Dearest monks and artists,
The Gospels are filled with stories about seeing, or not seeing, as the case may be. On the road to Emmaus the disciples are walking with Jesus and breaking bread with him. We read that their “eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:16) When Jesus returns in resurrected form, he is fully embodied, yet hard for them to see clearly. The disciples do not expect their dear friend to be among them again and so they miss this truth with their limited vision.
We find a similar emphasis on vision in the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. The burning light that once appeared to Moses in the bush now radiates from Jesus himself: “His face shone like the sun.” For the ancient writer Gregory Palamas, it was the disciples who changed at the Transfiguration, not Christ. Christ was transfigured “not by the addition of something he was not, but by the manifestation to his disciples of what he really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see.” Because their perception grew sharper, they were able to behold Christ as he truly is.
This speaks of an invitation to see the world in a different way. When we rush from thing to thing, never pausing, never allowing space, we see only what we expect to find. We see to grasp at the information we need. We see the stereotypes embedded in our minds. We miss the opportunity to see beyond what we want. We walk by a thousand ordinary revelations every day in our busyness and preoccupation.
We move through our lives, often at such speed, that our perception of time becomes contorted. We begin to believe that life is about rushing as fast as we can, about getting as much done as possible. We are essentially skating across life’s surface, exhausted, and disoriented.
The World Breaks In
You may have had an experience where you are moving through a most ordinary day, when suddenly something shifts. Where there was drudgery and habit, suddenly you become aware of the way sunlight is spilling across the living room rug and your heart breaks open at the splendor of it all. Or you see a loved one in a new way and revel in their beauty. Or maybe it is as simple as savoring the steam rising from your morning coffee like incense lifting the longings of your heart.
Contemplative practice calls us to change our perspective and awaken to a different reality, one that is governed by spaciousness, slowness, stillness, and presence. Contemplation invites us to tend the moments and see what is there, rather than what we expect.
Moments are holy doorways where we are lifted out of time and we encounter the sacred in the most ordinary of acts. Moments invite us to pause and linger because there is a different sense of time experienced. Moments are those openings we experience, where time suddenly loses its linear march and seems to wrap us in an experience of the eternal.
We are called to open ourselves to these moments of eternity, or better yet, how we allow the moment to find us. We only need to make ourselves available to them, to receive them as the gifts that they are, rather than seek them out as something we are entitled to have.
Learning to Trust What Shimmers
Our habitual ways of perceiving the world, which help us navigate things like stopping at a red light or stop sign, also stand in the way of seeing the world in fresh and new ways. So often, we are looking for information, rather than truly seeing.
I find inspiration in the ancient practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading. In lectio, we read scripture and listen for what word or phrase is shimmering. This practice is always in service of contemplative vision in daily life. Lectio invites us to slowly see more and more of the world as a sacred text, ripe with possibility for meaning. We can expand our contemplative practice to include a kind of visio divina, or sacred seeing, where we gaze on an icon or painting we love and look for something that shimmers – perhaps a symbol, a color, a brushstroke, the play of light and shadow. And in that shimmering we know there is a gift for us, even if we don’t fully understand its meaning in the moment.
We can then expand our practice of sacred seeing even further to include what we see all around us in our daily lives. What would it be like to move through our day, watching for what shimmers, waiting to receive these moments of revelation, and then savor them?
A question I often receive from people cultivating the contemplative path is: How do I cultivate trust in what shimmers? How do I know what I am drawn to is sacred?
We are so used to moving through the world analyzing and judging, bringing our expectations to each encounter, planning for the next several steps ahead. It can feel awkward to bring ourselves fully present and draw on intuition, wisdom, and experience, rather than logic and analysis, to see what is most true. This heart-centered knowing comes through practice.
The most essential way I learn to trust what shimmers, is to ask myself if this encounter increases my compassion. Do I feel a sense of expansiveness toward myself and others? When the holy shimmers before us, it is always in the service of greater love.
As I cultivate this practice of attending to the gifts the world has to offer me, to what shimmers, I am at the same time nurturing the opening of my own heart. Our minds harden our defenses, but the heart softens and blooms forth slowly, so that we find ourselves looking with more compassion on those who annoy us, and perhaps later, those we actively dislike, and finally those we have previously ignored and not even allowed into our line of sight.
When we discover ourselves surprised by love and grace, we come to trust what shimmers forth as gift. We receive without needing to figure things out. We begin to follow the thread of moment by moment revelation, not knowing where it leads, only embracing the call to see with eyes of the heart.
Photography as a Doorway into Transformed Seeing
Photography is an especially accessible art medium in our modern world, where almost everyone carries a camera built into their phone, or small, portable cameras with good picture quality are widely available. In my book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice, I suggest ways to engage your camera as a tool for prayer and to cultivate a different way of seeing the world.
We talk in our culture a lot about taking photos. Cultivating “eyes of the heart” (Ephesians 1:18) refers to a kind of graced vision that is focused more on receiving gifts. Seeing in this way is different from our ordinary way of scanning our field of vision for the information we want to find. Instead, it is a spacious gaze which savors each moment.
In the Benedictine monastic tradition, everything is considered sacred. The stranger at the door is to be welcomed in as Christ. The kitchen utensils are to be treated just like the altar vessels. The hinges of the day call us to remember the presence of God again and again, so that time becomes a cascade of prayers.
Photography can become an act of deepened awareness and love. We can begin to see the everyday things of our lives as openings into the depth dimension of the world: the bird singing from a tree branch outside my window, the doorbell announcing a friend’s arrival, the meal which nourishes my body for service. Each of these moments invites us to pause and to see it through a different kind of vision.
Call to mind a time when you were so present to the moment, to the sheer grace of things. Then the thoughts broke in which seemed to wield only criticism and dissatisfaction. Maybe you remember the items still languishing on your “to do” list back at home and you felt an anxious dread. Contemplative practice cultivates our awareness of this pattern, so that we might be able to change it. We can become aware of our thoughts and gently release them. When moments come to visit us, we are then able to savor and bask in wonder rather than reach for what is next.
Contemplative practice also cultivates our profound awareness of life as an unending stream of gifts. From this arises the impulse to create. When we open ourselves to the sheer grace of things, we tap into a source of inspiration. We feel moved to create something out of that gratitude.
For me, the creative practice of photography can be a powerful doorway into transformed seeing. When we open ourselves to receiving photos, rather than taking them, we are offered a gift. By bringing the camera to the eye and allowing an encounter with the holy to open our hearts, we might be transformed.
Look through the lens and imagine that it is a portal to a new way of seeing. Let the focus of the frame bring your gaze to the quality of light in this moment or the vibrancy of colors. Pay attention to what is shimmering. Even five minutes can shift your gaze to a deepened quality of attentiveness. No need to capture everything you see, but simply an invitation to breathe in the beauty of this moment.
Let yourself be willing to see the world differently, so that what others miss in the rush of life becomes transfigured through your openness and intention. This practice invites us to walk along the road and pay close attention, make space to receive the gift of bread, the nourishment of conversation, and a vision of the sacred.
For me, photography and writing are the ways I feel most often moved to respond to the generosity of life. Try this next time you feel overcome by beauty — pause there as long as you can without moving to do something else or complete another task. And then, when there is a sense of fullness or completion, pick up a camera or a pen, and allow them to become the tools to honor what you have experienced and your expression of deep gratitude. Rather than “capturing” the encounter, let this be a prayer, so that slowly over time you might find yourself in an unending litany of praise.
Bless the World with Your Eyes
There is a beautiful practice in Jewish tradition of blessing the day. In this worldview, each act becomes worthy of blessing. Gratitude is offered for the gift of every moment: upon awakening, when crossing a threshold, eating a meal, lighting candles. The Talmud calls for 100 blessings each day.
This act of blessing is really a special way of paying attention. It is a moment of remembering wonder as our primary response to the world. It is an act of consecrating the day.
What if you imagine your eyes as a vessel of blessing? What if you moved through the day, and each time you felt drawn to take out your camera, you paused before pushing the button and consecrated what you were gazing upon?
Perhaps you might even say a short prayer: “Bless this shimmering moment, may my eyes receive its gifts, may my heart open ever wider in response” or craft your own holy words.
This is how we cultivate eyes of the heart for deeper vision, how we restore sight to the blind, our own blindness, missing what is there before us moment by moment, worthy of devotion.
(This reflection first appeared in an issue of Weavings journal)
If you want support in cultivating a new way of being in the world, we will be offering an online companion retreat to the book called Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist. A vibrant community forms under the wonderful facilitation of our discussion guides and spiritual directors Stacy Wills and Cheryl Macpherson. I offer six live webinars where we join together for meditation and questions. (These are recorded if you can’t join live).
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner (Galway City)