How many common things are trodden underfoot which, if examined carefully, awaken our astonishment. —Augustine
My daughter Bekah has a quirky and remarkable gift. Ever since she was a child, she’s had a knack for looking at a stand of clover and in an instant finding a four-leafed cluster. Over the years she’s plucked her finds and tucked them in her journal.
The other day, she outdid herself. We went out for a stroll near a cabin our family rented in the mountains and within a half-minute she had found two four-lobed clovers. “How do you do that?” I asked. She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. I didn’t really expect an answer. A Google search only confirmed the rarity: Only one out of every five thousand stems (or ten thousand according to another source) has the foursome.
Bekah gave me one of the two she had just found and I taped the gift to a page in my own journal. Looking at it just now, I’m baffled again. Perhaps a brain scientist or ophthalmologist could theorize about pattern recognition. About how some people have sharpened perceptual abilities. How some of us don’t.
The biblical tradition cares deeply about sight—on not missing the glory in front of us. Jesus himself bemoaned the refusal of religious leaders around him to recognize the work of God unfolding before their eyes, their stubbornness an obstacle to their awed recognition of the Son of God. No wonder Jesus’s most common healing miracle was the restoration of sight.
I realize in my daughter’s ability that there’s a mystery to what we perceive—and what we miss, something indefinable or unpredictable in what we zero in on or overlook. Who knows why some can see a sharp outline and others’ eyes have a gauzy film? And I find myself asking more piercing questions: Can I cultivate a keener eye? Can I better orient my life with more reverent attentiveness? I’ve been considering what it means to look not distractedly, but worshipfully. Not hastily, but with greater attention.
Looking on Purpose
Often I simply forget to look. Sometimes I don’t see because I let things cover my line of sight. I don’t pay attention. And the phrase is intriguing: we have to pay something to have our looking rewarded. Much of that has to do with my scattered affections, my stutter-step concentration. So too often I don’t bother to move the surrounding virtual clutter better to see the thing itself, in its mystery and reality. Maybe my failure truly to see traces to how much I’ve gotten used to a mere scan. Reverence does not thrive in the soil of hurriedness. We end up with, as someone put it, attention deficit disorder of the soul.
Flannery O’Connor was addressing a group of writers, but she could have been talking to any Christian when she said, “[T]here’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer . . . can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.” For, she said, “the longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.” Maybe the only object we spend time looking at is a screen, and missing the wonders of the world contained in the objects that surround us.
I was told as a child that staring is poor manners. But gazing has its rewards. Might not a grain of humility, if it leads us to reverence as we traverse a wider world, open up our souls to insight? We practice turning our eyes to our world or to others with a lingering, leisurely look.
Remembering It’s a Wonder-Filled World
I would look more worshipfully if I didn’t often forget that we live in a God-suffused, presence-saturated universe. “There’s a cosmic energy about God’s Creation,” writes poet Paul Mariani, “an electrical charge, both violent and violet sweet, ready to instress itself upon us if only we will pay it the attention it deserves.” The handiwork of God has a translucent or hidden wholeness and richness, and sometimes that is just a closer look away. The heavens declare the glory of God, as does a carpet of woodland undergrowth. What I stay on the lookout for may stand my soul at attention. Sometimes reverent looking has its beginnings in wonder.
And when I lose track or get sucked back into bland, dulled seeing, sometimes lifting up my eyes to contemplate what stands outside my office window can reorient me. Likewise, an unhurried look at a loved one bathed in candlelight. Even glimpses stolen from a hectic day put me back in touch. Allow me to revere what is around me.
So most mornings I manage to sit still for a time, knowing that, as Flannery O’Connor said, sunlight can make the meanest (commonest) tree shine in radiant glory. I may have to allow a little time to lapse, or a little more light to crest. When I can, I try to find some time or another to walk outside, sky suspended over me, whether at dawn or beneath a starry spectacle or under a necessary cloudy weightiness.
Sometimes what shakes us from visual doldrums into more reverent attentiveness has to do with the hard things. Suffering can narrow our field of vision, but it may also open us up, sharpen our raw seeing. What if the harsh, ugly turn of events sometimes can jolt us alert, deepen our ability to see into the heart of things?
When I had left my California home as a young man for seminary on the opposite coast of the country, I met the person I wanted to marry. My parents thought I was too young and promised to boycott the ceremony. I proceeded, over my parents’ protests, with the wedding. It opened a rift in my relationship with my parents that took years to mend. Thousands of miles between us, my parents’ ailing health, and my tight finances all conspired against a reunion.
A trip Jill and I planned for Thanksgiving week finally brought a change. We were to attend a church conference not far from my family’s Santa Monica home. It was the perfect occasion to gather—this time with Jill and our little boys (Bekah had not arrived yet). From the moment we walked up the steps of their sea-green stucco house perched on a rise above the sidewalk, I was all eyes. I took in the familiar worn places in the gold shag carpet (installed in the seventies), the tropical flowers in the backyard, the view of the Pacific waters from what had been my second-story bedroom. I don’t think I casually noticed anything on that trip.
Most of all, I took in my parents’ faces. During a spare moment of our stay, I jotted in my journal, “I feel great love for my parents when I look into their eyes. And I feel it from them.”
We may let experiences roll over us until something, like a separation or illness, yanks us from distracted, half-tied noticing.
Seeing the Condescension of God
Still sitting in a bit of wonder over my daughter’s uncanny ability, I’m thinking of yet another kind of seeing, a larger perceiving that I’m also finding mysterious—and beckoning. I mean not just becoming aware of evidences of God, but glimpsing God—the sight upon which no one can gaze and live, who yet condescends to become incarnated in humanity, taking up residence in human life. Surely that means the divine shows up on the premises of my life too. That is what incarnation means.
So is it possible, like some of the church’s saints and mystics claimed, like Julian of Norwich rhapsodized, that the child of God shall see one who is both infinite and intimate? I see in the ancients a sharpened, heightened perception.
Julian surely had plenty of ugliness around her—a plague that exceeds our pandemic for its sheer crushing devastation. War. Famine. But she knew that horrific illness and unjust suppression of peasants did not blot out spiritual reality. When she still spoke of hope, it was more than her eyeing traces of glory in creation, but something more personal, more relational, more close by. She knew she was being watched over by love. Not that she didn’t sometimes struggle to see. “And in this I saw cause for celebration and cause for lamentation,” she confesses: “cause for celebration, because our Lord, our maker, is so near us and in us, and we in him . . . cause for lamentation, because our spiritual eye is so blind and we are so weighed down by the burden of our mortal flesh and the darkness of sin that we cannot see clearly the fair, blessed face of our Lord God.”
Not long ago, with all this rolling around, I headed from my parked car to my parish office with a prayer under my breath. I said something along the lines of, “God, help me see today—see you.”
That day unfolded with a mix of tedium and significant conversations. I was already a bit down from a drizzly sky. And nothing instantaneous happened. But that day, and the next, I found myself noticing things that had a feeling of transcendence and hopefulness. Was it grace, God’s pure willingness to answer my asking? The doors of perception became somehow more cracked open. More light got through the eye of my heart. God brought an encouraging lift to my spirit.
With that God coming near, I can look around amid the odd and common and hard, and I’m thinking I can expect to see more—even more.
Cover image by Harris Vo.