I Am Seeing You

Photo by Aziz Acharki, Unsplash

”But (you will see): he brings joy.”1 — Rainer Maria Rilke

I remember reading in Laurens Van der Post’s memoir of life with the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, that the most honorable thing one could say to one of them upon meeting was, “I saw you coming from afar.”2

Van der Post, tall and lanky, had no difficulty seeing and being seen by the bushmen. What might this have meant for them? It was a valuation transcending stature, a generous extension of the imagination beyond mere physicality into the realm of kindred spirits. As brothers, they were never entirely absent from each other. Their presence in memory, more often in the flesh, was sought and desired, offered and accepted. In a landscape as trackless and sere as the moon—at least to white people uneasy in its vastness—seeing one another from a distance was reassurance that they were not alone, though separated by miles.

***

In the forest near our home, where I walk two or three times a week, I am on the lookout for deer. There are three bands that I regularly see, usually in different areas, mothers with their fawns and their teenagers. I watch for them because, to the casual eye, their coloring blends naturally into the grays and browns of the winter trees and shrubs. They know I am there far sooner than I see them, but they seem unconcerned when I come across them near the path. I’ve found that if I stop and stare, they get nervous, but if I continue, walking slowly, they accept my presence as near as five or six feet. I always speak to them, assuring them they won’t get hurt by my hand, asking them if they’ve found enough breakfast, and wishing them well. Occasionally, someone else comes along the path during these monologues and wonders out loud who I’m talking to. When I point them out, we both watch as they move lithely through the underbrush to disappear, white tails lifted like exclamation marks.

There is a watchful serenity about them, a cool tolerance of my babbling, that usually stills my voice after a few moments. The young ones, the fawns, stand on stick legs, googly-eyed and frozen with curiosity at this strange forked creature. Their mothers and cousins are more nonchalant, giving me a pitying glance before returning to their grazing. Neither of us wants to move jaggedly, but if it comes to it they will be gone in a heartbeat.

Their beauty is surely in their form and movement, but also in their demeanor. I am trying to see them, not as objects in the underbrush, but as beings with whom we share the world and whose language we cannot speak. I wish to see our world from inside their consciousness and then to bear testimony to what I have seen.

They remind me of Avatar, James Cameron’s entrancing film of another world parallel to our own, reached only through a mental transport. To know another being in that world, really to know them, is to be connected through the source of their energy, a sacred tree, that in some way sustains them in life and joins their consciousness to one another. The most intimate expression one can say to another person in that world is, “I see you.”

***

When I go to a museum or a gallery, and I linger before a painting, I am seeking the sacred, that moment in which the artist received, with the eye of imagination, what she then gathered into herself. In time, and with effort, she birthed what she received as a gift, now transformed, and so we go where we can receive it. In receiving it, grateful to have been where the gift entered the world, we let it speak to us and we answer the artist. The painting becomes the visual symbols of sound in our silent conversation—spoken music, we could say. We know the artist through the world she has opened to us. “We feel less alone in face of what we ourselves see each day appearing and disappearing.”3

The world seems so evanescent, solidity fuming up into light and air and disappearing, millions of times a second. To see someone is to gaze at the speed of light as singular particles reflecting color coalesce into the figure of the one we love. We trust the paradox of this coalescence, that what we see is the momentary residue of millions of fragments endlessly generated.

***

“It was there from the beginning; we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hand; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the word of life. This life was made visible; we have seen it and bear our testimony; we here declare to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we declare to you, so that you and we together may share in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete.” — 1 John 1:1-4, NEB

This letter, like the Gospel of John before it, begins with poetry and ends in testimony. There is an incantatory rhythm to it; the phrases invoke in the reader the slanted light falling on a company of friends whose sensual recall of “it” compels the raising of a story. “Our theme is the word of life,” a word that shimmers into being in the muscle memory of their hands, visible, maybe audible, in their memories as they bear their testimony to us.

These people have been drawn and held by something so fleeting and yet so haunting that none of them will ever feel at home again in the old dispensation, clutching their alien gods. They have seen through the “accidents” of appearances to the essence of Jesus, whom they now know as Immanuel, God-in-Christ. Their community flourishes through its collective memory, this “sacred tree” that will sustain them, though the parousia is not yet.4

“The raison d’etré of the visible,” reasons John Berger, “is the eye; the eye evolved and developed where there was enough light for the visible forms of life to become more and more complex and varied.”5 “We have seen it with our own eyes,” they testify. These are people whose memories enable a wider spectrum of light than the rest of us. They have evolved.

To see, and to bear witness to what we have seen, is to testify to an event which is unique, which cannot be repeated, which took place between ourselves and another, which bears value for others “because I hold, as it were, a particle of light, and to keep it to myself would be equivalent to extinguishing it.”6

“The witness always conceives of himself as standing in the presence of someone,”7 says Gabriel Marcel. “What we have seen and heard we declare to you,” says the author of 1 John. Do we bear witness to all the absurdity and horror of this world as well as the nobility and beauty? Those who loved Jesus could not help but see the cruelty and faithlessness of those who turned on him. It was John alone, of the men closest to him, who did not turn away from Jesus in his singular desolation. John willed to stand his ground, though the air was thick with the demons of fear and guilt.

“The value,” says Marcel, “lies in the faithful following, through darkness, of a light by which we have been guided and which is no longer visible to us directly; indeed, it can be said that it is because there is a darkness, an eclipse, that there can be testimony—attestation.”8

Maybe what the author of 1 John was trying to say is that he and the others once had Jesus with them. They could touch him, talk with him, see him. He was everything to them. He was their window to God; in all that he did they could see the living kingdom playing out in the life of a man. And then he was gone—though he promised the Spirit to them.

“What is a likeness?” asks John Berger, in his essay on seeing. “When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person’s likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.”9

Now what we have is each other. Maybe that is the closest we can come to God-among-us, the new order flaming up, here and there, as we see through the appearances to the real within each of us, making visible to each other the likeness of the invisible God, whom we nevertheless will see, coming to us from afar.

“And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete.”

  1. Rilke, Rainer Maria. “The Birth of Christ,” in The Unknown Rilke: Expanded Edition. Translated with an introduction by Franz Wright. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 1990, p. 68.
  2. Van der Post, Laurens. The Lost World of the Kalahari. New York: Morrow, 1958.
  3. Berger, John. “Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible,” in The Shape of a Pocket. New York, Vintage International, 2001, p. 21
  4. I am indebted to my wife, Joy Daquila-Casey, for the analogy.
  5. Berger, p. 17.
  6. Marcel, Gabriel. The Philosophy of Existentialism. Translated by Manya Harari. New York: Citadel, 1962., p. 95.
  7. Marcel, p. 93.
  8. Marcel, p. 98.
  9. Berger, p. 19.

The Ignored Familiar

Photo: Erico Marcellino, Unsplash.com

“This or that particular, in nature or in a person, which will probably be the ignored familiar, is not to be forgotten or overlooked; it is to be noticed, and maybe (in the world of a great artist) made to glow with light.” — Michael Mayne1

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard opens up the agony and (occasional) ecstasy of writing. “This writing that you do,” she says pitilessly, “that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.”2 The reader comes in from the noise of the street of life, and picks up your book, she says. He or she can’t hear a thing. “It will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs.” Learn a trade, she cautions the young writer. Something to support your consuming addiction of laying down a line of words and seeing where it leads.

Perhaps less tongue-in-cheek, but no less heartfelt is George Orwell’s famous admission that “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”3

We who love books can only be grateful that these tortured souls persevered. From their travail is birthed for us flights of imagination, ladders to the sky, that line of words laid down which carves a path through the wilderness. Seamus Heaney, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995), found that “The achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of release . . . A plane is —fleetingly—established where the poet is intensified in his being and freed from his predicaments.”4

At the end of a long journey of false starts, glimmers of light that dance away and fade, rockslides that block the path and countless other metaphors, there is a moment in the bracing sharpness of clean, mountain air. From the summit, one takes in the view with joy and gratitude. However momentary, that is reward enough. Down below, in the shadows of one’s achievement, is the valley which one must traverse on the way to the next peak.

The popular stereotype about writers, that they wait for inspiration, is only half right, but it’s the half that students often claim in the backwash of a late paper. Writers do wait on inspiration, but it’s a waiting that is active. “Arse in the chair,” says Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, and other bestselling novels. That’s the only way the words will show up, and if no one is home or that writer is mesmerized by YouTube, the moment may pass with nothing to show for it. “You lay out a line of words,” says Annie Dillard, the most basic and necessary move that can be made.

“An intellectual must always be ready to think, that is, to take in a part of the truth conveyed to him by the universe,” wrote the Dominican priest, A. G. Sertillanges, in 1921. “The Spirit passes and returns not. Happy the man who holds himself ready not to miss, nay rather to bring about and to utilize, the miraculous encounter! Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy . . .”5

Sertillanges wrote his book, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, for anybody who wanted to think—and capture those thoughts—in a more disciplined and systematic way. His book, while compact and serious, is not an “elitist” work; that is to say, it does not recognize the great divide artificially constructed by those in American culture who regard “book learning” with suspicion. For him, thinking and studying, writing and art, are avenues of the Spirit. “Listening to oneself is a formula that amounts to the same thing as listening to god. It is in the creative Thought that our true being lies, our self in its authentic shape.”6 This takes time. The most mediocre mind, he says, can come up with a brilliant idea: the difficulty is cutting that into a jewel and placing it in a setting that illuminates its brilliance.

Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer, strikes me not only as practical and wise words for writers, but as a witty, philosophical, and tender parallel to the work of faith. Yes—I put those two words, “work” and “faith,” together. More on that later. “Do not allow your heart to harden,” McCann encourages us. “Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local . . . Transcend the personal. Have trust in the staying power of what is good.”7

***

Annie Dillard’s first non-fiction book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), garnered her the Pulitzer Prize at the young age of twenty-nine. It chronicled a year that she spent in the company of Tinker Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is a work of seeing—of regarding, with attention and patience—the life beneath the leaves and the waters. Dillard thinks of it as a “work of theology.”

She notices that a flock of migrating red-winged blackbirds are noisily feeding in an Osage orange tree down by the creek. She approaches carefully—and a hundred birds fly away. She walks closer and another hundred lift off and vanish into the sky. “Finally I walked directly to the trunk of the tree and a final hundred, the real die-hards, appeared, spread, and vanished. How could so many hide in the tree without my seeing them? . . . I wandered downstream to force them to play their hand, but they’d crossed the creek and scattered. One show to a customer . . . It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open.”8

How much is there, just beyond our present gaze, close enough to fingertips, welling into consciousness, if only we are aware! I am beginning to understand how a God who is near to us but not visible, transcendent but accessible through the world and the Word, can be apprehended. Michael Mayne, one of the handful of great poet-priests in the Anglican tradition, writes of the cantus firmus, the deep bass line that anchored medieval plainsong, as being akin to that which we discover is authentically ours and authentically us. He sees it as comprised of three strands: human love and friendship, experience of beauty and order found in art, literature, music, and nature, and “the third strand, undergirding the whole, has to do with those ultimate existential questions that come under the general heading of ‘faith.’”9

It is the business of writers, artists, musicians, to notice and to pay attention. That which counts as inspiration—the drawing in of breath—comes as the shock of the new emerges from the “ignored familiar,” to use Mayne’s phrase. The familiar story in the Gospels, read a thousand times until its edge is dulled, comes up fresh and new through the eyes and thoughts of the writer, the preacher, the artist, each of them alive to story as the touchstone for unexpected treasure.

To be sure, this experience is not always a common one. Sometimes we go through the motions, looking but not seeing, reading but not comprehending. This is where the Spirit enlivens us as we are receptive—and that, I think, is key—when we look for the unseen and expect the unexpected. Like a writer, this waiting is not passive, but an active receptive spirit tuned to the faintest vibrations that may come to us. Our faith is our constant experience of seeking and finding, rousing ourselves to “lay out a line of words” in the hope and trust that it will lead us to our story.

Amidst the din of our culture and times, this seeking takes effort. It may seem that the signs around us point in any direction but toward the Spirit. We must be alert; there will be no thunder and lightning, no shaking of the mountaintop. The Welsh poet-priest, R. S. Thomas, muses about the Spirit’s movements, so essential in our understanding as people of faith and as thinkers and writers:

“As I had always known

he would come, unannounced,

remarkable merely for the absence

of clamour. So truth must appear

to the thinker; so, at a stage

of the experiment, the answer

must quietly emerge.”10

All our seeings—the remembered, the present, the yet-to-be-seen—are blazing portals to the holy. Leaping through, we may glimpse a burning bush, hear “a still, small voice,” squint against the light cast into the desert by a stairway to heaven, and—catapulted forward by centuries—peer through an open door to a room where a man asks for a piece of fish from his dumbstruck friends. All these stories transcribe the notes of the cantus firmus by which we live and sing.

  1. Mayne, Michael. This Sunrise of Wonder. American edition. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books, 2012. pp. 175-176.
  2. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1989, p. 17
  3. Orwell, George. Why I Write. Great Ideas ed. New York: Penguin, 1984, p. 10
  4. Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. p. xxii.
  5. Sertillanges, A. G. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. Translated from the French by Mary Ryan. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987, p. xix.
  6. Sertillanges, p. xx.
  7. McCann, Colum. Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice. New York: Random House, 2017, p. 4.
  8. Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Bantam Books, 1974, pp. 17, 18.
  9. Mayne, Michael. The Enduring Melody. London: Dartman, Longman, and Todd, 2006, pp. 6, 7.
  10. Thomas, R. S. “Suddenly,” in Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, 1993, p. 283.

Planks and Sawdust

1GreenEyes:alexandru-zdrobau-84424-unsplash

“He answered me:

‘Like someone with faulty vision, we can behold

Remote things well, for so much light does He

Who rules supreme still grant us; but we are foiled

When things draw near us, and our intelligence

Is useless when they are present.’” Dante, Inferno, Canto X:100-105

In Dante’s Inferno the damned in the sixth circle of hell are allowed to see far into the future, but in a remarkable detail in God’s plan they know nothing of the present nor can they see what is happening right in front of them. In life, consumed by ambition and the grasp for power, they ignored those closest to them, while they schemed and strategized against their enemies. In the chess game that was 13th-century Florentine politics, these men planned out their deadly moves against their opponents, while they could not see clearly how their actions affected their own families. In Dante’s Hell, the sinners are cursed to suffer the symbolic effects of the sins they committed in life. Because they did not see on Earth they will not see in Hell.

***

Luke 6 is about the relationship between our intentions, our character, and our actions, and how those actions reverberate throughout the circles of our relationships. In contrast to Matthew’s sermon given from the mountain, Luke’s version has Jesus coming down from the hills at daybreak and choosing twelve out of the crowd of disciples, (in Greek mathetas, ‘those who follow’) and designating them apostles. Then he stands at the foot of the hill, “on level ground,” and addresses the hundreds who have come from Jerusalem, and from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, to hear him and to be healed.

It’s a message that exactly reverses what we might expect. We’ve skimmed it so many times that we no longer see how radical it is, how the good news it proclaims is bad news for some, how confounding it must have been for those who thought Jesus was launching his Messiahship.

He begins with the punchline, the message that was most pointed, that like an arrow pointed to the largest group listening to him that day: “How blest are you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours.” The words that follow are paradoxical: those who weep now will laugh, those who are hated will dance for joy. Then, with a hinge that shows Luke’s literary skill, the reversals are stated. The rich have had their fun; now they face hardship. The well-fed will be hungry, those who laugh will be weeping.

The clincher is that those who mourn now stand in a long line of people who have suffered unjustly, including the true prophets of old, and those who garner all the praise now should know that people spoke well of the false prophets back in the day too.

Jesus then turns to such politically incorrect sayings as “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you” and “turn the other cheek” and “treat others as you would like them to treat you.” His disciples must go beyond the reciprocal manners of doing good to those who do good to them; that is just standard social courtesy. What the kingdom expects has a much deeper meaning, one that transforms relationships and begins with self-awareness and humility.

Jesus’ social communication skills reveal a person who challenges us to exceed the minimum in social interaction. “Pass no judgement and you will not be judged,” he says, “do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” That’s the minimum. Just as “sinners” (those who flout the finer points of the law or whose professions place them outside the community) love those who love them most people know they’ll get back what they dish out to others. There is a common ethic that most people subscribe to, an enlightened self-interest that expects some give-and-take and is willing to give some leeway to others until pushed to defend oneself. In that way, we can claim to be as good as we are expected to be.

But to be disciples, those who follow Jesus, there is a higher standard that comes from love. Duty does the minimum, but love attempts the maximum. Duty follows the rules, but love seizes opportunities. Duty does what is required and no more, but love acts spontaneously. Duty wants a receipt; love says, “Don’t worry about it.” The “sons (and daughters) of the Most High” will be compassionate toward the ungrateful and the wicked, just as God is compassionate.

He offers them a parable about the blind leading the blind and both falling into a ditch, and then he follows up with a parable that speaks of the kind of self-awareness and humility that is foundational for discipleship.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘My dear brother, let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you are blind to the plank in your own? You hypocrite! First, take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.” (Luke 6: 41,42)

As metaphors go this is vintage Jesus—heavy on the hyperbole, richly vivid in imagery, delivered with a twinkle in his eye. But he is serious. The disciples learned that no matter where they stood in the social register, they were to be leaders in ethics. They are followers of Jesus now; they will be teachers of others, and a teacher cannot teach what he has not learned. Character makes influence a live possibility, and influence, in turn, helps shape character. We’re known by what we produce, by what people around us can see of us in our behavior. “By their fruits, you shall know them” is not just a Biblical saying, it’s how we navigate our relationships and place our trust in others. As such, it’s the foundation of a society. Out of the abundance of character the fruit of the heart is grown.

Are disciples to be silent about evil and injustice then? “The ban on speck-hunting,” notes G. B. Caird wryly in his commentary, Saint Luke, “does not, of course, mean that Christians must condone evil or refrain from forming moral judgements. This is a parable about personal relationships.”

***

Most college and university teachers I know have at times suffered from “imposter syndrome,” that dread feeling that students will see right through you to the vast, empty, and echoing interior of your knowledge warehouse. If you teach ethics, as I did for many years, you feel the pressure even more. I wondered, at times, how I had the nerve to stand up in front of students who demanded at the very least that I always knew what I was talking about, and who expected, in varying degrees of interest, that I flawlessly practiced what I preached. But there is some comfort in the very realization of how much we lack; if we can see our condition we can, at least, do something about it.

In order to follow Jesus, we need to see where we’re going. It also helps to be aware of how much we don’t yet know nor do. Planks in the eye get in the way of that. What I have noticed is that if you pray for help to remove your plank God may send you someone with clearer vision than your own, someone with a speck of sawdust in her eye. Plank removal may begin when you see that person’s speck and then realize your own condition. This ordinance of humility can have the effect of deepening our self-reflection as we learn through observation. For all of us have something in our eyes that clouds our vision.

“If we are humble,” writes Thomas Merton, “and if we believe in the Providence of God, we will see that our mistakes are not merely a necessary evil . . . they enter into the very structure of our existence. It is by making mistakes that we gain experience, not only for ourselves but for others.”

Jesus once restored the sight of a blind man by putting saliva on his eyes and then touching him. “Can you see anything?” he asked. “I see people,” said the fellow, “but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus touched his eyes again, and the man looked intently, and this time he saw everything clearly. Some commentators note that Matthew and Luke did not use this story from Mark, perhaps because they were embarrassed that it took Jesus two tries to heal the man. But I think the story is meant for all of us for whom seeing clearly does not happen all at once.

Photo: Alexandru Zdrobau