Walking, Art-Making, and Seeing God

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In the text Art and Soul, the authors devote a chapter to ways of seeing. They conclude by encouraging readers to develop a “Christian” way of seeing, as it pertains to understanding and participating in culture. This pursuit of seeing requires disciplines through which we achieve a deep and meaningful engagement with life. In engaging life this way, we find ourselves “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”[1] This seems like a worthy pursuit, but I find myself asking: How does one use cultivated seeing as a means be “filled to the measure” of God? What are the units of measurement? And further, how do I know if I’m full or being filled?

If “seeing” is to be linked to “fullness”, then this kind of seeing must involve more than just use of the eyes. To “taste and see that the Lord is good” requires multiple senses engaged in a practice of curiosity and gratefulness for the everyday, in which the risen Christ is incarnated. So how do I reorient myself to the mundane, ordinary circumstances of my life, so that I approach them fully awake, fully present, and ready to receive God in it and not in spite of it?

The best way I have found to do this is to go for walks. As the Apostle Paul writes, “If we live in the Spirit, then let us also walk by the Spirit.”[2] I have found Paul’s metaphor not to just be a metaphor, but also a practical encouragement. Walking gets me moving – getting from point A to point B. Movement is also occurring in between point A and point B – inside the path of a line. I do a lot of thinking while walking – about conversations I’ve had with others, things I’ve read, errands that need running, problems that needs solving. So walking is not just physically moving from place to place, but moving mentally and soulfully from place to place as well. In the walk, I am drawing lines between physical spaces, everyday spaces, and spiritual spaces, one step at a time.

A walk is, at its essence, movement. You place one foot in front of your body, shift your weight onto that foot, then bring the rear foot forward until it is placed in the front position. Thus your legs have moved, but by a single step your body has moved from one physical space to another. You find your body occupying a new space. Repeat this process a few thousand times in rapid succession, and your body is now in a very different space, perhaps another neighborhood or on the other side of a mountain.

You have moved. You can tell because everything looks different. The houses are different, the street numbers have changed, there is an Ethiopian restaurant in front of you instead of a Greek one. The other side of the mountain looks very different. Anyone who has hiked the Wonderland trail around Mt Rainier has witnessed this phenomenon – though “The Mountain” may be ever-present, from your rapidly changing viewpoint the position of glaciers move, or Little Tahoma is now on the right side instead of the left. You have moved, and your perspective has changed.

Our experience walking is a lot like how much of life is experienced. My relationship to my wife, or to my son, or to a friend, does not remain static over time. Rather it changes as we experience life together, learn about one another, and grow into shared wisdom. I think relationship with God must work similarly; that is if it is truly to be a relationship and not a set of rules. What is a relationship, but to consider oneself in relation to someone else or some other object, with the in-between being a physical position, a feeling, an understanding, a form of communication, or an action. These, for example, can be attraction or avoidance, love or loathing, excitement or indifference. Relationships are processes of movement.

So walking draws me out of the crusted shell of sedentary distraction and back into freer movement with the day. It reunites me with the relationships all around me, and I sense again a position within of the cosmos, a tiny particle in orchestra with the rising and setting of the sun, the comings and goings of others, the flittering of birds, the cacophony of automobiles. God, in the form of the Spirit, becomes present in the in-betweens. Becoming mindful of these in-betweens generates a form of seeing for me, which might be understood as fully existing; as my legs slide in sync across pavement, my lungs fill to that rhythm, and the chatterbox that is my inner monologue quiets. I enter a process of movement in which my own body, and the spaces it occupies, somehow makes sense.

John Berger wondered where heaven may lie in relation to us. Is God far away in the clouds, or across the galaxy? His conclusion was that no, heaven is not far away, but heaven is actually “infinitely close.” He says, “There is nothing baroque about it, no swirling infinite space or stunning foreshortening. To find it – if one had the grace – it would only be necessary to lift up something as small and at hand as a pebble or a salt-shaker on the table.”[3] The small and mundane point us to the way things are supposed to be, as God created them. Though heaven is certainly not found in and of these things, these things are arrows pointing us to Jesus’ rule and reign, as they are to be, here and now.

God reveals himself to Elijah not in the noisy earthquake, nor in the devouring fire, but in the gentle whisper[4]. I believe gentle whispers can be discerned from pebbles and salt-shakers, from the leaf on the ground and the crack in the sidewalk. To taste and see God means to taste the beauty in the everyday, noticing and appreciating what’s under my own feet, what my eyes take in, what I hear, what I feel and what I think. Walking connects and reconnects me to these truths so central to our faith, and central to experiencing God as he is heaven, in the here and now.

My recent artworks consider these relationships, between the steps I take, the process of movement, and the listening to whispers, within the urban grid of the city. Walking becomes like writing or drawing. The actual ink or graphite drawings I make are documentations, or illuminations, of these walks. If the walk is the line being drawn or written, then instead of making a line, I illustrate the things around the line, those buildings, trees, and street intersections that appear in my visual halo. Making these drawings is a way of seeing these walks in a different way. I take every split second of what is seen on a walk, and present them all at once. They become like cartography of my own phenomenology, a roadmap of a practice of prayer.

The processes of walking, drawing, writing, and noticing equip me with some of the discipline, alertness, and play that Brand and Chaplin outline as necessary to “Christian” seeing. Not that art-making has any kind of exclusive domain over these, nor do I think walking universally acts as a magic key to unlocking spiritual transcendence.

Perhaps seeing means bringing my own self out of hiding (or sensory distraction), into the everyday presence of the invisible and seemingly silent, but ever-present God. For Paul’s journey on the road to Damascus, that meant the removal of sight,. Without his sight, Paul then knew that God had called him. Maybe I don’t walk to see God, so much as I walk that God would see me, that I might then know the meaning of the word blessed, and to see glimpses of God’s heavenly presence here. I’m coming to see that to know oneself blessed, then, may be the measurement of fullness all along.

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[1] Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin, Art and Soul, pg. 109.

[2] Galatians 5:25

[3] John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, pg. 11.

[4] 1 Kings 19