When the World Looks Back

By Timothy King 3-18-2015 | Series:
Photo by Timothy King
Photo by Timothy King

Lent is a season of preparation. But the process of preparing for Easter does not need to be all negative commitments and focused on the things we don’t do.

One opportunity for developing new positive practices during Lent involves learning to see. The Gospels recount at least three different instances after the resurrection in which followers of Jesus were not able to recognize or “see” him: Mary at the tomb mistaking Jesus for the gardener, the road to Emmaus, and the delayed reaction when Jesus gave great fishing advice.

The truth of Easter is not always readily apparent. It requires the ability to see clearly. This means rubbing our eyes, clearing them of gunk, and focusing our vision.

Having recently shifted from spending most of my day in an office to spending almost all of it outside, I’ve been ruminating on what it might mean to practice seeing the non-human or natural world more clearly. Here are my initial reflections:

Have you ever been moved by a sunset? A star-filled canopy of the night sky? A canyon-filled horizon? A towering wooded cathedral?

What was the feeling? Gratitude for the beauty? Humility in the midst of grandeur? Inspired to greatness while experiencing greatness? Joy in celebration of it all?

Often when we use the word “move” we are referring to a physical change in the location of a thing. It is also used to refer to an inner change that might occur when we listen to a stirring speech, watch a compelling movie or hear a beautiful piece of music. In these cases we have received some sort of meaning from another person or persons that has changed us in some way, even if only for a short while.

What is interesting is that we use the same language of being “moved” whether other humans are involved. It makes sense that we might be “moved” by the actions of others or a work of art they create. If I tell a story or sing a song, I have the intention to try and “move” others in some way, even if it’s just a simple as the Billy Joel letting the regulars at the bar “forget about life for a while.”

But does a sunset intend to move us to gratitude? A glimpse at the universe above us intend to make us humble? A canyon intend to inspire greatness through its example of fortitude? Standing in the midst of ever-so-slowly growing trees intend for us to be joyful in life?

Not in the same way that we ascribe intentions to humans. And still, we experience these moments as if meaning is being given to us from these things.

These experiences are unique in that they transform what is often a relationship of “subject” to “object” to one of “subject” and “subject.” In our day-to-day lives, a rock, a tree, a mountain is just a “thing” (or collection of things) that we can know and see. They are just objects. What matters to us is what we can do to or with objects or what the objects mean to us.

In the experiences listed above, something changes. We suddenly feel a two-way relationality. We might say that a sunset has “moved” us because we feel that it has offered something to us that we did not have before. We aren’t just perceiving something but receiving something. We aren’t just changing the world by being in it, the world is also changing us.

We don’t just bring meaning to the world but the world brings meaning to us.

The moments of awe and wonder at a beautiful vista are unique in our great awareness that we are being changed by the world. But what is unique is not THAT we are being changed by the world but that we are so often only aware of it in those moments.

We are constantly being changed but only sometimes aware.

For biblical authors, specific truth claims (like the divinity of Jesus) were claimed as divine revelation through historical events and figures. However, other types of truth claims are experienced through the natural world:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. (Psalm 19:1, NLT)

Or,

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. (Romans 1:20, NLT)

This sort of way of seeing the world as bursting with meaning is something that can be sharpened. Awareness begets awareness, seeing brings forth clearer sight, and listening brings greater hearing. The deeper our understanding that we are being changed, the more we are able to participate in this change rather than only being passive receptors.

Rilke writes in the Book of Hours:

My looking ripens things

And they come toward me, to meet and be met.

Preparation during Lent can exist within the realm of self-denial. But it also includes practicing a watchfulness. We don’t just look at the world and give it meaning but meaning also comes to meet us.

If we slow down, take the time to see something we normally just glance at, and learn to focus our gaze, we just might find something surprising looking back.

Timothy King formerly served as Sojourners’ Chief Strategy Officer and now writes and farms in New Hampshire. You can read his thoughts on farming, food, and faith at his blog, Almost Home.

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