An Artist’s Eye and the Kingdom of God


Picture 023Eyes they have but do not see.

I have a daughter who is an artist. Her art is a gift that eludes me. The wonder is not so much in the skill of her hands but in her eyes. For having watched this phenomenon grow up and mature, I am certain of one thing: she sees the world in a way I do not. It is not so much that she sees beauty and that I see none, but that she seems able to follow that beauty and make it flow out of her pen. When I look at her work, I am moved to ask not, “How were you able to draw that?” but first, “How were you able to see that?”

I have read whole books on the process of drawing (I’ve always wanted to have that gift and I do not).

Parenthetically, I took my daughter with me to a week’s workshop with the renowned iconographer, Xenia Pokrovsky. Xenia said to me at the end of the week, “You’re too old to learn. But give me your daughter. I’ll make her an iconographer!” It was kind of her to attribute my clumsy work to my age and not to my complete lack of talent.

But what I have learned about drawing is that it requires you to actually draw what you see. And that’s the strange wonder of it. For I think that the artist must be seeing something that I don’t – when, in fact, they are simply seeing what they see. It is the non-artist (most of us) who is blind to the world as it is.

Every week or two, one child or another in the parish will present me with a picture – of me. Drawn in the service as a bit of a distraction, such drawings are always received with great thanks and a little marvel at what I see. And, I think, my art does not go far beyond theirs. For what I will see is not a picture of how I look (thank God!), but of how they think. Some things are very important in such drawings: the robes, not with detail, but the large phelonian for sure. Sometimes it is nothing more than a triangle with a circle on the top for my head. And, swirling from the circle is some representation of a beard (nothing on top, I fear). There is often a Cross on the triangle as well.

It is, of course, an abstraction – Picasso at age four. The process in which they are engaged, drawing what they think, will continue for the rest of their lives (if they are like me) and they will wonder why their art looks so little – like art.

But in time, and with some training, a person can learn to draw what they see. That sounds so simple – and it’s not. The habit of the non-artist is to draw what-they-think-they-see. But they do not see light and dark, shadow and shading. When I draw a nose, I try to draw a nose (the idea). When my daughter draws a nose, it is complex set of shape, shadow and shading. And – wonder of wonders – looks like a nose!

At this point in the article, you may be wondering if there is a theological point to all of this. Indeed, there is. For our perception of the world is equally abstracted – we do not see what we see – but what we think we see – and we constantly misrepresent the world to ourselves.

Jonathan Pageau, the Orthodox iconographer/carver, has written a number of articles (here, here, and here), that reflect on abstractions inherent in the modern mind. My favorite is his observation that “most of the time, the world is flat.” Meaning by that, that we perceive a flat earth. We do not see the earth turn, nor do we see it going around the Sun. We see the sun go around the earth. And so we speak of sunrise and sunset, not earthturn.

But Pageau notes that something has happened in the Modern mind. We now correct for ourselves the reality that we experience. We remind ourselves that what we see is not correct (scientifically). But, in fact, it is only true (in a relative, experiential sense) if we were standing somewhere in space looking back on our planet.

He describes this as something of an alienation from the world in which we live. We constantly “demythologize” our senses and pretend we see things from outer space. He notes that the language of Scripture and of the Church’s prayers accurately describe the world as we see it. Statements such as “the four corners of the earth” are completely understandable. Any child could follow what is being said. But the Modern must insist, with something of a knowing smile, “But the earth doesn’t really have four corners.” The Modern man, though living in the age of Einstein’s theory of relativity, becomes the least relativist of all men speaking of what “really” is.

Among the myths of Modernity is the insistence that truth can only refer to what “really” is in a very narrow “semi-scientific” meaning of the term. With this shift in point-of-view (from our eyes to telescope, microscope, video camera, etc.) we slowly lose the ability to actually see what we see. Today a family sits around a table in a restaurant, all looking at their phones, while the world that is actually present goes unobserved, including those who sit at table. A new instinct is emerging: whenever we see something we like, our camera/phone immediately rises so that what we actually see can be shared with those who are no longer actually seeing. For the world we now inhabit has reached an extreme pitch of abstraction.

This abuse and loss of our eyesight also alienates us from God. For the God who is everywhere present, does not exist in the abstract. He makes Himself present. And we see that Presence more clearly when we actually see what we see. Our modern habit makes us do quite the opposite – we think about what we see – and, in order to see God – we think even harder about what we see – failing to realize that our very abstraction pushes us ever more distant.

I recently translated all of this into something of a space/time consideration. For Modern man is also Historical man. More than at any time in history, we are aware of history. It is Modern man who created terms such as “Ancient, Medieval, Dark Ages,” etc. No one in the Dark Ages ever thought to himself, “I live in the Dark Ages.” Indeed, he never thought much at all about “time in history.” That’s a particularly modern habit. And it is an abstraction.

My observation is that, rather than being present to things-as-they-are, we are often present to things-in-abstraction. We go to the mall, and come away thinking about how our culture is in steep decline (or something similar). We experience weather, but consider it under the heading of Climate Change. Abstraction on top of abstraction and we wonder why our lives are filled with anxiety and anger!

We live our lives one moment at a time. We cannot live in a period of history. The self-awareness created by such abstractions is not actually a self-awareness, but a false consciousness in which we actually perceive ourselves to be living in an ideological construct and never actually in the world.

The Liturgy of the Church demands that we ignore such distractions. “Now lay aside all earthly cares,” we sing. This is not a call to think abstractly, but to pay attention (“Let us attend!”). For the Kingdom of God is come.

Then Jesus turned to His disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see; for I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see, and have not seen it, and to hear what you hear, and have not heard it.” (Luk 10:23-24)

27 comments:

  1. Father Stephen, a triumph, you have done it again!

    “the self-awareness created by such abstractions is not actually a self-awareness, but a false consciousness in which we actually perceive ourselves to be living in an ideological construct and never actually in the world.” I had to read this a few times for my intellect and spiritual poverty to catch up – but I think I get it now.

    There is a picture of the Pope’s inauguration ceremony in 2014 and 8 years ago, I think. I can’t post pictures here, so I’ll try to be brief in my description of it.

    The 2007 picture shows a crowd in the dark and a little old mobile phone at the corner of the inauguration picture being held up by a woman.

    The 2014 image is that of a sea of lit tablets, smartphones, cameras, people with those “automatic selfie sticks” for lack of a technical term trying to position themselves in what is happening, and let the world know, too. If it’s not on MY camera, it hasn’t happened.

    I wonder if we live in an era where without visual stimulation and capturing there is no reality, no movement of the heart, no wonder to cherish. It’s not all bad – your image I am guessing is from Tolleshunt Knights, Essex or an equivalent refuge 😀

  2. Father, thank you for the wonderful post.

    I wanted to recommend a movie, if you haven’t already seen it – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty made in 2013. It is PG and relatively clean. It did not win any awards and most people probably wouldn’t consider it a masterpiece of any kind, but it is one of my favorite movies. Its topic is very much on what you’ve written today. I think you would enjoy it.

  3. I really loved this condensed wisdom:

    we see that Presence more clearly when we actually see what we see. Our modern habit makes us do quite the opposite – we think about what we see – and, in order to see God – we think even harder about what we see – failing to realize that our very abstraction pushes us ever more distant.

  4. Fr., thank you. I must often remind myself that this moment is sufficient and to thank God now for life right now. Yesterday is past and tomorrow isn’t given (yet).

    Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. Glory to His third day resurrection !

  5. Father, thank you. I have a Graphics Art degree (from before they used computers, although I suppose that dates me) and I learned art and planned to make my work in it. Sadly, things did not turn out that way and I have now largely forgotten how to draw although I long to learn again. It is definitely something now missing in my life.

    The artist T.S. Sullivant was taught by a famous artist named A. B. Frost. Frost made a humorous commentary on photography (in its infancy during his time, I believe) that went like this:

    Said the artist, “Now don’t you suppose
    An intelligent man like me knows
    How a horse ought to go.
    Yet you say I don’t know
    And believe what a photograph shows!”

    Your article immediately brought this poem/quote to mind and clarified even moreso the truth of it! Many thanks! I would love to see some of your daughter’s work if ever it is available to view. God bless.

  6. Lou,
    The “theology of the face” is another topic – not unrelated – but quite interesting. Think about how many times we speak about the Lord’s face, and seeing Him face-to-face, etc.

  7. I imagine your engaged readers being inspired by this your initial comments on drawing, to think of the talents that they have developed in their lives. I did, and was amazed at how they all point in the same direction.
    For example, it took me years of training on the piano to play what I hear instead of what what I think I hear. And when one goes deeply into physics, one eventually comes to terms with the nature of abstractions (and at that point, I lost interest in physics).

  8. This is exactly how I feel when I read the Bible on my own and then read with others, either though conversation or through their explicatory writings–I find that I’ve been seeing the words but constructing them into what I *think* they mean or what I’ve been *told* since childhood that they mean. And therefore I miss a lot. Learning to actually read, learning to actually see, these things take a lot of effort and time.

  9. But, Fr. Stephen…you are an artist! Writing is also an art; and it is your writing which has helped, enlightened and guided so many to join you in saying, “Glory to God for ALL things!”

    Christos Anesti!
    Eleftheria

  10. Wonderful post. Our abstractions of abstractions take us farther and farther away from the true perception of God.

    I know it is not officially Orthodox but I recommend the lessons from the Workbook of A Course In Miracles, designed to systematically remove the blocks of awareness to the presence of God. For myself, ACIM played a key role in finding my way home to Orthodoxy. The Holy Spirit put it into my hands precisely when I needed it, in response to my conscious turn of heart, seeking God in my life. The lessons helped me release grievances I had held against organized religion for many years. Release of grievance, true firgiveness, is something very much needed today. “Harboring grievances is an attack of God’s plan for salvation.”

    Once I let go of grievances, the fullness of the Liturgy, the Truth of it, opened up to me.

    As a convert who spent nearly 40 years unchurched and wandering in the wilderness of the world until my Chrismation in 1999, I know that God is at all times present, continually “broadcasting” to us. It is up to us, as Elder Paisios said, to be like radio receivers and “tune ourselves to His frequency.” Orhodoxy and ACIM are ways to achieve that tuning of perception. (Christ is the stated author of ACIM.)

    Glory to God for his mercy in revealing Himself to us through his saints, his prophets, the Gospel, and through one another, icons of Him, in the Holy Orthodox faith.

  11. Fr. Freeman

    Christ is risen!

    Your post reminded me of a favorite quote by Simone Weil:

    “Attention is the only faculty of the soul that gives us access to God.”

    Your words also made me go back and re-read Tolstoy’s “Three Questions” about which you have written earlier.

    Mike

  12. Father Stephen,
    As always, another challenging and strengthening post. Just a food for thought on the comments you made regarding the modern man and history. You seem to make the point that we are now, more than ever, conscious of history. I’m not sure what this meant. I work daily with primary sources of the distant past and they spoke often of previous time periods. Those in the “middle ages” perhaps did not identify with the term but they did know of a “golden age” of antiquity, and their notion of Anno Domini time was inverted backwards towards the birth of Christ. They also split history into prophetic phases, e.g. the four monarchies. At the same time, their attitude towards the past was quite different than our own. For one thing, there was a greater sense of history being a unified whole, a stream of time from creation through the eschatological future. At least until the 15th and 16th centuries, history and time were the vehicles through which God had brought salvation to man, and all creatures were bound up in the tension between the time of Christ’s advents. By contrast I find that we in “modernity” (particularly the US version of it) often live our lives as though the past didn’t exist, fashioning and refashioning our identities and cityscapes with little reference to the traditions, heritages and past wisdom that have formed us. Often we create temporal islands for ourselves, invoking the past selectively and only when it suits us or the identity we’ve created. I wonder if what you were really getting at is not that we live today aware of _history_ but more so that we live with a picture of history that is somehow isolated from the present world we live in. History, for us, is something that is to be periodized, compartmentalized, cordoned off from lived experience. In this sense, we are not only living in a postmodern world but a posthistorical one as well (although this is not the case everywhere in the world, even today.)

  13. Nicole,
    Yes. I thought about those things as I was writing and was attempted to give it some attention, but refrained. So, I’m glad you asked.

    There certainly was a form of historical awareness. I think I should have been more specific in the nature of our modern historical awareness. It’s primary element is a belief in progress, which involves the devaluing of all time that has gone before – and even of the present since what matters is what we are “going” to do/be. So, it’s a very prejudiced reading of history.

    I think I had myself in mind (and curmudgeons like me) in my thoughts about coming home from the mall concerned about the decline of civilization. When I read Pageau’s articles, I realized that I was using the device of a certain historical consciousness to view the world most of the time – instead of actually viewing the world. For though multiple piercings and tattoos might be hallmarks of a civilizational decline, such judgments are contrary to the sobriety required for prayer. But to be fair to the minds of my fellow citizens at the mall, they are probably not thinking about history at all, but various other distractions that torment us and carry us away from the good God who loves us all.

  14. And of course underneath the piercings and tattoos are plain old human beings with needs and a heritage – though they know it not. It’s interesting how reality continues unabated and unabashed by the fact that we are often oblivious to it. Specifically I’m thinking about how each person has a lineage that plays a part in who they are today. They carry traits and have propensities that came from somewhere instead of just simply being a matter of their choices.

    This is true with individuals but of course also on a grand scale. For example the US has a heritage. One trait which could be safely stated is that of rebellion. They rebelled to get their independence in the beginning and have been rebelling ever since. The act of rebellion is not so much a choice for them as they would immediately think; it’s in their blood.

    Whereas a trait that could be rightly attributed to Canada is courtesy. They bend over backwards not pick a fight and make sure those around them feel comfortable. This can be bad when those around them want to practice controversial things and therefore they end up condoning things they shouldn’t just so the boat won’t be rocked. Nevertheless it’s in their blood and they have to struggle to do otherwise.

    These are of course broad generalizations but the point is that we have a heritage and a history; being ignorant of them does not actually make them go away. Reality is still quite active and present, no matter how we deal with it.

  15. And here I was sure you were talking about me when you described the one coming home from the mall!

    I think that what you say here is very true and very hard. It is interesting to me that in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 13) immediately after Jesus gives his warnings about the signs of what we may call the decline of civilization, he warns his listeners to “be on guard…stay awake.” The more abstract “end is near” of the fig tree lesson leads directly to a concrete command to pay attention. I am certainly more tuned in to the abstract message than to the particular command. I can sit and worry about “global issues” far more easily than I can work with joy on the task at hand.

  16. It is of note that, according to tradition, when Michael the Archangel led the battle in heaven against the rebellious angels, his rallying cry was, “Let us stand aright! Let us attend!”

  17. The Creation continually
    calls out to our hearts
    to wake up & ponder.
    Beauty is no siren song
    to lead us to destruction
    but a song of praise
    that would lead us to redemption.
    And simple child-like wonder
    (if we could only see it so)
    is worship
    without words.

    “The eye is the lamp of the body…” What our eye silently approves says more about what lives in our hearts than anything we could say about ourselves.

    Those who giftedly paint and draw and sculpt are like lenses to focus our attention upon what really is. It is called “Still Life” because it offers us the opportunity to put aside drama, drive and distraction, to be at peace and to simply ask ourselves, “How can all this be?”

  18. There is a book called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” which might give you the gift that interests you. Take it slowly. . . .

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