By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published July 16, 2009
We offer a retreat here on faith and photography. We have had two such retreats so far, and a third is scheduled for next year. I love photography and have long been captivated by the relationship between the discipline involved in taking a photograph, the beauty of the picture, and the desire to know and see something of God. With camera in hand, lofty theological thoughts understandably take a back seat to the prime place required for taking a good picture. Focusing, proper exposure, a steady hand and a good eye and more are involved in each click of the shutter. And a high amount of satisfaction ensues from an image well taken—one that is arresting in its beauty and simplicity.
I suppose the most important element is a trained and observant eye. A photograph is as good as the imaginative eye. Everyday things can take on a gorgeous quality when transposed by the magic of a lens to a screen or paper. A wooden door, looked at in just the right way, can look wonderful in its photographic form.
On the last retreat, there were about 25 people. I played a small part in giving the retreat. The weekend was really carried by two professional photographers—John Spink and Matthew Jeffres. They both were generous with their time, their talent and their faith. The three of us showed our photos on a large screen and commented on the place faith plays in what and how we see. I tried to stress that all of creation is God’s revelation of himself. And the instantaneous click of a shutter is the taking of a tiny, but reverent, fraction of his handiwork. You cannot take a picture without capturing something of living grace through the lens. If you cannot see it for yourself in a picture that you may own or may have taken, you can easily find someone who will help you “see” what is in the picture. Human commentary on a photograph can be as rich and as revealing as biblical commentary. No Bible has photographs. We can provide them.
I listened carefully during the weekend to the comments of those on the retreat. At one point, Matthew was talking about seeing things that exist before us every day. He then showed his pictures, and there were several of gorgeous sunsets with every imaginable color, in brilliant and fiery hues, gracing the screen. The oooohhs, the sighs, among the retreatants were audible. Someone asked in awe, “WHERE did you take that?” Matthew smiled and said “At my house.” He went on to say that he always has his camera ready, to catch beauty that is often right outside his house, visible from the driveway. He also had photographs of flowers, of his lovely wife Virginia, and photographs of swirls of water taken in the Chattahoochee River. He warmly reminded people to slow down and to see.
Such simple advice that all of us need to hear.
The next day, a young guy came into the room smiling and said that he had to report something to the group. “There is a water fountain right outside my room,” he said. “I have been here for two days and did not notice it until last night. It was there all along and like Matthew said, I only saw it when I slowed down and looked about me. Makes me wonder now how much I miss every day by simply not looking or seeing right.” His comments drew laughter and applause from everyone. And I think Matthew was elated that he had succeeded in converting a disciple.
John showed a series of photographs that he has taken over the years as a staff photographer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The photos were exceedingly rich in their variety and quality. One set of photos told the story of a homeless woman John befriended near the offices of the newspaper. She lives near the tracks of the train station, and John spent several weeks, chatting with her, taking pictures, becoming familiar with her story and her hopes.
As he was commenting in each picture, he spoke of the woman with such affection and that in itself added a graced dignity to the already present elegance in the life of a woman who may have lost her way in life but is determined to make the best of it, living near railroad tracks.
I do not think I will ever again pass a train station or see an expanse of railroad tracks without thinking about that woman, John Spink and God. Somehow they are all connected and alive, and a good photograph can capture it all. Right by the railroad tracks.
By the close of the weekend, I sensed that everyone was grateful for the time spent here at the monastery with cameras and an opportunity to refresh one’s view of life—and hopefully take a picture of it.
I was surprised by the comments a lot of those present made shortly before we took leave of each other. One person after another mentioned how much it meant to them to experience a bit of monastic life. They loved the chanting of the psalms in our abbey church. They were in awe of the beauty of the church itself with its tall, clean lines and the beautiful stained-glass windows. It was clear that they somehow felt close to God and were very grateful to get to know a bit better the ways we monks live.
There was one woman who happened upon the retreat by mistake. She had come for an individual retreat—just a few days to be alone and to refresh herself. She had wandered into the room of the photo retreat the first night, liked what she heard, and came back for every session.
At the end, she confessed that she had never taken a picture in her life but was going straight to the nearest store to buy a digital camera. The room broke out in cheers and congratulatory applause.
I like to think that she will advance in the ways she sees the beautiful people and things of this life. And may she go wild with her camera and beam with every gift offered by her shutter. Best of all, may everyone who came to the retreat grow more deeply in the wisdom of being still, and catching something of God in that instant of the human gaze as it ponders the beauty of the God who made this earth and gifts us with the means to capture a bit of it.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.abbeystore.com.