One of the first things we learn when reading the prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict is to listen with the ear of the heart. Jesus often admonished his listeners by saying those who have ears should hear. I wonder if the same advice applies to vision, that we should also see with the eyes of the heart?
I like to escape to the outdoors, where the sights and sounds of the natural world entice and distract me from my thoughts. A favorite pastime is finding a body of water where I can immerse myself in the reflections that play on the surface of a slow-flowing creek or a peaceful pond. As my eyes adjust to the images my mind becomes engaged in sorting out what it is I am seeing—which images are the actual object, and which are the reflections dancing or wavering before me?
One day this spring I stood near a pond where the surface barely shimmered in the early morning light. The radiant sky overhead glowed on the pond’s surface between the limbs of stately pines and a bald cypress trailing tender green fingers in the amber water lapping at my feet. I was mesmerized by the shapeshifting of pastel blues and violets melding into a golden pool across the pond, as I tried discerning if I was seeing the water or the sky—or both simultaneously!
Suddenly I realized that what I was seeing were three worlds in one: the sky above, the surface of the pond, and through the water into its murky depths the movement of fish and turtles. As I stood transfixed observing the interplay of worlds, a Great Blue heron passed overhead on soundless wings, body arching forward as a sunfish darted across the reflection of the heron’s outstretched legs. How can this be, I thought? But this is the way it is with the world when we can see the dimensions as they are layered, refracted, and reflected if we only pay attention with our eyes.
Familiarity with routine in our daily lives can have the effect of captivating us too, keeping us from truly seeing what is in front of us. There have been times when I have driven past an exit on a route I regularly travel, simply because I have been thinking about something else, relying on my autopilot way of driving to get me to my destination. More seriously, I can recall times when I have missed significant cues about a loved one’s health or a needed car repair because though I saw the evidence, I did not let it register or remember it until it was too late.
This familiarity with our surroundings can become a habitual forgetting or refusal to see that we do not face the day alone. We can forget that God is always present to us, always with us. We are living in a time when humanity seems convinced of its ability to use knowledge as a means of power and agency—if we can learn about it and know about it, we can control it. We think what we see is all there is about a situation or person, forgetting that there is always so much we cannot see with our bodily eyes and know with our finite minds.
What might happen if, like the ears of our hearts, we were to enlist the eyes of our hearts to open wide and observe not only the obvious but also the reflective aspects of a situation or relationship? What is playing off the surface, what hidden elements are being cast back to us that we are not paying attention to?
As I stood peering deeply into the dark water of that pond I saw the similitude of sky to water, trees to passing birds and fish. The creaturely world moves together in separate yet overlapping environments, reflected in one another’s passing, unconsciously interacting yet all sharing the same place and time. I saw myself looking back at myself, belonging to this mysteriously multi-layered world too. I saw for the first time what I’d been missing by not looking with the eyes of the heart.
By Noel Poston, Oblate OSB