The sacred in images

If we look more carefully at the world around us, our eyes can be channels for the sacred.


Seeing is both sight and insight. That’s why many of our most profound memories are visual. Years ago I came across this passage by Bruce Bakke about his northern Minnesota childhood, which resonated with my own visual memories. “I remember the northern lights,” he wrote. “Night after night, as I would hike a mile and a half uptown to play pool or go to a movie, I would marvel at the northern lights. Constantly moving, they stretched 180 degrees across the northern half of the sky, from due east to the west. On the silent winter night they would make low rustling sounds, like a woman wearing taffeta petticoats. Even to a blasé teenager, it was awesome.”

I didn’t grow up in Minnesota, but I lived there for three years, and I know whereof he speaks.

How many of us carry such visual images of familiar places with us? I know I do: snow falling heavily in the quiet streets near my home in Down East Maine; big seas crashing on a rocky shore; gray-green spruce trees standing against a colorless sky; ghostly islands hovering on the horizon; lobster boats swinging into the tide; sea smoke rising off the bay on a cold winter morning, when the water is warmer than the air.

When I moved to Minnesota, I gathered a new set of visual images: the seemingly endless prairie horizon; the huge Midwestern sky; the groves of trees around farms, reminiscent of islands or, at night when only the yard lights were visible, of ships at sea; the black, black earth; the gnarled oak trees; the wind-blown snow; the prairie sunsets; a moon that seemed to rise up out of the earth.

Images are important. The more familiar they are, the more charged with meaning they become. We associate them with particular episodes of our lives. We see more than is actually in the image: We see through and over and beyond it. We see into the image. It carries freight, precious cargo. No one else will see it quite the way we do, because of the memories and meanings that we bring to it. What we see is more than meets the eye: what we see is modified by us, by our own peculiar preoccupations, by our own particular experiences.

Images have great importance in many religious traditions. To Hindus, darshan is a special way of seeing, translated as “seeing the divine image.” Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard, writes:

In the Hindu ritual tradition, darshan refers especially to religious seeing, or the visual perception of the sacred. When Hindus go to a temple, they do not commonly say, “I am going to worship,” but rather, “I am going for darshan.” They go to “see” the image of the deity. . . . Beholding the image is an act of worship, and through the eyes one gains the blessings of the divine.

I am not going to claim that we Unitarian Universalists can learn to “take darshan,” as the Hindus say. Ours is a radically different culture, with a radically different understanding of religion. But I believe that we can learn something from this way of seeing. We may begin to understand what looking for the divine image means.

After all, even our own tradition speaks of the ability to “see” the divine. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The eyes were not made for such groveling uses as they are now put to and worn out by, but to behold beauty now invisible. May we not see God?”

If we look more carefully at the world around us, our eyes can be channels for the sacred. “The eye is the truth,” according to one of the Brahmanas, the ritualistic texts of Hinduism. Think about that claim for a moment.

Unitarian Universalism is peculiarly a religion of the word. The Protestant Reformation focused attention on the word of God. Protestants translated the Bible for the first time into the vernacular of the people so that all could understand the spoken word. The placement of the pulpit in our churches illustrates our emphasis on the spoken word. In Protestantism the pulpit replaced the altar, and the sermon replaced the Mass. The Calvinist Protestants, in their effort to realize Martin Luther’s plea for sola scriptura, “only Scripture,” broke up organs and threw out stained-glass windows from their churches. They did away with all images. “Only the Bible, only the Word of God” was their cry.

Our religious ancestors, the Calvinist Congrega¬tionalists of New England, built large, airy meetinghouses with high, prominent pulpits and windows of clear glass panes. Form and harmony were important but subtle. The visual was downplayed.

Margaret Miles, professor emeritus of historical theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, has written critically of our Protestant emphasis on the word. She believes that we need images as well as words in order to live a complete religious life. As she puts it, “Religion without artistic images is qualitatively impoverished; art without religion is in danger of triviality, superficiality, and or subservience to commercial or political interests.”

Vision was once known as “the queen of the senses.” Yet we have allowed our religion to become woefully devoid of the visual. As Miles suggests, “The religious affections, traditionally formed and trained by images, are not effectively engaged in the worship of Christian communities when images play no part in liturgy and devotional practice.”

How different is the situation in India! There the visual sense is overwhelmed by images of gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon. A Westerner can hardly begin to grasp the meaning of this rush of imagery. We make little sense of the dancing Shivas, of the elephant-headed Ganeshes, of the phallic lingas of the Hindu temples. What does it all mean?

Christian missionaries to India, coming from a culture and religion of the word, could not understand this abundance of religious imagery, so they dismissed it as idolatry. The Hindu celebration of many gods was considered blasphemy against the one true God. The Hindus, the missionaries believed, were pagans in need of conversion.

Eck writes of that reaction:

The bafflement of many who first behold the array of Hindu images springs from the deep-rooted Western antagonism to imaging the divine at all. The Hebraic hostility to “graven images” expressed in the Commandments is echoed repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

We can hardly blame those who have difficulty understanding all those images. How to make sense of a god with an elephant’s head, or a goddess with many arms? We cannot see what the Hindus see when they look at these images.

But could we learn to see? “Language . . . develops one’s ability for analytical self-reflection,” Miles writes. “Visual images, however, are primarily addressed to formulating--for purposes of understanding and taking an attitude towards--physical existence, the great lonely, and yet universal experiences of birth, growth, maturity, physical vulnerability, pain, weakness, ecstasy, aging, illness, sex, death.”

We Unitarian Universalists are great analyzers, but we are not very good formulators. We are not very good, for example, at finding positive images for aging or illness. One reason, of course, is the visual images we are bombarded with: commercial images of slim, healthy, sexually appealing young bodies. These are the images that advertising has chosen to represent the human body for us. We need to escape our enthrallment to images that are intended to make us desire something we really don’t need, something spiritually empty. These are incomplete images. We need alternatives.

So how do we go about repairing our visual deficiency, our inherent distrust of the visual? How to create new images? How to be moved by images and even to begin to see the divine in them?

The memory of Minnesota’s awesome northern lights provides a hint, I believe. And our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition, too, suggests a way.

Our religious tradition, since the Transcendentalists at least, has counseled us to look for the divine in the world as it is. They wanted us to see the world as new: “Those motions everywhere in nature must surely be the circulations of God,” Thoreau wrote. “The flowing sail, the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind--whence else their infinite health and freedom.” The worship of the natural world is a significant strand of our Unitarian Universalist heritage. We are taught to look for God, to look for the divine, everywhere.

I am convinced that there is such a thing as a theology of landscape, or geography. Our surroundings help us to form a vision of the divine, be it cruel or benevolent, abundant or austere. It is curious to consider what sort of a theology the Transcendentalists might formulate today, when industrialization and urbanization have changed so much of the rural landscape from which they took their inspiration. But I believe that they still would counsel us to be awake to see the divine in our surroundings.

We need to learn to look with the eyes of the soul. We don’t need to go far. There is plenty to see wherever we are. There is plenty to see in Minnesota, I discovered, if you know how to look. We need only to cultivate the awareness of what we are seeing.

To do this, however, we need to overcome our distrust of the visual. Worship services in the Protestant tradition, like ours, are largely devoid of visual stimulation. But consider the visual richness of a Greek Orthodox worship service. Too seldom does our worship include visual experience, such as sacred dance or art. Too often our worship lacks drama. Perhaps what we need is to relearn a child’s fascination with the visual world and to relinquish some of our focus on words.

The good news is that we don’t have to go anywhere special to begin to see anew. We can start just where we find ourselves. As Wendell Berry writes in his poem “The Wild Geese”:

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

What we need is here--in the gardens we tend, on the morning walks we take, in the faces of our children, in the stars above our heads at night. It is even in the busy city streets, and still in the world of nature, changed though it may be from the time of Emerson and Thoreau and their contemporaries. We have only to be patient, to take the time to slow down and look around us to understand that it is true.

Our seeing is so often superficial. Yet there are times when we are blessed with a clarity of sight, when we truly see into the sacred heart of things. For the Hindu, all of India is sacred. There is simply no place untouched by the hand of the divine. Every place you look is holy. It is “through the eyes that one gains the blessings of the divine,” Eck writes.

We have much to learn from the darshan takers and the Transcendentalists, and to learn we will need to cultivate clear-mindedness to reflect on what we are seeing and what we have seen.

Turn off your cell phone, your computer, your television, all those supposed conveniences that are driving you to distraction. Clear the way to think about what you are seeing and how it relates to your life: your past, your present, your hopes for the future. Make a point of remembering what you are feeling. “To behold beauty now invisible,” it is not enough simply to look.

Like anything else, learning to see will take practice. My friend, the poet Philip Booth, provides a hint for how we might begin in his poem “How to See Deer”:

Forget roadside crossings.
Go nowhere with guns.
Go elsewhere your own way,

lonely and wanting. Or
stay and be early:
next to deep woods

inhabit old orchards.
All clearings promise.
Sunrise is good,

and fog before sun.
Expect nothing always:
find your luck slowly.

Wait out the windfall.
Take your good time
to learn to read ferns;

make like a turtle:
downhill toward slow water.
Instructed by heron,

drink the pure silence.
Be compassed by wind.
If you quiver like aspen

trust your quick nature:
let your ear teach you
which way to listen.

You’ve come to assume
protective color; now
colors reform to

new shapes in your eye.
You’ve learned by now
to wait without waiting;

as if it were dusk
look into light falling:
in deep relief

things even out. Be
careless of nothing. See
what you see.

Expanded from a sermon preached to the First Religious Society in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in June 2005.

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