Drawing Closer to God: Mandalas

Sisters Lisa Lazio and Nancy Marsh pray with art form

by Jenny Beatrice, director of communications, and Julia DiSalvo, contributor

Sisters Lisa Ann Lazio and Nancy Marsh are devotees of an ancient and global spiritual practice. As part of their regular prayer life, they create mandalas—spiritual images, circular in shape through which they commune with the divine, seek union with self and others, and gain inspiration.

“We need tools to reflect on our own experience with God, a key to the sacred that is familiar to us,” says S. Lisa. “This is a tool of a different sort.”

An expert on the form, S. Lisa first heard about the mandala in the 1970s while studying Christianity at Saint Louis University. She became a certified instructor in 2006, and she facilitates workshops and groups, another aspect of her work as a spiritual director. 

“It is of assistance to someone who is trying to understand their relationship to themselves and God,” she says. “The purpose of nearly every mandala retreat I’ve done or made has been, “What’s going to draw me closer to God?” 

A few years ago when S. Nancy was seeking ways to recharge her spiritual life, she learned the mandala techniques from S. Lisa and became devoted to the practice. “I needed to connect with the God in my heart. I needed to get back in touch,” she says. “It focused me.”

 After meeting and far surpassing a 100-day mandala challenge, S. Nancy now creates mandalas almost daily and posts her work weekly on the province Facebook page in a “Mandala Mondays” series. (Follow the series on www.facebook.com/csjsl.) “I’m an extrovert and sometimes I don’t know what I’m thinking unless I express it in some other way,” says S. Nancy. “Words don’t always do it. The artwork does it.”

The process begins with prayer and meditation, setting an intention for the mandala, whether it be a reflection, a scripture or a positive statement, such as “I am …” or “I will …,” being mindful of God’s grace in the process. 

“Recognize that you are not standing in the way but inviting the God within you to hold the marker or the pen to express along with you,” S. Lisa says. “It may be a shape, it may be a color—it will make itself known if you bless it.”

Part of that expression is revealed in the lines you may or may not intend to create. S. Lisa says, “When you do something in a mandala, you don’t correct your work or start over. You just continue with what you did and know there’s a message in that, and you’ll understand the meaning at some point.”

 Sister Suzanne Giro, another regular mandala practitioner, affirms that experience. “When I start with my going-nowhere lines, it ends up meaningful to me and speaks to me.  Even a ‘mistake,’ turns into something totally different. I never know. At the end, I have a sense of feeling in touch with my God with a little more knowledge of my heart.” 

Srs. Lisa, Nancy and Suzanne participate in a mandala group every third Sunday of the month. Sister Lisa recommends that beginners take a workshop, like the ones she offers, to get introduced to the foundations of the practice. “When I invite other people to do the mandala work, my experience of the God of my heart deepens. It’s contagious. By setting that atmosphere I can guide you to that space in your own life that will allow you to see. 

Associate Donna Corno, a newbie attending the third Sunday sessions, appreciates the group dynamic.  “As yet I haven’t figured out how to communicate through this medium, and what I produce is primitive, but I am fascinated by the process and privileged to be in the company of those who are there.”

Sister Lisa says she has yet to find another method that offers her the powerful transformative experience of the mandala, and she wants to share that experience with others. “I hope my life will help people find their way home to the God within their hearts.”


 The Mandala Process

A typical session will contain these aspects in some way to improve the experience and facilitate its higher purpose:

Create a sacred environment. Leaders of a group session might begin with centering prayer or quiet contemplation or prepare some soft, meditative music. Set a table with candles, pictures and religious items in the center of the room. The environment should foster openness and peace without disruption.

Set the intention. An intention can be a word or phrase, scripture passage, current event, personal issue, petition or simple gratitude for this moment. State the intention in a positive way. Be mindful that the process is of God, and keep the focus on God.

Start with only white on black paper. The simplicity allows you to focus on the prayer and intention and symbolizes light shining through the darkness. (More advanced practitioners can work on coloring and shading.)

Share your finished mandala. Sharing is optional. The Buddhist tradition discourages mandala sharing because the process  is seen as sacred and sufficient in itself. Not so in Christianity, which emphasizes the value of the church community in faith formation and divine revelation. When others comment, they listen, not judge. 


 Interested in pursuing the mandala spiritual practice? Contact Sister Lisa for information about the monthly group or hosting workshops. 314-591-7898 or llazio@csjsl.org.

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