Learning to See

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1538650_10203828166176148_1577372805814075754_nDidn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder? 

Didn’t I come to lift your fiery vision bright?      

Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder in the flame?           VAN MORRISON

“The simple fact [is] that by being attentive, we can find ourself engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanations.”                                  THOMAS MERTON

“Though seeing, they do not see;”    JESUS (Ma 13:13)

I was adjusting the picture on my TV after we had a power blink. With a simple remote controller, I could take the picture from a jet black through a continuum of fuzzy grays, to opaque tints, and eventually to bright, sharp, and vivid colors. I then thought of how nice it would be if I could so easily adjust the quality of my own vision of the world.

Similar to the color and brightness controls on my TV, our experience of life can span from total black—the experience of a catatonic person, to bright, brilliant colors-the experience of the mystic.

While I have never lived in the black end of this spectrum, I spent some years in the “gray”spectrum – years of seeing little of what is before me except the basic outlines. I regularly hear persons just beginning their journey of recovery from addictions gleefully proclaim that they have become newly aware of the beauty of the trees and their leaves, sunrises, sunsets, as if seeing for the first time.

Beginning to see, like one waking from a coma, can be startling-like the young girl Jesus healed of her blindness, who at first saw “men as trees”, and gradually could see all things clearly, and how wonderful it all was, and how astonished she was to be able to see.

We can see more and better.

Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of essays “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” includes a fabulous piece entitled ‘Seeing‘ in which she says:

“But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get. It’s all a matter of me keeping my eyes open.”

I seem to lack this necessary “healthy poverty in my sight” when I look at everything with an equal lack of focus and interest. It is as if I am “Sleepwalking” through my day as I move from one activity to the next–Intent on getting something done or fulfilling some responsibility, rather than moving through  my day as an explorer, fully expecting a surprise at any moment. I see life in outlines and shades of gray.

In the Buddhist tradition, this would be referred to as “Mindlessness”- sleepwalking through life.

The Jewish Talmud says “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

Driving through Yellowstone park with my wife and daughter, we strained our eyes for hours looking for bear, deer, elk, antelope, and bison. When we thought we saw something, we would shout out with glee, usually to discover we were looking at an old fallen tree or a huge rock in the distance. But just that sense of taking notice made our trip so much more alive.

At night in my backyard in Federal Way, I can occasionally see the big dipper. The surrounding city lights block out most all the billions of stars’ millions of light years away that if unobstructed by local lights can be seen by the unaided eye.

In contrast, while at base camp on Mt. Adams, at 9000 feet elevation, I slept underneath the stars the night before my summit. I could not pull my eyes away from the spectacular sight of millions of stars hovering over me—there was as much light glittering in the sky as there was black space between. In a trance, I watched the sky as the international space station floated across my vision at 17,150 mph.

In those moments, I am compelled to express something, yet find myself unable to. It is “Awe-Full”a moment full of awe. The world in these moments of seeing reveals itself to me as a lavish gift of Wonder.

While I cannot control the amount of city light that obstructs the beauty of the stars, I can choose to restrict the unnecessary distractions competing for viewing time with natural light I am given each day- that which I am meant to focus on.

To learn to see in this way—to see underneath and behind all things, at the wonder and mystery of every little thing, and to pass over the distractions, is to charge ones experience of life with “Gods Grandeur” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote.

Stewart Edward Wright said,  “I have always maintained that if you look closely enough, you can see the wind—the dimly lit, hardly made-out, fine debris fleeing high in the air.”

Over time I have become conditioned to see just what I expect to see. The familiarity of my day is like the lights of Seattle drowning out the light of the Universe trying so hard to penetrate my vision. I must change my expectations of what I will encounter each day.

                    “Forget assumptions – Just Watch!” Marylyn Robinson

Mysticism—the journey of a soul to that perpetual state of complete Union with God, is classically divided into three movements; Purgative (detachment), Illuminative, (a renewed mind and vision) and Unitive (union with God). Once a desire to become one with God takes hold (purgative) one enters a life of seeing with new eyes, or the “Eyes of the Soul” – a type of seeing that perceives the unity of all created things with the Creator-  where there is no separation from either the creator or each other.

St. Paul said in I Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”

Thomas Merton saw with the eyes of his soul as he walked the streets of Louisville, KY one afternoon. He was struck with the unity he experienced with complete strangers, who he recognized suddenly as his fellow human beings. He later wrote about this experience, saying “My dear friends, we are all one, we just imagine we are not!”

Jesus walked on earth with a supreme contemplative /poetic vision. He saw the profound truth in everyday life, from fig trees, to sowing seeds, to the birds of the sky and the flowers of the fields, to observing a widow giving all she has. From these word pictures that arose from an attentive eye comes the lessons of living a full life.

Jesus said, “Unless we become like a little child we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” He also said that the kingdom of heaven can be found within us, here and now. How? It is by seeing, as a child does.

Have you ever noticed a toddler on a walk with his/her parents? How the toddler can only go a few feet without stopping, stooping all the way to the ground to peer at an ant climbing a blade of grass, and not wanting to leave—the parent having to tug on the child to continue this “purposeful” walk?

The child is peering into the kingdom of God—that fourth dimension that as adults we have lost sight of.

Unless I make a conscious decision to take notice, I do not see anything.

There is a Talmud tale of a young Rabbi who brags of seeing angels in his dreams rolling away the light from the darkness at night, and the darkness from the light in the morning. His teacher responded, “Yes, in my youth I saw that too. Later on, you don’t see those things anymore.”

Unless we become like children….

There is a lavender bush at the edge of my front walkway that I pass every day to enter my home. In the summertime as I pass it by, it is full of bumblebees buzzing over the pale purple blooms to sup on nectar.

One day, something caught my eye. I noticed at the top of one lavender flower sat a dead bee—it had perished in the very act of sucking for its life the blooms nectar. All around this bee buzzed dozens of others, taking no notice of this dead bee. The image grabbed me, haunted me, and demanded of me a response—so I wrote this poem:

I watched a bee die while drinking

Its fill of nectar from a lavender bush.

I wonder if it came as a surprise.

Did he suspect what was in store for him this day?

Lying still on the tip of the flower, seconds before

In ecstasy, doing what it loved best.

I wonder when he woke this day,

Did he consider it may be his last?

I wonder did he know to drink from that flower

as if it would all end so quickly,

Or did he lazily drink, thinking time abundant

While brother, sister, and cousin bee darted and buzzed from petal to petal,

Too pre-occupied to notice their deceased kin.

I wonder if he would be missed. I wonder if he had regrets. I wonder.

Flicking the bee off its final perch, I watched it fall to the ground.

Rolling lifeless until it stopped.

 Both poetic and contemplative vision comes from this same effort to see underneath all things—to go through daily living taking notice. For me, this applies so much more than to nature alone, (although that is the best practice ground for seeing.) I am filled with even more awe and wonder as I take notice of the most wondrous of all creations, the human being. I think we are more indifferent to noticing the fellow human beings we pass each day than all of nature.

In the fabulous German movie  “Wings of Desire”, two angels roam the earth, able to hear the inner thoughts of humans—all the hope, the joy, but also the worry, the anxiety, the despair, the disappointment, the lonely cries. The angels, being spirits, were unable to lift a finger to relieve the emotional pain they see everywhere. This so frustrates one of the angels that he chooses to exchange his immortality for the mortality of being a human—so to be able to help.

By taking notice, by looking closely, can I see the face of worry, sorrow, depression, and despair that is there, every day, right in front of me in my neighbor, family member, co-worker, friend?

Or in my parish church, in support groups, at the coffee shop, in the cubicle at work, in the face of a teenage daughter or son, in the airport or on the commuter bus?

How can I enter into that space with my fellow traveler, and if nothing else, seek to understand, pray for, and stand with them. This is the place seeing will lead you and me.

Going from physically seeing something to have that contemplative/poetic vision that enters into my life – to see something with the “Eyes of the Soul,” is  a process— another spiritual practice that requires deliberate effort.

The Process is this:

Seeing → Taking Notice → Connecting (Empathy)→Responding → Acting (Reaching out, engaging, charity, prayer)

If you need your vision controls adjusted from gray to vivid and bright, try something new this week:

  1. Get out in your yard, or a park, and try seeing like a child. Look intently and closely at some minutia of nature. Linger over it. What do you see the first 5 seconds – the next 10 seconds. Look for 30 seconds at one thing. What does it speak to you? What is your response to this? How does your response change the closer and longer you look?
  2. When you are out, pay close attention to the people around you. Look at their faces, their body language—are they enjoying themselves, or are they stressed, or irritated, or worried? Then, pray for them as if you were their Garden Angel. Today you just might be.

When I really see, I get to enter into a fuller life. I move through my day with that poetic/contemplative seeing that takes careful notice of nature and the fellow travelers I brush up against.

Seeing with the eyes of the soul is to look with empathy and out of that empathy gain a desire to connect, moved from the heart to act in love and gratitude. This is how to see as a child. This is how to live a fuller and richer life. This is living in the fourth dimension. This, is the Kingdom of God.

Kind Regards,







One Response

  1. Rita Keough

    August 13, 2016 11:45 am

    My go-to guy for remembering to be present and aware of the miracles that surround us is Moses. He saw the burning bush that was not consumed and recognized it as something special. I have to ask myself how many times have I not noticed or even questioned everyday miracles in my life. Being in a state of awareness Moses took off his shoes and conversed with God. He is my model of being aware, open and receptive.

    I appreciate hearing about the practice of not only noticing the people around us, but saying a prayer for them. I will begin doing this.

    Thank you for your fine blog work and giving us new glasses to aid our ability to see.


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