By: Susan E. Moorefield
In the world of Instagram and selfies, it is hard to imagine that photography could even be suggested as a spiritual practice. Everywhere you go, smart phones are photographing everything from a foot-long chili dog at the ballpark to a squirrel wearing a pink dress. When phones are not photographing other things, they are often turned on their owners to snap the latest tattoos, pretty drinks, or famous celebrities nearby. On his visit to the U.S., even the Pope found himself caught in hundreds, if not thousands, of selfies. None of these, not even selfies with the Pope, are examples of photography as a spiritual practice.
When we allow photography to become a spiritual practice, we are choosing to use the camera in a very different way: as a tool for awareness. Through the lens of the camera, we are able to see more deeply. Thomas Merton wrote, “Today with a myriad of instruments we can explore things we never imagined. But we no longer see directly what is right in front of us” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 311) The camera helps us to start paying attention and to wake up to our life.
When we use the camera to sharpen our awareness, we become intentional. We stop and step out of the busyness and the distractions of life. We hold still. We breathe slowly. We pause, and we focus. We give our attention to the one thing that is in the viewfinder, and we begin to see it more fully. Georgia O’Keeffe wrote, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time– like to have a friend takes time” (http://www.georgiaokeeffe.net/quotes.jsp).
Like all spiritual practices, photography demands unhurried time. To photograph a single pinecone, we have to examine it. We need to consider what angle to use. Are we on the ground with the pinecone, or are we directly above it, or are we somewhere in between? Our creativity is invited to come out to play.
We start to look at the light and the patterns of the shadows. We notice the textures and the subtle variations in color. We realize that what at first looked uniform is not uniform at all. We notice a few, tiny pine needles we hadn’t seen before. We start to see more deeply. We become more aware.
This is the moment when photography becomes a spiritual practice. All of a sudden, our minds and our bodies are in the same place. We are in the now. Being able to focus on one thing brings us into focus as well. We discover the fullness of the present moment.
As a great spiritual teacher once taught me, the present moment is the only place our bodies can ever be. Our minds can find themselves years in the past or consumed with what is coming in the future, but our bodies can only be here and now. When we allow the camera to make us stop and focus fully on one thing, we can actually begin to experience life in the present moment.
As we become more deeply aware of the life within us and around us, we connect on an intimate level with the Creator of Life. We touch the sacred, and we become enveloped in the holy. As we focus away from ourselves, we find ourselves again.
The challenge then becomes how to use photography as a spiritual practice in your own life. Often the hardest part of any spiritual practice is finding the time for it. But like everything worth doing, you’ll find this new way of focusing worth it.
How do you do it? Maybe set aside an hour in the morning to take a walk. Charge the camera batteries the night before, and make sure the card in your camera has room for more pictures. I know these distractions all too well. If you wait for the morning to get all your camera parts and pieces together, you will end up sitting at home looking at old pictures of the last birthday party!
The next morning go outside and take a walk. You have scheduled a full hour. Try to let your mind stay in the present and not to start rushing through the rest of the day.
Look for things to photograph. This intentional searching in itself will make you start to see the world differently. When you find something, stop. Take several shots. Shoot at different angles. Keep looking at the subject. Walk on. Find something new.
You will be amazed. A bent nail in a board will photograph beautifully. A rock reflecting the sunlight is lovely too. A leaf covered in dewdrops is something to behold.
Remind yourself that you are not setting out to win great awards for your brilliant photography. You are setting out to see the world that is right in front of you and always has been. You are cultivating your awareness as a spiritual practice.
If your phone is the only camera you own, refrain from sharing your photos while you are on your walk. If you text, tweet, or Facebook just one photo because it is so pretty that you just have to share it, then you have just invited the whole world to interrupt your walk and intrude on the time set aside for your spiritual work. This is your time. Please let everyone else wait until you are done.
And have fun. Remember to breathe. Enjoy the life that is in you and right in front of you. Find delight. Be awake. Open yourself to encountering the One who created all of life from the beginning. Jesus said to the disciples, “Truly, I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it . . .” (Matt. 13: 17, NRSV). Get your camera, and go see!
The Rev. Dr. Susan E. Moorefield serves at Faith Presbyterian Church in Sun City, Arizona. She is a minister, writer, professional photographer, nature lover, and fly-fisher.