Coloring as Spiritual Practice

I love that coloring books for adults are having a moment.

Once in college, an Aladdin coloring book found its way into our apartment. I don’t remember if I bought it as a joke or if someone gave it to me as a joke, but I do remember taking it out one day. I was stressed out, and I sat down and started coloring it. I felt almost immediately calmer, the swish-swish-swish of the crayons spilling color onto the yellow tinged paper. By the end of that semester, I’d colored the whole thing.

I forgot about this very random experience entirely until I met Sybil MacBeth a number of years ago. She had just written a book called Praying in Color about how doodling her prayers had become her spiritual practice. As she talked about how she prayed with colored pencils and markers and blank pages, I remembered the calm feeling I had filling in that Aladdin coloring book, which of course brought me back to all the childhood memories of sitting at the table coloring with my mom, or making greeting cards for family members with my brother. Maybe half of it was nostalgia, and the other half a longing to get away from words (which I ingest in appalling quantities that cannot possibly leave enough room for quiet contemplation) but I started praying in color almost immediately. And I loved it. I love it still.

I bought mandala coloring books for my kids, and when sending them to time out, I’d send them to the coloring book. It worked every time.

I printed out mandalas both simple and difficult and set them on a tray with crayons and colored pencils, and dry erase markers and boards, and set them out at the entry of my church, Journey. We had lots of artist types, and most of them doodled during the gathering anyway. Others who had a difficult time focusing (adults and kids alike) found the materials helped them focus and stay connected to what we were doing in worship.

The tray is there still, in fact. We resurrected it just a few weeks ago, with a stack of new pictures to color. (Those coloring books are much easier to find now that they’re topping the Amazon best seller list.)

I can’t tell you why it’s such a calming and centering activity. My friends who knit or crochet say it’s the same reason they love to bring their latest project with them when listening. The click-click-click of the needles and the movement of their hands brings everything into focus. I can only say that for me, coloring has been a welcome addition to my spiritual practices, whether it’s coloring during a gathering or praying in color at home.

As for whether it’s a spiritual practice…I guess it’s all in how you approach it. Praying in color certainly is, because the intention of the endeavor is to connect with God. But even “absent-minded” coloring can bring us in a place that connects us with God. When we color, we become still and centered. As MacBeth says in the article I linked above, “that’s when God can break through.”

I also love that she calls it an “accidental spiritual practice.” To the point of my post yesterday, she didn’t set out to come up with a better system of prayer. She just stumbled into it. I had someone the other day ask me where I came up with the idea to pray the Lord’s Prayer throughout my pilgrimage and write a book about it. “It’s a great idea,” she said. I laughed and said it wasn’t my idea at all. I just happened into it, by accident, and the book came about even more surprisingly after that. Accidental spiritual practices can often be the most powerful ones.

I think it’s wise to balance structure and whimsy in this way. While our specific practices are important, our bigger intention as people of faith is to be centered and present so that we can respond to God, whenever and however God shows up. As it turns out, coloring and doodling can be powerful ways of doing just that.

2 Comments

  1. I didn’t think of coloring as a spiritual practice until I read Praying In Color. All I knew was that it calmed me down when I was stressed and/or sad. I lean toward coloring things that have big spaces like mandalas (or even stuff from the Crayola site) — I find the newer popular stuff like Secret Garden & Enchanted Forest difficult for me. Last Advent I made a practice of coloring a mandalas each Sunday as well as coloring a page a found on Pinterest that had icons for each Sunday’s theme. It was a delightful practice!

  2. I agree Regina- I much prefer the more “open” mandala style pages to the scenery coloring pages too. It keeps my mind clearer and allows me to focus. I love the Advent idea! Thanks for sharing!

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