a wonderful time with it – they embraced the idea fully and said that they would continue to experiment with the notion, and asked where they could buy the book. Teens would probably enjoy the technique, as well.

Ms. MacBeth offers a final encouragement at the end of the book, a quote from Catholic priest and theologian Dom John Chapman. “Pray as you can, not as you cannot.” For the prayer-anxious, this might be the best news to come along for ages.  
Mel Malton is a writer and illustrator living in Nova Scotia. Her latest book is Pioneer Poltergeist, a mystery for young readers.


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