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Behold Visio Divina ministry teaches women to pray with art

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Every morning, the young postulant contemplated the vibrant colors and the comforting image of Our Lady in Fra Angelico's “The Annunciation.” Prayer had been a struggle for Katie Woltornist in recent days, but meditating on the fresco of the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary was different. It felt healing. In the end, it gave Woltornist the courage to realize the vocation she had felt drawn to since she was a little girl wasn’t her calling after all. 

Woltornist’s experience in the convent was the start of a journey that led her to create Behold Visio Divina, a ministry that helps women grow closer to Christ by praying with religious art. Similar to the better known spiritual practice of lectio divina — meditating on sacred Scripture — visio divina is the practice of meditating with images. 

“Art always spoke to me,” said Woltornist, a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria and an art teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional School in Woodbridge. “Creating it and looking at it was a vehicle for prayer unlike anything else for me.”

The idea of creating something like Behold didn’t come immediately. After discerning out of religious life in 2014, she finished her undergraduate degree and worked as a cake decorator. But she still felt a little lost. “Once religious life was out of the picture, I felt unlovable,” she said. “Where does my value come from if I’m not a religious? I was struggling with self-worth and a lot of things I assumed people in the church don’t struggle with.”

Once again she found consolation in art. “Creating art was really healing because it was just a release on my body,” she said. “It really reminded me that I’m good. I’m not what I do, but this thing that I create comes from my goodness.”

 How to pray with visio divina 

In 2016, she attended the GIVEN Catholic Young Women’s Leadership Forum, a weeklong conference that encourages women to find practical ways to use their gifts in serving God. A few months later, she led a five-week visio divina program at her home parish in New Jersey. After seeing how much the women enjoyed the program, she felt called to continue with the ministry. Woltornist asked God to send someone to help her, and the next day she found a mentor with business experience through GIVEN. 

In 2017, the Behold team — Woltornist and friends who help her with photography, layout and writing — published its first book on the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, featuring artwork for each mystery, corresponding Bible passages and questions for discussion. Since then, they’ve released books on the Sorrowful Mysteries, Glorious Mysteries, Luminous Mysteries, one focusing on faith over fear and a digital booklet for families on St. Joseph. Woltornist also sells Bible verse prints, hosts workshops and speaks about visio divina. Her next projects are creating visio divina books for post-abortive women and another for women looking for healing from pornography.

While art and Scripture guide the conversation, Woltornist loves seeing the bonds that form as the women share their personal experiences. “There’s this beautiful fellowship that naturally happens for women because we’re so relational,” she said. “There's something about sisterhood. Women are just natural, empathetic listeners (and) that can be really healing especially when these vulnerable places open up.”

Women have formed visio divina small groups around the country and overseas. Two groups hold special significance for Woltornist. “Somebody contacted us about doing a group with a women’s correctional facility in Hawaii. She said these women really need affirmation in their dignity as women,” said Woltornist. “Another one was a woman (who’s) been doing (visio divina) with people with dementia in Massachusetts. Women with dementia find it hard to find relationships because they forget things and get discouraged, but they can tell a story from something in front of them. It’s a vehicle for communication and communion.”

When Woltornist was scared and unsure of her future, visio divina allowed her to invite God into her troubled heart rather than push him away. In leading visio divina groups, she’s seen it time and again. The lighting, the setting or the gaze of Christ in a work of art can make a familiar Bible story come to life and touch souls in unexpected ways, she said. “There's this capacity of beauty to bring down walls that we set up to the Lord.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021