Thursday, May 30, 2013

Seeing with the "Eyes of the Heart"

I went out after work tonight and got drunk. In the woods. With my camera.

There was no food or drink involved - for it was not my body but my spirit that became intoxicated. Allow me to explain.

I first "met" Christine Valters Paintner online a couple of years ago quite by accident - or so I tell myself. I was on the internet one evening, googling something or other. I no longer recall what I was searching for but certainly it was not an online community. What I stumbled across was this: The home page of Christine's website declared itself "an online global monastery without walls" - a most intriguing claim.

As I looked over the website a bit more, in addition to monastic values, I found references to creativity and being a "soul care practitioner". Whatever I had been searching for online up to that point faded into the background. I had to explore this site.

As I pored over the list of class offerings, I found one about photography and contemplation. That clinched the deal. I knew in my heart that I was home. A few days later, I signed the Monk Manifesto and my life has not been the same since.

In these past two years or so, I have participated in Christine's free Monk in the World e-course, numerous "poetry parties", an Advent Retreat, a course on the Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a Lenten retreat and a 12 week course on "Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist" - all online. And now I have the privilege of writing a review of Christine's most recent book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice.

I don't know where to begin in describing one of the best books I have ever read. So I will start by telling you how it is that I ended up drunk in the woods with my camera.

I had brought my walking shoes and camera with me to work so that I would be ready for whatever unfolded. As the work day drew to a close, I resisted the temptation to do more at the office and inwardly invoked a blessing for what I was about to do. I felt my mind becoming quiet yet alert with expectancy. As I drove to the woods, I allowed myself to be open and empty so that I could receive whatever images might be given to me. (Whenever I found my mind returning to its old language of "taking" pictures or "capturing" photos, I gently returned it to its new language: I will walk and see what images I receive.)

Something in the distance drew my attention. I eased closer with my camera in hand and gazed with the eyes of my heart upon all that was before me. In that moment, I became aware that just a few feet in front of me was a cluster of white buds beginning to open. I had not known they were there - but I received them with delight. I journeyed on.

I walked for an hour or so, I suspect. I did not keep track of time and I had no destination. Having been to this area before, I knew that I would likely see ducks and perhaps some deer. But I did not know what I would encounter and I invited myself to see whatever was there. A blue jay and a cardinal were not to be "captured" by my lens - but I greeted them and drank in their beautiful colors. Light and shadow played with each other and both were welcomed. The creek mirrored the shore, reflecting bright spring leaves as well as complex tangles of roots.

My heart was open and I kept receiving and receiving. Until I was drunk.

I can still feel its effects as I sit here typing, like a slow smile forming deep at my center. For it is not a riotous, chaotic drunk or a deadening, stuporous drunk. Not at all. It is the quiet intoxication of a heart that has drunk of the unlimited abundance of the Divine.

As wonderful and glorious as this sounds, however, I am reminded that this journey of the heart is not always simple or easy. The way of "sacred seeing" calls me to gaze upon all that is, not just what is immediately pleasing to my senses. What might there be lurking in the shadows that I would rather not see? Instinctively, I want to turn away from those images, whether they be in the world or in myself. Even as I type this, I find myself thinking - perhaps I could just delete this paragraph and end on the happy note...

Yet to allow myself to turn away would be to allow myself to disown parts of myself and my world - as though those parts were not acceptable, not fit to be seen as part of the sacred whole. To want to see only the light and not the shadow amounts to not really wanting to see at all.

And so I am invited - to see and own and embrace the all of life, to grow beyond what I fear, while held by the deep and loving gentleness of the One who breathes life into all. You are invited too. It does not matter if you have never held a camera before - Christine's book is not really so much about photography as it is about seeing.

Let us learn together the art of sacred seeing. Whether we gaze through the lens of a camera or simply learn to gaze from our hearts, embracing each moment without judgment enables us to see the holiness in everything - even in our ofttime broken selves.

Christine Valters Paintner, a Benedictine oblate, is a gifted writer, photographer and teacher. In her book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice, you will find themes of spirituality, photography and emotional healing interwoven with such a delightful simplicity that beginner's mind emerges quite naturally, whether you are a beginner or not. Yet to plumb the depth of her words, her reflection questions and exploration suggestions could easily take months even for the most experienced photographer-monk. The story of my experience here reflects some of what this book stirred in my soul. I want to read the book again (and again), each time more slowly, allowing myself to savor all that it has to offer.

(As is my custom when we are approaching a change of seasons, I wish to share with you some of the images that I have been blessed to receive in the last few months. Click on the image below to open the web album. You may view the images individually or as a slide show. Since I decided to limit this album to 80 photos (!), check back in as I hope to post more photos/poetry/reflections in these final weeks of spring. As always, you are welcome to download any images you would like for your personal, nonprofit use.)

Spring 2013