Spiritual Direction Mandala

This piece of artwork was inspired by a meditation during the second year of my formation as a spiritual director. The meditation was an imaginative contemplation of a walk in some gardens for us to contemplate how we worked as spiritual directors – what was our unique style, if you like. The artwork itself is my assignment, but here is the explanation that I submitted with it.

Photograph by Emma Cooper, used with permission

For the first part of the meditation, for the directive garden, I imagined the labyrinth at St Beuno’s. I have spent some time walking this labyrinth on retreat and during the exercises in the summer. The way into the centre and back out again is very clearly laid out in a gravel path defined by bricks. Around the periphery of the labyrinth is nature – trees, fields, the garden: the beds of the herb garden are also with in sight. However, while walking the labyrinth, the way to the centre might be clear, but you do not get to experience the scent of the lavender or mint in the beds, or to feel the bark on the trees. You can feel the sun and the soft breeze on your skin and see the sycamore seeds spin down like helicopters: and you can hear the trees whispering at the far end of the field as they move in the breeze, God is there to be experienced and the direction of travel is clearly set out – you know where you are going and it is safe.

For the next part, the non-directive garden, I imagined my wild flower garden at home that I planted this year. There is a path of stepping stones which curves in two directions, one towards a bench underneath the large apple tree at the top end of the garden and the other simply to the corner at the bottom end. It is made of fragments of paving slabs that are different sizes and shapes. These have literally been thrown down and embedded pretty much where they landed. The garden is a jungle of a variety of wild flowers, the seeds of which were mixed in a bucket and scattered randomly during the planting phase. The garden is colourful and chaotic. There are plenty of bees and butterflies in the summer – which is largely the point. As the flowers grew, they overwhelmed the path so that it could hardly be seen and you have to step carefully from one to the next, just in case you get stung by a plant or something else.

The garden in the last part of the meditation – my garden – is a synergy of the two. I saw this as a mandala, a circular walled garden,  where the labyrinth gives the underlying path and rather than it be a continuous, gravel path, it is given by scattered stepping stones in the shape of the three sided figure that is a leitmotif in my mandala artwork. Like my wild flower garden, there is a variety of wild flowers scattered randomly throughout the mandala, cutting across the path and obscuring it in places. At the time, this mandala called to be painted and it is the painting that serves as my assignment. The purpose here is to explain its meaning so that it can be more deeply understood. The process of creating the mandala is a meditation in its own right and each hour spent in its creation has deepened my understanding of being in spiritual direction – both as a recipient and in the embryonic stages of being a spiritual director – and , also of my deepening relationship with God, since He is the source of it all.

And so to the mandala. The design was drawn and glued onto a piece of wood (or MDF in this particular case) and a layer of muslin was put on top. The process mimics the process of making religious icons – a sort of, “in the style of” or karaoke version if you like. It merges two artistic meditation strategies. Then it was covered in three layers of shellac varnish, ready for the painting to begin. The structure of the labyrinth is that of the one at St Beuno’s, which I believe to be the same as that famous one at Chatres Cathedral.

Gold leaf was then applied to lay out the path. The gold represents the Majesty of God, and the path is our journey into the centre of God (represented by the Triquetra in the centre another leitmotif), and then back out into the world – it is the journey of the labyrinth, or our lives, a retreat, a prayer session, a spiritual direction session for both directee and director, the Spiritual exercises themselves. God is the guide. Normally, I would outline the gold leaf with gold paint at this point – to tidy it up. I would fill in places where it had failed to stick where I intended, either with another attempt with gold leaf, or paint if it was a small area, and I would scrape off any that had stuck other than where I had intended. In this mandala, I have left it as it stuck the first time because here, it is not clearly defined – the journey is both the director’s and the directee’s, and it is God who is in charge, it cannot be contrived. There are three different golds in this mandala: a twenty two carat leaf, which is the palest colour and represents the Holy Spirit and His lightness of touch and floaty, euphoria which is both heady and intoxicating; the intermediate yellow colour is for Jesus, it is actually a copper alloy, which represents His ubiquitous “ordinariness”, His humanity; the deepest, most intense yellow leaf is twenty four carat gold – pure gold – and it represents The Father, the depth and source, and also All of God, the Trinity. The pure gold has been used for the central triquetra, which has been outlined in gold paint. It is a statement of absolute faith – God is definite and is the centre and the source.

The stepping stones the Alhambra shape are scattered, rather than tessellating, and have been painted in silver. These represent interventions as a spiritual director. Silver foil has not been used because this would be “solid” and I wanted to suggest “inlay” as in the biblical version and description Song of Songs (1.11-12a) given by Origen:

We will make thee likenesses of gold with silver inlays, till the King recline at His table.

Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies

Origen states that:

…gold symbolises the perceptive and incorporeal nature; whereas silver represents the power of speech and reason..

Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies


The unseen and incorporeal things that are in heaven then, these are true; but those that are visible and bodily on earth are said to be the patterns of the true, and not themselves true.

Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies

The “We” are the:

The friends of the Bridegroom, therefore – that is to say, the angels and prophets who ministered the Law and the other mysteries…

Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies

and I would also propose, in the context of Spiritual Direction, the director is a “friend of the Bridegroom”. He suggests the reason for inlays is that:

They do not possess enough silver to make a complete solid article of that alone, so they would put only inlays and some little things, like dots…

Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies

These “small silver inlays” represent to Origen:

…tokens of a spiritual meaning and a rational interpretation: these are only very rare and slight.

Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies

In terms of the mandala, the director tries to sense the true gold, to feel the pattern of it, the path God is guiding, and the interventions are rare and slight tokens of spiritual meaning and rational interpretation in order to help guide the directee on this journey. They are discrete, not continuous, and they are not orientated so that they would line up and fit together exactly as if they were tessellating – a bit like the continents that have drifted apart. There are gold dots, “likenesses” in the silver and in the green surrounding them, to suggest God is there, and that the director is connecting to God and sensing the pattern when making interventions, which are definite and contrived, but may not be completely accurate. The scattered stepping stones also overlap into the gold leaf at times suggesting being deeply in God, which sometimes happens during direction sessions.

The area surrounding the stepping stones is painted green, and the stones are embedded in it. It is from the Song of Songs (1:16):

How beautiful you are, my love, and how you delight me! Our bed is the greensward.

The New Jerusalem Bible, Readers Edition

Origen suggests that the bed here denotes the soul’s body:

…in the sense of the place of her body that she shares with the Bridegroom.

Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies

Other translations describe the bed (or couch) as shady, verdant, green. I particularly like the word verdant, since it suggests the lushness of vegetation, a rich fertile place, full of life and new growth. It also has a connotation of green in the sense of being unsophisticated, inexperienced. So, in the mandala and in my role as a director, I am coming from a sacred place, the intimacy of my own relationship with God and I am humble in this endeavour, because the path and direction is His, He guides the process not me, because I am “green” in His way with another. Nevertheless, coming from here and walking with another on their path, and allowing Him to guide is rich, fertile and creative – for both myself as a director and my directee.

This underlying structure of the mandala represents the directive style of spiritual direction, and its purpose. It is clear, organised, explicit and shows the direction of travel of the encounter – into the God centre and back out into the world. The role of the spiritual director here is to sense the path and to offer interventions that help the directee clarify the path they are walking. As a director, it must always be drawn from my intimacy with God: I must maintain my connection with Him so that it is not my agenda, but where He desires to lead my directee. And, I must be humble in this process, because it is not an exact science, but something I have to feel my way around, and any carefully thought out interventions may not be accurate, only approximately in the right direction, so that the next one will involve a little adjustment. Even the directive is an organic process.

The finished Mandala.

On top of this structure is grown the wild flower garden.  It reminds me of a scene in The Shack where the main character Mack goes out into the garden where Sarayu (The Holy Spirit) has been doing some work. She asks him if he likes her garden. He says:

It’s a mess!

The Shack, Wm Paul Young

To which she thanks him delightedly, much to his confusion. She even repeats it to Eloise (The Father) and Jesus later on in the kitchen – almost boasting – as if he has paid her a great compliment. There is a description in the book where we get a God’s eye view of Sarayu’s garden, and the picture described is a fractal – where the shape is repeated throughout the picture in subdivisions of the shape. To me, the concept of a fractal suggests God self perpetuating through all of His creation. The concentric circles of the labyrinth as described in the directive aspect of the garden are a fractal and as the pattern described earlier, it is God’s eye view. The messiness of the randomly arranged flowers is the messiness, or the milieu of our lives: it is our view. It partly represents the stuff of our lives and the content brought to a direction session. There are several key features to be brought out in the symbolism used in the non-directive top layer of the garden.

The first are the colours used: red is for Jesus, faith, fire, passion, energy, love; orange is for energy, balance, heat, fire, enthusiasm, playfulness, desire; yellow is for JC (the Holy Spirit) and sunlight, joy, happiness, optimism, idealism, hope; green (in addition to the previous discussion) is for eternal life, sincerity, hope, renewal, natural abundance, growth, health, balance, harmony, stability; blue is for The Father, love and peace, unity, harmony, tranquility, calmness, strength, steadfastness, light; purple is for sensuality, spirituality, creativity, mystery, wisdom, enlightenment, delicacy; pink is for gratitude, brown is for calm, depth, richness, stability, steadfastness, simplicity. and the white at the centre is for light and elsewhere is for reverence, purity, peace, innocence, simplicity, humility, and surrender. I have focused on meanings that I would associate with consolation, since to be in this garden and moving along its path is, of itself, moving towards God. (Those written in bold are the main associations I have with the colours.)

Most of the flowers are simply areas of colour with the centres of different flowers represented by the beads. There are however, several flowers that have been given definition in the painting and it is because they have specific meanings associated with them. The first of these are the sunflowers.

Sunflowers – you might be familiar with this picture!

Sunflower is an intimate name He calls me by in prayer – especially so when I appear as a child in imaginative contemplation. In the mandala it is reminiscent of Isaiah (43:1):

I have called you by your name, you are mine.

Isaiah 43:1

So, the specific symbolism here is for me as a director, to help the directee find how God is calling them, the intimate name He has for them, and the meaning of this name for them in their life.

Scarlet Pimpernel

The second type of flower I have defined is the scarlet pimpernel. I deliberately planted it in my garden and as it was growing, I frequently wandered out to look. I was always a little disappointed to find these little flowers closed and I watched for them to be open. Then one morning, around mid morning, I found them open. Later in the afternoon they had close again. The symbolism in the mandala is that what we may be looking for is found in God’s time, not ours – the time and conditions have to be right for a grace or a revelation to be given, and it is God’s timing, not mine. I might see something with a directee, but being directive – Look, here are the scarlet pimpernel – does not mean the directee will experience them open. A non-directive style is pertinent here – God’s timing, not mine.

The third type of flower I have defined is the thistle. I did not plant thistles in my wild flower garden at home. I was walking the dog through the lanes at one point and I saw some wild thistles and it occurred to me that I would like some in my own garden. It set me wondering if I would be able to get some seeds from somewhere to plant them next year. I’m not really a gardener, so I don’t know these things, and I do not know the names of all of the flowers in my garden, nor can I identify them from their leaves.

One day, I was sitting on the bench under the apple tree and I noticed the purple – and I saw it! the splendid thistle I had literally body swerved many times at the beginning of my path into the garden.  It was a real road to Emmaus moment! How on earth had I not noticed it, when I had desired it so? In the mandala the thistles represent those deeper desires that we are often unaware of, and those desires and graces that God gives to us so freely, without any effort on our part, even without us asking for them – I did not plant the thistle (and the other smaller one I also found just afterwards). They are not so easy to find in the painting (I have to search to see them and I put them there!) As a spiritual director, I would say part of what goes on, that requires a non-directive style, is to notice these graces and desires that the directee may be unaware of, and to help them to see them.

Graeme Watson, in his book says:

The flowers are symbols both of divine eros, the passion of God, and of His forgiving and self giving love, in which God restores his people to a covenant relationship based on God’s faithful promises.

The Song of Songs, A Contemplative Guide. Graeme Watson

To me, it summarises the mandala and what I am doing as a spiritual director. I am with another, in the garden, moving deeper into the centre of God with them; moving into the world with a deeper intimacy and purpose as a result of their encounter with God, or simply stopping with them to notice and smell the flowers for a bit. This is the garden I enter and direct from. It is both directive and non-directive, and it is His. I can be anywhere in the garden with another, the importance is in the being there.