Sr. Virginia Varley, CSJ

Art as conversation with God

By  Luc Rinaldi, Catholic Register Special
  • May 25, 2011

Whether your artwork rivals the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or is composed mainly of stick people, it’s a good enough tool for prayer on the Sacred Art Retreat.

The retreat, which first ran in 2003, explores using art as a way of achieving a deep intimacy with God. On May 27, more than a dozen retreatants began eight days of “walking and praying in the presence of God” at Invermara, a retreat house in Orillia, Ont. It’s the first of two retreats this summer.

“This retreat is not art therapy, it is a way of being in conversation with God,” said Sr. Virginia Varley, CSJ, who has been directing the retreat since 2006.

“It’s quite different for some people,” she said, adding that art is generally not thought of as a tool for prayer.

Each day of the retreat begins with the liturgy, a more traditional aspect of the faith, followed by an orientation that introduces the theme of the day. After an art demonstration, retreatants are free to create their own art, walk and pray, all in silence, until an evening session where they have the opportunity to share their art and reflect on the day.

The first day of the retreat, which Varley describes as a “play day,” allows the retreatants to explore different mediums and get into the habit of ignoring the traditional technical guidelines of art.

“We are not trying to produce a project… that’s a temptation for all of us, including me,” said Varley, explaining that the art often takes an abstract form.

“It’s in the randomness that mystery is revealed… as I look at (my art), it begins to show me elements, meaning that I didn’t see, that I didn’t intend when I made it.”

A common form of art on the retreat is the Mandala, traditionally found in Buddhism and Hinduism. Mandalas are created by drawing a circle and painting within it, and are a familiar form of art to Varley, who has been creating them for years, first in journals, and later on canvas, many of which she would sell. But it wasn’t always apparent that Varley would be a successful artist.

“I, like millions of other people, was told I couldn’t draw because I couldn’t reproduce the daffodils in front of me,” she said.

A Sister of St. Joseph for more than 60 years, Varley attended the Sacred Art Retreat when it was directed by her predecessor, artist and spiritual director Elizabeth Rosson.

“It was at a time in my life that Scripture had died for me,” said Varley. “I was looking for something that would bring back to me that sense, in prayer, of God’s presence.”

She found what she was looking for on the retreat, and would go on to direct it only a few years later. Now, she continues to run the retreats alongside Sr. Grace Sauvé, CSJ, and Fr. Roger Yaworski, S.J.

Retreatants of many different ages and denominations have come from Canada, the United States and other countries to participate in the retreat. They walk away “happy and peaceful,” according to Varley, and with a new collection of artwork.

“When you create the art in the retreat atmosphere, it means something to you,” said Varley, who has artwork from her retreats on her walls at home. “Some day you find yourself looking at it and it opens up something else, something deeper for you.”

And if you’re concerned about your art skills, Varley says you have nothing to worry about.

“Do I have to be an artist?” people commonly ask her, to which she replies, “It’s wonderful that you’re not.”

Varley will direct another Sacred Art Retreat starting on June 22. For more on the program, visit or contact

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