Slow down. Take a deep breath. Still your mind. It’s good advice for anyone who wants to feel calmer in the midst of the frenetic pace of life; but saying it, and doing it, are often two different things!
I’m told there are ways to get into that meditative space, to open up the soul and the senses to prayer, and one of those ways is through the act of coloring, specifically in one of the series of Catholic coloring books published by Pauline Books & Media.
To say I was both skeptical and unenthused is to understate the situation. I’m not an artist. I’m not even attracted to doing art, my crowning achievement in that arena being a pitiful stick-figure of a duck. What if I tried it and I hated the results? That’s not very meditative, is it? And what if I found my mind straying instead of staying with God?
Surely there must be other ways I could pray and meditate!
Well, there are, and for a long time I stuck with them. But meditation is always tricky: I sit and wait for something to happen, focus on my breathing, and hope that my thoughts will slow down. I try and listen for God to break through. And I end up checking my watch and realizing that I’ve really only been at this for three minutes.
So recently when I was organizing some boxes and came across our most recent coloring book, Inspiration from the Saints, I thought, okay, this is your chance to find out once and for all.
I chose Julian of Norwich, because I love her gentle wisdom and her closeness to God. I even prayed that she might guide my hand and my whole being as I tried this experiment. At first, I was cautious, picking colors that might go nicely together… and then, of course, second-guessing my choices. I decided on some general colors, and I put on some Gregorian chant for background music, and I set to it. And at first all I felt was anxiety. “I’m not doing this right… I knew this wouldn’t work… I’m not focusing the way I should.”
But gradually, amazingly, I began to feel a change in my body. My breathing had slowed down and become deeper. My head didn’t seem to have quite as many thoughts whirling around in it, and none of them was about the quality of my coloring. My muscles were relaxing; I was settling into a different posture.
And into that relaxation came God.
I kept coloring, but I felt myself transported in my mind to an experience I’d had in my early twenties. As with most European cathedrals, the nave of the cathedral at Chartres is filled with chairs for those attending Mass, but once a week the chairs are moved so people can walk the labyrinth in the cathedral floor, and I was there on one such day.
Walking the labyrinth is a curious exercise. There is only one way in; unlike a maze, a labyrinth doesn’t give you opportunities to choose your route. There’s only one choice—to enter, or not. Once you’re in, a sweeping route takes you through the four quadrants of the circle until you reach the very center, and on the way you have to concentrate on your breathing and your balance. I cannot describe the feeling when you reach the center—it’s as if your whole being were focused on God. Like those photographs of sunlight streaming down on just one place on a forest floor: standing in the light of God.
And now, as I colored the page for Julian—who came, after all, out of the same medieval tradition that created the labyrinths—I felt a similar sense of focus and awe wash over me. It wasn’t about the colors, or getting it right. It wasn’t about fastidiously keeping inside the lines. Like the balancing act of walking a labyrinth, the act of coloring focused me on something other than the worries and concerns of my daily life, and allowed me to absorb—that’s the only word—the spirit of God. It wasn’t a thought. It wasn’t a prayer. It was an experience.
Coloring offered the same kind of relief and mindfulness I experienced at the labyrinth without the paralysis that thinking about meditation can cause. There’s nothing to trap you, there’s nothing to solve. You just follow the path until you’re done.
The same goes for coloring. You don’t have to create the picture; it’s already there. You don’t have to find the focus for meditation and prayer; it’s already there. All you have to do is choose a color and fill in empty spaces on the page. My mind wanted to fill in blank spaces, just as my heart wanted to be filled with the love of God.
Coloring puts us back in touch with all the sensory parts of our religion, because it bypasses the rational part of the brain and accesses, instead, that “imaginal” part of us. Remember going to Mass when you were a child? Go back to that memory. It’s probably not the words or the thoughts you’re remembering. Instead, you’re remembering the experience: the light coming through the stained glass windows that bathed you in color; the smell of the incense; the sound of the music; the flickering of the candles’ flames. God reaches out to us in many ways, through all of our senses, and if we don’t respond with all of our senses, we are missing out.
So—try a coloring book. See if it doesn’t do all the things it’s supposed to do (slow you down, relieve stress, etc.)… and much, much more.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
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