God Is At Eye Level

Originally printed in the September-October 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Phillips, Jan. "God Is At Eye Level." Quest  88.5 SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2000): pg 172-174.

By Jan Phillips

I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the color and fragrance of a flower--the Light in my darkness, the Voice in my silence. --Helen Keller

Jan PhillipsI sometimes awaken from a dream hearing a faint whisper of words coming from a place that feels very far away. Dream telegrams, a friend calls them. Not long ago, I heard the voice again, this time whispering the words, "God is at eye level." I smiled myself awake, wishing I could talk back to this voice or visit the place where it was coming from.

The words lingered throughout the day, the weeks, and even now, when I’m out photographing, they are always there in the spaciousness of my mind. Through the woods, along the beach, in the streets of downtown, wherever I am with my camera around my neck, I hear that hushed voice--"God is at eye level," repeating over and over like a mantra.

At an early age, I learned that God was a particular Being who dwelled in a place far from where I ever stood. My perception of God has changed dramatically over the years. I am guided now not so much by teachings that have come down to me, but by learnings that have risen up from within--a shift that began thirty years ago when I was a young postulant in a religious community taking my first theology class.

The Jesuit priest stood in front of the room and asked each of us what we believed about God. One by one we recited our beliefs, recalling sentences from the Baltimore Catechism about who God was, why He made us, what He wanted from us. The priest challenged those beliefs one by one, tore them apart, belittled them as nothing more than memorized statements, versions of someone else’s opinion.

He took a hammer to our naive image of God and shattered it. I started to cry, hating him, wondering how he could do this, how could he stand there and destroy God when we’d just given our whole lives over to God, left behind everything to be with God. It was a moment of devastating loss, incomprehensible sadness. I felt as if everything I believed in, everything on which I had based my life, was no longer true. The silence in the room was deafening; the void I felt, terrifying. We sat there, thirty of us, for what seemed an eternity, reckoning with the obliteration of God as we had known Him.

Finally the priest broke the silence. "You must come to know what is true about God from your own experience," he said. "Arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concern and rises up from the nature of who you are." He said that we needed to let go of beliefs and conjure up a faith of commitment, one that rises up from within ourselves, from a deep awareness of our own godliness. The biblical paradox that says you must lose your life in order to find your life was beginning to make sense.

Self-realization is the actualization of our own divinity. It is a recognition of ourselves in all things and all things in ourselves, found through the simple contemplation of things as they are. The opposite of selfishness, it is a manifestation of ourselves as gift to and mirror to others. The deeper one’s self-awareness, the clearer reflection one can offer.

Self-realization is an exploration into the complexities and contradictions of life, an attempt to plumb the opposites until we arrive finally at the Oneness that contains them. It is a painstaking process of observation, an astute and relentless probing into reality, past our learned illusions of separateness into the profound experience of connectedness.

When we observe something deeply, we enter into it, become one with it. Something of its essence enters into us, and we are changed in the process. When we read a novel, see a play, or listen to a story, we enter into its world, place ourselves in the scene and experience the drama and conflicts as if they were ours. We often come away from someone else’s creation with a deeper understanding of our own story.

The Italian poet and Nobel Prize winner Salvatore Quasimodo wrote that "poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal but which the reader recognizes as his own." All things reveal us to ourselves. If we look deeply enough into an oak tree or mountain stream, into a photograph or other work of art, we will find ourselves there. And if we linger, listening intently, it will speak to us in a language divine, a language of light, symbol, metaphor.

In the process of observing, of being wholly attentive, we are liberated momentarily from our sense of separateness, rapt in a oneness with the subject of our gaze--a connection as real as that of lovers who have felt their spiritual beings merge in another dimension as their earthly bodies join together. We all crave this oneness, this holy and mystical union, and are willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find it. Yet it is ours to experience in every moment, wherever we are. This oneness is the Tao, the ever-flowing reality--all in each of us and each in all. The accurate perception of our relationship to every living thing leads to awakening, to self-realization, to the experience and expression of God in the world through our artistic creations and through our compassion for one another.

Diarmuid O’Murchu, a priest and social psychologist, writes in Quantum Theology: "Observation gives way to relationship, a complex mode of interacting, fluctuating between giving and receiving, until a sense of resonance emerges, whereby the individual parts lose their dualistic, independent identities, but rediscover a sense of the ‘quantum self’ in the interdependent relationship of the new whole, which might be anything from the marriage of two people to a newly felt bond with the universe itself."

Observation gives way to relationship, and relationship heals and sustains us. Whether with one other or with many, with children, with animals, with nature, it is our sense of relatedness that keeps us whole and balanced. In contemplating things as they are, we experience the life force in living things, awaken to the consciousness throbbing in every being, every molecule and atom. On some profound and mysterious level, we fully understand our relation to the Whole. Only our thinking keeps us separate; only our beliefs keep us from finding the Divine in the substance of our daily lives.

In my quest for the Infinite, I have come to believe that God, Truth, Beauty, Love--all those concepts I associate with the Divine--are not things that are "found" at the end of the path, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but are rather what I experience on the journey as I travel through life--or perhaps, more explicitly, they are the journey itself.

God, to me, is the universe unfolding, the power and potential within all life, the oak within our acorn selves. Not one bit separate, but fused with us like salt and the sea, ever-present in the faces, the scenes, the feelings that pass through our lives day to day.

When I pause long enough to really look--as one must in the act of photographing--I am seized by this awareness, that everywhere I look, there God is. In the smooth gray bark of the eucalyptus, the immense bulk of the polar bear, the eyes of that hungry child, that angry customer, that tattooed teenager. I forget, when I’m not really looking, that something deep and beautiful is below the surface. But when I’m photographing, that is all I remember, all I seek to capture--that essence within things.

Photography heals because it reveals this essence. In the process of looking, finding, framing, and shooting, all one’s energies are focused purely. In the attempt to capture a piece of life in a fraction of a second, one waits mindfully, perfectly attentive, for the right alignment of shape and light, tone and texture, color and contrast. One waits for the cloud to come or go, for the child to forget there is anyone looking, for the fawn to rise up from its cozy bed of green. In these moments of waiting, a oneness occurs between the seer and the seen, and they become, knowingly or not, cocreators of an image that will endure beyond the present and have an effect, a healing power of its own.

As I think back on the inner voices that informed my looking before I knew I was seeking God at eye level, I’m conscious of a variety of them. When I first started photographing, the voice spoke a simple, "Don’t forget this." I’d photograph people, places, or events that had meaning and joy I didn’t want to lose sight of. Photographing meant I could keep an image to savor later, reflect on, and find myself in when I was lost.

Eventually, as I improved in the craft, another voice came along, whispering, "Share this." Then my looking was informed by a desire to pass along what I was seeing that another might miss. I photographed beautiful landscapes and flowers, put them into a slide show with music, and for the first time ventured out, sharing my images in the hope that they would lift up others as they’d lifted me.

In time, that voice gave way to another that said, "Your images can make a difference in the world--let them." As an activist for peace, I photographed disarmament rallies around the nation and traveled the world showing these images in an effort to reflect a consciousness of compassion and peace.

And as I traveled, among Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Communist, Arab, Israeli, Catholic, Protestant people--all of whom housed, fed, and nourished me in profound ways--the voice behind my looking changed to "You are one with each of these," and my photography grew in intimacy, in power, in conviction, colored forever by this new awareness of union, of non-separateness, of family.

Though I can’t know for certain if it’s the same with all photographers, my guess is that all of our looking is informed by a deeper voice, a compelling passion that takes us to the edge from which we look and directs our gaze toward that which we seek.

Each of us listens to a different voice within, but if we are true to the voice that is speaking in our hearts, the images we make will heal our wounds, mend our brokenness. If we think clearly and carefully about the power of our images and, in our looking, see past the barriers, the walls that have been constructed between one person and another, we may one day stumble upon the Divine we’ve been trying all along to find.

Whenever I’m tempted to speak of God, the words of Lao Tzu come to mind: "He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know." I think that God, like love, is more aptly defined by what it isn’t than by what it is. I think of Meister Eckhart, the Christian mystic, who says that the ultimate leave-taking is the leaving of God for God--the final letting go of the limited concept for an experience of the real thing.

When I was young, I prayed to be a martyr. I wanted to show God and everyone else that I loved Him enough to die for him. I wanted to go into battle for Him, be another Joan of Arc, a hero for God’s sake.

Now all that’s changed. I wouldn’t think of dying for God, but am doing my best to live for God--with God, in God, with God in me. There are no more lines of separation, only strands of connectedness. My eyes find God everywhere, in every living thing, creature, person, in every act of kindness, act of nature, act of grace.

Everywhere I look, there God is, looking back, looking straight back.


Jan Phillips has authored the Quest Books God Is at Eye Level: Photography as a Healing Art (from which this article is taken) and Marry Your Muse: Making a Lasting Commitment to Your Creativity (a 1998 Ben Franklin Award book). She has published in the New York Times, Ms Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, Christian Science Monitor, and Utne Reader. She has presented workshops to more than 10,000 people in 23 countries. Her Web site is www.janphillips.com .


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