I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Kate Kennington Steer’s reflection on the richness of photography within a contemplative cell.
As a contemplative photographer I thought I knew quite a bit about light and brightness, shadow and darkness. It appears I was wrong. During 2020 and 2021 a series of COVID-19 ‘Lockdowns’ have been offering me a unique opportunity to maintain a watch on the seasonal cycles of light across my bedroom walls. I have wanted to do this ever since, back in 2013-4, our online Abbess Christine [Valters-Paintner] introduced me to the Celtic rituals surrounding the ‘cross-quarter days’ which divide the weeks between the seasonal equinoxes and solstices. And so, from Beltaine 2020 (1 May) to Beltaine 2021, I have watched and marked, photographed and written about how light changes what and how I see; how watching light changes the light in me.
Yet, as we all know, 2020-21 has been a deeply odd year (to put it mildly). I have spent the vast majority of the year shielding with my parents, and as someone who struggles with chronic illness, I have spent most of it living a predominantly bed-based life. So there has been little seasonal variation in my habits and virtually no seasonal variation in the state of my health. The constant tussle I have with clinical depression has continued, as have the seizure symptoms of the Functional Neurological Disorder I live with. I have left the house only a handful of times, with trips to the doctor and hospital predominating. So I’ve not seen much of the outside world.
But then, over the last year, unless we have been a precious key-worker undergoing the relentless pressure of a physically and emotionally demanding workload, haven’t the vast majority of us seen more of the inside walls of our homes than we would normally? Whether we’ve welcomed it or hated it, this period has brought a step-change of pace, with all the attendant anxieties that such changes might pose. There are as many ways as there are reasons by which minute seasonal changes of light might have continued to pass me by in the last year, but by grace I was able to continue the long, slow, frustrating art of learning to detach myself enough from the zeitgeist of communal anxiety creeping under my bedroom door with every news bulletin; to put a brake on the hamster-wheel of my own pain-filled preoccupations; and stop long enough to look, record, remember and dream about how I feel about light in every time and season.
This fresh appreciation for the direction and intensity of light falling across the walls and windows of the room I stay in at my parents’ house is encouraging me to finish the book I have been writing since the winter of 2014/15. That year, with the help of a couple of the Abbey’s online retreats, I discovered a framework that helped me put years of chronic illness into a more present perspective. I have been exploring this ever since, in one way or another, on my blogs shot at ten paces and image into ikon, and my book Walls, Wounds and Wonders will be the result of extended reflection in word and image on a fourth-century monastic encounter in the Egyptian desert:
A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him “Father, give me a word.” The old man said to him “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Over the course of the last seven years I have spent months based in bed in one room, and I realised there was an opportunity here: what did these walls, in this ‘cell’, have to teach me?
The resulting richness has meant I have a very long first draft to edit, but the abundance this extended gratitude practice continues to bring me is beyond comprehension or explanation. I have realised these walls are pure Gift, pure Grace.
For example, these walls have provided a Sanctuary, where I can rest under large windows which have become battened-down prayers against cold winds, or thrown-open rejoicings as I listen to buzzards circle the thermals by day and owls haunt the fields by night. They have provided a Library, a hushed space where I can study, read and write when concentration allows. They have provided a Refectory, where friends can pull up a chair beside my bed and we can share a pot of tea, laugh and weep together. They have provided a Studio on the days I can sit upright and doodle with watercolour paints, pens and pencils, or collage ripped-up bits of paper. And they have provided me with a Light-Laboratory, so that on days where my vision can bear it, I can grab my iPhone and experiment, waiting to receive an image I might make part of my Facebook project acts of daily seeing.
Learning that everything which could possibly be vital for my flourishing is encapsulated within one room is such a humbling lesson. It is one I have to relearn at least once daily, particularly when the urge to accumulate, to hoard, to click and consume books or art materials overcomes me. This year’s focus of attention on the infinite variety that is light, has begun to train me to seek the antidote to such self-centredness in sky-watching, whenever my vision allows and wherever possible; breathing deeply, basking in the glory and the grace freely given for our delight and inspiration; offering up my inadequate songs of thanksgiving in response.
Kate Kennington Steer is a writer, photographer and visual artist with a passion for exploring contemplative spirituality through the expressive arts. She writes about these things on her shot at ten paces and image into ikon blogs. Join in her visual conversations on the Acts of Daily Seeing Facebook page, or follow her on Instagram. All images by Kate Kennington Steer