When the clouds lift


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Photography can demystify vision, which is good. It teaches you that the ability to see, really see, depends on a kind of aesthetic muscle that gets stronger with use. It teaches you about grace: that “chance favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur once put it.


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“As I was walking up the stair, I saw a man that wasn’t there.” Well, O.K., I was actually walking down the road, and it was a tree rather than a man, but you get the idea. The sun sets early in a northeast-facing hollow in January. Right around the next bend, I would drop down into the shadow.


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When I was younger and more idealistic, I thought that a direct, Zen-like seeing of things as they are in themselves, completely free of the veil of interpretations, was the only worthwhile goal of authentic insight. Now, I feel that the more ordinary kind of defamiliarization – the anthropomorphic, “othering” impulse – might be just as important. Last week, at a public lecture by the preeminent historian of American religion, Martin E. Marty, I learned a new word that incorporates both the process of making the familiar unfamiliar and making the unfamiliar familiar: syntectics, from the Greek syn-, together, and ektos, outside or external. It seems to have been coined by educational theorists interested in trying to find ways to teach creativity back in the 70s, and if it remains obscure – well, I can think of some pretty obvious reasons for that! Learning to see as a poet, artist or scientist sees involves a relentless questioning of every cliché, every assumption, every accustomed view. But how else, barring enlightenment, can we retain a sense of wonder and at-homeness in a universe far more complex than we can ever hope to imagine?


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“The sacred is that which repels our advance.” I remember when I first came across this quote in a book by the contemporary philosopher Alphonso Lingis, feeling ridiculously pleased with myself that I had also had this same insight not too many months before. But by now, some four or five years later, I’m afraid this discovery has calcified into another comfortable view. Isn’t the immersion and attempted dissolution of self in other also a sacred thing? Isn’t compassion at least as necessary as syntectics to the perception of holiness? Must the eye or the finger inevitably diminish whatever they touch? Must the mind always grasp in order to understand, or can it learn also to dwell in openness, like an inexhaustible ear?

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