I started taking pictures. Or am I making pictures? Does one take or make pictures? Some moments are so wonderful that they must be taken captive in a 4x6 rectangle, a few hundred pixels. We want to possess time, or at least a moment, but the best we can do is createI a keepsake, maybe, or a memento that the past really existed. That tantrum existed. I have evidence. By the way, so did the colic.
But it’s also true that pictures are made. Created. Photographers pay attention to things like composition and lighting and mood and create their own representation of reality. We all impress ourselves upon the object of our perception. There is no objective way of looking at a flower, for instance. You decide to look at it a certain way, from a certain angle, and create a representation of reality.
Photographers can bend moments to create the stories they want to tell. There is no one narrative that must be told—at any moment there are numerous stories available to be expressed. Take the classic snapshot of the coffee cup, bible open, with the gingham filter. No one would ever know that there is a toddler screaming about hot chocolate one seat over. Nonetheless, you’ve decided to make the moment tranquil, and exclude the bratty toddler, because you have a brand to maintain. Imagine a President who takes a picture with a Bible in front of St. John's Church, but outside the frame is a group of protestors who have been gassed to make the picture. A counterfeit strength overshadows the courage of those gathered with irritated eyes and constricted lungs.
From self-branding to propaganda, each snap is a story.
I’ve always thought that art is a spiritual discipline because it forces one to look closer at the world. Here is the question that’s saving me right now: what is most beautiful about this moment and how can I display it? Artists ask this question best. These are our spiritual teachers who are trained to sit in front of a standard vase and show us that it’s not just a vase; it’s angles and light and shades. It can have a feeling—happy, sad, lonely. And then, these instructors of optometry bestow us with a greater reverence for life. Bless you.
Most of us would do well to sit with an artist for a day, and ask them to teach us to open our eyes. It’s normal to become habituated to the drudgeries of life. And quarantine, in particular, often puts a grey filter on the world so that reality looks like every apocalyptic movie ever made. Never thought I’d be living in a chapter of Cormac McCathy’s The Road. But here we are with days that fuse together to create an eternal Monday. I don’t quite feel like I’m working, but I’m not not working, either. Each day is like the last. My senses no longer expect to be surprised.
Is Monday over yet?
Amateur photography is my current method of watchfulness. It’s my newest way to share praise, thankfulness, or lament without even using any words. Art is the language of the soul, as many others have said, which makes it a kind of prayer. We bypass the need to use our words or rationality to capture hard day, express awe, or just find beauty and meaning in the mundane. I do not know what I ought to pray, so the Spirit intercedes with every wordless click.
Spiritualists might name the practice visio divina, or divine seeing. It’s a way of granting God access to the heart by turning down the volume in the brain and opening up our eyes a little wider. There is an imperative in the Christian life to be attentive, after all, to look twice at the things that the world ignores. If the entire world is an art gallery, most of us rush to the next painting without stopping to look at the painting in front of our eyes. But I’m not a big fan of water colors. Nor, am I a fan of this living room that has become an upper class prison. Let’s see what’s waiting around the corner. What can teach me to stop and contemplate the world?
Maybe the place to start is with a pencil. A paintbrush will work, too. While I’ve found that incessant cell-phone use is an escape from reality, I discovered that intentionally carrying a camera a couple times a week has helped me to watch the world a little more closely, tuning my senses in to the wonder and depth and feelings in normal life. The camera is a mnemonic device to stay bright eyed enough to notice the colors, shapes, and textures all around me. Nothing is posed, because life does not need to be posed. There's enough beauty without telling people how and where to stand. Moments are transfigured all the time—slouching in the same ole’ recliner at twilight is, in fact, beautiful.
Christianity is about a certain way of looking at the world. Saul, who was blinded on the road to Damascus, opened his eyes, but he could not see. I suspect most of us are walking around with scaled eyes. Jesus was constantly trying to reinvigorate the sensory life of his disciples. Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? The ordinariness of life is the very place where God meets us. The kingdom of God? It’s the seed. I promise, just the seed. It’s the humble, the grieving, the poor, and the meek that’s blessed. ‘Look again,’ Jesus says.
“Could you not remain awake with me for just one hour?” Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane. He might as well say it to me every day. Spread mud on my eyes, O Jesus, and teach me to see again.
I suspect that this is why Jesus called conversion new birth. John Wesley puts it like this in one of his sermon: “Before a child is born into the world he has eyes, but sees not; he has ears, but does not hear…But as soon as he is born, be begins to see the light, and the various objects with which he is encompassed. His ears are then opened, and he hears the sounds which successively strike upon them…He likewise breathes, and lives in a manner wholly different from what he did before” (The New Birth).
It’s not that the world reveals to us something about God that we couldn’t see before, but it’s the opposite. God reveals to us something about the world that couldn’t be seen before.
The world is pervaded with God’s Spirit and there’s no blade of grass or mountaintop, no roadkill or bloom, that isn’t a latent experience of God waiting to happen. Darwinian aesthetics reduce beauty to evolutionary impulses for survival—the waterfall that’s the very sustenance of life or the proportionate face that instills desire for mate. Those glimpses that are not ‘conventionally pleasing’ can also be beautiful, but it might require a trained eye. It’s the messy kitchen that’s beautiful because it tells the story of feeding two insatiable, demanding children. There is beauty in life or death, but our senses have to be attuned to a certain way of looking at the world.
God waits for us in the wrinkled hands that tend to the to sick and dying. Can the morbid be beautiful? We worship a crucified God. That’s the kind of cruciform eye glasses that God puts over our eyes. Even a temper tantrum can be beautiful if it can be caught with good light and later contemplated. Maybe it’s the child reaching out for attention that’s beautiful. I don’t want to forget the tears and neither does God. The Psalmist writes, “You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Even the tears are too beautiful to forget because they teach us empathy or instill an anger for justice. But this depends on the kind of lenses you wear, of course.
I guess it’s better to say that one makes pictures. In every moment there’s a relationship between the person and the object—the perceiver and the perceived. But it’s never as simple as apprehending something that’s waiting to be taken. Together, you make something that might have been otherwise been missed. There’s a story enfolding out of every moment. And I’m learning how to piece each moment into the larger narrative of the story I want to tell. That’s how to make something beautiful.
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