Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photography As Prayer

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published June 23, 2011

What is that phrase? “To sing is to pray twice.” Or something close to it. There are other sayings, too. I have heard a few monks say, by way of encouragement to some out-of-tune monks that singing well is giving praise to God. Which, I gather, means that singing is praying. I would venture to add something more. That any beautiful, heartfelt, heartrending piece of music is a delight to the ears of both God and the human. Beautiful music comes from God and is returned to him with all that we can put into it. A gift with no ribbons save those of the beautifully crafted highs and lows of notes.

We recently had a photography retreat here, and the name of the retreat was “Faith, Image and Photography.” During the retreat, a phrase came to me and kept returning to me—photography as prayer. Just like music, or words, or any form that expresses something deep in us and finds its way out on canvas or marble—photography is prayer. I watched the people on the retreat as they sighed and gasped when a photo of great beauty appeared on the screen. I looked at them as they turned pages of the photo books we made available on retreat. They lingered over the pages, smiling as they looked at pictures of children, looking sad as they saw the pictures of poor miners and their families, looking wondrously at photographs of simple, every day things—taken at a moment when they revealed something glorious and near divine, precisely because that is where these actually live—in the sublimity of the mundane.

We showed DVDs of several  photographers—James Nachtway and Milton Rogovin. And two friends of the monastery, John Spink and Matthew Jeffres, shared their photographs of nature, people—people big and small, rich and poor—but all looking beautiful, looking just like they came from God. Which of course they did.

I am sure that there are very few photographers who, when they frame that special shot in their viewfinder and stay as still as possible when they press the shutter button, feel as if they are communicating with God. Trying to make beauty with the means that we have takes discipline, an eye for beauty, and the willingness to learn from others.

That to me is religious activity. And that is what we try to give each other on the retreat.

I believe that God is all over and all through this earth. There is no getting away from God, despite all the anti-God rhetoric of the atheists.

I respect their right to move God and God language out of the picture.

But that is not so easy, especially if they have a camera and look to take some of life’s beauty in a photograph. I am sure God does not mind. In fact, he may appreciate a photo of great depth and majesty coming from “the other side.” He is there, too, hidden as it were, behind the camera, clicking away, sharing something good with those who want to take a look.

If you have trouble praying this day, take a picture of someone or something that you love. Or write a poem, or paint a picture. Make some pasta. Play the light fantastic. Do the fandango. Have a good one.

God moves the heart in many ways, all coming from and going back to him.