This week my gaze has been at times distracted and slow to focus due to illness and catch up. Therefore my engagement with David Morgan’s book, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice seemed to be chapter by chapter rather than an overall gleaning.
Morgan sets forth that “sacred gaze is a term that designates the particular configuration of ideas, attitudes, and customs that informs a religious act of seeing as it occurs within a given cultural and historical setting.” In some way, shape or form what I see, in more ways than I realize, or what has been put before me often has an intended purpose, whether that is education or a form of speaking. What is perhaps most enlightening is that my gaze outdoors, upon what is before me, may have on its own the gift of beauty. It is something I experience first hand, as opposed to second hand. When I gaze at beauty in the natural realm I may be receiving something intended for me by God that remains to be discovered. When I am gazing at a painting or an image in literature what I see is set forth by the intent of the artist or author. But even then I have hopefully put myself position of increased seeing.
Last week I spend several days in Cannon Beach. It is a place that my family spent days at every summer for a span of more than fifteen years. I do not feel like a tourist there, I do not have to adjust to the climate, wonder where to eat or what to do. I note the passage of time and the changes that occur. Yet at the sight of Haystack Rock, the sound of the waves, the flight of the pelicans my soul quiets and expands. “A gaze is a practice, something that people do, conscious or not, and a way of seeing that viewers share.” While my perspective of how and response to what I see is “mine” I share with others this way of seeing.
My view can be structured or left open for personal interpretation. When we go to Cape Town we will experience a sacred gaze as we experience a different culture. The activities we participate in and the people we hear will inform us, teach us and provide us with a lens so that we will expand our capacity and appreciation for another culture. Without it we will have the great potential to miss and misunderstand the people and culture we encounter. Where translation is needed it will be because we cannot know what is meant due our own limitations. We are being guided and developed to be adept in examining images but also how those images are utilized. Shared practices, ideas, institutions, feelings and values comprise vision, they form and inform sacred gaze. My vision should expand because of what I experience.
Throughout the book I had to pay attention to where my gaze has been and to what has shaped and informed me. “Images are produced by and in turn help construct the social realities that shape the lives of human beings. The study of visual culture scrutinizes not only images but also the practices that put images to use.” Not only looking at what has shaped me, but also what will shape culture, and therefore shape me, Apple watch anyone?
The challenge in all of this within the culture and context from which it came forth. In some ways this means that I have to acknowledge the limitations within an era. Certainly the likeness of Jesus appearing from among the trees while a woman is gazing at the natural world as she sits on a bench with one hand on her bible has its limitations today. It is certainly not the image that came to mind in my seminary Old Testament class as we discussed God’s two books of creation and written words. To say nothing of the fact that she is wearing a dress!
Without explanation I would reject this painting, its text has lost a relevancy. Today it may be more likely to infer old-fashioned and out of date communication. The textual message intended by the artist might mimic rather decode the intended message. But that is the gift of this book (if you want to think in terms of receiving something you were not expecting). Morgan does not leave me to impose my visceral response, he explains the relevancy of the message within it’s own context. There are times when I think the most descriptive image for this book is a certain detective with a magnifying glass; hounds tooth coat and a pipe. There are clues to discover and understand.
But it wasn’t just the clues to context and culture. It was realizing again what has been lost in translation within society. “We view images through something like epistemological lenses that determine, at least in part, what we see.” My son-in-law just accepted a pastorate in a small, economically repressed town. It is a bold step, not so much because of the economics but because they have a way of seeing. Over the past several years a church in my area has experienced upheaval due to change, another church remains the same, leaving some feeling marginalized because they have questions regarding faith that have no where to be heard. I have worn glasses since I was in fourth grade. I can change the frame, but when my lenses need changing (progressive lenses anyone?) my frame may also need changing to adequately hold the new lens.
My lens does not only effect how I see, it can limit the imagination. “The imagination operates by intuiting rules and generating new applications of word and image on the basis of those rules.” The truth is I am not quite certain what I am going to do with that but I think it is going to relate to owning and being honest with myself on my motivation and intent. Art has been used in both direct and indirect ways to communicate truth, knowledge and reinforce societal rules and expectations.
There are things that are stirring. I have more learning to do.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid. 31.
 Ibid., 91. Harry Anderson, God’s Two Books, 1968, oil on canvas.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 105.