Open my Eyes, Lord: Photography as a spiritual practice

Open my Eyes, Lord: Photography as a spiritual practice

Recently a number of people have commented, when meeting me, that I’m rarely without my camera. True. My cameras switch from bag to bag depending on where I’m going but I almost always have one with me. I even keep an old one in my car. And like most of you, when I don’t, there’s always my phone camera. 

Having a good camera as been part of my persona since…oh my,  for a long time. High school, I think.  A number of years ago Gladys found a photo of me from our Native Ministries summer and, not only did I have an afro, there’s a camera around my neck. Throughout my life, cameras have taught me to see.

I’ve had someone say while I was on vacation, “I was with you all day and I didn’t see what you saw.” I had a great photography teacher early in my adulthood who taught me to pay attention to what was around me but it wasn’t until I co-wrote a now discontinued photography course, Take a Break: Photography for Self-Care, that I discovered there was actually a term for what I had occasionally been doing. I discovered that photography can have a spiritual dimension, that photography can be a spiritual practice.

While writing this course I learned  that there are two streams in what’s called Contemplative Photography — Buddhist (called Miksang) and Christian. 

Because we are the latter and because we are here in one of the most photogenic and beautiful places in God’s whole creation, a thin place, a place where God is near to us, this message will teach you a tiny bit about Christian Contemplative Photography, about the spiritual side of photography — and then there will be homework. 


Some of us joined Springridge Mennonite for their worship service on March 19. The message was a recorded sermon by Rev. Dr. Kristin Adkins Whitesides, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Winchester, Virginia. She spoke about the blind man who was healed by Jesus, the story recorded in John 9:1-41. 

I’ve asked Julia, to read verses 1-11. 

1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 

Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

Rev. Dr. Whitesides asked, “How would his life change now that he was no longer blind? How would others respond to him as a healed man?”  And then she asked “Who is truly blind?” And said, “If we’ve been given eyes to see, we should use them.”  

And, sitting there, in Springridge church, with my camera on my lap, I responded silently with YES!

The healing of the blind man was and is a familiar story to at least most of us. While she spoke I thought of a book I had on my bookshelf Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Christine Valters Paintner). Contemplative Photography teaches us that in many ways, we too are blind. We also move about our lives without noticing what is around us. We miss seeing light and shadow, forms, textures, colour, patterns and reflections. We miss the intricacies of both God’s creation and human innovation because we aren’t paying attention. We miss the holy in us and around us. Why? Because we are busy and we’re distracted.

Contemplative Photography has a different purpose than taking snapshots at family gatherings, grandkids’ sports or musical events, or recording public events — in my case, documenting the life of the church, specifically Foothills and the life of Mennonite Church Alberta. Contemplative Photography is just that…contemplative.

Paintner challenges us to see with the eyes of our hearts, to slow down and as she says “gaze deeply”, noticing what we have missed in our rushed lives. To let, and I quote “eternity break in.” To pay attention. She challenges us to see photography as prayer, as listening except with our eyes. To ask, “What is God revealing to us in this holy moment?”

She says, and I quote, “Photography can be an act of silent worship. When we see the world with eyes of the heart, we can engage in an act of both reverence and self-expression. We can discover how the living Spirit is being revealed in the world.” End quote. 

Some of you may be familiar with the term Visio Divina, a contemplative practice of praying with images rather than with scripture. Contemplative photography is a form of Visio Divina. 

Paintner refers to contemplative photography as a journey of discovery where we can deepen our relationship to God, to the world and to ourselves. She calls this “holy seeing” or “beholding”, and challenges us to get out of our heads and into our hearts. She encourages us to do contemplative walking citing Mark 2:12 where Mark states “We have never seen anything like this.” 

While writing that course, I also discovered that one of the most intriguing books on Contemplative Photography was written by a Mennonite! Those who are versed in the heroes of restorative justice, will know Howard Zehr. He has also written a book The Little Book of Contemplative Photography: Seeing with wonder, respect, and humility. 

In this book, among other things, he teaches us a new language, to avoid the use of words like “shoot” and “take” but instead, see images as gifts that are received if we are open to receiving them. Your homework is from this book. I know that some of my images are truly given to me. I did not go looking for them but in that moment, with one click of my shutter, I received a gift. If, as believers, we approach all life as being a gift from God, this makes sense. 

And so this brings us to Camp Valaqua. When I walk down to Waterfront, I try to pay very close attention to the light, to the bright spots in the5 darkest part of the forest. The light changes constantly and so it is different walking there than walking back. Some of my favourite images of this holy thin place were made on that walk. Light and dark. Shadow and sunlight.

Scriptures often use light and shadow as a metaphor. 


Jeremy, will  you read for us?

Psalm 36: 5-9.  A passage full of metaphors.

5 Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,

    your faithfulness to the skies.

Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,

    your justice like the great deep.

    You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.

7 How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!

    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

8 They feast on the abundance of your house;

    you give them drink from your river of delights.

9 For with you is the fountain of life;

    in your light we see light.

And so, your homework today — and perhaps into the summer is…walk and pray and open your eyes. See the gifts Creator God has given you. What can you see that someone else might miss?

To again quote Paintner, “Go on a contemplative walk that will also be a photographic journey. Bring your camera with you and imagine you are heading out on a pilgrimage that is a journey of discovery. The symbols and images you discover can become catalysts for deeper self-exploration. Begin the walk with a brief time to centre yourself, and become aware of the sacred presence dwelling within you. Move your awareness to your heart centre. Ask for guidance and wisdom to see everyday things with the eyes of the heart… walk slowly… Let your camera be a window into a new way of seeing. Receive the images that come.”  End quote.

A contemplative photography walk can be like the mud that Jesus put on the blind man’s eyes.

May Creator open our eyes today. May you receive the gifts in the beauty of this space.


Recommended Reading:

Eyes of My Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice. (Christine Valters Paintner)

The Little Book of Contemplative Photography (Howard Zehr)