Paying Attention

Hearing the Gospel story of blind Bartimaeus, who had the encounter of his life on the road out of Jericho, I am taken aback by the simplicity and urgency of the blind man's entreaty to Jesus: "I want to see" -- a request which I have been making on and off for most of my life. With Virginia Stem Owens, I have pleaded: "Give me phenomena . . . Give me pictures and models . . . . The one thing I cannot take is the denying darkness and the blind man's eye."

A very similar story in John 9 -- where an unnamed blind man receives sight from Jesus -- triggered this poem for me:

The Sighting

Out of the shame of spittle,
the scratch of dirt,
he made an anointing.

Oh, it was an agony -- the gravel
in the eye, the rude slime, the brittle
clay caked on the soft eyelid.

But with the hurt
light came leaping; in the shock and shine
abstracts took flesh, and flew;

winged words like view and space,
shape and shade and green and sky,
bird and horizon and sun

turned real in a man's eye.
Thus was truth given a face
and dark dispelled, and healing done.
How do we see? What is vision? How, in the Christian's life, may abstracts 'turn real'? How is "truth given a face"?

How is the physiological faculty of seeing connected with the more profound insight (in-sight!) of spiritual perception? And what part has the human imagination in this play of glimpse and gleam, of hide and seek, of light and shadow? These were some of the questions on my mind as I sat several years ago in St Fridewide's Chapel, in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford:
A Chiaroscuro God

In this ancient place
one section of the fresco
ceiling has been left
to peel, a puzzle, has
the pieces lost. As from
the bottom of a well I stare
up, waiting for revelation.
A raw plaster frowns
from the past, a closed sky, murky
as thunder, traced with

gold shreds -- a snatch
of hair, a broken chin line,
wing fragments in red, in blue.
My eyes are busy -- deepening
pigment, filling in the detail
of hands, feathers, touching up
the face of an angel. But nothing
changes. The terrible inscrutability
endures, deeper than
groined arches. Tattered

seraphim flash their diminishing
edges, like the
chiaroscuro God who,
if we believe Michelangelo, touched
Adam into being with one finger,
whose footprints crease the blackness
of Genesaret, whose wing feathers
brush our vaulted heaven, purple

with storm, whose moon
is smudged -- a round of window glass,
an eye moving between clouds.
Yes, we worship a chiaroscuro God. The word itself is an oxymoron. It means 'clear/obscure', juxtaposing two opposing elements. The term is used to describe a style of painting in which each of the bright and the dark elements of the work are shown up by the strong contrast each gives the other. It is a term that can also apply to writing, and even to musical composition.

It has been my own personal experience that God sometimes allows me to be in darkness so that when his light reappears to me, it is unmistakeable. He teaches me much through this chiaroscuro, this contrast.


e still, in the human condition, "see through a glass, darkly". Yet in spite of our present failure to know as we are known, to see with the clarity and breadth we long for, Jesus tells us: "If your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light." This implies a clear, sharp focus, without the blurring of myopia or double vision. Such seeing requires our deliberate, intentional joining-in-one of the separate images of our two eyes -- a convergence. It calls us to be in a state of attentiveness.

Annie Dillard, on being asked to write a paragraph for Life magazine on, of all things, 'the meaning of life', came up with this: "We are here to abet Creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed . . . so that Creation need not play to an empty house."

This drama presupposes the need to pay attention (and the word 'pay' is significant -- time, and awareness, concentration and penetration are the price of seeing). The details of God's creative activity are ubiquitous and too often unnoticed, but to ignore them, or view them as insignificant, is to deny or demean the creative energy of God.

The word 'attention' is derived from the Latin ad-tendere -- to stretch toward. Paying attention cannot be done in passivity. It demands intentionality, choice, and awareness. And that, too, is costly. As Thomas Howard has observed in a commentary on C S Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, "The will of God (of Maleldil, or of Aslan) may well present itself to us in the most unobtrusive of circumstances, but the ready servant will be alive to it. Most of us miss our cues repeatedly."1

Or, as Sherlock Holmes commented to Watson: "You see, but you do not observe." Missing our cues, we fail to notice the fingerprints of the Creator in the ordinary textures and phenomena of living because we are distracted by things we consider more important, which in the end may prove to be trivial.

In 1996 I spent two and a half weeks in New Zealand's South Island. I recorded in detail my experience during the days we spent in the sub-tropical rain forest of the West Coast. Most of the time I was alone -- by choice -- with camera and journal, porous as a sponge to multiple sensations and impressions. My journal chronicled it for me:
Giant tree ferns arch over me, and enormous Rata trees, scarlet with blossoms. But I find myself enthralled, filled with the joy of small things. My camera lens, with its zoom magnification, helps me to see what I might otherwise merely glance at and move on.

The microcosm of moss gardens among the boulders along the forest paths, minute, damp velvet fronds like green sea anemones -- small, low, unknown, unnamed greens, lie lavish in their rich diversity and texture. Tiny starflowers punctuate the green of the ferns, jewelled with dew. Pebbles lie under water in the stream, strangely uniform in size and roundness and colour, the colour of a rain cloud.

My need is to stop, to be still, to focus, to be aware, to pay attention, to let the microcosm speak -- the world of negligible, unnoticed things. I realise how powerfully God speaks, given time, from such phenomena when seen through the magnifying lens of careful scrutiny.

We tend to think of God in terms of the infinitely huge -- mountains, oceans, galaxies, universes. But as God is beyond gender and time, so is he beyond size. Like Mary Oliver,
The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river

And stare at the light in the tree
To learn something by being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention.
Later. I am astonished that when I mention the intricacies of moss, or the uniform roundness of pebbles in the stream, or the dark, lacy foliage of New Zealand black birches to my companions, when we rendezvous, they are puzzled. They hadn't noticed.

Deeply committed to the Christian Church's world mission, they had been discussing global strategic initiatives. Though they are aware, and appreciative in a general way, that this subtropical landscape is 'beautiful', they haven't noticed trivialities such as pebbles or varieties of moss. They haven't been watching where they walked.
nd here is where the whole incarnational approach to faith kicks in for me. As a poet and a sacramentalist I am learning to recognise pointers to transcendent realities in almost anything I see. Thomas Aquinas put it like this: "We arrive at the knowledge of God from other things." In Thomas a [grave] Kempis's Imitation of Christ we learn that, "If your heart is straight with God, every creature will be to you a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine." Or, as St Anthony put it -- "My book . . . is the nature of created things, and whenever I wish I can read in it the works of God."

It's not that we are inventing our own ideas about the Almighty, but that we are exploring and examining the body of evidence God has already made available to us. John Stott calls the created universe "God's second Bible". The psalmist recognised it in those opening verses of Psalm 19.

St Paul recognised it in Romans 1: "Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made." Or, as Eugene Peterson has paraphrased it, "The basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes, and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can't see; eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of divine being."

So our seeing must be on at least two levels if we are to take seriously the prayer of St Paul for the Christians at Ephesus -- "that the eyes of their hearts might be enlightened". I believe that this enlightenment is linked to the discussion Jesus had with his followers as recorded in Matthew 13, "Blessed are your eyes for they see" -- a seeing that takes in both the surface realities and the more profound meanings that lie beyond them.

I'm reminded of George Herbert's verse:
A man may look on glass --
On it my stay his eye --
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heaven espy.
And I believe that in the parables Jesus was setting forth the pattern for light and vision. I'm convinced he was saying, "Yes -- I want you to notice the way seeds grow, or don't grow. I love it when you're exhilarated by the marvel of green life springing from my Father's hand, and it's worthy of notice. But move on from there. It's your soul growth that I'm after. What rocky soil causes your heart to wither? What weeds are choking the life and beauty out of you? What cynical scavenger birds are pecking your truth away, seed by seed? What will help you grow from seed to sprout to plant to a multiplication of seeds -- the miracle of the loaves over and over again, out there in the harvest field?"

The aging apostle John, exiled on the island of Patmos, was given an unearthly vision of "one like the Son of Man". Quite naturally he was stricken with the paralysis of fear -- fear of something other, fear of the unknown and the unknowable. But twice he was reassured, "Don't be afraid. Write what you see on a scroll."

A friend of mine, knowing my addiction to journal-keeping, once gave me a blank journal with the admonition on the front page (an echo of the mandate to St John): "Write what you see, and what you can't see." A bifocal vision is called for. It tells me to pay attention to the surface of reality, but it could also mean a brilliant epiphany.

In this context it is well to remember Emily Dickinson's admonition:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise.
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or everyman be blind --
am sitting by an east window in my home. It is early -- the sun not yet up, and the house quiet enough for me to hear nothing but the ticking of our antique clocks in adjoining rooms, and the refrigerator's gentle hum through the kitchen door.

But I am not here to listen to the language of my house. This is supposed to be quiet time, vision time, when I can see and hear God and my own thinking as I respond to his ideas entering my mind. Sometimes this really happens. I sense the freshness, the pang of a thought from a source other than my own experience or intelligence.

Often, as I meditate, or concentrate on the groups of words on the pages of the book in my lap -- the Bible -- I see pictures in my head, or I hear a new meaning in the familiar phrases. Or I notice a link between them and the events and circumstances and relationships that swim every day into my awareness. Correspondences are waiting there to be recognised -- patterns of cause and effect, of comparison and contrast -- in which my mind interacts with the thoughts of another human mind -- the biblical writer, long dead -- and through him with the mind of God.

Somehow this all seems incongruous. Me in my flannel nightgown and slippers taking in ideas, seeing colours and shapes and scenes in the ancient words, with the Almighty focusing and clarifying them for me right now, on this twentieth century morning -- how is it that I am relaxed and calm, even cosy, in The Presence? Why am I not crouched in terror on the living room rug? Is it possible that I am hearing from God, and yet remain unshrivelled by the blast of divine reality?

But the room is tranquil. The clocks tick on. Upstairs someone is waking and moving. God is with me in this room, and while I am on the edge of my wing-back chair with anticipation, I am not even nervous.

Now the sun is over the horizon, burning through the fringe of cedars to the east of the house, its light flowing through the window not just with a general burgeoning of brightness but in multi-coloured flakes of gentle radiance that touch the walls, the piano, the leaves of the plants, and the skin on the back of my hand. I glance up at the windowsill with its rank of cut glass bottle stoppers and paperweights of varied shapes and sizes that I have collected. It is through these multiple prisms that the sunlight is being refracted now, split into splinters of coral and garnet and amethyst and topaz and aquamarine that lend the room their gem-like brilliance.

I am aware, quite suddenly, of the arrival of an idea. I am seeing a connection. I am realizing that just as this familiar room is being lit up and decorated with rainbow light at dawn the Bible -- like an old and familiar house -- is lit up with the colourful rays of metaphor, symbol, analogy, poetry, story, parable, imagery, projected into all its rooms through the old leaded windows with their bevelled edges.

Though the light that is pouring through the glass is plain, white, ordinary daylight, because of the prisms the light appears to me in its primary spectral colours. A fascination of changing hues illuminates me with a perception of the true nature of light in its iridescent parts as well as its diffused, white wholeness.

I remind myself that the Scripture is not just information, data, exhortation or proposition from God. Nor is it merely a series of abstract principles or concepts linked by pedestrian factual narrative. It is truth often deliberately framed in words that project brilliant images into our thinking, like a series of slides onto a screen.


t is not only difficult but dangerous to look the sun in the eye. Even now, as I look through my window towards the gold glare moving like a fire between the tree trunks and branches, igniting the surface of the creek, I look away again, squinting in discomfort.

That kind of reaction to unfiltered light reminds me of the verse in Exodus that tells me "no one has seen God at any time", reminds me that even Moses, God's intimate friend, when invited to scale a mountain and converse with Yahweh, was forbidden a face-to-face encounter for his own preservation. Like me, like blind Bartimaeus, pleading for a true sighting he cried out: "Lord, I want to see. I pray you, show me your glory."

What he got was a promise that God would make his goodness pass before him, would even proclaim his name, the unpronounceable, unwriteable Tetragrammaton, to him. To hear that holy name articulated, and to learn what that name stood for (for to God all names have meaning) was to be invited into The Presence.

Yahweh was even willing for Moses to see his 'back parts', or, as the Cambridge Bible puts it, "the afterglow which trails behind him". But from the full, blazing impact of deity Moses needed to be shielded in a rock crevice in the shoulder of the mountain, with the hand of God covering him. Even in that shelter the high-voltage proximity of the Almighty must have felt for Moses like being exposed to the blinding power and force of a nuclear explosion.

A Presbyterian friend of mine remembers talking with a Baptist colleague who had become a high church Anglican; he told this new convert that he found all the liturgical apparatus distracting, that it got in the way of his direct experience of God. "Of course it does, you dummy!" his friend replied. "That's what it's there for. God is too glorious to be apprehended directly. The liturgy, the robes, the incense, the chanting, are to enable you to stand in the presence of God without being bowled over by the power."

And I, if I were to receive (as a body receives a bullet, or a land mass a meteor) the shock of the reality of divine glory and truth without the protection of imagery, the veil of metaphor, I would be flattened, paralysed, annihilated. Yet here I am, hale and whole, and every day God shows me his goodness. It is visible not only in the Bible pictures he gives me of himself (shepherd, mother hen, protective fortress, banner) but in the very fact that they are pictures.

Every day I am shown, if my eyes are open and focused, new meanings of the name of God, new dimensions of his person. But a full, frontal view of God, the Almighty One, swift as light, sharp and intense as a laser, with the energy of the universe flashing from his eyes, and with the Earth (and me on it) cradled like a marble in his palm, would be too much for me in my humanity.

It was almost too much for Moses, for Gideon, for Daniel, for John the Apostle on Patmos. Like them we are finite, longing for the touch of divine reality, yet vulnerable and small and trembling, as Isaiah puts it, tender as a field flower and as easily cut down as meadow grass.

And so God, knowing our fragility, parcels out his truth to us in small gifts of metaphor, shows himself to us in clumps of words, in the sacraments, in the natural theology of Creation. I am growing accustomed to the grace of gradual illumination, so it is a delight, and no real surprise, when I see God's messages to me in the scattered rainbows on my wall at sunrise.


esus' stories call us to pay attention by speaking to us in images deliberately chosen to be perceived and entered by way of imagination and the senses. As with good poems, the multi-leveled, vigorous metaphors of the parables will be understood by those who pay attention, those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Mark, in his Gospel, tells us "with many parables he spoke to the people . . . he did not speak to them without a parable." When his friends asked him why, he told them (and here I quote from Eugene Peterson's translation, The Message):
Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity disappears. That's why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see . . . I don't want Isaiah's forecast repeated all over again: "Your eyes are awake but you don't see a thing . . . the people screw their eyes shut so they won't have to look".
The more we see and accept of divine revelation, the more we will be shown on earth and the better we will be prepared for the brilliance of heaven. Persistent rejection of -- or indifference to -- the messages carried by God in story and metaphor will, conversely, so atrophy our inner optic nerves and block our souls' auditory canals that true perception becomes impossible.

But for the open-eyed the stories of Jesus speak vividly. Because they are expressed in terms real enough to be felt, we can take them in without the kind of clinical analysis which renders them lifeless and abstract, living organisms cut apart.

A principle, a proposition, a formula, tends to gather things together and then smooth them out again, ignoring minor inconsistencies, overlooking exceptions. The general systematic statement about reality, whether in science or theology, has much the same effect on us as a view of the earth from a satellite, or the topography found in a map. It may supply us with certain otherwise unobtainable information, but if we soon lose interest it is because much of the detail has been lost.

The microcosm, by contrast, fascinates us endlessly because it reveals specifics and idiosyncrasies, and is generally less predictable. If you have ever watched a silkworm spinning a cocoon on the underside of a mulberry leaf, or red blood cells skittering through capillaries under a microscope, you know what I mean.

The value of maps or charts or diagrams lies in the grasp they give us of broad spatial or rational relationships. Concrete images allow us to experience a crumb of reality in a different way. Where proposition twirls the table model of the globe, imagination focuses on the single blade of grass, on the grain of wood in a floorboard, on the helical unfolding of a shell, or the spears of frost across a window.


ast year during Advent I heard a choir sing in Latin Gabrielli's "O Magnum Mysterium" -- "O greatest of mysteries and O most wonderful sacrament, Jesus, lying there in the manger for all creatures to gaze upon. O blessed virgin, whose womb was deemed worthy of bearing Christ, the Lord Jesus. Alleluia!" As the singers' voices, deep, strong, high, clear, resonant, reverent, moved up from the stage and enfolded me, the harmony -- and an all-encompassing sense of the meaning of the words, which went beyond mere intellectual assent -- pierced me like a sword.

It was the Incarnation which demonstrated before our eyes simply, clearly, concretely, in memorable detail, in a human body, what would otherwise blind us -- Jesus, Logos, metaphor of God, Word that both tells and shows, accessible yet mysterious, essence as well as sacrament, both actuality and analogy, the glory of God channelled through flesh so that we could see and touch him without being shattered by divine power.

God and his truth are like a sun that fills the sky. Huge verities flare off from its centre like the flaming tongues of a corona, utterly overwhelming us in our insignificance. Yet God may become visible to those who pay attention, whose eyes of belief and imagination are open, in a form as unthreatening and taken-for-granted as a baby, or a seed, or a dove, or a lamb, or a loaf of bread, or a flick of rainbow colour on a wall.

Notes

1 The C S Lewis Reader's Encyclopedia, Jeffrey D Schultz and John G West, Eds, Grand Rapids: 1998, Zondervan.

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