September 8, 2015

BEST OF RNS: Coloring books for grown-ups: A spiritual practice?

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A stack of adult coloring books inside an A.C. Moore craft store. Religion News Service photo by Leslie Miller

A stack of adult coloring books inside an A.C. Moore craft store. Religion News Service photo by Leslie Miller

(As 2015 draws to a close, we are republishing some of our favorite stories from the past year. This story by Leslie Miller was first published Sept. 8.)

(RNS) Alison Gary used to go to church on Sunday mornings, but lately she’s embraced a different ritual: staying home and coloring with her 6-year-old daughter, Emerson.

These days “I’m more into having time at home every Sunday morning,” said Gary, 40, a webinar producer and fashion blogger from Greenbelt, Md. She finds coloring “a meditative way to calm my mind, refocus” and clear her head for the coming week.

“Emerson and I color almost every Sunday morning,” Gary said, while her husband, a yoga teacher, cooks and listens to music. “I let my mind let go, and I feel more connected to the world, more centered.”

Alison Gary of Greenbelt, Md., colors on Sunday mornings with her daughter, Emerson, 6. She posted this photo recently on Instagram. Gary says she has been coloring for over a year, and finds it ‘a meditative way to calm my mind, refocus and get centered.” Photo courtesy of Alison Gary

Alison Gary of Greenbelt, Md., colors on Sunday mornings with her daughter, Emerson, 6. She posted this photo recently on Instagram. Gary says she has been coloring for over a year, and finds it “a meditative way to calm my mind, refocus and get centered.” Photo courtesy of Alison Gary

Gary is not the only grown-up rediscovering the contemplative joys of what once was considered a childish pastime. Coloring books with intricate designs marketed to adults now top best-selling book lists: On Amazon, they’re in five of the top 20 slots.

And they’re hot sellers at art and craft chains such as Michaels and A.C. Moore,  where they’re stacked in bins alongside colored gel pens and markers.

Many books feature circular mandalas and Zen patterns, as well as mystical peacocks and other exotic animals and plants, like those in Johanna Basford’s “Secret Garden” and “Enchanted Forest,” two top titles in the category.

While adult coloring is mostly being marketed as a balm for the stress of modern life, many fans, like Gary, also describe it in spiritual terms.

Which raises the obvious question: Can coloring seriously be considered a spiritual practice?

Some may scoff, but “it can become more than just coloring, if you want it to,” said Sybil MacBeth, author of the 2007 book “Praying in Color.”


READ: Gregorian chant has continuing appeal for secular listeners


In that book and a handful of spinoffs, MacBeth shares techniques to “incorporate the intention of prayer into coloring,” by doodling names of people or events, and intercessory requests such as healing and peace.

MacBeth, a “dancer, doodler and former community college math professor” married to a retired Episcopal priest, believes coloring and doodling can be powerful prayer practices — a revelation she stumbled upon by accident.

During a difficult time when several members of her family had cancer, “my prayers felt pretty puny,” she recalled. But one day while sitting on her porch doodling, “I realized after a while that I was praying.”


READ: How moms set children’s spiritual compass and why it matters


She had a page full of doodles with people’s names, including a sister-in-law diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Through her doodling, she said, “I was spending time with Sue and releasing her into God’s care.”

What started as an “accidental spiritual practice” has now become “an intentional one,” she said.

Sybil MacBeth is a longtime doodler and the author of "Praying in Color." She posts samples of her doodled prayers, and templates to print out and color, on her blog at prayingincolor.com. Photo courtesy of Sybil MacBeth

Sybil MacBeth is a longtime doodler and the author of “Praying in Color.” She posts samples of her doodled prayers, and templates to print out and color, on her blog at prayingincolor.com. Photo courtesy of Sybil MacBeth

She has shared her technique not only in her books and on her blog, but in more than 150 workshops and church retreats, for both Protestants and Catholics.

“Doodling sounds so stupid,” MacBeth said, but when she prays, “my body needs to participate.”

So what is it, precisely, that can elevate coloring or doodling to a spiritual practice?


READ: Losing their religion: More women join the unspiritual set


For MacBeth, it’s “when my mind, body, spirit and soul are all in the same place … and my mind doesn’t wander — that becomes a spiritual practice.”

Gary, who was raised Unitarian Universalist, takes a similarly holistic view. For her, church was always “more about spirituality than a specific doctrine,” she said.

MacBeth knows that some people color “just to relax and de-stress,” but “from a Christian perspective, that’s when God can break through.”

The trend has yet to break through to the Catholic bookstore market, however, where adult coloring books are nowhere to be found.


READ: Christian authors’ new publishing option: Amazon


“Most Catholic stores — physical and online — are buying from a certain set of suppliers who cater to the Catholic marketplace,” said Helen Fountain, vice president of merchandising for The Catholic Company. “Perhaps their newness means the books just haven’t reached the point where they are visible to Catholic stores, including us.” 

But MacBeth sees potential interest among religious people, and others do too: There are already books geared to hymns, psalms, Bible stories, Judaica and more.

“We are people of ritual — we get up and brush our teeth, have our coffee — it gives form to our day,” she said. “And in the same way, doodling and coloring can give form to our prayer.”

High-profile fans of her technique include popular spirituality author Lauren Winner, an Episcopal priest and assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. “ ‘Praying in Color’ is, without exaggeration, the most important thing that has happened to my spiritual life in the last five years,” Winner said.

Like many Christians, “I tend to be a word person,” MacBeth said. But in prayer, “sometimes you can’t find the words,” and doodling is “a way to let go of the words.”

In doodling and coloring, “You are given permission to not have words. … There is an ebb and flow between silence and words,” and it becomes “a little mini-pilgrimage.”

“Playing and praying aren’t so different,” she added.

“Jesus said, ‘You must become like a child.’ … You’re surrendering your ego, letting down your guard. It doesn’t have a product; it’s just a process.”

YS/AMB END MILLER

  • Dominic

    Yeah, let’s color instead of practicing our Faith. I can imagine the liberal eggheads believing this activity a great answer to religious hostility. Like cave painting used to be.

  • Candy

    how do i order coloring books

  • Loren Haas

    Dominic, why are you so mean and bitter? How can anyone see the love of Christ through your comments?

  • Leslie Miller

    Hi Candy – click on the links above in the story to Amazon.com, or Michaels or Sybil MacBeth’s website, and you can find lots of options. Thanks for your interest!

  • @Dominic,

    Yeah. Why relax and enjoy life when there is so much work to do?

    “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! – JESUS (Luke 12:49)

    So humble and peaceful…that Jesus of yours.

    “Hate them all or you are not worthy of me” – Jesus (Luke 14:26)

    Seriously? Religion would do much better to abandon Jesus, Mohammed, Yahweh – ALL OF IT – and take up coloring books instead.
    “My peace I give you”, Said Coloring Book.

    Now, there is something I can believe in!

  • Dominic

    How can’t they? Replacing Mass for coloring at home is not spiritual at all…it’s a money making New Age gobbledy gook that people…..avant garde people….will see as a fabulous “breakthrough”. Color at work.

  • Dominic

    Believing in coloring books is the only goal you could master, Max.

  • Dominic

    You borrow one from your kids.

  • Loren Haas

    Is it possible that you do not personally own Christianity? Could there be other expressions besides your practice?
    Reading your posts makes me sad for you brother.

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  • Dominic

    Save your sadness for others. Replacing actual duties towards God and calling them similar is misleading and presumptuous. No one can just decide how to worship God, when it has been revealed how to do so. Everything we do can be offered to God, but it must be worthy and God-centered. Coloring books do not replace prayer.

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  • Shannon

    Dominic I don’t think they are promoting coloring instead of church and worship. I do it in addition to going to church and my daily conversations with God. Praying with color brings me peace and closer to the Lord.

  • Ken

    Coloring books are way better than prayer. Coloring a book actually makes something change.

  • Ken

    The coloring has way more effect than the prayer.

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  • wendy

    Exactly! Not instead of church or traditional prayer but alongside. I attend service and bible studies and am active in the church, but find my prayer life enhanced by coloring. With adult ADHD I find that sometimes when my hands are occupied my mind can focus. And my prayers find their way onto the pages.

  • joy curtis

    In previous eras, many (mostly women?) occupied their hands with knitting, needlepoint, sewing, quilting, etc. Many of those people probably prayed while they were working with their hands; especially those who were making kneelers for the church, clothing for their family members or friends, etc. I often pray while I am kneading bread. Probably farmers prayed while they were plowing the field or sowing the seeds. Using your hands while praying is a long-established tradition. However, it should not be used instead of worshiping God. The article mentions the lady who stays home with her child on Sunday mornings, and they color together. To me, coloring cannot replace worshiping. It might be used as a tool towards meditation, but it is NOT a replacement for worship.

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  • helen fountain

    Leslie,

    After speaking with you last week, we’ve discovered several publishers that had coloring books in the queue to be released, so we will now be adding them to our online store. Thank you for your interest in this.

    Helen Fountain
    http://www.catholiccompany.com

  • Ed

    Yeah, why replace an activity that has no result (worship) with one that does (doing something productive like knitting clothing or kneading bread)?

    Oh, wait, that would be a reasonable decision…

  • Leslie Miller

    Thanks for the update, Helen!

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  • anon

    Technically, Catholicism practices idol worship, prays to people other than Jesus, alters the holy bible, thinks they are saved by works, have sin absolved by a priest(as if that’s what the Word of God says to do) while refusing to believe you are not only saved by grace, but the fact you can talk to God through Jesus at any time just as you talk to a friend. No special “religion” or methodology. Religion strung Jesus up on a cross… You would think we have learned…and the list goes on. Completely contradicting the words of Jesus. Nobody gets to the Father but through Him folks…

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