Creativity: Revealing the Truth or the Self?

One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after . . .
to behold the beauty of the LORD…  (Psalm 27:4)

Then Elisha prayed: “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw . . .   (2 Kings 6:17)

In 2008, I decided to purchase a camera for myself.  I certainly had no ‘philosophy’ of photography which was driving me.  I wanted to take pictures of things I enjoyed looking at, and my first interest was the trees.  I was then and am now a walk-by shooter.  I take photos of whatever catches my eye.  Excuse the pun, but I have no focus in my photography.

I discovered however that photography changed me.  It made me pay more attention to nearly everything – from color to light, from the smallest of things to the big picture of landscapes.  I became more alert to sounds and smells as well as shapes, shades and sizes. Patterns interested me and texture, and I realized that sometimes photos told stories.  I realized that unlike language which one has to know to communicate, photos are a somewhat international language which people can understand and appreciate no matter what their native tongue.

I’ve never even risen to the level of being an amateur photographer, for the root of that word means “a lover of …”.   And I know that while I have enjoyed photography, I’ve not loved it so much as to study it or learn how to improve my skills.  I do a lot of trial and error and don’t remember the lessons.

I read Jan Phillips’ book, GOD IS AT EYE LEVEL, with the hope of gaining insight into how to be a better photographer, but realize I probably will always be the walk by shooter and will never take the time to learn the art of photography or the science of the computer which the digital camera is.  I was intrigued by Phillip’s comments on art and creativity, somewhat because I do not share a lot of her values or experience about life, art, photographs or photography.  She writes:

“A creative act is a process of conjuring up something visible from the invisible, of transforming a thought or experience into a form that can be perceived or encountered by another.  Creativity is a universal human urge.  We each yearn to express our experiences in such a way that others can know them vividly and sense their significance.  Art emerges out of this urgency to share our lives, our visions and voices, fears and passions, and every work of art reveals something intimate about the artist.

Her words above are different than my inner life.  I remain an introvert and shy.  I have no yearning to express my inner experiences, no urge to be creative and show off my ‘art.’  I’m amazed when anyone pays any attention to what I’ve written or photographed.  My works are not original, but trying to frame what I see and hear and read – things that stand out from the world around me and all created by someone else.  I find her image of “conjuring up something visible from the invisible” intriguing, but see myself only drawing attention to what is visible, but perhaps overlooked.

Phillips writes:

When I look into a mirror, I see my face, my body, the form of my being.  When I look into my images, it is my soul that I find reflected, parts of myself that cannot be revealed in language.  I could tell you about myself in puffed-up words, exaggerating my abilities, emphasizing my strengths, leaving out my flaws and failings, and you would walk away with a certain notion about who I am.  If, instead, I handed you a box of my photographs and said, ‘This is the essence of who I am,’ your understanding of me would be truer, undistorted by language and interpretation.  My photographs are a direct line to my inner world.  They are the shortest distance between my soul and yours.

While I believe what she says is true, my photos do say something about me, I don’t see them as revealing me as much as they show to what I pay attention.  I’m far more interested in the world outside of myself.  Every one of my photos is an enigmatic photo of me exactly because I’m not in them.  I like to be invisible and so prefer being the photographer than the photographed.  And unlike Phillips, I think even photographs are interpreted so they are always seen through the lens of the experience of the beholder.

Again Phillips writes:

Even more important, my photographs are a direct line between my soul and me.  As much as an image speaks of the things seen, it speaks also of the person who photographs it.  In Photography of Natural Things, Freeman Patterson writes that ‘the finest images- the images that stir our souls- combine documentation of natural things with a sense of what they mean to us.’  My take on a desert dune or a redwood forest is not only different from any other photographer’s but reflects where I am emotionally and spiritually on the day when I’m shooting.  If I am feeling fearful in the face of an oncoming storm, my image will contain a sense of that.  If I am standing on mountain top, awed by the grandeur, my awe will be reflected in the photograph I make.  I listen for what my subject is saying to me, and once I know that, I can make a photograph that expresses both what it is and who I am as I see it.

The above comment is definitely one way in which I fall short as a photographer.  I don’t always think about what the subject or the scene means to me or what I feel about it.  I’m certainly guilty of allowing myself to view life only through the camera and not enjoying or experiencing what is right before my eyes.

I don’t try to capture awe or fear in my photos though I think the idea is right.  I am not as convinced as her that my take on a subject is all that different than others.  I’ve seen the photos of my family members of a given place or event which we all experienced.  We often focus on the same thing, though granted there can be variation on what each was trying to capture in the moment.

Minor White said that the goal of the serious photographer is ‘to get from the tangible to the intangible, to render the image in such a way that it becomes a metaphor for something else- usually the photographer’s state of mind.'”  (Jan Phillips, GOD IS AT EYE LEVEL, pp 91-92)

I wonder, can I see myself in my photography?

It seems to me that for Phillips “art” as just an expression of what is in the person, individualism, the person creates the art.  My sense of art is that it reveals what is there to be seen, especially the beauty.  Is that just another dandelion – another pesky weed, or is there something beautiful that we can see?    Can we see beyond the visible to the invisible Creator of beauty?  I think we can.

The difference in how we see the world is the difference in understanding  between a Transfiguration in which Christ suddenly reveals His divinity like a nuclear blast to His disciples, or one in which the disciples are the ones transformed  – everything that prevents them from seeing reality is removed from their eyes and now in the transfiguration they finally see Christ as He always is.

Phillips in her book writes about “self-discovery” and what a thing or the the thing she photographs “means to me“.  I think what art is really about is discovering the other, the not-me, so that I find my place in the world, in God, my relationship to all that is, because all that is is not my creation or just a way to find me or just what it means to me.  In discovering the other, I learn to think beyond the self, to open myself to love – loving the other and being loved by the other.  I realize their is an entire created order which I did not create but has a real Creator.  Self-discovery can quickly disintegrate into self-love which is the opposite of love, which is always oriented  in the full meaning of that word – exactly other directed or directed toward the other.  Love gives us direction, it orients us!

The beauty of photography is not what it reveals about me, but that it reveals beauty is beyond me, not limited by my ideas, but a window into the eternal Creator which can be seen by all.  The photograph gets me to stop for one second and realize the beauty of truth and the truth of beauty.

Cultivating vs Chaos

“Woe to the road if no one walks along it nor hears in it the voice of man, because it has become the den of wild beasts!  Woe to the soul in which the Lord does not pass along its route and from which the Lord does not drive out by his voice the spiritual wild beasts of evil!

 Woe to the house where the master does not abide!

Woe to the earth which does not have a farmer to cultivate it!

Woe to the ship without a navigator, because it is carried along by the waves and by the heaving of the sea and is lost!

Woe to the soul which does not have the true navigator, Christ, in it, because finding itself on the sea of frightful darkness and tossed to and fro by the heaving of the passions and beaten by the winter storm of evil spirits, it finally gains perdition!

Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ, cultivating it with care so as to bring forth good fruits of the Spirit; because left sterile and filled with thorns and thistles, its fruit finally is burning in the fire.  Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ as its Master dwelling in it, because being abandoned and filled with the foul odor of passions, it finds itself a dwelling place of iniquity.

Just as the farmer, when he girds himself to cultivate the soil, must take the tools and clothing for cultivating, so Christ the King, the heavenly and true cultivator, when he came to humanity made barren by evil, put on the body and carried the cross as his tool and worked the barren soul and removed from it the thorns and thistles of evil spirits and pulled up the weeds of sin and burned up with fire every weed of its sins.

And in this way he cultivated it with the wood of the cross and planted in it the most beautiful paradise of the Spirit, bearing every fruit that is sweet and delectable to God as its owner.”

(Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, pp 184-185)

Clothe Yourself With Christ

“‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them…But love ye your enemies and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again and your reward shall be great and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is also merciful.’ (Luke 6:30-36)

These words of Christ describe two ways. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ way is to do good to them that do good to us, to love them that love us. The other way, the way of the Gospel, takes us far beyond the natural way. Christ leads us to a deeper, supernatural way of life, a reflection of the perfect life of God: ‘Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ This commandment raises the human soul to great heights, for by it we are made children of the Heavenly Father and become like unto God.

The Lord’s commandment does not have a negative character. He does not say, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’ but ‘Do unto others that which is precious to you, which so fills your soul that you would wish to receive it from them.’ Christian asceticism is ultimately meaningless unless it has a positive character. It is not simply a matter of ‘don’t do this or that’ but rather ‘do this, and be perfect’. We struggle not merely – to divest ourselves of the passions of the old man, but to clothe ourselves with the new man, the New Adam, that is, with Christ Himself.”

(Archimandrite Zacharaias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 316-317)

We Are What We Eat: The Word of God vs The Word of the World

10539655475_2a93f2f5ba_nWhen we read a Gospel lesson like Luke 8:26-39 , the Gadarene Demoniac, we can easily get the impression that demons commonly haunt the earth and that demon possession is the most frequent problem confronting humanity.   And that would be our impression if the only Scriptures we ever heard was the Sunday Gospel lessons of the Orthodox Church year.  Yet if we study the Scriptures we note:

The word “demons” appears only 4 times in the entire Septuagint (Old Testament).  However it appears 35 times just in the 4 Gospels – but then only 6 times in the rest of the New Testament.

The word “demon” appears only in the book of Tobit in the Old Testament.   It appears 21 times in the 4 Gospels but nowhere else in the New Testament.

The notion of being “possessed by demons” – occurs only in the New Testament – 4 times in the Gospels and once in Acts.

Demon possession is not mentioned in the entire Old Testament and in fact demons are almost never mentioned in the Old Testament.  So, when we come to the Gospels and suddenly demons seem commonplace, we can ask: What happened?  Why do demons suddenly abound?

One thing that does happen in Israel is the invasion of pagan deities.   Following Alexander the Great’s conquering of Israel came the arrival of pagan Hellenism – Greek paganism which was the bane of Israel in the time of the Maccabees.  Then the pagan Roman Empire conquered Israel.  Pagan temples and pagan signs emerged everywhere in Israel.   The Jewish people readily  accommodated to this reality,  even some accepting  these gods/deities in their midst, but these gods were considered to be nothing more than demons by faithful Jews and early Christians.  Demonic influence spread throughout Israel with the influence of pagan Greek and Roman culture.   What we see in the Gospels reflects this concern – that people were being made sick by becoming accustomed to pagan religion, and making demonic ideas part of their daily existence.  Demonic influence and demonic possession took over the region as the Jewish people adapted to their political and religious reality and then even adopted some of these pagan Greek ideas.

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In the Gospels, however, the demons themselves acknowledging the Lordship of Christ.  These demons and the people they possess are telling Israel to return to and be faithful to the God of their ancestors.  The people’s inability to recognize that The Lord is not just like one of the many gods was making them all mentally and spiritually ill.   God was no longer the Lord of their lives, but rather they  saw all gods as equal and thus all gods as demons.  So they became possessed by demonic thinking.  Jesus may have been very critical of Pharisaic Judaism and the religion of the temple priests, but He was not telling them paganism is a better alternative or a more acceptable alternative.  Jesus came to rid the people of all false beliefs including wrong Jewish ideas as well as the pagan gods and demons.

In Deuteronomy 32, there is a song which Moses taught the people of Israel, rebuking them for their faithlessness, which says in part that

Jacob ate his fill;

Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked.

You grew fat, bloated, and gorged!

He abandoned God who made him,

and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.

They made him jealous with strange gods,

with abhorrent things they provoked him.

They sacrificed to demons, not God,

to deities they had never known,

to new ones recently arrived,

whom your ancestors had not feared.

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;

you forgot the God who gave you birth.   (32:15-18)

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It was because the people forgot the Lord that they began to worship the pagan deities or demons.  In our Gospel lesson, note that the man from whom the demons had been exorcised exactly did not forget God:

Now the man from whom the demons had departed begged Him that he might be with Him. But Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.” And he went his way and proclaimed throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.

Note well that usually Jesus tells those whom He heals not to say anything to anyone, but here He commands this man living outside of Israel to proclaim what God has done for him.  Perhaps when Christ is in Israel, Jesus feared that people would only misinterpret his powers as being demonic (Matthew 10:25, 12:24), whereas in the land outside of Israel, which was full of idols/demons, He wanted them to proclaim the one God above all the idols/demons.

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We might also think about  Adam and Eve trying to hide from God after sinning.  Instead of coming to God for healing, they fear God will judge them and so they try to avoid God.  This is exactly like the demons in the Gospel behave.  They have no love for God, only fear.    “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me!”  The demons too want to hide from Christ precisely because they don’t love Him and they don’t want to have to bow before Him or to be embraced by His love.

“. . . the demons are violent and destructive, seeking  injury and death of the human person; Jesus’ actions are liberating, restoring humans to tranquility and communion with self and others.”  (Willard Swartley, COVENANT OF PEACE, p 98)

The demonic is visible wherever people are seeking destruction and injury for their fellow humans – the endless list of terrorists and murderers who attack children in school or worshipers in a synagogue.  Or who send pipe bombs to politicians.   It is Christ who brings sanity to us and tranquility and communion with God.  We need to see the violence in our society for what it is.  Like in Israel of 2000 years ago, all kinds of demonic ideas abound in our midst and our making us and our country insane.

But what to do, respond with more violence?  As Christians we are called above all to be a people of prayer.  To recognize that these people possessed by violence and demonic thoughts are still part of us – both human and American.  We have to work to exorcise the demonic influence in our country through prayer and fasting.  That’s exactly what our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us (Mark 9:29).

“The possessed and insane individual remains a brother who has even a greater need not to be held in contempt or rejected, but on the contrary to be loved and helped since he finds himself in a condition of great suffering.  As St John Cassian teaches:

‘We shall not only never despise them but we shall even pray ceaselessly for them as for our own members and suffer along with them from the depths of our being and with all our hearts (for when ‘one suffers, all members suffer’ [1 Cor 12:26]).’

The Christian should feel bound up with their destiny, believing that his own spiritual destiny is linked to theirs, as each member of the body is linked to every other member.

‘We cannot possibly attain to perfection without these members or ours, just as we read that our forebears were unable to arrive at the fullness of the promise without us.  As the Apostle says concerning them: ‘All these who were approved by the testimony of faith did not receive the promises, since God had provided something better for us so that they would not be perfected without us.[Hebrews 11:39-40]’

… It is quite evident that in the eyes of the Fathers the possessed remains a complete human being, for even though the demon occupies his body and soul, he continues to carry intact within him the indelible and unalterable image of God which constitutes his true being, his profound nature, and indeed his very humanity.  In the face of this, possession is only an accident, a superficial deformity.”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, MENTAL DISORDERS AND SPIRITUAL HEALING, pp 60-61)

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Rather than seeing these American terrorists as “them”, we need to realize they are us and we as a culture have allowed these demonic ideas to become part of our lives.  We all need to repent and turn to the Lord.   There is a writing attributed to St. Macarius of Egypt which says:

“The Word of God is God.  And the word of the world is world.  There is a great difference and distance between the Word of God and the word of the world and between the children of God and the children of the world.  For every begotten offspring resembles its proper parents.  If, therefore, the offspring of the Spirit gives itself over to the word of the world and to earthly matters and to the glory of this age, it is stricken with death and perishes, whence it came into existence.  For, as the Lord says, he is ‘choked and becomes unfruitful’ (Mk 4:19) from the Word of God who is surrounded by the cares of life and who is bound by earthly bonds.  Likewise, one who is possessed by the fleshly desire, that is, a man of the world, if he desires to hear the Word of God, is choked and becomes like someone irrational.  For being accustomed to the enticements of evil when such men hear about God, they are burdened by boring conversation and their minds are bored.”     (Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES, p 230)

Many are bored with hearing the Word of God and only want to hear the word of the world.  They read and listen to their political extremist talk show hosts and web pages.  They have filled their heads and hearts with demonic thoughts – “the word of the world” – and that is why they behave like the violent and destructive demons of the Gospel.

We also see in this why it isn’t enough for any individual just to change their mind, for they are not just acting alone but as part of a greater world experience/power.  “The word of the world” is greater than any one individual, it is all around us just like the ocean is to all the creatures that live in it.  We can’t just shake it off or get out of it.  This is why we need to read the scriptures and to pray and attend church and worship God.  It is why we need Holy Communion, the sacrament of confession, prayer and fasting.

Deliver Us From Evil

“The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness – our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.

Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at the time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it – an account of Christ’s temptation.

And Christ didn’t once explain and therefore didn’t justify and legitimize evil, but he constantly confronted it with faith, hope, and love. He didn’t destroy evil, but he did reveal the power of struggle with evil, and he gave this power to us, and it is about this power that we pray when we say: “And lead us not into temptation.”

The Gospel says about Christ that when he was suffering alone, at night, in the garden, abandoned by all, when he “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt. 26:37), when all the force of temptation fell on him, an angel came from heaven and strengthened him.

It is about this same mystical assistance that we pray, so that in the face of evil, suffering, and temptation our faith would not waver, our hope not weaken, our love not dry up, that the darkness of evil not reign in our hearts and become itself the fuel for evil. Our prayer is that we can trust in God, as Christ trusted in him, that all the temptations would be smashed against our strength.

We pray also that God would deliver us from the evil one, and here we are given not an explanation but one more revelation, this time about the personal nature of evil, about the person as the bearer and source of evil.”   (Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 78-81)

Theosis: Being a God to the Unfortunate

Many Orthodox note that the goal of the Christian life is theosis or deification – the goal is not to get to some distant”heaven”.  Rather the goal is to transform and transfigure our own life and our own being, now on earth.   As in heaven, so on earth is what we pray in the Lord’s prayer.  The goal of the Christian life is not merely to get to some eschatological and transcendent location, but to become and be the temple of God – the very place where God dwells on earth!  And attaining theosis in this life means to be like God – to be a God to the unfortunate, offering love and mercy to those in need.  Fr. John D. Jones  writes:

As Orthodox Christians, we recognize the ultimate goal of the Christian life is theosis or divinization—becoming like God as much as is possible for human beings. Yet this process of theosis is not a matter of a discarnate spirituality that retreats from human need and suffering. The journey towards theosis is rather expressed through concrete acts of love and mercy in imitation of God, who is love. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes, ‘Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.’…[doing so] constitutes a sacred obligation for us to minister in Christ’s name to our neighbor; that is, to every person in need whom we encounter (cf. Luke 10:25–37).  —Metropolitan Anthony (Gergiannakis)

Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.” So wrote St. Greogry the Theologian near the end of his Oration XIV, On the Love of the Poor. This theme is basic to the oration from the start:

Beautiful is contemplation (theoria=the knowledge and vision) of God, as likewise beautiful is action (praxis). The one is beautiful because it conducts our mind upward to what is akin to it. The other is beautiful because it welcomes Christ, serves him, and confirms the power of love through good works (sec. 4)…. Of all things, nothing so serves God as mercy because nothing else is more proper to God (sec. 5)…. We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor [and] those in distress from whatever cause (sec. 6).

“Opening the Doors of Compassion: Cultivating a Merciful Heart”, In Communion, Spring 2012, p. 4)

 

Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
Selah

that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
Selah

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.

May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.

The Faithfulness of Christ

For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through  the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.   (Romans 3:20-26)

Biblical scholar Michael J. Gorman, writing about St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, notes that in biblical scholarship today there is now a strong tendency to translate and interpret St Paul to speak more about “the faith of Christ” than our “faith in Christ.”   St Paul speaks about the faith of Abraham, and so it seems correct to read him as also speaking about the faith of Christ, rather than what Protestantism wants St Paul to say – our faith in Christ.  Gorman writes:

“The bold proclamation of God’s faithfulness (“righteousness”) in these verses stands over against the dismal portrayal of humanity’s faithlessness in [Romans] 1:18-3:20. Although it appears that Paul is drawing on fragments of early Christian liturgical material (some of which are very difficult to translate), he makes them decisively his own, revealing a distinctively Pauline gospel that is, as 1:17 announced, ‘out of faith into faith.’ If we follow the majority of the most recent interpretations of Paul, which understand God’s righteousness as God’s saving covenant faithfulness, and which render phrases normally translated “faith in Christ” as ‘the faith/faithfulness of Christ’ (3:22, 25), then the faith/faithfulness of God, Christ, and those who respond are all named in this text. This appears most succinctly in 3:22:

  1.  What is manifested: God’s righteousness (=saving covenant faithfulness).
  2. Where or how it is manifested: all who respond in faith.
  3. For whom it is manifested: all who respond in faith.

. . .  Christ’s death, then, says Paul, is God’s faithful and merciful gift (Rom. 3:24, 25) as well as Christ’s faithful act. This death accomplishes two things: forgiveness for sins and redemption from sin. God “put forward” Christ as “a sacrifice of atonement,” referring to the Jewish system of sacrifices for sins (3:25). But this was also an act of “redemption” (3:24) or liberation – the language of deliverance from bondage to Egypt or any other slave master. In other words, Christ’s death deals both with sins (the deeds) and with sin (the power) – just as Paul’s analysis of the human predicament in 1:18-3:20 requires.” (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, p. 358-360)

Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart

“Lord, purge our eyes to see

within the seed a tree

Within the glowing egg a bird,

Within the shroud a butterfly.

Till, taught by such we see . . .

Beyond all creatures, Thee.” 

(Christina Rosssetti, p 57)

Christina Rosssetti is a favorite poet of mine because she helps us see through and beyond what is right before us to that other reality, namely God, that we believe in.  As we read in the Prophet Isaiah:  “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?”  (Isaiah 40:26)  We can see what the Creator created, but Isaiah implies we should be able to see WHO created them!  We can see with our eyes beyond what is right in front of us to Who made these things, and so we can know that Creator.

“By virtue of the Creation and, still more, of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) (p 1)

When our eyes are opened, we see goodness and beauty and God the Creator in the created, material things of this world.

Moses himself pointed out that it was the failure to see beyond the ‘what’ to the WHO which was Israel’s failure.

And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders; but to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear. (Deuteronomy 29:2-4)

It is a gift to be able to see what is in front of us, and not everyone is so gifted.  But to the potential in things, to see goodness in things, to see the meaning of things, to see the Creator of the things in front of us, is a special talent indeed.   This ability to see not only what is  visible to us but through and beyond the visible to all else that is revealed by the visible is one theme we encounter in  Christine Valters Paintner’s book,  EYES OF THE HEART: PHOTOGRAPHY AS A CHRISTIAN CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE.  She writes about photography as a spiritual exercise to open the eyes of one’s heart.

We do well just to see what physically is right in front of us, and yet as Paintner points out: “God’s presence is always before us.”  (p 16)   If we are willing, we can see not just what God has done but the Doer of these divine and holy things.

“Just as the bodily eyes see all things distinctly, so also to the souls of the saints the beauties of the Godhead are manifested and seen.  Christians are absorbed in contemplating them and they ponder over them.  But to bodily eyes that glory is hidden, while to the believing soul it is distinctly revealed.”  (Psuedo-Macarius, THE FIFTY HOMILIES, p 203)

But why is it that God remains invisible to most of us and most of the time?  Paintner offers one possible reason:

“The technology, speed, and busyness so prized by our Western culture foster a habit of blindness.  For all the bustle, a dreary sameness comes to mark the places where we live.  We forget that there is a vast depth beneath the apparent surfaces of things.”  (p 13)

We are in such a hurry to get to our goals, to produce our results that we cannot see the road we are on or the time we are in.  The process or journey become for us  nothing more than that which comes between us and our goal; it is nothing more than the barrier preventing us from seeing our destination.  As one current car commercial has it, while a flight may be the fastest way to reach a destination, we miss all the sights, all the activity, all of the beauty and wonder which we can only see along the road.

“We live in a product-oriented culture, where much of what we do is focused on an end goal or product to share.  When we approach art in this way, we become distracted by trying to produce a beautiful image.  When we focus on the process of art-making, rather than the product, we can immerse ourselves in the creative journey and discover the ways God is moving through our lives and how we are being invited to respond.  We release our own plans and expectations and pay attention to  what is actually unfolding within us.”  (p 3)

Her comment seems so apropos not only to photography, but says something about our captivity to capitalism.  In capitalism we see the earth and its resources as nothing more than a means to our ends, not a gift which reveals the Creator.   We fail to appreciate the art of living and want only results that produce financial gain.  If we focus only on product, we care little about the cost and waste of the process.  We are willing to denude the earth of natural resources at any cost and create mounds of toxic waste because we only care about the identified “product.”  We blind ourselves to all else that results from the beloved product.  And we think, as long as the products I want are still available, why should I worry about what the process does, especially if I don’t have to see the collateral damage and all the destructive waste?

And as a personal confession, I will also admit that whereas I was enthralled with Paintner’s introduction, I quickly lost interest in the process she was describing!  I wasn’t interested in her process, but loved the idea she presented.

She rightfully points out that which we who celebrate the Divine Liturgy already know – that time itself can be experienced in such a way as to reveal the Kingdom of God to us.

Kairos refers to the fullness of a given moment,a moment when something special happens, something unexpected.” (pp 3-4)

Photography can help us to see the world in a new way, to pay attention to detail but also to see larger patterns as well as the bigger picture, to see the Creator who made all things.  This enhanced vision, seeing with the heart, is a goal of the spiritual life.

May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened (Ephesians 1:18)

 

 

Tomorrow You May Die is Never True

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.

The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”  (Luke 16:19-31)

See also my blog Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Twenty-five years ago there was an article in NEWSWEEK magazine entitled, “Our Fear of Dying”, 4 October 1993.  The author, Daniel Callahan made several comments that still seem true today:

“As a health obsessed society, we do not know what to do with death, other than to try to control it.”

Callahan mentioned the American medical enterprise invests heavily in trying to overcome diseases that lead to death – a veritable war on death.  He noted that in the medical enterprise in America there is

“… the potent assumption that death is essentially an accident, correctable with enough money, will and scientific ingenuity…”

If America put enough of its wealth and entrepreneurial spirit into it, medical science would make death itself a thing of the past.   Callahan wrote that other modern cultures around the world were much more at peace with human mortality.  America perhaps was in a great deal of denial about what it is to be human.  About the time that he wrote that article, I was a speaker at a continuing education event for doctors at a local university, speaking about end of life issues.  I remember clearly how the surgeons in the group were almost never ready to admit that there was an end to treatment for patients and almost all felt there was always one more thing that could be tried.  The family practice doctors on the other hand seemed to have a clearer sense that there was a point where you have to admit there is nothing more you can do medically for a patient.  Callahan argues that we

“… should seek to educate physicians to see death not as an accident that medicine has failed to eliminate, but as a permanent part of the human condition that requires medicine’s good care, a fitting and inevitable final goal of the entire enterprise.”

Our fear of death drove us to denial about its reality, leading to our throwing money into an effort to defeat death, and yet Americans like all humans continue to die daily.  We may increase life expectancy, but we  should expect death as well.  We dream that medical science can eventually conquer all the causes of death, that there really is absolutely nothing to limit our human ingenuity and drive.

Perhaps we should read again the Genesis account of the tower of Babel.  Those folks too believed nothing could limit them.  But that Is another story.

The Bible reminds us that death has a spiritual cause.  We cannot eliminate death by using only medical means.  Death is related to sin, and has something to do with our own spiritual lives and our relationship to God.  Or, more accurately our loss of a relationship to God.

Everything in this world comes to an end, everything has a  limit – a great basketball game, a wonderful symphony, the beauty of autumn, an exquisite gourmet meal, a spirited dance, a football winning streak.

Death can only be cheated through our own repentance, our establishing a right relationship with God.  Godliness sees us through the experience of death into the realm of eternal life.

Some years ago I saw a poem written during the Byzantine Empire.  It said:

Eat, Drink, be merry for tomorrow

You may die.

But you never do.

You never die tomorrow, for the day of your death is always this day you are in, and there is no tomorrow for the one who has died today.  The poem points out to us a fallacy in our thinking which makes us believe we will live forever since tomorrow never comes.  Today, however, is the day.

Some ask the question, why do we die at all?  Why is there death.  We Christians might respond by saying that is the wrong question.  The real question is  “why is their life?”  Why does anything exist at all?

It all exists because of God and God’s love.  Death brings this life to an end, but death cannot change the purpose of life, which is to love God and be in communion with God.  Death cannot separate us from the love of God.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.   (Romans 8:35-39)

Many people wonder what happens to us when we die and it is a common question asked in churches.  All kinds of speculations exist and descriptions of life after death, even in Orthodoxy, toll house theories and the like.  Read the Gospel lesson above (Luke 16:19-31), it too gives a description of life after death, albeit in a parable, so it is not trying to give an accurate portrayal of life beyond the grave.  But in the parable ultimately the rich man now in his life-after-death situation wants to try to reach back to the people he left behind in the world.  There is this irony –  We in the world are all wondering about life after death, and he in the afterlife is worried about those living in the world!  And basically the parable is not teaching us about what happens to us after death, but a warning to us to pay attention to how we live while on earth.  The afterlife cannot help us live properly on earth and living correctly on earth is far more important to our Lord Jesus than the life after death. He who proclaimed His kingdom is not of this world spends very little time talking about life after death.

We might remember that according to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve in the garden of Paradise, after they sin, they try to hide from God.

Notice how different our Lord Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane, in His deepest prayer He desires to be with God and not be left alone.

Both were facing death, but for Adam and Eve death meant separation from God and they chose death and that separation from God.  For Christ, death could not separate Him from His father.  Death is no friend for Jesus.  Christ sees beyond death to eternal life and an unending loving relationship with God our Father.  Christ chooses eternal life.

Humans were created for immortality, death is a disintegration of the human.  But our battle with death is a spiritual battle which cannot be fought by medicine alone.  The medical enterprise will not bring an end to death.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, shall live.” (John 11:25)