I sometimes wonder if I have ever really seen what is, what is reality. I’m not talking about eyesight, but about insight, or as Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet wrote: inscape. What is the inside of something, someone like? What world dwells and resides inside each one of the more than 6 billion people on this spinning earth? For the last years I have spent a month or two in the countries of Peru and Bolivia and I always carry my camera with me to carry away what I can see! I used to draw and paint but then I broke my left hand (I was a lefty) and somehow I severed the connection between my eye and my hand and lost that gift.
But in Peru and Bolivia the indigenous peoples often do not appreciate others taking their picture, especially their faces and eyes, where they carry their soul. They do not appreciate strangers peering deeply into them and taking what was not offered. And I try to respect that when I am among them. So I take lots of pictures of backs, from behind and sideways. And when the film is developed I am amazed at what I see and what there is still to see as inscape/insight. There are long thick, and skinny braids. Gorgeous mantas, long shawls that carry everything from babies to thirty pounds of food, firewood, cloth, grasses/wheat/rye and even stones, adobe bricks and flowers for the market. They carry burdens, little infants asleep with too rosy cheeks that are the result of cold and wind at high altitudes, over 11,000 ft. There are larger children peering at me sideways, curious and often breaking into a smile when they see me looking at them through this silver box. They looked with care, serious and intent. And lowering the camera I would look back.
In the market I would begin by taking pictures of hats hanging from the tent rafters, or vegetables, mounds of potatoes, corn and unknown riches, slabs of meat, inards or wild abandonment of cloth every color of the rainbow spread out on the grass or walkways. I could see a lot with my telephoto and invariably I would look up to see others, especially the women, watching me. They’d smile. I’d smile and they’d look at each other sideways, smile again and turn their backs all together so that I could see and take pictures of their backs, their distinctive hats and weavings. They’d turn, look sideways at me and laugh outloud.
On one of the last days I was in a huge market in a rural area a woman came up to me (very unusual) and she wanted to look through my camera and see what I could see. She looked a long long time and then looked at me. Then she stood in one place and turned all the way around, with the camera to her eye, encompassing the world. Her eyes were wide, wider and wider still, as though she was the lens on the camera. She motioned to the others and one woman took me by the hand, drew me into the group, wrapped a manta over my shoulders and fixed my braid (which was very skinny, short and silver in comparison to their rich night black thick ones) and she took my picture with all the others. She arranged them, rearranged them, with me, in obvious generation groupings and with friends, sisters, and cousins, there was much laughing. Then she gave me my camera back, after everyone had had a chance to see, to pivot and peer at the world and to take a picture of what they chose to capture (though we all knew they’d never see the pictures developed).
Then she did something remarkable. She pointed to her eye and then touched mine and in rapid fire Quecha touched my fingers to her throat and her fingers to mine, while all the women nodded strongly in affirmation. I had no idea at all what she was saying, but I did understand something—I’d been drawn into their line of sight, their vision and their world. They gave me potatoes and corn for our lunch, smiled, picked up their heavily loaded mantas and turned for home up the mountainsides.
I looked to Victor, my Quecha friend who is also fluent in Spanish and English and my other friends who have been in the altiplano for decades and their mouths were wide open and staring at the women as they left, turning back to smile and wave at us again and again. They translated. She told you that your eye sees the way they see: behind, what is the past that they carry and off to the side, what’s outside, lost, on the fringes, the edges and so you are one of them. And you have the same soul—that was the bit about the throat. It seems they believe, along with the peoples of the Middle East, even at the time of Jesus, that your soul is located in your throat. And they talked with their eyes if they couldn’t with their throats! I knew I’d been having deep penetrating conversations for the past couple of weeks and nary a word was uttered, but so much passed between total strangers that were intimate and speaking reams to me.
An angle of sight! There is the saying that seeing is believing. And many cultures and peoples believe in second sight, someone who has the gift of seeing into one’s soul, or into the future, in glimpses, or understanding dreams and what is not spoken, or seeing what earth tells us in weather, trees, birds and behind the veils of creation at certain times of the day, usually at dusk and dawn when the light shifts and moves and the air is almost visible. I knew I’d been seeing things, important and crucial things all those days of watching people, often watching me. I’d been learning a language of Spirit, of incarnation and relationship. And I returned to the states seeing my place, culture, government, economies, faces and backs through their eyes.
What are we seeing these days, now years since the fall of 2001? We see squinting, with our eyes almost closed and we see mistrust, danger, treachery and violence in anyone who doesn’t look like us. We do not look at people, not even side-ways, or with insight or inscape. We see and judge and then speak of what is outside and what is strange to us, or just unknown or different. And we see violence as the only response to whatever we are feeling and whatever we perceive others doing in the world. And we are told to see everyone who is not ‘with us, as against us’(contrary to Jesus’ words that ‘if they are not against us, they are with us’), and to report anything suspicious to authorities, warnings on traffic signs in major cities and posted in public places. We see so many as ‘them’ and ‘them’ is a code word for all those who we see as evil, as inhuman, as we presume, self-righteously and even religiously, as not good, like us. Our sight is skewered and off kilter and we are seeing less and less of what is actually there, what is reality and sadly, who is watching us watch them.
In Trinitarian theology, the world and all its inhabitants and what God has created as good, very, very good, is described as the sacrament of the Spirit. It teaches that for those who have eyes to see, The Holy is everywhere waiting to be seen, to be recognized, appreciated, drawn into one’s soul, in wisdom, insight, inscape. It urges us to remember and to practice looking back at God that looks at us and sees us in all things/places/faces and eyes. As Meister Eckhart, the Dominican mystic wrote: “The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see God.” And it follows that ‘the eye with which we see God is the eye with which we see others, and the eye with which others see us.’ What are others seeing when they look at us these days? Are we the children of light, the children of peace, of no harm to others, the children that offer sanctuary, refuge and a star to steer home by to all others? Does our angle of sight turn us around, make us see sideways, see through others eyes, see behind and far forward and see with God’s eye?
It is time to learn the art of seeing and speaking without words, to touch our enemies’ and others’ eyes and throats with our fingertips and to smile, welcoming, respectful to not steal or take what is not given to us and to see ourselves as others in the world perceive us. Our prayer these months of fading light, autumn and falling must be: “Lord, please, that I may see.” Lord, please, that we, who call ourselves Christians, may be seen for what we are and not turn away from your gaze upon us. Lord, please, may we see everyone in the light of your eyes and glance upon all the children of earth with compassion and wonder at all who you have made in your image.” It is time for a new angle of sight: insight, inscape, from behind the eyes of the Holy One who dwells among us, among all of us in Incarnation. “Lord, please, open our eyes!” Amen.
Catholic Peace Voice article, August 16, 2004