Leaning to See


In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that most of the pictures in my accumulated boxes were not at all artistic. They do not measure up to the standards of a professional photographer. The same could be said of the thousands of pictures that I have stored in my phone or in the iCloud. That may have something to do with the quality of the camera I use. But I have come to believe that it has more to do with the way I see—or, perhaps more accurately, in the way that I have not yet learned to see.

I spent an hour talking to a professional photographer about a video that I had taken (many of the same principles that apply to still photographs also apply to videography). It didn’t take him long to show me the difference that it would make if I raised the camera level higher, adjusted the lighting just a little bit, and was just a bit more aware of the background appearing in my viewfinder. He was able to see things that I had not yet learned to see or appreciate.

Most of us are born with the ability to receive light images that trigger electrical impulses that are transmitted to a special spot in our brains called the occipital lobe. But, the physical part of receiving the light images and transmitting them to the brain is only part of the process of seeing. Those electrical impulses have to be assembled in some way.

Patterns are observed, linked with memories of similar patterns and associated with meaning. Denise Grady (currently a science writer for The New York Times) wrote in an article in Discovery Magazine that “Seeing, in short, is a form of sensory reasoning.”[1]

It’s easy to apply the same principle to our spiritual lives. We learn to “see” spiritually—we receive the data from our life experiences, look for patterns, and assemble them into a more or less coherent story that explains our lives. The difficulty is that there is a dimension of our spiritual journey—the most important dimension—that we cannot see with our eyes or hear with our ears. Yet somehow we know that there is a dimension or a presence that we call God.

Some people have the knack for grasping this unseen dimension quickly. For others, it takes time. Sometimes, we need help in learning to “see” in this way. Spiritual Guides or Spiritual Directors can help us identify the patterns in our life experience so we can learn to see spiritually. Sometimes they help us to “see” patterns that we recognized in an earlier day but have forgotten. They don’t see for us and we can’t borrow from their experience. They simply help us become aware of what we are already seeing.

Sometimes, learning to see takes time. There is a remarkable story in the Gospel of Mark about Jesus healing a blind man. When Jesus made a salve for the man’s eyes, the man reported that he could see people walking around like trees. After the second application, the man “looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (Mark 8:25). I used to wonder if the first attempt at healing was incomplete. But now I think that the miracle of the second application was the miracle of awareness.

Awareness takes practice. We fill our lives with so much activity that we find it hard to take time to notice and to pay attention.

A Simple Awareness Exercise:

It may seem too simple, but the introductions to the spiritual life that I have read suggest that we begin simply by connecting our awareness with our bodies. Deep thoughts can come later. For now, let’s simply connect with ourselves. Take about five or ten minutes and sit quietly. You may close your eyes, if you wish. Notice your breathing. Are you breathing heavily? Deeply? Quickly? Slowly? Can you slow down the pace of your breathing? Can you feel the air entering into your nose and filling your lungs? Can you feel the muscles of your diaphragm forcing the air out of your lungs? As you breathe, can you begin to visualize breathing in all that is of God and breathing out all that is not of God? How does this exercise help or hinder your awareness of the presence of God?[2]

A Note for My Readers:

Are you interested in learning more about spiritual direction? Would you like for someone to help you see the patterns in your life? If so, please contact me by using the “Contact Me” form at the end of this blog. Let’s see if spiritual direction is right for you!

[1] Denise Grady, “The Vision Thing: Mainly in the Brain.” Discover Magazine.com, June 1, 1993. Accessed April 21, 2020. https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/the-vision-thing-mainly-in-the-brain. [2] Adapted from Tilden Edwards, Living in the Presence: Spiritual Exercises to Open Your Life to the Awareness of God (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 22.

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