Seeing is believing

  • November 14, 2013

Christmas came early to our house this year. Very early. Pre-Advent early.

It was on All Saints Day that I bought a long-awaited Leica camera, the cost of which I am rationalizing by calling it an early family Christmas gift. When my wife found the receipt scrunched down in a dark corner of the camera bag (she has a nose for smuggled receipts the way a bear has a nose for honey-covered ants), she noted with icy pragmatism that the camera cost enough to cover our next 10 “early” Christmases. Then she pointed out that describing it as a “family” present goes beyond misnomer, past rationalizing and all the way to border of mental reservation. After all, she has no interest in using the camera. Our kids don’t know that it exists (and would not care if they did). It’s a “family” camera, then, only in the sense that an actual member of our family will use it. Yes, that family member will be, errrr, ahhh, me.

So, guilty as charged. And yet a small voice in my head keeps telling the judge there are extenuating circumstances. The twin passions of my vocational life have always been text and photographs; in a word, images. I have been writing words down since early childhood, and began taking photographs with a small box camera around age 10. At some point, our loves should bring affordable rewards or what’s a Heaven for?

The retail cost of the Leica is, how would the lawyers put it, not insignificant. Yet the rewards go beyond mere possession of a finely crafted German instrument. They extend in the direction of a purer way of engaging God’s world through the art of photography. Resisting the urge to lapse into the Leica-speak that afflicts all who own one, the beauty of the camera, and of the images it produces, lies in the simplicity of its precision. It lacks all the bells and whistles now standard on even inexpensive digital cameras. In terms of actual operation, it takes me back to my childhood box camera in the way it demands a level of attention to the single photograph being taken at the moment the shutter is pressed. In other words, it obliges its user to actually work to see. And seeing, paradoxically in a world being swept over the falls by a deluge of photographic images, is something too many forget to do far too often.

It is an especially perilous lapse for Christians — particularly Catholics — given that our approach to God comes first and foremost through the senses. The more directly we apprehend God’s creation, the closer we come to Him. In his beautiful Letters from Lake Como, written in the 1920s, Catholic theologian Romano Guardini expresses with something close to perfect clarity the obstacle that lies between the human and the Divine. “God has no need of concepts,” Guardini writes. “He sees.” Until we join the beatific vision, of course, we will never see unmediated as God does. We will always require some conceptual apparatus to aid understanding and memory.

Yet we live in a created world seemingly given over to a human design that occludes our vision and aggressively blocks us from the very action of seeing. Asked simply, how often do most of us take time away from the infinity of distractions around us to gaze openly at the creation in front of us? How many fewer still would actually be comfortable doing so? My literary hero, Flannery O’Connor, argued emphatically that being a writer was justification, in and of itself, to look directly at the world.

“The writer should never be ashamed of staring,” O’Connor said. “There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

If that is true of a writer, it is equally true of someone who takes the taking of photographs seriously, that is passionately, that is as an authentic means of approaching the Divine. Pointing a camera lens can, it is true, actually be a feint for escaping the sight of the truth that is there. It can be a means to pretend to “capture” someone or something through the purely technological act of pressing the shutter on a highly sophisticated machine, without actually seeing what the image means. But it can also, one picture at a time, be an opening to the world much like Christmas is meant to be. Early or late, we see the gift is God’s.

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

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