Learning to See

new lifeLast spring my wife, Diana, and I planted seeds in the basement under fluorescent lights; there were rows of lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, pepper, and eggplant. Each time we descended the stairs we were drawn to the soft glow in the darkness and the spindly, green shoots rising upward. We often commented on the way this tentative but steady growth had captured our imaginations and kept us in touch with the dimension of mystery in our daily lives.

It is a common event—people growing plants from seeds and then seeing them standing tall in the garden, flourishing under full sun. Yet their sheer presence and development had the power to draw my wife and me into an ongoing dialogue with the Spirit in all aspects of our lives.

The opening of human experience into mystery may happen on retreats, or on those infrequent occasions when we feel particularly graced. Mystics, however, tell us that we should be attentive to the Spirit at all times. Uncovering mystery is not limited to special times and places, and is in fact a way of living to which faith invites us. Thomas Merton (New Seeds of Contemplation), for example, insists that each moment and event of our lives plants seeds of spiritual dynamism in our souls. But, he cautions, most seeds die because the soil of the inner life is not prepared to receive them.

Jesus saw the world as an ongoing expression of the Spirit. From his perspective reality was gracious and loving, and ultimately revealed the glory of God. Drawing on images from nature, he invited his contemporaries to “look at the birds of the air,” and “consider the lilies” (Matt. 6:26, 28, NRSV). In other words, change the way you see the world and be receptive to the presence of the divine. His view challenged the conventional wisdom of his time as well as ours today. Do we see the world as dynamic, pulsing with divine energy, or as inanimate and impersonal? The answer to this question may seem to have little impact on our daily lives, but our ideas have potency. Whether we voice them or not, they affect how we respond to life.

 

OPENING OUR EYES

God is everywhere. Truth and love pervade all things as the light and heat of the sun pervade our atmosphere. But just as the rays of the sun do not set fire to anything by themselves, so God does not touch our souls with the fire of supernatural knowledge and experience without Christ.  —St. Francis of Assisi, by G. K. Chesterton

So how do we begin to see deeply? Merton reminds us that Christ is the door to all wisdom. The questions arise: Are we passionate about allowing our lives to be filled and led by the Spirit of Christ? Do we desire this above all else? Are we willing to be disciples, not simply to become familiar with the teachings of Jesus, but to follow Christ and hold fast to him? As disciples, our hearts, ears, and eyes can be transformed and we can see the world from a different perspective.

In his biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, G. K. Chesterton describes how Francis went to a cave and underwent a radical transformation. He entered with the perspective of an ordinary person and exited with the eye of a fool. His foolish outlook was more than a change of viewpoint or the adoption of an aesthetic stance; it undercut all conventional ways of seeing. Because of his conversion, the visible was no longer the primary reality. Francis saw the world immersed in and flowing from divine light, a light he also perceived within himself.

Our own transformation may not occur with such drama or intensity, but each of us is called to enter the dark cavern of our inner life and be transformed in Christ’s love. In the process, we become like the disciples on the road to Emmaus and awaken to the presence of Christ at the center of everyday experiences. As a result, our hearts burn with a steady, peaceful flame (see Luke 24:13-35, NRSV).

The grace of this vision is tested during times of loss. After attending the funeral of a close friend, I left the church with a heavy heart and was greeted by a sweet, earthy scent carried by a cool spring breeze. For a moment my sorrow gave way to a deeper vision, one of creativity, life, and hope, a perspective that my friend had reinforced in me through the example of her life. As seekers we look for hope in times of loss, and we try to find signs of the Kingdom of God hidden in the suffering and injustice of the world. However, we realize that only with the new eyes of a disciple can we discover healing in places of pain and see history as God’s history, the secret unfolding of the divine will. Nurturing the perspective of a fool, we trust that the Spirit of Christ is with us, drawing all reality to its final fulfillment when God becomes “all in all” (1 Cor.15:28, NRSV).

 

INNER STRUGGLE

When spring arrives I find myself unwilling to shed the layers of clothing that have protected me from winter cold. Several forays into warm spring days must pass before I embrace the change of seasons and allow myself to stand vulnerable in the warmth of the sun. As a child I eagerly ran outside without a coat; as an adult I am cautious.

Trusting the divine is much like this struggle to welcome spring. We hold on to isolation and layers of protection, anxiety, pain from past wounds, addictions, and complexes. We encounter the power for good and for harm in ourselves and in others. A vision of the world immersed in a divine and gracious Presence is not easy to trust. No wonder we find it difficult to open our hearts to spiritual healing, to greet the light and warmth of grace with childlike freedom and allow ourselves to be embraced by it. How do we uncover God’s light and warmth in such chaos and darkness?

Toward the end of his life, his body racked with illness, Francis lay incapacitated in a rough hut behind the convent of San Damiano. His badly infected eyes shied away from light. He could no longer see even by the soft glow of a candle. Moreover, he must have thought about the community he had cared for over so many years, now wrested from his hands. He had relinquished his official position and others were manipulating the Rule for their own ends. In the darkness he felt the onslaught of self-pity and despair. Why had he been abandoned by the God to whom he had dedicated his life? In the midst of his turmoil, Francis turned to prayer and uncovered a light deeper than his suffering and hopelessness. He envisioned the same light shining with such power and beauty at the heart of the created world that he became an instrument for a song of praise and gratitude, a canticle that joined the voices of all creatures and the cosmos itself.

This experience of the “little poor man” marks a path of radical trust that illumines both personal and cultural darkness. He shows us that if we rely on our deepest faith during times of crisis and pray for strength to rise above our winter moods, the Spirit breathing through us can create fresh possibilities that announce the new life of the Resurrection.

 

THE ORDINARY

Where do we turn to cultivate our vision? Like Francis and holy men and women through the centuries who believed the divine permeated every part of their lives, we can turn to ordinary moments and common things: seeds in the basement, flowering trees and plants, a budding leaf, muddy boots in the garage, music composed on a computer, car trips, football games, and children or parents needing our care—all of these hold the potential to surprise us.

As we learn to trust the wonder of this world, we discover the capacity to “seize God in all things,” an ability that Meister Eckhart holds up as a sign of deepening faith (Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher). Such open-hearted seeing is an ongoing prayer. No words are necessary, only attentiveness to the power of the Spirit already present in nature, in history, and within us. The heart leans toward Love and responds with acts of love. We strive to be more concerned for those who are in need and we offer compassion and service to those who are suffering. Ordinary responses to people and surroundings create an opening for the work of the Kingdom of God. Do not seek mountaintop visions but be content with Galilee experiences, advises Kathleen Norris: “We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were.” (The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”)

 

Excerpt from Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol. XIX, No. 1  (January/February 2004) (Nashville: The Upper Room, 2004), 6.

 

 

One Response to “Learning to See”

  1. Laura says:

    Beautiful.

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