[thanks to danilo leonardi for the photograph]
the TAG photography exhibition has gone really well - just a couple of days to go. st mary's ealing is a wonderful space for exhibiting and i think the connection for the church with the wider community is a good thing and vice versa. as part of the exhibition we asked if the photos could be left up on the sunday for the services - very kindly the church agreed in exchange for which i did the talks incorporating the photos in to them which of course i said yes to. i really enjoyed the challenge. i gave some reflections on why i think photography can be considered a contemplative practice and then introduced a couple of spiritual practices with a photographer's twist. these were visio divina - (like lectio divina but reading the photographs), and an ignatian imaginative reading of a passage but imagining being a photographer in the scene. the service was buzzing when people were sharing where that had led them. i have added the text here - the gift of sight - for anyone interested.
TAG - The Gift of Sight - St Mary’s Sept 2017
Thank you to St Mary’s for hosting the TAG exhibition as part of BEAT - the Borough of Ealing Art Trail. Members of Ealing London Independent Photography which is a local photography group really appreciate it because it is a wonderful space and exhibiting space is in short supply in Ealing. Of course the Church as a whole has a great history with the arts being spaces where artists have produced and made art. The church has been a patron for the arts in all sorts of ways and home to many an artist guild over the centuries. So it makes perfect sense both ways but we are grateful. The exhibition TAG which we are sat in the midst of is actually a game where one person tags another, only this time it is played with photos. Each photographer responds to the previous image in random order creating a chain reaction of connected images. You can read the blurb to find out more.
Photography as Contemplative Practice
People take photos for many reasons and they are everywhere. If you take a photo in London with people in it’s hard to take one without someone holding a phone up for a photo. They can be about beauty, shared memories, documentary, selfies, longing, grief, everyday wonder.… I love getting photos via whatsapp of my granddaughter Flo for example! I am a visual thinker and have always liked images as much as words. I realised after a while that the reason I like taking photos is that it helps me look, it helps me pay attention, to stop and notice, to see things I might rush by or miss. I want to suggest that this is a spiritual or perhaps in today’s language a mindful practice. Lots of the mystics and contemplatives who have so much wisdom about life and prayer talk about attention, seeing, waking up, awareness being at the heart of a contemplative life.
The book “Thomas Merton: A Master of Attention” by R Waldron has a chapter on Merton's photography. In the book he says that if you had to sum up Merton’s writing on spirituality in one theme it would be ‘learning to see’ and comments
“To become a contemplative one must develop the spiritual eye of attention and what in modern life symbolises more fully and exactly what the life of a contemplative life entails than the camera.” and…
“Solitude and silence are the sine qua non of being a contemplative. In fact a photographer is a contemplative in his/her own right: he/she too must become a master of attention”
Paul Hill who I think was one of the founders of London Independent Photography or at least an early member and who is held in very high regard gave the annual LIP lecture a few years ago and he described photography as learning how to see. He also shared his own sense of never waning interest and excitement in taking ‘small adventures’ locally with the camera on a kind of quest.
In my own experience sometimes this seeing or noticing on small adventures can be like electricity. The connection between me and what I see evokes awe, wonder, gratitude, grief, and there is an energy of presence, and sometimes a moment of epiphany. Of course you don’t need a camera to have this sort of experience - I have found the same experience in silence or in everyday moments of life. .
I have been trying to find language to make sense of this (if it needs making sense of) and have been very helped by John Taylor’s writing - he was the head of CMS who I work for and a former Bishop of Winchester. In one of his books (The Christlike God) he writes about luminosity.
“We should perhaps be ready to trust our occasional perceptions of the luminosity of the physical world and its apparent potentiality for becoming a voice and a word whereby we know ourselves to be addressed and held in relationship.”
He says that the Greek word for God 'Theos' might easily be translated as 'shining' in some of its other Greek usage. I like this idea. Is luminosity a photographer’s name for God I wonder?!
This seeing has the quality of encounter i.e. it is quite common to experience it as more than observation. In photography there have been schools or traditions where people like Ansell Adams and Minor White came to talk of photography as transcendent or numinous i.e it seemed to connect beyond the experience itself. Again John Taylor, this time in a different book - The Go Between God - says
“Instead of being part of the landscape, part of existence, it presents itself, becomes present, it commands attention.”
He suggests that many people experience a force, or what feels like a third party, a go-between, setting up a current of communication. Christians talk about this Go Between as the Spirit or breath of God in all things, present in all life and the moments of epiphany are moments when we see truly as things are. But these experiences are not in any way limited to those who formally profess a faith.
Spiritual Practices with a Photographer’s Twist
Aside from thinking about taking photos as a practice in itself I want us to try two spiritual practices together here which are both centuries old but I have given them a photographer’s twist.
a) Visio Divina
Lectio divina is a way of reading the bible which has four stages formally known as lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. These stages can be applied to reading or looking at photographs. I have renamed these four stages as follows:
Pick one of the photographs that catches your attention and look at it, then reflect on what it evokes for you, how does it connect with you, where does it take you, then talk to the person next to you about what you see (in lectio this would also be a space for prayer to talk to God about it which you can do later), then sit for a moment and ponder what gift is in this that you will take from the experience.
[Space to do this and discuss]
b) Imaginative reading where you are the photographer
We heard two stories about seeing today - the healing of Blind Bartimaus and the healing of the woman with bleeding for 12 years (from Mark 10 and Mark 5).
A practice that is really helpful for reflecting on a story like this was introduced by Ignatius of Loyola. It is an imaginative way of reading in which you use your imagination to picture the scene and explore it with all your senses and then watch the scene unfold in your mind’s eye. Be playful with it. It often helps to be a character in the scene - a member of the crowd or the person in the story. But the twist is that i want you to be a photographer in the story noticing it unfold and thinking as it does what photos you are inspired to take. We will do this with the story of Bartimaus which is a story about the gift of sight or learning to see.
[Read passage again and give space for exercise and then get a few people to share what they imagined. Draw out aspects of the story]
These stories are not just about Bartimaus or the woman seeing with new eyes. The crowd’s seeing is changed (indeed perhaps it is they who have been blind all along) by their interaction with Jesus. They see that those who they have shouted down or ignored or excluded as unclean are welcome and that the world needs to be remade as a place where those that our systems exclude economically and socially are welcomed back into community. I suggest we might actually think of Jesus as one who himself is a photographer if you’ll allow me a bit of license. The word photograph means to draw (graph) with light (photo) - Jesus as one who sees is someone who draws with light. Through his seeing he remakes the world.
I picked this last story because it has a (somewhat tenuous) connection with the exhibition theme of TAG - the woman tags Jesus by touching his garment! I hope that today you have heard an invitation to learn to see from photographers. That seeing may well include seeing the God who is luminosity, who is the go between, present in all of life. I also hope that we might all be open to being tagged or to reach out and tag the hem of Christ’s garment and see what might happen.
I was at a wedding yesterday and to my amazement this quote from Thomas Merton (who of course is one of Ealing saints as he lived in Ealing as a boy) was on the cover of the order of service with which I conclude:
“We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story, it is true…. God manifests himself everywhere and in everything - in people, in things, in events and in nature… You cannot be without God. It’s impossible, it’s just impossible”