catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 15 :: 2012.07.20 — 2012.08.02


Seeing our seeing

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot, from  “Little Gidding, V”

It was 1981. I was living in the west end of Vancouver while attending Regent College and it was spring. The trees were alive with light, and the rhododendrons were opening their buds. I was driving a 1976 Honda Civic, a snappy little car about the size of a VW Beetle. It was aging and starting to smoke a bit, and the front shocks were frozen. I had patched the tail pipe a half dozen times, but the patches never held. It was time for a new buggy!

A friend was selling a 1973 Renault. I had never seen one before, and when I drove it I was impressed by the handling as well as the shifter. The car felt tight, especially when compared to my dying Honda. I bought it for about a thousand dollars, and a whole new world opened up.

When I first saw the Renault, I assumed it was a rare car. I had never seen one before. After my first few days of driving I saw them everywhere. Why had I not noticed them before? Renault seemed nearly as common as my little red Civic. What changed?

My seeing had changed. In Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr writes, “The mind only takes pictures using the film with which it’s loaded.” Humans develop mental maps as aids for orienting in a complex world. It isn’t only our attention “span” which is limited, it’s also our attention “space.” Mental maps are like lenses with which we see the world, and they vary in focal length. With time and engagement and work, our lenses gradually expand and the depth of field increases.

Most of our maps are updated in small increments, like my experience with a new car. We get a bit more information, but it is narrowly focused and requires only a small adjustment. Sometimes our maps are upgraded wholesale, and we experience something like a conversion. We find a new center that requires the entire map to be newly written, and any landmarks that remain are re-oriented and re-organized.

In 2003 my wife began work that required her to make appointments all over our city. As a one-car family, that meant that my appointments had to be local or required public transport. I began using my bicycle, and quickly discovered that the speed and openness of a bicycle changed my way of seeing the world. The vulnerability of bike travel requires much greater attention. I discovered a richer texture to my neighborhood than I had noticed in a car, even as the boundaries of my neighborhood expanded. I began to notice rhythms and people I had not seen before.

Why had I not seen our neighborhood before? What is it about “place” that’s transparent?

As the Spanish philosopher Santayana noted, “We don’t know who invented water — but we know it wasn’t fish!”  The ordinary is transparent to us; we tune it out. In the Greek mind the idea of a thing was more real than the thing itself. The Western church is heavily influenced by this dualistic spirituality. My maps were formed in a hectic and isolated church culture that knew a lot about heaven (the real) and not much about earth. Perhaps we had too few farmers among us, and too many teachers and professionals. We dwelled too much in the realm of ideas, and not enough on the earth. In his book The Land, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes of the biblical view of land:

Land is always fully historical but always bearer of over-pluses of meaning known only to those who lose and yearn for it. The current loss of and hunger for place participate in those plus dimensions — at once a concern for actual historical placement, but at the same time a hunger for an over-plus of place meaning.

Land is a central, if not THE central theme of biblical faith. Biblical faith is a pursuit of historical belonging that includes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging.

We long for a place where we are rooted, and where we truly belong. At the same time, we suspect that the call to come home is supposed to carry us out of this world. This tear in our psyche seems nearly universal in Western churches, and I see a number of historic and current cultural factors that have contributed to this development:

  1. Church culture has been suspicious of place that was not “Christian” space. Sacred space was either the church building or involved meetings with other believers.
  2. Church culture has demanded loyalty and attention, and that has meant meetings, usually in the church building. Many meetings left no time for our neighbors.
  3. Church culture has supported a consumer mentality, which means shopping for the best church, which we rarely find in our neighborhood. So we drive across town, windows closed, intent on the destination. We have no reason to pay attention to place, and our mobility has meant that we haven’t learned to dwell in the places where we live.
  4. Closely related, the medium was the message. Church culture was leader-centric, and tended to create passive crowds of consumers. Ministry was for the few and the qualified. But if we have no personal priesthood, then where is our call to our neighborhood? What role could we laity play in partnering with God there?
  5. Much of church culture is dualistic. This means the sacred and the secular world are distinct worlds: church is good, world is bad. Heaven is eternal, world is temporal. In charismatic churches this can even get worse: we think our whole business is to live above this world, instead of bringing heaven to earth in our work and our prayers. “Place” is relativized when only spiritual reality is important. Instead of recognizing the call of the Incarnation to worldly engagement, we watched for ways to escape.

What a difference is displayed when Carrie Newcomer muses in her song “As Holy as a Day is Spent:”

Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Showerheads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With a bit of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent…

One of the reasons for the resurgence of the arts is this discovery that earth and heaven belong together. God is active all around us, and we begin to look for ways to lift the veil.

Until I took some time apart from church culture, I had no way of really seeing my neighborhood as a place God could dwell, no way of engaging the call of God there. My mind was loaded with film that had few ways of seeing or validating place as important to God, or relevant for my spiritual life.

But it isn’t only church culture that can limit our seeing. Technology offers a new kind of space which is a new kind of threat to a rooted and concrete spirituality. Paul Virilio, in an interview in 1996, comments:

We now have the possibility of seeing at a distance, of hearing at a distance, and of acting at a distance, and this results in a process of de-localization, of the unrooting of the being. “To be” used to mean to be somewhere, to be situated, in the here and now, but the “situation” of the essence of being is undermined by the instantaneity, the immediacy, and the ubiquity which are characteristic of our epoch. Our contemporaries will henceforth need two watches: one to watch the time, the other to watch the place where one actually is.

Too near the truth. My iPhone locates me quickly. When I check into Facebook, I have the option of locating myself for my friends. But these devices also pull me out of my world, make demands of my limited fund of attention when I am trying to attend to the place I am in. Technology can help us connect, but it can also be fragmenting and distracting, drawing us out of the world in to a virtual space, which is no-place. The incessant demand to connect and be connected can leave us no time to rest, can keep us moving at such a pace that we can’t simply “be” where we are.

Our maps are conditioned by culture, but also by the speed of our motion and the mode of our transport. Perhaps “only he sees who takes off his shoes,” as E.B. Browning puts it in her memorable poem. If her poem were to be written for our frenetic and technological culture, we would have to say, “Only they see who slow down and open up.” My bicycle helped me with both of these.

In a 2012 article in the UTNE Reader titled “Solitude and Leadership,” William Deresiewicz shared some research around multitasking. A team of researchers at Stanford wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it? The answer: they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself. The researchers found that multitaskers are worse at every kind of cognitive function. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and they were more easily distracted. Deresiewicz continues,

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it…. My first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s.

New tools always create a demand that becomes a necessity, and some tools shape the user. As Churchill put it, “We create our buildings, then our buildings create us.”

It is more important than ever that we know what we are choosing and why, and that we choose our tools according to our goals and our vision of the good and beautiful life. For Christians, that means the kingdom of God. It means re-membering who we are: continuing to connect with the One who Fathers forth in beauty, learning to value what he values, and dwelling in the world he creates.

God loves places. He loves neighborhoods. “All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people,” writes Eugene Peterson. Love is particular: we name this person and love them. We invest in this place, in this soil and watch things grow.

But in order to love well we need to make choices about our attention. We need disciplines that will draw us deeper, carry us over the long haul toward the prize. We need disciplines of resistance: prayer and solitude will slow us down and reconnect us with the Center. And we need disciplines of engagement: justice and hospitality push us beyond the ego center toward the “other.”

And we need the other. God is creating a mosaic. His kingdom is embracing: he leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one. Henri Nouwen writes,

A mosaic consists of thousands of little stones. Some are blue, some are green, some are yellow, some are gold. When we bring our faces close to the mosaic, we can admire the beauty of each stone. But as we step back from it, we can see that all these little stones reveal to us a beautiful picture, telling a story none of these stones can tell by itself. Nobody can say: “I make God visible.” But others who see us together can say: “They make God visible.”  

Artists and poets lift the veil between heaven and earth and help us to “see our seeing.” God is revealed in the ordinary and the humdrum. To continue to be converted is to be learners, to constantly renew and expand our maps.

Re-membering is the path forward, because God has given us all that we need. Our exploration will demand both growth and surrender, and carry us full circle to the one who both roots and enables our journey.

Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning. (T.S. Eliot)

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