(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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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?
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.
"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