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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Learning to See

Perhaps the most important factor on the road to sophiology is acquiring the ability to properly see. By this, I do not mean scheduling an appointment with an optometrist in search of the proper corrective lens. What I mean is that one needs to learn to see all over again. The point is that, in general, we do not really know how to see.

There are many, many analogies for this of course. St. Paul’s blindness, inflicted from the flash of light when he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, represents one example. His sight was not restored when Ananais laid hands on him and “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes” (Acts 9:18). He was never able to see in the first place. Those scales had been there for a good long while. We are no different.

Another, very beautiful, analogy came to my attention this week across social media in the form of a video showing a group of color-blind people experiencing color for the first time through the gift of a pair of EnChroma glasses. Watching their awakening to the world around them, a world they could always “see,” will not leave you unmoved.

This idea of “learning to see” is central to the poetic theology of the Metaphysical poet and Anglican priest Thomas Traherne (1636–1674—I’m in the middle of preparing a course on the Metaphysical Poets, so I have him on my mind a lot lately). It is a constant theme of his poetry as well as in his book of spiritual direction, Centuries of Meditations. In his consideration of the world as object of beauty, he has this to say:

The World certainly being so Beautiful…nothing visible is capable of more. Were we to see it only once, that first Appearance would amaze us. But being daily seen, we observ it not. Ancient Philosophers have thought GOD to be the Soul of the World. Since therfore this visible World is the Body of GOD, not his Natural Body, but which He hath assumed; let us see how Glorious His Wisdom is, in Manifesting Himself therby.[1]

For Traherne (and for all of us, really) this ability to see things as they truly are is a product of contemplation. “Till you see that the World is yours,” he writes, “you cannot weigh the Greatnes of Sin, nor the Misery of your fall, nor Prize your Redeemers Lov. One would think these should be Motives Sufficient to stir us up, to the Contemplation of GODs Works, wherin all the Riches of His Kingdom will appear.”[2]

Much later than Traherne, the philosopher Edmund Husserl discovered the startling reality of the world through what he called the epoché, the suspension of judgment when encountering phenomena. Husserl’s, like Traherne’s, is a contemplative act. Unfortunately, we live in an era not all that interested in suspending judgement. Husserl was one of the pioneers of phenomenology.

I first heard about phenomenology when I was a Waldorf teacher. Waldorf teachers, and Anthroposophists in general, talk a good game when it comes to phenomenology. This comes as no surprise: Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, came from a phenomenological tradition—through his studies of Goethe (probably the founder of the phenomenological method) and also as a student of Franz Brentano (who was also Husserl’s teacher). In undertaking what is called a “child study” in Waldorf pedagogy, the teachers would attempt to do a phenomenological reduction of the physiology of a child: what shape are her eyes, ears, mouth? Is her skin dry? oily? rough? soft? What is her gait like? How is her breathing—shallow or deep? Which hand does she favor, which foot, which eye, which ear? And so forth. It is a very valuable exercise.

Unfortunately, Waldorf teachers and Anthroposophists don’t really do the phenomenological reduction justice, as all too often they resort to the writings of Steiner as a proof-test of their findings. That is not phenomenology, but they’re on the right track anyway. Nevertheless, it was not until I returned to graduate school and began an earnest study of Husserl and Martin Heidegger (among others) that I started to understand what phenomenology really is.

Phenomenology, however, is not something one studies half as much as it is something one does. It is really about cultivating a disposition of acceptance toward Things. Goethe called this reverence (Ehrfurcht). My own (admittedly feeble) attempt to describe it is as being present: when one is present to phenomena, jettisoning judgement and opinion, the phenomena can become present to our own interiority. Heidegger called this “disclosure.” That is, the phenomena show themselves to us. Another way to say this, is to say that a world is revealed to us.

This disclosure can happen with a variety of phenomena: the natural world is a good place to start, but it can also happen to us via the arts, sciences, and liturgy (whether as participants or observers).

My own searches into phenomena and meaning have led me to connect this activity of disclosure with the Wisdom of God (Sophia), as described in scripture and mysticism. Even here, though, I recognize that offering a definition is to offer a cage. Nevertheless, definitions aside, without a contemplative approach to the world we can never hope to find the Real. For now we see as through a glass darkly.

The group The Lower Lights discovering a new world in an old hymn.

[1] Thomas Traherne, Century 2:21 in Poems, Centuries and Three Thanksgivings, ed. Anne Ridler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 223.

[2] Ibid. Century 2.3, 215–16.

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1 Comment

Ric Ballard
Ric Ballard
Dec 14, 2018

I was moved to tears watching those people see color. Its was neat to see the kids try to act cool, but the beauty that they were experiencing was overwhelming.

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