She must learn again to speak
starting with I
starting with We
starting as the infant does
with her own true hunger
and pleasure
and rage.

-- Marge Piercy

Looking at the Real


Last week I shared a new collection of photographs on Write Click -- bottle caps, of all things -- and wrote a bit about my process (mission, obsession, what have you) for gathering those images.

In working with some of the concepts from Christine Valters Paintner's new book Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice*, I've recognized a separate but related challenge with my photography...a sense of overwhelm. It seems the more I train myself to see things, the harder it becomes to not see things, to take it all in.

Admittedly, on the spectrum of overwhelm, this qualifies as the very best kind...cherry blossoms above and below, dancing shadows of leaves, reflections of light on rain-blackened streets.  But even "good" overwhelm can ultimately be depleting.

Recently, I was fifteen minutes into a hike when I realized that the trail that usually takes me an hour was going to take three times that long if I continued at my current pace, stopping every few steps to take yet another photo. I could have simply called it a contemplative photo walk and let go of the need to get anywhere within any given time frame. But I hadn't been on that trail for several months, and that day I really did want to walk the whole thing. So I enlisted my handy Insight timer app and set it for an hour with interval chimes every 7 minutes. The plan was to walk until the interval chime went off and then stop briefly wherever I was to take a single photo.

Do you have any idea how many perfect photos I had to walk past in each of those 7-minute intervals? Neither do I. And then the timer would go off, I'd look around and see nothing to shoot. Soon, I started playing little games. I'd walk past something I really wanted to capture and I'd slow down, listening for the chime, hoping I was close to the 7-minute mark.  Or I'd "bank" photos so that when I got to the bridge and the rushing water I'd have some shots to spare. It was ridiculous...and oh-so-revealing.

Because, of course, all of this is simply a reflection of how I do my real life. The tendency to become overwhelmed, followed by the attempts to manage the overwhelm. The bouts of too much/not enough/what if thinking that bog me down and keep me from being fully present. I was supposed to be out wasting time for God, engaged in photography and movement as spiritual practices, but instead found myself face-to-face with all my human shortcomings.

Rather amusing, really.

At times like this I take great comfort in these words from Richard Rohr: "we grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right."  And these: "We do not really know what it means to be human unless we know God. And, in turn, we do not really know God except through our broken and rejoicing humanity...."

Sometimes I make the mistake of categorizing my humanness in the liability column. I attempt to suspend and leave it behind in my quest for connection with God. But if my human self is to know God, isn't the starting point the recognition that God created me this way on purpose, and the willingness to fully inhabit this imperfect embodied existence? Aren't these spiritual practices largely about developing the courage and the ability to see myself -- all aspects of myself -- with undeniable, technicolor clarity? Isn't this the proving ground for learning to choose compassion over judgment?

If so, then running headlong into myself in my prayer time is not a problem. It's perfection.

On that trail I was offered an opportunity for true contemplation as defined by William McNamara: A long, loving look at the real. I was given a chance to make a little more space for myself, a lot more space for grace. And in that space I learned to let go of the compulsion to capture all the beauty surrounding me, and to simply let myself be part of it.

* * * * * * * * * 

*Watch for our interview with Christine on May 22 when her virtual book tour stops right here at Faith Squared!

Eyes of the Heart: An Interview With Christine Valters Paintner

Top Ten Things We’ve Learned in Twelve Months—About Blogging, Websites and Such