Theology, Photography and Reflection

This weekend has been such an exciting one. As I mentioned in my last post, I was gifted with a new Nikon D40x this past week. So I’ve spent the last couple of days shooting with this camera. And the experience has infused me with a renewed enthusiasm to develop my skills in digital photography. So much so that I started a simple photoblog to post my personal images.

Posting my images is more than just showcasing my limited abilities. No, I’ve learned that images speak in ways that words cannot. For the last six years, I have reflected personally and theologically on this blog through words. I enjoy writing. I love taking an idea and crafting words to express that idea. And I hope to continue with this endeavor, especially as I become more immersed and formed by the life of Christ in the Orthodox Church.

But I’ve discovered that theological thought is very different in Orthodoxy than my training and experience in western Protestantism. Theological reflection has been more of a conceptual exercise. Sure, personal reflection and practice have always been intimately connected with theology proper. But the order has been primarily idea first, then practice. This was constantly reinforced with the priority of study as the ever-present backdrop to all theological reflection. I think it also explains why much of my theological study has been accompanied with a constant battle with pride. These were my ideas and conclusions that I worked hard to discern, unravel and formulate.

Yet, in Orthodoxy, only those with deep lives of prayer are considered capable of being theologians. That’s because a life of prayer is a humble life in communion with God. I think it’s safe to say that I have a looong ways to grow. That’s not to say that I’ll stop studying, writing or thinking theologically. But it does mean I need to re-prioritize  my spiritual life so that I’m reformed inwardly. It’s much easier to study, write and think than it is to pray. Just like it’s easier to “proclaim” the Gospel than it is to live it,  or to go even further, to embody it.

Prayer is difficult not because it takes time, but because if practiced properly, it places us in constant vulnerability before God. We are exposed. We’re not asking for things as much as presenting our sin-filled, broken selves to a merciful God. As grateful as we are for the availability of God’s salvation, we are brutally aware of our constant need to actually be saved. As we pray in Divine Liturgy:

“I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

The more I pray with the Orthodox Church, the more these words shift from a nice spiritual sentiment to the actual cry of my sin-filled heart.

That’s why photography is a wonderful medium of expression, reflection, and even prayer. My eye is being trained to “look for shots.” But it’s more than just capturing light, color and texture. There are shots that stir something deep within me. I don’t know why. I can look at a series of shots of the same subject and one will leap out, grab my attention and sometimes take my breath away.

Even though my eye is focused on a subject outside of myself, it’s actually reflecting something from within me. Something within me is responding to the beauty or truth expressed in that moment, in that image. And it’s something that escapes words.

For example, yesterday, I walked around the perimeter of my apartment complex and took a series of shots of things I see everyday. There were a number of shots that I looked at and immediately hit the delete button. There were several that I’m keeping to look at, reflect upon and develop further. And there are a couple that immediately struck at the depth of who I am.

One was the shot of the bricks that I posted on my photoblog. Another is an image of a trash dumpster that I want to develop and post soon. And another was this photo of a fence formed from distressed wood.

distressed-fence

The knotted and scarred planks remind me of the saints, the men and women throughout history that experienced untold hurt, discipline and pain. And yet, the scars became intimate communion with God. The discipline was transformed into holy dispassion. These wooden planks remind me of the icons I venerate. Faithful lives that weathered the storms of adversity, eventually to be revealed as lives perfected in Christ for all of us to emulate.

And it stirs the longing to be found faithful in my life, to live a life worthy of my Lord. As Fr Patrick preached about on Sunday, I am stained with gluttony and lust and a variety of other sins. I am still shaped by my pleasure-seeking culture and scarred by my past participation. So I pray, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” And as I pray, I am aware of the convergence of contradictions — the holy mercy of God and the absolute despair of my condition. As the two meet and kiss, there is not immediate relief. Nor should there be. For the injury goes too deep. It requires continual therapy, healing beneath the scarred surface. For the remedy is nothing less than the transformation of who I am. And that is Christ in me, the hope of glory of which St Paul wrote.

Perhaps that is why in Orthodoxy theology flows from prayer. One must become right in order to live and think right. Glory to God!

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