Rowan Williams has often said that many things are said in his name, so I claim full responsibility for what is a personal and subjective interpretation of the keynote address His Grace, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, gave this June at The Patterson Triennial Conference. Hosted by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, the conference topic for 2019 was “Faith, Reason, Theosis.” His Grace’s was one of fourteen papers over the course of three days that explored the complex relationship between these terms.
As a practicing Episcopalian, the idea of hearing His Grace speak in the midst of this academic enclave of Orthodox Christianity that resides in the midst of Latin Catholicism was, for my way of thinking, the equivalent of extreme sport. The rigor of academic inquiry bumping into history, schisms, faith traditions, political assumptions and, in one paper, just who does have the last copy of a missing text in Syriac, led to some pretty intense intellectual explorations. As the keynote speaker, Rev. Williams, a thoughtful scholar, master of languages, a philosopher of history, and perhaps most importantly a poet in the service of God, spoke to the act of seeing. A concept as old as the ancients and as fresh as the morning light.
He noted that we do not look at life around us very much anymore. We aren’t even bothering to raise our eyes off of our screens as we cross streets, much less see the people, the buildings, or the world that surrounds us. He spoke to what he called the three ways of seeing: beatific, human, and demonic.
As you would imagine, saints have beatific vision—they are able to see God’s hand in all, and look into our souls. Although many consider His Grace to have this sight, he was quick to point out that he was very much in the middle camp—quite human. And that this was the sight, humanity’s sight, which caused him concern. We are losing touch with our world. The ability to rest our vision calmly and observe closely without being compelled to intervene in some way is becoming more difficult. We rarely rest our vision on what we have before us. To contemplate and come to a point of awe and wonder as we watch the amazing world we inhabit unfold before us is a skill we now have to practice. To not “do it” is the trick. We are always “doing” now. But how do we come again to be in the world, and express our joy in life’s presence, without leaving our sticky fingermarks all over it? My words, not His Grace’s. This is the question we need to be in touch with again.
The third vision—the demonic—is the way we see the world only for its material value. Relating everything to its value to one’s self, at the expense of all else, including the autonomy of the Other we observe. His Grace felt that this was the way of looking that increasingly drives our civilization and its relationship to the planet we inhabit.
As an artist, seeing is what you must do. You cannot paint otherwise. There must be some process by which we see using either our interior or exterior vision. So these three ways of seeing was a way of stating a question with which I have been wrestling. Was I looking with my human eye? How human was my vision? How far was I willing, or able, to look at anything without encumbering it with my own superstructure of ideas? Looking is not as easy as it sounds. To strip away the projected value we place on something, whether it is beauty, or fragility, or color, its weight in gold, or its biological imperative, and simply observe is almost impossible. It is why Angelus Silesius observed, “The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.”
Was my “why” getting in the way of my human eye?
The following morning at coffee I had the opportunity to discuss this with His Grace.
I referenced Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, a book on the first presentation in London of the use of the microscope in the mid 17th century. Hooke’s engagement of awe and surprise with what he observed in this new micro-world was apparent in the vocabulary he used to describe the tiny nits under his glass. As a poet, and a Welshman, Rowan Williams is keenly sensitive to words. There was no attempt at scientific neutrality as we practice it today in Hooke’s words. He was amazed to be a part of this enveloping whole. What we would now automatically assume as a “scientific” observation was completely absent in this vocabulary. There was no need to be objective, to remove humanity from the observation. Hooke clearly loved what he saw and considered himself and his world a part of what he saw. This vision of complexity and beauty was one he inhabited and to which he responded.
His Grace concurred and offered that the 17th century, especially the Dutch, seemed to express the apex of the art of human seeing as he had touched on it. And for me, it was clear that they put all they saw into their paintings. They took delight in their families, flowers, carpets, music and drinking, measuring money, maids pouring milk, and girls with pearl earrings—even as the lenses of Hooke’s microscope and Galileo’s telescope were opening other worlds to human observation, the 17th century was a world fully engaged with itself. They watched with joy. They shared their humanity in the arts and the sciences. They had a human way of seeing themselves, grounded, that needs to be rediscovered.
Susan P. Bachelder is an independent scholar residing in western Massachusetts with interests in Late Antiquity and early Christianity.