One warm-and-sunny weekday recently, I took advantage of a canceled work appointment and headed to Five Rivers Environmental Center, just a short drive from my Delmar home. Although it was early spring and I knew there wouldn’t be much in bloom, the thought of meandering down the wooded trails around the pond made me feel lighter, joyful. So out I went, Nikon camera around my neck in case I got lucky enough to spot a heron in flight, not an unusual occurrence there.
So often when we set out on an adventure, whether local or across the ocean, we want to be wowed, but the reality is that we don’t have to move beyond our own backdoor or even our living room window to discover unspeakable beauty right under our nose or above our heads or hiding in plain sight but invisible to us because we are looking for something more, or simply not paying attention.
On this particular day, I headed down Beaver Trail where the only thing to see at first were clusters of parents with children pausing to marvel at spiders and ants and the occasional salamander. But not long after, I turned a bend and saw turtles — dozens of them — sunning themselves on logs. I bent down with my camera and snapped as I smiled, already feeling as if this outing was a success. I continued on my way, taking my time, breathing deep, looking up, and giving thanks. As I stood on the dock at Heron Pond hoping against hope, I was surprised instead by a pair of red-winged blackbirds and then by the fleeting glimpse of a goose paddling silently through the reeds, there one moment and gone the next. Lingering all around the scene was a palpable sense of divinity.
We sometimes complain about how people tote their phones around with them and snap images of food and vacation and every detail of their lives (guilty as charged). But, when we slow the process down and look for God in those same scenes, we can turn a simple image into a sacred keepsake. Most of us are familiar with Lectio Divina, sacred reading; what I’m suggesting is Visio Divina, sacred seeing. Can you behold something before you with awe and look for the divine in your yard, or on a trail, or on a busy city street? Can you pause, not because you are hoping for something frame-worthy, but because you want to soak in what is before you and feel the hand of God at work?
In his book In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir, Paul Quenon, OSCO, explains that he spends 30 minutes outside daily observing nature, no matter what the season or weather. “Each year is a course taken with nothing omitted, dropped, or skipped — no choosing and picking …” he writes. “One day may be Eden, another a dim limbo. Each mood molds my soul to its profile. I am governed and made into something larger than myself.”
As I crossed a wooden bridge at Five Rivers, I paused and looked down into the green water. Suddenly I saw mud being kicked up, and I watched an enormous turtle slowly paddle toward me. I stood there for a long time, marveling at this prehistoric-looking and majestic, if moss-covered, creature, and feeling a deep connection to it and to God. This moment of sacred seeing was an experience lit up from the inside by the spark of the divine, one I would have missed if I had been impatient or looking only for my beloved heron.
You don’t have to venture onto a nature trail to see things with the eyes of love. Everything around you presents an opportunity to use this spiritual practice: your breakfast, your garden, your afternoon tea, even your hands as they work. Pause. Be patient. Pray. And, yes, snap a photo. Then see if you, too, aren’t slowly molded into something and someone new.
This column first appeared in the May 4, 2023, issue of The Evangelist.