October 18, 2013 — Jesuit Father Bob Gilroy has led arts-based Ignatian retreats around the country ever since he discovered the connection between art and prayer while lying in a hospital bed awaiting a kidney transplant at age 24. Now 54 years old, Fr. Gilroy works at Bread of Life Ministries in Sacramento, Calif., training spiritual directors to use art in their ministry.
Thirty years ago, on the morning of his kidney transplant surgery, Fr. Gilroy lay in his hospital bed and scribbled an image of Jesus reaching toward an unlit candle with a match. Previously, he had sketched other images — like over-sized pincushions to illustrate his dialysis treatment — but never something like this.
"I did that simple drawing, but it said so much,” says Fr. Gilroy, who joined the Jesuits in 1986 after studying art as an undergrad and training in art therapy. “It illustrates my prayer, which certainly was that I’d see the light in the world when I woke up. It was a natural bridge between [St.] Ignatius’s emphasis on the use of imagination and taking a step further and actually making what I saw in my imagination.”
The nonverbal medium of art, Fr. Gilroy says, is a powerful tool to help others draw deeper into their relationship with God.
“It gives people a language or tool to grow closer to God,” he says. “When you take the risk to go beyond what you know and to trust that God’s going to give you the color, the texture, the lines, the words that will help an image grow, it will reveal even more of who God is.”
Fr. Gilroy wanted to share this revelation with everyone, not just those on his retreats, and so he created Prayer Windows, a site that offers an online retreat to help people engage in prayer through many of his own paintings. He provides different phases of the Spiritual Exercises, too.
“In our media-savvy age, we’re so inundated with material messages, but this takes people in another direction,” Fr. Gilroy says. “They’re spending time on the web looking at pictures that might help bring them closer to God.”
Fr. Gilroy continues to use art to pray himself. He spends at least an hour a day in his studio, sometimes working five to six hours on a particular piece. He is also working to bring art into hospitals, helping patients transform their suffering like he did 30 years ago.
“The whole thing about Jesus is transformation through suffering,” he explains. “Once you put colors down to express your experience, you’re inviting God to help you see the healing element in all of this.” [Loyola Press]