Praying with “Migrant Mother” using Visio Divina

On the website Patheos, Presbyterian minister Tim Mooney writes about a prayer form called Visio Divina, a way of praying with sacred art or other images. Visio divina (“divine seeing”) models itself after lectio divina (“divine reading”), that time-honored Christian way of thoughtfully meditating on Scripture. (Read more about visio divina here.)

 Artwork and religious symbols often draw me into a quiet, reflective zone, so I decided to give visio divina a try and share my experience here at the Spiritual Drawing Board. Just so I wouldn’t have too many preconceived ideas, I looked for an image not usually found in churches, and decided upon Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph called “Migrant Mother.”

 Experiencing Visio Divina

As the article on visio divina recommended, I set aside 20-30 minutes for the process. After asking the Holy Spirit to guide my prayer, I spent a little time just observing the various parts of the picture:

  • The woman’s sleeve is tattered. She has no make-up and there are wrinkles near her eyes.
  • Why do the children hide their faces? Are they ashamed to be seen?
  • The baby on her lap is wrapped in an oversize garment and has dirt on his or her face.

 The woman looks to be 40-something, but I know from my reading that her name is Florence Owens Thompson, 32, married mother of seven children. In this photo, taken during the Great Depression, she is sitting in a three-sided lean-to canvas tent. (View other pictures taken that day here. )

These facts make me think about the economy of today and people who suffer around the world, especially the homeless, many of whom are children. I imagine the faces of other migrant women of various races and ethnicities. Would I feel the same empathy for each of them as I feel for the woman in the picture?

 After praying for the grace to love all people with equal intensity, I focus my attention back on the picture once again. The woman’s expression haunts me. She may be worried, but she is determined. I think she is going to do whatever it takes to feed her children. With her hand placed under her chin, she reminds me of Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Thinker. Yes, I decide, she is indeed a strong woman, a brave woman, dead set on caring for her hungry children.

 I wonder, did Mary, the mother of Jesus, ever look so strong and determined? She, too, was a “migrant mother,” on the move with Joseph, first traveling as a pregnant woman to Bethlehem, then fleeing to Egypt to save her child from death, and some years later to Nazareth. Did the Holy Family ever experience hunger pangs? Surely Mary must have felt this same fierce love and deep resolve to do whatever was necessary to care for her Child.  

 Why have I never seen this look of strength and determination on the face of Mary in statues or paintings? Wouldn’t Mary have been radically committed to do all in her power to fulfill God’s will? Wouldn’t her love of God have been strong? Are these characteristics of Mary portrayed in sacred art but I just didn’t notice?

 Come to think of it, wouldn’t God have the same type of parental concern for us? Could we imagine the Divine Face looking something like this woman, in terms of her strength and determination? Doesn’t God love us as much—no even more—than the very best of mothers?

Observing the Results

Sometimes we think of Scripture as comforting, but the Word of God also challenges us to become more like Christ. I think the prayer form visio divina has the same potential. After the above prayer time, I observed myself feeling less whiney about my own inconveniences and more grateful. I found myself intentionally smiling at people who look “different” from me. And, when writing this post, I recalled that the Hosea 13:8 compares God to a mother bear, who expresses fierceness if her cubs are threatened or taken away. 

Spiritual Aerobics –Try visio divina yourself, using whatever image or artwork you like. Many musuems have artwork available online. For visio divina directions, click here.