Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart: Contemplative Photography (3)

Cardinal Surprise (2014)

Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart
Contemplative Photography, part three

With the help of Christine Valters Paintner, author of Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice, on Wednesdays we are considering how photography can become a contemplative practice, helping us “see” in different ways.

In chapter 2 of her book, Christine Paintner reminds us of an important truth of all spiritual practices: we engage in them by God’s grace and they are more about what we receive than what we do.

Contemplative practice is a receptive practice. We make ourselves available for grace to break in; we open ourselves to listen and ponder. In visio divina, we move our awareness into our hearts and let our vision arise from this place of integration rather than analysis, and receptivity rather than grasping after the things we desire. Our intention is to see things from a new perspective, but the paradox is that this longing requires us to relinquish our usual ways of relating to the world. (p. 29f)

And so, in terms of photography as a contemplative practice, she encourages us to think not in terms of “taking” or “making” or “shooting” photos, but rather of “receiving” captured images as gifts from God. Doing so reminds us of the very mechanism of taking pictures — images are received by the camera through the lens. Plus, to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase, whenever I go out, I am entering a world I did not make, a world that I receive daily as a divine gift. So, from now on when I engage in this practice, I am going to think in terms of going out and “receiving” some photographs!

I can testify of many serendipitous moments when out walking with no particular picture-taking agenda, or when I’m looking through the lens, or later when I’m processing images.

  • Sometimes I find myself surprised as I come upon something unexpected and there, before me, is a perfect subject for a photo.
  • At other times the lens enables me to narrow down and focus my attention to see what I wouldn’t have noticed before.
  • Or, as I pull captured images up on my computer for review, I see new things, realizing that there was more to be observed than met my eye at the moment.

Photography can thus be understood as an act of receiving revelation, Paintner says, and then we as artists can offer to others a “vision of the graced ordinary moment” (p. 31)

This brings to mind the monastic value of hospitality. In chapter 53 of his Rule, Benedict writes, “Let all guests who arrived be received like Christ.” When the stranger arrives — that which is unexpected, strange, and mysterious — we are called to recognize the holy presence shimmering there. This means inviting strangers into our world without imposing our own agenda on them. In contemplative practice and photography, it means staying open and curious to what we might discover when we don’t know what to expect, when we make the effort to see beneath the surfaces. It means gazing on scenes before us that feel strange and making space to receive them fully. (p. 31)

For a photographer, one thing this means is simply having your camera available as often as possible. You never know what is going to show up and present itself for you to receive.

The photograph at the top of the post is an example of this. I was sitting at a table in the dining room at the Abbey of Gethsemani, working on a writing project. My camera was on the table next to me because I took walks during breaks and snapped photos. That year I was particularly interested in seeing how many good bird photos I could get around the Abbey grounds.

I glanced out the window at the very moment this red cardinal popped his head up out of the evergreen bush. He posed long enough for me to receive this delightful image with my telephoto lens.

Life and wonder and extraordinary things are happening all around us all the time. Whether you receive them through the practice of photography or not, I urge us all to be hospitable to what God might show us as we move through the day.

13 thoughts on “Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart: Contemplative Photography (3)

  1. The classic distinction between Religion and Magick is that in Magick, the mortal Sorcerer is the one calling the shots, not the deity/supernatural force.


  2. For a photographer, one thing this means is simply having your camera available as often as possible. You never know what is going to show up and present itself for you to receive.

    i.e. “Never mind your towel; Do You Know Where Your Camera Is?”


  3. Yes. There’s a key sentence in the post:

    Photography can thus be understood as an act of receiving revelation, Paintner says, and then we as artists can offer to others a “vision of the graced ordinary moment” (p. 31)


  4. I have about fifty feet of holly hedge that is inhabited yearly by a pair of cardinals. This year I have four cats (one female and three toms) taking up intermittent residence on the ground level. May be a difficult time for the birds this year. A blue jay is already viewing the new situation with consternation from the maple tree.


  5. That we engage in spiritual practices via God’s grace is a fundamental principle of faith. If I act as though I control the means of access to the Father and manipulate it according to my whims and purposes, I have become in practice a pagan.


  6. Excellent post and beautiful photograph. But isn’t there another part of the process? Photography is seeing and capturing what we see. But is the process complete without communicating what we see to others? Sharing? Doesn’t this post do exactly that?


  7. I was going to explain the photo Cardinal Surprise but it would take me a thousand words, it is much better to look at the picture.
    I think back to when we use film or tin type . Looking back it made photos more valuable and treasured as they were a big deal, had to have film, set up the pose and everyone looked at the pictures after they were developed. Photo albums were family treasures and heir looms. I have so many pictures on my I phone but they have become common so I take them for granted. My wife still gets pics printed and into the album. I guess it is progress.
    It would have been a sin not to take the photo of the Cardinal. I hope to make the trip some day to St. Louis and meet one but until then I have photos, perhaps even one of them bobbing along.
    Whenever I want to be humble I look at my drivers license photo and hope that the camera does lie. I ask my wife which is worst my drivers license photo or passport and she says both.


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