Photographer shares empowerment of seeing with new eyes

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 19, 2009

Many of our coffee chats this summer have alluded to the joy of seeing, and especially of seeing through the lens of a camera or the frame of a painting.

But there is another level of seeing that ranks above any material observations. This kind of seeing lies at the heart of spirituality and religious experience across all traditions.

It will come as no surprise to our coffee companions that my own experience of such seeing is grounded deeply within a Judeo-Christian world view.

There is that wonderful line about God in Psalm 36 of the Hebrew Scriptures that says it all for me: “with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

This ancient hymn acknowledges our deepest longing for true light for our path.

Many of our most beloved modern hymns make the connection between physical sight and spiritual longing – about the awakening of awe. Take “How Great Thou Art,” for instance:

“O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder / Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made, / I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, / Thy pow’r thro’out the universe displayed.”

“The Wonder of It All” is another hymn that celebrates nature-inspired awe:

“There’s the wonder of sunset at evening, / The wonder as sunrise I see; / But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul / Is the wonder that God loves me.”

The visual witness of nature sometimes provides an intriguing reversal of roles. Not only does the natural world move us to keep our eyes on God, but it reminds us that God keeps His providential eyes on us, too, as in that wonderful spiritual made famous by actress-singer Ethel Waters:

“I sing because I’m happy, / I sing because I’m free; / For His eye is on the sparrow, / And I know He watches me.”

Among Christians in particular, there is the visual experience of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, captured in many hymns, such as “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”:

“Upon the cross of Jesus / Mine eyes at times can see / The very dying form of One / Who suffered there for me. / And from my smitten heart, with tears, / These wonders I confess: / The wonder of His glorious love, / And my unworthiness.”

Then there is the joy of anticipating heaven, seen with the eyes of faith as captured in the words of “In the Sweet By and By,” one of the favourite hymns sung among the Stoney Nakoda First Nation at wakes and funerals:

“There’s a land that is fairer than day, / And by faith we can see it afar; / For the Father waits over the way / To prepare us a dwelling place there.”

For me personally, however, one hymn stands out above all these others when it comes to spiritual sight.

From my teen years onward, “Be Thou My Vision” has been a constant reminder of my dependence on the One who alone sees life’s journey clearly from start to finish and beyond. It is a prayer for seeing beyond the limits of my physical eyes, a prayer for keeping the eyes of my soul focused on the Source and Destiny of life.

The original words to this Irish hymn date back to the sixth century poet, Dallan Forgaill, and were used widely in early monastic traditions. At the beginning of the 20th century Mary Bryne translated them into English and Eleanor H. Hull versified them into the stirring lines sung today to the tune of Slane, itself a musical echo of the legendary exploits of St. Patrick.

I’ll close with this beautiful hymn as my end-of-summer prayer, especially for all heading back to school or entering into new phases in their life’s journey where the way seems often dark and twisting and where inner guidance is so longed for.

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise,
Thou mine inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven's joy, O bright heaven's Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O ruler of all.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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