23 Mar Passiontide Reflection
Recently I read a book by Alexandra Horowitz entitled On Looking: A walker’s guide to the art of observation. She lives in an apartment in New York city and begins the book by walking a few blocks around her neighbourhood trying to observe in more detail what is going on and what is around her. It’s a walk she has done thousands of times, but this time she is looking a bit more deliberately at her surroundings and she does indeed notice a few more things than usual and decides to repeat the exercise but accompanied each time by a different person in the hope that they will shed even more light on what she is seeing.
In the subsequent chapters of the book she revisits the same urban landscape with a different person repeating the walk around the block and seeing in more detail what is going on; observing and really looking at the things around her. The people that Horowitz chooses to accompany her include an ecologist who points out the evidence of a whole range of animals, birds, insects and plants that perhaps you may not always notice or expect to see in such an urban landscape. Horowitz also does the journey with her toddler son who of course not only sees the landscape from a different physical perspective but also with a very different attitude and relationship to the world around him. She describes how she and her son at one point are ambling along the street when she sees a little way ahead a scruffy looking man obviously in a bit of temper mumbling and talking to himself. Normally, she writes, although she has ‘seen’ this man she would, probably like many of us, increase her speed to get past him, or perhaps walk on the other side, or suddenly find something very interesting on her phone or on the pavement, but her son stops and stares at the man as he approaches, then breaks into a big smile; the man also stops and after staring at Horowitz’s son, smiles back. It is an insight, she realises, into the dynamics of only seeing what we want to see rather than engaging with what is actually around us.
In one of the final chapters Horowitz is accompanied on the walk with a friend who is blind. Now the observing and ‘seeing’ are carried out of course in a very different way. Her friend ‘sees’ through other senses, particularly touch and sound, and occasionally asks Horowitz to describe the landscape which forces Horowitz to look more intently on what is around her in order that she can describe and paint a picture for her friend.
The practice of seeing is one that perhaps we often take for granted, particularly if, like Horowitz, we are in an environment that we know well and the book is a powerful exploration of what can be involved when we truly observe the world around us.
In today’s gospel passage [Lent 5, Jn 12:20-33] some Gentiles approach Philip and say to him ‘Sir, we should like to see Jesus.’ At one level this is a request physically to see the man Jesus, perhaps to see more closely the one who up to now they have only seen from a distance. They want to see him yes, but presumably that seeing includes also having the opportunity to engage and understand more deeply who he is. The seeing is not only about observing in more detail the man in front of their eyes, but in a way perhaps, to get the measure of him, even maybe to take some steps in following him.
This act of observing Jesus is, in many ways, the daily intention of our life of faith. Not physically in the same way that the Gentiles saw, but rather to look for Jesus in the routines and events and questions and challenges of our lives; to observe the signs of Christ in the world and in our neighbour, and in so seeing and observing, to engage and understand.
As with Horowitz we may realise that our observation is only partial at best and, in the context of faith, we sometimes fail to observe Christ and pay attention to his work around us. Like the stereotypical urban walker we are in a rush to get to the next place and we fail to observe and see Christ in front of us; quite possibly we need some help in truly looking and observing to see the signs that it is all too easy to miss but are there if we know where and how to look; or maybe it is that we need to become like a child so that we may truly see what we have previously chosen to ignore.
The season of Lent and perhaps particularly this period of Passiontide can help us to observe because it strips back some of the things that often get in the way, the things that hinder the practice and intent of observing God amidst our daily lives, or to put it another way, the practices of Lent and the period of Passiontide reframe and refocus what we are seeing even if the context around us hasn’t changed.
In the gospels we read how the Gentiles, the disciples, the Religious Leaders all had expectations of who they thought Jesus was or who he should be and over these next few weeks we will hear the familiar stories that will be a reminder of the different ways in which those various expectations and understandings were challenged by Christ’s journey to the cross and the empty tomb. Though they saw Christ they were not always truly looking, and though they observed his life they could not always see who he was. Will we in these days truly see Christ? Will we observe the one whose kingdom begins on a cross of wood?
Br Ian OSB is a member of the Mucknell Abbey Community