Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Learning to See: The Discipline of Presence

On my last visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani, Br. Paul Quenon and I took a hike out to Merton's hermitage (I wrote about my visit here).  I'd never been to the hermitage in the winter, and I wanted to get some pictures of it in the snow.

I hoped that Paul, accomplished photographer that he is, might be help me take better photos.

But on the hike he taught me something far more important.  He showed me what the world looks like to someone who really sees it.

I don't really know how to describe this except to say that, throughout our entire hike Paul pointed things out to me that I simply hadn't noticed, or hadn't bothered to notice.  He drew my attention to different birds in the trees, to the plants still growing in the cold, to the colour of the sky, and to what he thought was the spectacular way the sun was shining through the trees and off the snow.

I saw none of it on my own.

Photo - Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO
When we arrived at the clearing in front of Merton's hermitage, we both stopped to take a picture, I with my wife's good camera and Paul with his little point-and-shoot that he carries around in his habit.  We took our pictures from the same spot at the same time, but when I looked at Paul's picture in comparison to mine, I was struck by my poverty of vision.  Our photos were of the same object - a cinder-block hermitage - but Paul's photo showed me that he didn't just notice the way the sky reflected off the windows or the way the sun's light streaked across the door frame.  He saw the totality of the place, its simple but profound beauty, and it seemed to me that Paul was, at the moment he took the picture, fully present to that beauty in a way that I wasn't.

This is what makes Paul such a good photographer.  This is what makes Paul a great teacher of the spiritual life.

I learned on our hike that how we see is indicative of how willing we are to be fully present to the situations, places, and persons surrounding us.  The distractedness of my mind, a distractedness that I confront whenever I spend time in silence, hit me square in the face that afternoon.

As I've thought about this, I've toyed around with the idea that there seems to be a deep connection between the ability to be fully present and the ability to love.  Perhaps to cultivate the discipline of presence not only helps us to see, but also helps us to be seen, to be fully present to others without the 'masks' (as Merton would call them) that hide us from others and ourselves.

So I'm working on improving my sight by cultivating the discipline of presence wherever I may be, whether in a forest with a monk, in front of a classroom filled with students, on a walk with my beloved, or in a basement with my boys building Thomas the Tank Engine tracks.

To see and be seen.


As part of his discipline to cultivate presence, Br. Paul writes haiku, almost daily.  Br. Paul, as many know, is a distinguished poet; I am not.  Truth be told, I have never written a poem in my life, at least I'm not going to admit to any.  But he inspired me to write haiku, however bad my poetry may be. 

My first haiku was about our hike:

I went out to see
a monk's cabin, but found my
vision to be blurred.

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