Brush Stroked Incense: How Painting and Monks Taught Me to Pray

Preston Yancey, an incoming MLitt student in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, offers a meditation on how the discipline of the Divine Office deepened his experience of painting as prayer.

And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of incense, which are the prayers of saints.
Revelation 5:8

"Ecce Homo" - Preston Yancey

Morning light splinters against the blinds and quickens body to wake. Limbs protest, but are forced into motion, the raw fight of discipline. Soon after, as the sun still peeks through in gaps of light across the flooring and the foot of the bed, the small black prayer book is opened, the office of Prime found, and the day is marked anew.

I have been praying this way, in the habit of the monks, for a little over a year now. It began last Lent, when I chose to abstain from receiving the Eucharist until Easter Day. A spiritual mentor recommended that I enter into that time with a mind set upon continuous prayer and, given my disposition, to mark the hours along with the monks, who blended psalms and short passages from the Scripture into a whole, structuring the day by meditation on the received Word. And I have done so since.

I took up painting during Advent, when the doubt of future plans had slowly strangled the intention of my heart. I had not stopped with the prayer book, for the monks had taught me that when the heart grows weary the movement of body, lips forming the words of the Psalms, can pull the heart back into the presence of Center. But words were becoming only utterances and not signs of things, spoken forth without the power of belief. I took up a brush then and began to pray into canvas, to mark the hours with the monks while bringing a line of color against the stiff cotton surface. The point was the doing, the forcing of limbs to pick up brush and to move forward, determined, believing that in the action came the grace, that to paint was to pray, to open myself to the imagination hid in God, to see what joy could be brought forward.

For this is what the monks taught me: praying the Hours along with them meant that my imagination was being formed by the words of Scripture, that my habit of being was slowly conforming to the awareness that “in Him we live, and move, and have our being,” and from this I had learned to pray in body. For between the brush and the Psalms, I had come to receive the grace of hallowed limbs, caught in the midst of Him. My spirit was loosed from the needs of convention in art form, in painting specific shapes and patterns, and was able instead to look at the empty canvas as icon and the colors to be placed upon it the movement of prayer. Upon it I wrote the things the Psalms taught me to pray, for righteousness and a desire to know the statutes of God, for peace of person and neighbor, for the light and life hid in the folds of His mercy. I learned to form words by wordlessness, to be conformed to the character of God through participation in creation.

And in that quiet lapse of time between Christmastide and Epiphany, this was one of the only ways I could pray. But the monks had taught me well, that in the doing came the conforming of the self, in the discipline of the creating came the inclination of the heart to the Creator.

This was my incense placed in the censer before the Lamb; my choked “Holy!” spilled color across canvas.

Preston Yancey is a soon-to-be graduate of Baylor University with a degree in Great Texts of the Western Tradition, focusing in medieval monasticism, theology, and literature. He will enter St Andrews in the autumn to pursue an M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. His forthcoming book (Summer 2013) with Rhizome Publishing is about reading Scripture holistically and thereby seeing the creation as icon of the Creator; he blogs here and tweets here.


Image credit: Author


  • Preston Yancey earned his undergraduate degree in Great Texts of the Western Tradition with a focus in medieval monasticism, literature, and theology from Baylor University. He went on to complete his Master of Letters in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews. His first book, Tables in the Wilderness:A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again, is due out with Zondervan September 2014.

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  1. says: Leticia Cortina Aracil

    This is very beautiful…
    It made me think of what the priest and artist Marko Ivan Rupnik conceives his artistic work. Are you by chance familiar with his thinking?

        1. says: Cole Matson

          Preston, I’ve got some photos of Rupnik’s beautiful work in the chapel of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT, which I’ll show you sometime. You can see a picture of its altarpiece mosaic (the pelican in its passion) on one of my previous posts:

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