Learning to see

March 19th, 2018

Andrew uttered his first word when he was six months old. Joy was holding him on her lap. We were all sitting on the porch enjoying a Florida spring morning. Our black and white cat Calvin stretched his front paws up to Joy’s lap and studied our son attentively. Reaching to touch Calvin, Andrew said, “Cat.”

A few months later, Andrew had begun learning the alphabet. He would stand behind our car and point out the letters on the trunk. “H. O. N. D.” When he arrived at the “a” he would shout, “Honda!”

That was nearly thirty years ago. Like most of us, he has added thousands of words to his vocabulary. But learning to speak involves far more than accumulating words. Language is how we inhabit a meaningful world. And that takes time.

With language, we make sense of our experiences. We share our lives with each other by telling stories. We express our hopes, pledge our love, reveal the tender places deep within. We provide instructions, explain the workings of the cosmos and connect with our dogs in baby talk.

With language we can stretch out to each other soul to soul.

Learning to speak takes time.

Learning to see also takes time.

The analogy between speaking and seeing may seem unlikely. Barring injury or a congenital condition, our eyes will see what’s in front of us as soon as an adequate amount of light strikes them. At least, it seems that way.

But I have to admit that I have more than once failed to see what is right in front of me.

We’ve all failed to notice a friend’s new hair cut or a small change in the landscape along the familiar ride home. But I have something more than inattentiveness in mind. When someone else brings things like a new pair of glasses to our attention, we realize that we’ve simply missed what we could have easily seen had we been less distracted.

I mean that there are depths to this world that we might live our entire lives without ever once seeing with clarity. Our eyes can remain on the surface of things, even though we have the nagging sense that there is more than presently meets the eye.

The persistent sense that there is more to see is a holy invitation to seeing in a new and richer way. We can learn to look deeper, more closely, more reverently. We can learn to see with the heart.

The prophet Jeremiah records God as saying something like that to the people of Judah. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33b)

Jesus summarized God’s law like this: Love God totally. Hold nothing back. And love your neighbors the same way. Seek their best interest as your very own best interest.

This is not a rule that I can simply follow whether I like it or not. I can imagine feeling so enraged at someone who harmed my children that I might want to kill him. And I hope that my sense of right and wrong would prevent me from doing it.

But what Jesus says suggests that God seeks to write the law of love in our hearts. By heart, Jeremiah and Jesus meant something more than the seat of our emotions. “Heart” for them signified the very core of our being. Our essence. The perspective from which we will see the world, ourselves, other people, and God.

God is transforming us so that we can see the world and our neighbor through the lens of love. That is the only lens through which we can see how things really are.

Theologians like Karl Rahner teach us that the entire creation is God’s act of self-communication. God speaks to us and gives God’s self to us through every photon and blue whale, through every starry night and cicada, through every wobbly toddler and homeless veteran.

When we love our neighbors, we find God in the depths of them. Our neighbors are dogs and cats and mockingbirds and humans. Especially humans, those fragile images of God.

Rahner put it like this: “Only in love can I find you, my God…. since by your love you are the inmost center of my heart, closer to me than I am to myself.” (Egan, An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, 626)

A new optical device to correct color blindness illustrates what Rahner has in mind.

Some among us are born with either a severely diminished capacity or a complete inability to see greens, yellows, and reds. A new kind of eyeglasses makes it possible to see these colors.

There are videos around the web recording the reactions of those wearing the glasses for the first time. The power of seeing previously hidden dimensions of the world stun many into an initial silence and bring some eventually to tears. Beauty has a way of doing that.

By writing the law of love on our hearts, God is teaching us to see the beauty shimmering in the depths of all things. In the world we inhabit, there is much sorrow and pain, violence and death. These are not in themselves beautiful.

But in the depths of this ugly brokenness lies a beauty that cannot be extinguished. God shows up even there. Offers God’s self even there. And where God is present, we can glimpse the promise of new life, healing, and restoration.

Learning to see takes time. And as we do, we find that we are participating in the love that will heal the world.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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