The Work Of Seeing


“We must look a long time before we can see,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. To truly see something one must be present to what they are looking at. In our hectic, busy, rushed and overly-scheduled lives, we often forget to take the time to see what’s around and within us.


Whenever I visit an art museum, it amazes me how quickly so many people rush through it. They stop, momentarily, before a painting or photography or statue. Register it – sort of – before moving on to the next one. They never really see the work of art before them. The concept of standing before a painting for any period of time over five minutes is foreign to most who are there.  When we take our sons to any art museum, which we did over their Spring break, my wife and I take turns with each of them to walk, study and talk about the different works we are viewing. We ask questions, “What do you think made the artist paint this? Why do you think he chose the colors that he or she chose? What do you feel when you look at this work?” It’s amazing how listening to their answers helps us to see new things and to look at a painting or photograph through their eyes and perceptions.  Among the four of us, none of us see any one work the same way.

How many even stopped to notice the blanket stuffed in the broken window of the upper right window of that house painted by Andrew Wyeth?

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal

When Henri Nouwen visited the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, he spent eight hours in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Return of the Prodigal Son.  Nouwen understood that to even begin to see this great work, he must be present to it, to meditate upon what was there before him. By spending hours with Rembrand’s painting, he gleaned a truth about the relationship of fathers and sons, which he wrote about in his short book The Return of The Prodigal Son: A Homecoming. In it, Nouwen said:

Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.

That book, considered to be one of Nouwen’s greatest, would never have even come about had he not spent the time he had looking and reflecting on this masterwork.

As I go about my walks, it always amazes me, that people can be out in the glories of natures and spend most of it with their eyes on their smartphones. Even when we were at Walt Disney World, supposedly the most magical place on earth where every inch of that amusement park is filled with diversions, people could barely look up from their phones. At concerts now, most people are too busy trying to record moments rather than enjoy them.  How much do others really see anymore? Is it all a mere glance and, “Okay, saw it, now let’s move on to the next thing…”?

How much are we missing by not actually seeing anymore?


One of the things I love about walking with my younger son is that we are both people who love to stop and linger and look at everything about us: rocks, birds, trees, plants, streams, leaves, the shadows on clouds, insects. We pause to watch and wonder. We ask each other questions and, those we cannot answer, we look up when we get home.


The Chinese philosopher Confucius wisely wrote, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Why? Because seeing takes time. It’s a matter of looking for more than a mere second or two, but stopping and becoming aware of what one is seeing and then studying it more closely. Of watching the life that is moving all around us: in the grass, in the trees, in the water. It allows us to be amateur naturalists, biologists, geologists, botanists, ornithologists.


I also love to carry my camera with me wherever we go and, especially, on my walks. Why? Because it often helps me to pay closer attention to the world around me. I begin to notice details that I might have normally missed. I am studying light and shadow and angles and composition of a possible image. The photographer Dorothea Lange once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

Why do I do this and teach it to my sons?

Because when we undertake learning to see then we are training ourselves in patience, calmness, and are looking at something from different sides, different perspectives, and opening ourselves to the possibility of so much that we might otherwise take for granted.  How wondrous the world is when we are open and awakened to what it has to offer to us? It allows us to let go of our assumptions and discover anew those mundane miracles that are there before us.


“After all,” George Eliot wrote, “true seeing is within.”

Seeing is an inner process of allowing ourselves to take what is outward within ourselves. It is an opening of not just our eyes, but our hearts and minds to the experience of noticing, of gazing, of seeing not only what is before us but what is within that which we are looking at. It’s the ever-expanding capacity for understanding. For grasping that we are, all of us and all things, connected. That within all things are secrets to be revealed if we take the time to begin understanding.

Sometimes, I will either sit by myself or with one of my sons, in the yard. In this stillness, I just observe whatever is going on around me. I am aware of the squirrel or the chipmunk or bird as they busy themselves about me. It’s amazing, how when one is still and silent, at how close they will come up to me. When I’ve taught this to both my sons, they have delighted in how close they get to these animals. It’s miraculous.  It’s wild and wonderful.  “To pay attention,” Mary Oliver wrote, “this is our endless and proper work.”

But how many want to undertake this work? And work it is, because it takes a conscious effort to even begin to start to see. It is like seeing with new eyes.


Seeing is to be childlike. Not long ago, we went with some friends of ours to a local park. Their young son got so excited at seeing a dog. It was the kind of enthusiasm that we, unfortunately, lose as we grow older. A dog becomes just another dog. We stop seeing because we have lost our childlike sense of wonder that the world is a glorious place filled with amazing adventures and objects and experiences. We have forgotten that seeing, hearing, feeling, discovering are all miracles. They are all glorious gifts. That magic is not just in the realm of fairy tale fiction, but is found in the dawn rising of the sun and the evening setting of the sun. It is found in birds in flight. It is found in the drops of rain found on the leaves of plants.  It is found in the multi-colors of just green that one can find in the grass. It is found in the lichen that grows on the side of our oak trees.


True seeing causes the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, with connection with a sense of awe and reverence. To see and learn the names of what we are seeing, to understand something about them and how they relate to us in our environment.  To see and to sense and to feel.


One of my favorite past times has always been sitting somewhere and just watching people. I love to watch their interactions with each other (or lack of them) and to gain insight into their emotional and psychological state by how they talk or are silent, how they move and in their expressions. Each person I see has their own lives and their own thoughts and, despite the fact that we are in the same place at the same time, we are, all of us, in our own little worlds. We are connected and yet disconnected. Some of us are present to the moment, while others prefer to avoid it through constant distraction. We do not see because we do not wish to see. We prefer to avoid. Seeing is the accepting of responsibility. It is removing the distance between ourselves and someone or something else.

Seeing is coming to the understanding that we are all intricately woven into the fabric of this world together. Seeing means we must be open to the meanings of the moments and movements around us and within us. We must be aware with open eyes to the joys and hurts and needs of each other. Seeing, truly seeing, another is a form of giving up oneself to the service of the other. How many of us can have spent any time talking to someone but, afterwards, if we were asked, could not tell what the color of that person’s eyes were? How then can we say we’ve even begun to see them or a mossy rock or rotting log or a the pine trees or the killdeer moving about the grass?


To see is to live. To see is to be present and visible and grateful. It is to feel the full force of the moment: to not take for granted the beauty and the sorrow, the living and the dying. It is to be interconnected with the great, grand scheme of creation. Seeing is to gain understanding.  Sight is to gain insight.  To see is such bliss, how can we so often choose not to? To see the seasons and be knocked breathless by them.

So I open my eyes to the hallowing of all things and have found that my world, both within and outside of me, has gotten so much bigger, so much more mysterious, so much more wonderful, so much more humbling and, in the surprise of all of this, I can only offer my own alleluia of the deepest and simplest of prayers, “Thank you.”







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