This week I’m delighted to introduce another book for our community: The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other by Charlotte Donlon. This is a beautiful and hopeful exploration of loneliness from a Christian perspective. The book shows that sometimes loneliness can become an opportunity for what we all crave: closeness with God and others. Sometimes, it is part of the human condition because we are people of longing. I so appreciate Charlotte exploring a topic that’s so often been taboo. There is no shame in feeling lonely. It just means that we’re human and need one another.
Below, I’ve included an excerpt from Charlotte’s book. First, she has a few words of introduction.
The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other has five sections: Belonging to Ourselves, Belonging to Each Other, Belonging to Our Places, Belonging through Art, and Belonging to God. I believe our primary belongings are to ourselves, others, and God. But other things, such as places and art, can enhance our main belongings. The excerpt below, “Visio Divina” is from the Belonging through Art section. It describes encounters with three works of art that deepened my belongings to myself and to God. –Charlotte Donlon
When I walked into the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe on a hot August afternoon, the first painting my attention turned toward was O’Keeffe’s Trees in Autumn. Most of the trees in this work are portrayed with flames of bright red, orange, and gold. A single green fir provides a touch of realism and stands as a stark contrast to the colorful ribbons of leaves on the more surreal deciduous trees. A background of lavender hills and blue sky, along with layers of crawling light, create that familiar feeling of being outside in the hour or so before the sun begins to set.
I was attending a weeklong arts and writing workshop, and participants had gathered at the museum with the workshop’s chaplain for visio divina. The spiritual practice of visio divina is similar to lectio divina, when readers take time to interact slowly and deeply with Scripture through meditation and prayer. While lectio divina is the practice of divine reading, visio divina is the practice of divine seeing. As the Upper Room website explains, “visio divina invites one to encounter the divine through images.” Prayerfully beholding a photograph, an icon, a piece of art, or other visual representation provides an opportunity to experience God in unique and compelling ways.
I had practiced visio divina once before, but on this day in Santa Fe, I devoted more time to divine seeing. The chaplain had instructed us to stand before two or three of O’Keeffe’s paintings for several minutes and open to what God might have for us through our engagement with the artist’s work as we lingered, looked, and listened.
After several minutes, I left Trees in Autumn and moved through the gallery until another piece stood out to me. Autumn Trees–The Maple is also a colorful painting, but it’s more muted than Trees in Autumn. It has more white space, some gray, a touch of gloom. The shape and outline of the tree are difficult to discern. It’s an idea of a tree, a tree that is only a tree because the artist said it is.
The painting brought to mind the landscape of late fall, when winter is near and temperatures are cool. Again, I stood with the painting for several minutes and tried to interpret my inner response. I enjoyed the stillness and the process of giving my attention to the art. O’Keeffe’s work invited me to enter a realm that wasn’t affected by the news of the day, my personal anxieties, or unknown passersby. I entered this dimension and considered how the painting might see me. Was it a mirror that reflected an image of my soul? If so, what was it trying to show me? I stood in front of this painting, asking questions and waiting for answers. After the energy of my asking and waiting fizzled, I wandered away to see what else there was to see.
I arrived in a larger gallery and glanced back over my right shoulder. In the corner was a dark painting that I was immediately drawn to. I sat down on the end of a nearby bench and observed this third piece for several minutes. Black Place III has shades of gray, black, and white mountainous shapes. A muted yellow crack or narrow stream makes a crooked path down a portion of the middle of the work. Red shadows splash near the bottom. I eventually discovered two eyes in the middle of the painting. Or the suggestion of two eyes. The painting was dark. Very dark. And I loved it.
After I recognized I was more drawn to this piece than I had been to the other two, I began to berate myself. “Of course I prefer the dark painting. Why do I always lean toward the hard, sorrowful, sad things? Why am I like this? Why do I feel most comfortable in the murkiness?” I stayed with these questions and tried to not shy away from the feelings they produced. Then my thoughts were interrupted by this observation: “But you were drawn to colorful paintings, too. You were drawn to colorful paintings first.”
Black Place III was a mirror, and it reflected my doubts back to me. Its eyes might have even been looking at me. The painting ignited questions—asked with a tone of judgment and ridicule— about the essence of who I am. I’ve long been aware of my tendencies to stray toward hard things, to acknowledge and make room for brokenness. But my harsh views about the truth of who I am only surfaced after I practiced visio divina in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. At first it was uncomfortable to realize I was judging myself, but I was also thankful to see my inner world with greater clarity. Then, when I noticed the interruption and saw more of the truth—I was also drawn to color and brightness and lightness— my soul settled. It was as though God were telling me, “You are all of who I created you to be.
From The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other by Charlotte Donlon copyright © 2020 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.
Charlotte Donlon is a writer, spiritual director, and podcast host. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University where she studied creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Christianity Today, Catapult, The Millions, Mockingbird, Christ and Pop Culture, and elsewhere. Her first book, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, will be published by Broadleaf Books in November 2020. Learn more about Charlotte, her writing, and her work at charlottedonlon.com. You can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @charlottedonlon.