Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

‘See with the light’

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published August 24, 2017

“It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.”
Henry David Thoreau

I used to like watch the passersby as they moved through the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. I would find a spot off the beaten path and watch the many hundreds of people come through the main doors of the terminal, on Eighth Avenue, as they made their way to the buses that would take them home.

At times I wondered as I watched. I wondered what was on the minds of all those people. Surely there must have been as many different thoughts as there were people, thoughts that moved through their minds that made those harboring them somewhat oblivious to the details of life through which they were moving. The way through the terminal was a twice-a-day weekly routine. It would have been second nature for them to linger on thoughts that had little or nothing to do with where they presently were. In short, they suspended the need to really take a long look at their surroundings, occupied as they were with thoughts of whatever—family, a vacation, office problems, getting home and kicking off their shoes.

The gift of faith encourages one to see with the light that it offers.

It is not the kind of light that enables folks to continue on their way through many all too familiar places in life, like a well-trodden bus terminal. It is, rather, the kind of light that gives us pause, a strange awakening, and enables us to see more deeply into the ordinary, everyday scenes of life. It does not change at all what lies within our field of view. It changes how we see. It reveals a deep and mysterious depth that exists, as if waiting to be discovered, beneath the façade of the commonplace.

In a recent op ed piece in The New York Times, Noam Chomsky discussed how to sensitize college students to human suffering. He spoke of the need “to encourage their capacity to question, to explore, to view the world from the standpoint of others. And direct exposure is never very far away, wherever we live—perhaps the homeless person huddling in the cold or asking for a few pennies for food, or all too many more.”

Much like the many people I used to watch in the Port Authority, I was, more often than not, oblivious to what lay before my eyes and, in many cases, on the ground where a homeless person sat, begging for a few pieces of change. And I am aware that I am still often buoyed by those fanciful thoughts in my mind that keep me moving straight ahead, blind to whatever is on my right or left. It can be a struggle to leave that state of a near comatose existence to one that gazes anew at my surroundings and responds to them.

The only way to paradise is through this life. There are no expresses, no nonstop buses, no leisurely rides through the choicest parts of the journey. We live day by day, and each day life passes before our eyes.

Every now and then, I am offered a chance to take a second look and try to learn from what that look affords me—a way of seeing what is truly real and worth following and, hopefully, seeing again when the light seems to fade and I grow satisfied with mere looking.

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