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Wonder Both Seen and Unseen

The meaning of an image materializes more slowly than the image itself

I recently saw a picture that has stayed with me in a surprisingly persistent way. Though it has been weeks since my photographer friend put her phone away after showing me the image, it has popped into my mind almost daily. Though it is a beautiful image, its resonance has felt deeper than that. Last night, as I lay in bed, I realized why the image so captivated me.

Before I get to the meaning I found in the image, though, let me describe it for you. Because I am a writer rather than a photographer, I’ll imagine the story of the image through the eyes of the beholder. Please note – these are my words, not hers.

A story hiding within a photo

I’d been standing quietly at the edge of the lake for some time. It was a foggy early morning and I’d come to see the swans known among local birders to gather in this water at this time of year. I’d approached as silently as I could, hoping to glimpse the unguarded beauty of these magnificent birds.

I was not disappointed. They were there in droves. Drifting on the smooth water of the lake, seeming to appear and disappear into the fog. As I watched, I composed image after image through the lens of my camera. I played with framing, focus, lighting, aperture speed. I resisted the urge to wish the swans would do something particular or move in some way I thought would make a good shot. Over and over, I forced my eyes away from scenes in my imagination and back to the scene as it was.

It happened in an instant, as it so often does with birds. A pair of swans began flapping their wings ferociously in a tandem lift off. Because they are a predominantly monogamous species, I imagined them as an old couple who no longer had to confer about such choices. Without thought or cue of any sort noticeable to me (and I have a rather keen eye with regards to birds), they achieved effortless unison.

With a thrill of joy, I trained my camera on this mundane and magnificent sight. From the surge of loud and clumsy splashing to the silence of flight, I prayed that, somehow, my camera would capture the way my heart lifted with these birds as they soared into the air. It wasn’t until I got home to my studio to edit my photos that I saw what I hadn’t seen when I’d been standing on the shore of the lake engrossed in two of my loves – watching birds and taking pictures.

Just as the pair of swans lifted above a strip of fog, a higher layer of fog parted to reveal something I had not seen at all that morning. Across the water, hidden both by distance and fog, there was a church steeple. At exactly the moment when I snapped the photo, the cloud parted to reveal a simple white cross.

Though it is barely visible in the upper left quadrant of the photograph (not surprising because it was completely invisible to me in the moment), to my artist’s eye it is this little glimpse of “more” that I did not plan or compose that makes the photo so powerful.

A photo as much about the unseen as the seen

In my studies of spirituality, I have heard this world of ours described as a “God-soaked creation.” To me, my friend’s photograph captures that phrase with almost impossible precision. She, by grace rather than planning, foresight, or strategy, managed to create an image that points to all the wonder and mystery of life that we do not see – even (or especially) when we’re looking.

Spiritual direction is a way of getting glimpses of the unseen wonder and mystery of life

As I lay in bed last night thinking again about her photo, I realized with a start that she created a piece of art that describes spiritual direction in a way that words so often fail to do. When I sit in contemplative conversation with another seeker, I am listening to the stories of their life with ears as keen as my friend’s bird-loving eyes. I am listening with a heart as open as the lens of my friend’s camera.

Like my friend, there is no way for me to predict, plan, or produce moments when God will appear in these stories. In fact, like the pale, almost invisible, white cross in the far background of my friend’s photo, more often than not what I glimpse is not God, but something like God’s fingerprints. It’s true for all of us that, if we’re not paying attention, we can be so captivated by the big, splashy, events of our lives (like gorgeous swans taking off from the lake) that we can miss God’s quiet, almost invisible fingerprints (like the tiny cross at the far reaches of our view).

It is the work of a spiritual director to be present and actively alert for these glimpses. The honor and joy of sharing them in spiritual direction sessions has the power to make my heart soar as gracefully as the swans taking flight in my friend’s beautiful, resonant image.

(The image above is NOT my friend’s photo. I found this one on Unsplash.) 

Thomas Merton said, “A spiritual director is one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him.” If you’re interested in knowing more about the practice, please send me a note. I’m happy to schedule a call or a meeting.