“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)