With Eyes to See
Looking for the light during Advent and in every season
“A…M…O…T…and I think that’s a W and then a V…no, a U. Maybe?”
I strained to read the letters of the Snellen chart on the far wall of my optometrist’s office while she shone a light into my right eye from a few inches away.
“Huh,” she said quizzically, pushing back from me on her wheeled stool, ophthalmoscope still in hand.
“You have unusually large pupils.”
“I bet you say that to all your patients,” I said, fluttering my eyelids for comedic effect, but also because the viscous drops she’d placed in each of my eyes a few minutes earlier had made them to stick together a bit at the edges.
“Seriously though, is that bad? Is something wrong?” I said, trying to tamp down my sometimes robust hypochondria.
“Not at all,” she said. “You were just born that way.”
Cue the Lady Gaga mixtape in my mind.
Pointing to a skeeve-inducing diagram of the human eye on her desk, the doctor launched into an explanation of my (apparently) unique relationship with light.
“Because your natural pupillary size is so large, it allows more light into your eye. And you also have blue eyes, which means you have no pigment in the front layer of the iris to filter the light.”
The human iris is made up of muscles and cells that control how light enters and is filtered by the eye. The back layer—the epithelium—contains brown pigment, even if you have blue eyes like I do. The front layer, called the stroma, has overlapping fibers and cells. If you have brown eyes, some of the stroma cells contain brown pigment.
“But when there is no pigment in the stroma to act as a filter, the fibers scatter the light and more blue light gets reflected back from the epithelium, and your eyes appear to have a blue hue,” she continued.
In other words, my “blue” eyes are much the same as the sky, which isn’t actually blue, either.
The blue-ness is a trick of the light.
“Then it’s not an actual superpower—I mean, at least not technically?” I said.
“Well, with your blue eyes and the size of your pupils,” the doctor began, “you do perceive more light than most people.”
AHA! I’m a unicorn! I knew it!
Ten minutes later, I left the eye doctor’s office with a stronger prescription, two new pairs of hipster-nerd spectacles on order, and what I thought was a darn good heydidyouknow anecdote for our next cocktail party. But as I made the short drive home, while the winter sun set behind Catalina Island, turning the sky into an ombré scrim of vermillion, saffron, and purple, I had an epiphany of sorts—a glimpse of how seemingly random, disparate parts of my life and experience actually are integral and wholly connected. It was what Richard Rohr might call an “everything belongs” moment.
In that instant, I saw not only that I was born this way with my “special” eyes, but that I was born for this as well.
For the last eight years, if I’ve had any regular spiritual practice, it has been looking for the light. Both literal and figurative light. It is a discipline I began in earnest back in late November 2013, coinciding with the first anniversary of my beloved father’s death and an operation I was facing that would forever change my life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was in the midst of a mini existential crisis when I received a kind note from a friend in Dublin. He’s a person of deep, humble faith who has served for many years as a kind of ersatz spiritual confessor.
“I pray that the first week of December sees you refreshed and restored from all the challenging stuff you've been through over the last while,” he wrote. “Advent is made for that. I always try to find a big, old cathedral on that Sunday…and let that festival of light bring some real illumination.”
“Remember,” he said, “to look for the light.”
A few days later, on the first Sunday of Advent, I went alone to an evening mass at the Basilica of San Juan Capistrano, the oldest surviving mission in California, not far from where I live in Laguna Beach. The mission itself and surrounding grounds are beautiful and I have, since moving from Chicago to Southern California a dozen years ago, visited often and almost always with a camera in tow because the patina wrought by nearly three centuries of relentlessly sunny days and the occasionally significant earthquake on vaulted architecture, organic and rough-hewn brick and stone are an abstractionist’s delight. Combine that with riots of color from the native flora and the almost desert-bright light and I could shoot for hours (and have.)
But on this particular visit, I left my camera at home, determined to be present and, as my friend suggested, look for the light without feeling compelled somehow to capture it. While I am not an active member of the Roman Catholic Church, as the granddaughter of Irish and Italian immigrants, it is the tradition into which I was born and where I started my spiritual journey. (In fact, the San Juan Capistrano mission was founded by a priest from the Abruzzo region of Italy, where my father’s parents were born and grew up before emigrating in their late teens.) Visiting a Catholic church feels a bit like dropping by my old elementary school—I have great deal of affection for the tradition that introduced me as a young child to the Great Mystery. Those mysterious roots run deep in me, even if for much of the last forty years, I’ve considered myself a Protestant.
The older I get, the more I know what I don’t know, and the stronger the draw to the Great Cloud of Unknowing is for me as I lean into the mystic, if you will. So, there I sat, on St. Joseph’s side of the church, in the middle section of pews, close enough to see what was going on, but not too close to the altar. While I don’t recall any specifics of the mass itself, I viscerally remember how I felt when I began to focus on what the light was doing in the room.
The altar candle flames shimmered and bounced off of the massively ornate, forty-two-feet-tall gold-leaf retablo behind the altar.
Crystal chandeliers cast paler hues on the soft curves of the bone-colored domed ceiling, while a skylight at its apex and a tier of clear glass windows above the natural eye line glowed with indigo twilight.
Modern theatrical spotlights mounted on the walls flanking the altar created long shadows down the side aisles.
And in an alcove to my left, votive candles in red glass jars flickered unspoken prayers to a gilded icon of the Virgin Mary.
It was familiar and comforting, the light if not the liturgy. As I dipped my fingers in the holy water on my way through the narthex and walked out into the mild winter evening, the soft amber light emanating from the belfry made black silhouettes of the silenced bells, drawing my eyes to them and beyond, toward the heavens where I could just make out the stars in Orion’s belt.
Since that night at the mission, looking for the light has become a daily practice. Sometimes it’s just for a few seconds. Other times I can spend hours studying the light, hunting for a fresh angle or refraction, following a beam to its end (if there is one), or searching for the genesis of a shadow—almost always with my 35mm camera or iPhone in hand.
I have loved photography and the making of photographs for as long as I can remember. My father was a camera enthusiast and to this day the thrill of being handed his Kodak Brownie to take my own picture is something I feel echoes of each time I pick up any camera, and peer through the viewfinder.
This picture (above) of my father (and annotated by my mother) is, I believe, the first photograph I ever made, with Daddy’s Brownie, on a trip to a nature center in Stamford, Connecticut, when I was about four-and-a-half years old.
I rediscovered it recently in a small “brag book” photo album my mother had assembled for Grammy Falsani (my father’s mother) after my baby brother, Mark, was born. I found it while packing up my mother’s belongings after she died in 2019. I adored my father, who, along with his sense of humor and ability to make a delicious meal out of whatever he might find in the pantry no matter how obscure the ingredients, passed on to me his fascination with photography. The realization that the first photograph I created was of him smiling back at me triggered a wave of emotions (and still does.)
Sitting with that forty-five-year-old snapshot brought to mind Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, his seminal text about the cultural and political implications (what he called the “stadium”) and the personal, often painful ramifications (what he dubbed the “punctum”) of the medium, which I read as an undergraduate. My photography professor not only taught the mechanics of capturing an image with a camera and how to print it well (this is back in the days of actual film cameras, before digital SLRs all but replaced them and smartphones made cameras nearly ubiquitous worldwide), Professor Greg Halvorsen Schreck made sure we understood the emotional, political, and yes, even spiritual import of and accordant responsibility for what we created.
Photography is not static. It’s dynamic. It means different things to the photographer, the subject, the viewer. It means different things in different moments. A photograph exists in your mind’s eye before you push the shutter and lives on long after you’ve pasted a paper copy in an album, hung it on a wall, or posted it to Instagram and forgotten about it. Something transcendent and mystical transpires when light passes through a lens and is, for a moment, both held and beheld.
Professor Schreck told us there were no mistakes in photography. A shot might not turn out the way you want it to, but that doesn’t make it wrong. There might be technical things that could have been executed with more precision or skill, but that doesn’t mean that the end result is bad or a waste of time/ink/paper/pixels. Perhaps my favorite assignment the professor gave us was to take our cameras and go to a favorite spot and shoot an entire roll of thirty-six frames without ever looking through the viewfinder. Because this was before our cameras had screens on the back where we could check our shots in real time and delete what we didn’t like, we were flying without a net and wouldn’t have any idea what the images were until we developed and printed the film sometime later.
Our subconscious sees things that our conscious mind does not (or cannot), he insisted. With more than thirty years’ experience doing photography since he taught that lesson, I can attest that he was absolutely correct.
Today’s digital technology, affords me (and any of us) the freedom to take multiple shots of the same thing—bursts of photos, dozens of frames in a second or two—as I attempt to capture what I can see or imagine I see, without worrying about wasting film, paper, developing chemicals, or even (much) time. What I find more often than not, however, is that the image that comes closest to what I saw in my mind, is the very first shot.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve come to believe photography is an inherently spiritual endeavor. Something happens that is beyond this physical realm and what we can control (or at least believe we might.) One of the more poetic definitions of photography is “light writing.”
Not long after I began looking for the light as a spiritual discipline and using my camera as someone praying the rosary might employ her beads, I encountered for the first time an ancient practice of prayer known as Lectio Divina or “divine reading.” It has its roots (in the Christian tradition at least) in the Fourth and Fifth centuries among the early monastics, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Benedict of Nursia (founder of the Benedictine order), and it involves, essentially, reading a passage of scripture or sacred writing slowly, four times, and asking the Divine to speak to you through it.
You do this by quieting your mind, perhaps lighting a candle to invite the light to accompany you, and saying a simple prayer such as, “God, let me hear from you,” before you begin to read. The first time through, you just read (lectio), but pay attention to any words or ideas that jump out at you. The second time through (meditatio), you meditate a bit on the words or ideas that came to you the first time you read the passage, leaning a bit farther into the gentle nudge of the Spirit. The third time through (oratio) you might respond to what you believe or feel the Divine is saying to you through the words by writing down your thoughts in a journal, or even speaking them aloud. The fourth and final time through (contemplatio) you rest, sitting silently for perhaps ten minutes before going on with your day.
It is an intensely personal practice, one that trusts that both sacred stories and the Divine are dynamic, alive, and able to dialogue with us. While Lectio Divina never has been a daily discipline for me (I’m terribly undisciplined in general), it is a practice that has been meaningful and centering for me when I make the time and space to do it. By the way, you might imagine that, having been a religion journalist for many years, occasionally hanging out in Vatican City covering popes and assorted spiritual cognescenti, that it was a kindly monk or other religious professional who introduced me to ancient practice. You’d be wrong. In fact, I the first time I heard the words Lectio Divina they were coming out of the mouth of Tom Shadyac, the enigmatic director of big-budget comedies such as Evan Almighty and The Nutty Professor, in a documentary film he made about happiness (titled Happy, go figure) where he mentions that Lectio Divina is his spiritual practice.
I paused the film to Google. And that is the (divine) comedy of my initiation into “divine reading.” (Thanks, Tom.) Fast-forward several years to a hotel restaurant in Albuquerque during Rohr’s 2019 Universal Christ conference, where, over lunch with a new friend in the publishing industry, I mentioned my practice of “looking for the light.” By this point, I had taken to throwing in a little Latin whenever the subject came up—lux in tenebris lucet—which means, “light shines in the darkness.” It’s part of a longer Latin quotation, “Et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non conprehenderunt,” which itself is taken from the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John, which, in the King James Version says in part, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” I prefer the way my friend Eugene Peterson, he now of blessed memory, puts it in his biblical para-translation The Message: “The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.”
By the time our lunch was over, the idea for creating a photography-driven book of stories on the theme of light had been planted. And when I got home to California, I began looking through more than forty-thousand images in my photo archive, most of them created during the time that I’ve been actively looking for the light.
It took me more than six months to go through them all and the process of revisiting those images—with all the attendant memories, emotions, experiences, and stories they evoked—was both profoundly moving and transformative. It was only months after I’d sifted through thousands of photographs to choose a few hundred to work more closely in the book project (which, unfortunately, has yet to find a publishing home), I discovered—because I am the Forrest Gump of the religious world—that Lectio Divina has an ancient sister practice: Visio Divina. The contemplative method is much the same as with the lectio, but instead of interacting with a passage scripture or sacred story to see how God might speak to you through it, you begin with an image. My favorite description of Visio Divina explains it this way: It’s like putting on God-glasses to see how an image illuminates the divine for you.
It doesn’t have to be a gilded icon of the Virgin Mary or Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo for an image to speak of the Divine. As I intentionally sought the (physical and metaphoric) light in the world around me, I created photographic images that, looking at them after the fact, remind me of the circumstances and experiences that prompted me to pull out my camera and shoot in the first place. As I sat with the photos and further reflected, I found myself going deeper still, discovering in them new, sometimes surprising and profound ideas and stories—about myself, about God, about how I’ve encountered the Divine in the seemingly mundane as well as in the fantastic, in the familiarly quotidian and in the ineffably mystical.
When I share images here, on my personal Instagram feed, a visio divina IG account, and elsewhere, I strive to get out of my own way, make space for the images—some created years ago and in distant lands, some captured closer to (and sometimes in my) home in the last weeks and months of these plague years—to breathe, and invite Spirit to speak through them.
To me. Perhaps to you, too.
As you look at my images, those created by others, or the ones you’ve made yourself, I’d encourage you to sit with them for a bit. Try to get quiet and be still. Maybe light some incense or a candle to remind you that you are not alone in this and that, as St. Francis of Assisi said, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”
See what the images bring up for you. Invite the God of your understanding to speak to you through the photographs and images you make or encounter.
Please also take this as an invitation to create your own images and tell your own stories of looking for and finding light in the darkness, and to share them with others in whatever way you choose.
A FEW MORE IMAGES FROM THE SJC BASILICA IN ADVENT 2013:
Blessed are your eyes because they see….A lot of people, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given anything to see what you are seeing.”
—Gospel of St. Matthew 13:16–17 (MSG)
A MEDITATION OF LIGHT AND SHADOW, WIND AND CHIMES FOR YOU
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Thank you for reading. #LuxInTenebrisLucet
I am grateful for each of you, the light you create and reflect.