Accepting the invitation

A course that asked students to write about 10 viewings of the same painting seemed absurd — until it became a life-changing spiritual experience.

During week one of the fall 2023 semester, I received the most absurd assignment I have ever encountered. It was simple. Go to the Haggerty Museum of Art, stand before a painting for 15 minutes, and then write a 1,000-word essay on the experience. I don’t think my stomach has ever dropped as much as it did when I first saw this assignment described — and realized this process would be repeated 10 times, with the same painting each time. Writing and art aren’t my forte, so I knew staying in this class would lead to some stressful weeks.

My regret peaked during my fifth session viewing the painting I chose, Eye and Dove by Michael Rothenstein. I was experiencing one of those perfect storms where school projects collided with real-life demands. I feared this assignment could be the final blow to knock over the wobbling card tower that was my sanity. I stood and stood, seeing nothing. I desperately tried to grasp onto small details — from random blotches of paint to Rothenstein’s signature — to find something to write about, yet nothing came to me. After a tauntingly long 25 minutes, the futility of my efforts slammed into me. Goodbye card tower. Overwhelmed, I desperately wondered what I was missing. What was the point of this? 

I feared this assignment could be the final blow to knock over the wobbling card tower that was my sanity.

The irritating part of my confusion was that this had been the class I was most excited about heading into the fall. Over the summer, during the dry and tedious work of an internship, restlessness had begun to stir within me. I feared that life after graduation would have more of these dry spells, and that could be it for me, nothing more to my life. Before the semester, encouraged by friends, I went on a walk with Rev. Ryan Duns, S.J., the mastermind behind this assignment, to express my restlessness. During the walk, he mentioned how this class has helped others struggling with similar unease. I thought it would help me, yet here I was. As I left the Haggerty, all I felt was stress. Not knowing how to turn in a quality paper challenged my pride as a student, and I hardly had the will to put my thoughts to paper.

When I vented about my dejection to a friend in the course, he told me he had a similar experience and suggested I write about my agitation. So, that is what I prepared to do, and it became a pivotal moment. I began thinking about hints Father Duns had been giving about his goals for this assignment; one that stuck with me was to try and dialogue with the art. I slowly realized I had been monologuing with the art, trying to control my time with the painting because I was focused on completing an assignment. Yet, as Father Duns had made clear, the point of the assignment was not to earn a grade but to encounter something other that moves with us throughout the semester. I knew then that if I wanted to dialogue, I had to let go and humbly accept the invitation of that other.

The other that awaited me at the end of that invitation was God, who had been calling to me through my restlessness. His invitation moved me to be comfortable giving up my worries and letting Him move me through the experience. The time in the gallery had a new flow to it and was oddly peaceful. I would sit in prayer before the painting until I felt moved to journal, and then I would return to silence, waiting for a new invitation. Dialogue. 

Throughout the following weeks of dialogue, the painting became a mirror that revealed parts of myself I couldn’t acknowledge alone. I reflected on why Rothenstein chose this piece as valuable enough to release, causing me to contemplate on the legacy I want to leave behind. Another week, a small blotch of paint moved me to reflect on times I’ve felt lonely and like a small detail in the story of life. The thread that linked each week together was my desire for genuine connections; that was the final discovery that helped me understand why I was here.

Throughout the following weeks of dialogue, the painting became a mirror that revealed parts of myself I couldn’t acknowledge alone.

My experience culminated in the last week when I saw how God had been beside me throughout the entire assignment. God wanted to reveal how He longs for a relationship with me, but could only do so when I stopped trying to control the experience. The connection I desired was staring me in the eye, an image occupying half the painting. The final week, however, was not an end, but the start of a new frame of mind, attentive to how God walks alongside me. Thanks to the efforts of Father Duns, drawing on the Ignatian practice of encountering the movements of the Spirit, when I finally accepted my futility, I learned how to encounter God uniquely and intimately wherever I go.