According to Benner, we can develop in contemplative prayer through our practice of enjoying artwork. Contemplation is the prayerful attentiveness to God that leads to ever-deepening conversion. Christian mystics have taught the Church this way of prayer throughout the centuries.
Benner's book fills a void, as we seem to have forgotten the central place art has played in Christianity's history. Western art's vocation was primarily to educate the faithful. Contemplative Vision shows just how much spiritual teaching Western art contains. Such paintings as Caravaggio's The Call of St. Matthew can play a similar role as icons.
Some artists such as Jean Francois Millet saw their painting as a vocation to inspire belief in others. His The Angelus depicting poor French peasants praying in their potato field with a church in the far distance invites onlookers to the childlike simple faith of these two.
Readers get a clear sense of how these paintings testified to the artist's personal religious practice: "Millet himself observed how his own father never failed to respond to the bells, stopping his work wherever he was, to pray the Angelus every day, 'piously cap in hand.'"
Benner explains the meaning of the art from a Christian viewpoint, which is how such works should be presented, rather than solely through a secular, technique-obsessed stance. Regarding The Angelus, she notes the "moment of deep and quiet reverence," which unites the praying husband and wife "in a holy alliance where God is present."
Such prayerful observation of a painting, discussed throughout Contemplative Vision, invites us to something akin to lectio divina, or "sacred reading." In this Benedictine-style of perusal, we are to go over a small passage slowly and prayerfully, learning the spiritual truth behind it rather than grasping for intellectual insight. We are to use our imagination prayerfully, as in placing ourselves into a healing scene from the New Testament.
Benner challenges us to use our imagination when we look at these paintings. She shows how artists such as Caravaggio used light and darkness to emphasize the light and dark aspects of the world or the good and sinful parts of the human soul. Where Jesus stood and called someone to follow him, we see a bright yet mysterious light, beckoning the receiver out of the dark cave of sin. The other people in the painting are ugly or engrossed in the matters of the world, as with Caravaggio's The Call of St. Matthew.
Benner also shows through her analysis of this painting the timeless, personal quality of such artwork: "That hand [of Jesus depicted in the painting] seemed to be pointing at me and inviting me to turn and follow Jesus."
These paintings can give modern Christians new insights into biblical stories heard a thousand times. We often turn off and stop hearing their real spiritual depth and insight. A painting can reawaken us. Such artwork is as valuable as the writings of the saints and theologians of the Church.