When adult coloring books starting hitting the market, I was one of the first to think they were cool. I believed easily that they would help with stress, that a little time with some crayons or colored pencils might calm me, slow my breathing, and let my mind drift. I thought it might be sort of like yoga, the way I take my body through movements, the way my mind is free from my to-do lists and my worries for a little while.
The problem was I never did it.
I have coloring books—beautiful ones, gifts from friends, even ones I’ve picked out. I’ve also purchased them to give as gifts, along with little packs of colored pencils. But I’ve never taken the time to sit down with one myself, putting my mark on the pages.
Recently my friend Tara Owens, a spiritual director, teamed up with an artist, Daniel Sorensen, to create a coloring book called At Play in God’s Creation. It’s intended to function as a prayer. Tara had noticed that although she was using the adult coloring books on the market as a place to pray, nothing out there had that specific purpose in mind.
The book functions as a journey; in fact, it’s based on a labyrinth, which winds you in circles. As you follow the path, your body is engaged, but your mind is free to commune with God. It has hidden things throughout and overarching themes, but Tara wanted people to feel free just to color as well. Although prayer can be serious, it should also be fun. This coloring book is meant to reflect both sides of that coin.
Quotes from mystics are on many of the pages (their bios are in the back, if you’re curious about who the mystics are), along with questions and occasional instructions.
My perfectionist soul was looking for the perfect time, under the perfect conditions, to start in on this coloring book once it arrived. I would need good lighting, a long chunk of time, all my pencils sharpened.
When I talked to Tara about the book, she told me something that made me reconsider that approach. “There are a couple of spreads where the invitation is to just color in one little piece,” she said. “Don’t feel like you have to do everything. That was intentionally sort of a reflection of prayer; it doesn’t have to be this big elaborate thing all the time. You can say ‘Hi’ to God, and that’s enough.” In case you’re wondering, I have difficulty finding time and proper conditions for prayer, as well. Hi, I can do.
As I read over the introduction, I wanted to embrace the challenge of play. I wanted to be okay with the “messing up” of coloring outside the lines, of not choosing colors because they perfectly fit my aesthetic sensibilities. To begin this process, I opened the book to the middle instead of the front. I felt like such a rebel.
My first page looked like a dragon, and it had tiny trees at the bottom. There was a quote from St. John of the Cross that said, “Travelers cannot reach new territory if they do not take new and unknown roads and abandon the familiar ones.” It seemed a good place for me to start.
At first, I felt clumsy, picking out colors with a lot of deliberation. I was halfway through coloring all the treetops green before I realized it could be fall if I wanted. I began to make the trees yellow, orange, red, and brown.
The dragon, or whatever it was, had big sharp teeth, but its body also looked like part of a road. I pondered that as I colored, thinking about the scary or hard things in my life that have become my way forward. After a few moments I noticed that my breathing had slowed. I thought about something else Tara had said: “Play is not about overthinking; it’s about just enjoying and engaging.” How long has it been since I really played? I thought.
For so much of my life, prayer has felt like work, something I needed to do to guard against stagnation, sin, and disconnection with God. It’s hard to switch gears and think that coloring can be prayer, that prayer can be play, that God might want to play with me. Tara’s words rang in my head as I loosened my grip on getting my picture just right. “One of my favorite questions to ask God is, ‘If you were going to play a game with me today, God, what game would you play?’”
I asked Tara about her hopes for the book and how she thinks people will engage with it. “However people want to engage with the coloring book, I just hope that they meet God there,” she said. “I think part of the reason that this kind of prayer, and coloring in general, matters so much to me is that it really is getting us out of our heads back into our whole selves. Even if you’re sitting down doing it, you’re engaging your body and your focus.”
As with many spiritual practices, I had no great epiphanies during my first time coloring. But in the midst of a busy day, I stopped, sat down, and allowed all of myself to come out and play. I picked the vibrant reds, and the pinks and purples I might have chosen as a seven-year-old. With my pencils, and my posture, I whispered, “Hi, God,” and it was enough.