Praying with Mandalas: An interview with Shelley Skoza

I created this mandala in response to scripture, and used markers.

I met Shelley Skoza at the Awakening the Creative Spirit retreat led by Christine Valters Paintner and Betsey Beckham in early June. During the retreat Shelly shared her experience of praying while drawing mandalas as a way to pray:  “It is about spending the time in active – and often interactive – prayer,” Shelley says.

Shelley is a graphic artist and is in training to become a spiritual director. She lives in Alabama with her husband and they have three children.

What is “praying with mandalas”?

My personal definition for “praying with mandalas” is using art media in the form of a circle to engage and interact with God.

What is a mandala? 

The word mandala means circle in the ancient language of Sanskrit.  Because of this, many people associate mandalas with Buddhist or Hindu art, but they can also be found in other religions and cultures around the world.  Rose windows on European Cathedrals are forms of mandalas. A broader understanding is that a mandala is anything created with the frame of a circle to express wholeness.

How do you create a mandala? Do you have a preconceived idea of what you will draw and pray?

One creates a mandala by beginning with a circle.  I do not typically have a preconceived idea of what I will draw or pray, although sometimes an image or scripture will come to me at some time during the day, and I will want to pray with it by drawing and coloring it.  At other times, I begin by quieting myself and drawing a circle on the paper, and then choosing what supplies and colors seem to be speaking to me that day.  There really is no rule or standard that I follow.

For me it is all about showing up to the prayer time and following what I might have to share with God, or what God may have to share with me.  It is about spending the time in active – and often interactive – prayer.

This mandala was created with watercolor pencils and is based on the famous painting The Great Wave by Hokusai. I created it in response to scripture and as a prayer for all those suffering from the tsunami in Japan in March of 2011.

I only can draw stick figures – can I still pray with a mandala?

This is a common question, and a favorite of mine.  I see it as an opportunity for the invitation to give color and art media a consideration in one’s prayer life.  The best advice I was given regarding creating mandalas was to remember that anything drawn within in a circular frame is going to look abstract. So, this, of all art activities, is purely about the process, not the product.  The end result may have something that you connect with, but the idea, again, is to partake in the action of praying visually. And stick figures may be a part of that!  They certainly show up in mine.  My guidance is to draw a circle, and then add form and color. Words can be added, too.

What supplies do you use?

My supplies vary, since I have a love for art and art supplies.  So, one day, I may use markers, the next, colored pencils or watercolor pencils, and then on another day, chalk pastels.  It just depends on what I feel like using that day.  But other media, such as clay, collage, and fabric may be used, as well.  Whatever one likes to interact and create with can be used to pray within the shape of a circle.

Has anything surprised you about this prayer form?

My biggest surprise came early on, when I discovered that coloring mandalas is a prayer form for me, and that others have used it as well, such as the 12th century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen.

Have your prayers changed – or gone deeper – since you began this practice?

Coloring mandalas as prayer gives me an active prayer that quiets my mind.  Using art media is a deep experience, and what flows from that for me extends into contemplation in other areas of my life.  So, I would say mandalas have given me a fuller prayer life.

How did you start?  What drew (ha-ha) you to this prayer practice?

I created my first mandala as part of a reflection activity in the spiritual writer Joyce Rupp’s book  The Star in My Heart.  I have always loved colors and coloring, so it was a fulfilling experience for me. This led me to explore mandalas and art journaling further.

I fully incorporated praying with mandalas as a prayer practice after I participated in the Mandala Certificate Program given by Susanne Fincher and Marilyn Clark.

Will you be leading any retreats or workshops on this?  Or write a book?

I have led workshops on using mandalas for self-expression. My intention is to lead others to this as a prayer form via retreats, and eventually a book, and I am in the process of developing these, as well as my own website, which will eventually be linked to the following informative sight on mandala experiences going on around the world: http://english.mandalaweb.info/Home.

Thank you!

I created this mandala with colored pencils. It is a drawing of a day lily from my deceased father’s garden that bloomed on Fathers’ Day.

P.S. At the retreat, I asked Shelley how she drew such perfect circles and she said uses a cd as a template. “Oh, I could draw several circles in advance then,” I said.

“No, the prayer starts with drawing the line, of signaling that you are entering into prayer,” Shelley said. “Drawing the line comes first.”

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6 thoughts on “Praying with Mandalas: An interview with Shelley Skoza

  1. “Drawing the line comes first.”

    I have often considered my writing/journaling and my sewing as a contemplative process but I have never considered using mandalas…perhaps it’s because I view my drawing capabilities so woefully inadequate in comparison to my husband’s, the professional artist and teacher. The instruction to draw the line first really hits home with me. Just draw the line and enter into prayer instead of worrying about the visual result. It’s the process, not the product that matters.

    Thank you!

  2. For some reason I didn’t see this when you first posted it. How wonderful to see two of Christine’s community together here. I love these examples and mandala techniques. And I was particularly touched by the final two paragraphs about drawing the circle. It reminds me of an icon-painting weekend I went on years ago. The one thing that stayed with me is the need to prepare the ground of the icon carefully with layer after layer of gesso, each smoothed down in between coats. And that’s the first part of the prayer of “writing” the icon.

    • Thanks Tess!

      Yes, there is something about beginning the prayer with “the line” that stays with me. I’m still pondering it deep in my heart. ;)

      And I really like your description of preparing the ground of the icon each time–it’s as if we are called to a mindfulness toward prayer by preparing the ground or drawing the line.

  3. june,
    i, too, missed this…so glad tess posted the link on fb…wonderful interview. shelley’s experience of praying with mandalas, very much reflects my own. thank you for the introduction to her and her beautiful art/prayers!

  4. Pingback: Bounty | The Chapel

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