Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
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 or even capturing and shooting. 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.
(This reflection first appeared in an issue of Weavings journal)
Please join us for our Easter season online retreat when we will practice resurrection through contemplative photography. Our journey begins tomorrow! Details and registration here>>
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner