Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart
Contemplative Photography, part two
With the help of Christine Valters Paintner, author of Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice, we are considering how photography can become a contemplative practice.
In her first chapter, Paintner introduces us to a long mystical tradition which has understood that our five physical senses have parallels in our inner being, five “mystical senses” that enable us to perceive and contemplate the spiritual world. She traces this back to Origen, who appealed to Proverbs 2:5 and the idea of a “divine faculty of perception,” as well as other scriptures that speak to hearing God’s voice, touching the incarnate Christ, tasting the goodness of God, and even smelling the savor of Christ.
She also reminds us of the long tradition of finding God in beauty. But she does not call us to be snobbish aesthetes. Instead Paintner encourages us to see beauty in the common things around us. “The purpose of art is not to send us to an alternative world but rather to return us, even as our vision has been renewed, to the realm of the ordinary.” She reflects upon the insight of Gregory Palamas, who taught that the Transfiguration of Christ did not signify a change in Christ, but an opening of the disciples’ eyes, so that they could see him in his true glory. “The journey into photography as a contemplative practice is a journey toward transfigured seeing, toward seeing the world as it really is.”
Carmelite William McNamara described contemplation as a “long loving look at the real.” It is long because it takes time and slowness to see the holy, shimmering presence beneath the surface of things. It is loving because the contemplative act is one that arises from a place of compassion. It is a look at the real, at the truth of things as they are, and not how we want them to be. This means that sometimes when we behold, we see suffering and we have to stay awake to that experience.
Contemplative seeing and beholding are conscious acts of becoming receptive and dropping as much as possible, our own ego desires and projections. It is only from this space of openness and wonder that we truly see the movement of God in the world.