I am experiencing a static year, sitting or lying in bed for most of the time, so thinking of myself as moving on any spiritual trajectory has seemed an accompanying impossibility; but in spite of periods of depression and feeling ‘unmoored’ even from my most basic self, there is a small voice within me that is certain that journeying towards, not away from, God is exactly what I am doing. Travelling the pilgrim paths and the ancient ways of the wise has increasingly become my intention as I have realised that illness, in its ebbs and flows of recovery, rest, and crisis, can be a form of spiritual direction in and of itself.
As I have written about here before, contemplative photography has freed me to explore my creativity and my spirituality collaboratively, and this year has proved to me that all one needs is a mobile phone camera to practice this, since I have been too weak most months to lift my DSLR. An iPhone in my case has become a tool for receiving images, even on a day when the brain fog clears for only five minutes or where migraines ease enough for me to take off my sunglasses or open the curtains only for a short while. I’ve learnt that I don’t even have to be able to see straight for God to present to me frankly miraculous moments of Presence, proving to me (and oh how I need to be reminded very, very often) that Grace is never far from me, and often in the most surprising forms.
Last October I made it my daily intention to be open to what this mobile camera might bring me, and by the time you read this I hope to be well enough to be underway with a similar ‘photo pilgrimage’ this year. For I found by creating an on screen journal (I used the bamboo app, with a stylus for writing around and over each day’s offerings) I could pull out weekly themes, clusters of subjects I was drawn to, and how closely these might mirror emotional mood, or physical wellness, or (intentionally or otherwise) echo motifs from my spiritual study and prayer time. I want to be able to do the same process a year on, and see what, if anything, of the journey has changed; and what remain the touchstones of visual manifestation of the faith-sifting I keep returning to; and how I might be finding new expressions for them.
This is one form of ‘Visio Divina’, a process introduced to me so brilliantly by Christine Valters Paintner (read her book Eyes of the Heart, or go to abbeyofthearts.com). I find it hard to look at my own creative output with anything approaching the eyes of God so this practice is an ongoing lesson I shall never reach the end of. Yet I have also been encouraged by Patricia Turner on her blog A Photographic Sage to practice visual spiritual discernment through the process of selecting an ‘icon of experience’ (of a day, a holiday, an emotion, whatever) which sums up the essences of that place, time, emotion etc. Given how many ‘snaps’ the digital age now enables us to take, putting a batch through this winnowing process can be both excruciating and enlightening.
This magpie feather is static and fallen (my mum brought it in from her garden and placed it on my windowsill because she thought I would enjoy the colours). It should be lifting a bird, yet its very stillness has the capacity to point me towards my central being, my true self, my Creator. Contemplative Photography is the sensual counterpoint to the life of my mind, an avenue out of my emotional whirlpools, a brake on the busy importance of the ego and my ‘brilliant’ ideas that must be just what the world has been waiting for.
This type of focus on the material and visible can only lead me to enter into the invisible and immaterial.
So once more, by Grace, I come to an understanding that ‘direction’ is all about embracing more of the Kingdom’s paradoxes:
In being directionless, we might find pointers to the Presence who lives beyond our boundaries of times and plans.
In stillness there emerges a way of travelling to transformation.
It is only in the letting go of our will to find that we discover the thread of way to follow.
Our desired end, becoming one with our Creator, is our beginning…
One thing the camera teaches us —
something we all too often,
and all too quickly, forget —
is the power of perspective:
the notion that what
we’re capable of seeing
depends so absolutely
on where we stand,
or when and where
and before what
we find ourselves willing
Kate Kennington Steer is a writer and photographer with a deep abiding passion for contemplative photography and spirituality. She writes about these things on her shot at ten paces blog (http://shotattenpaces.blogspot.co.uk).