“But (you will see): he brings joy.”1 —Rainer Maria Rilke
I remember reading in Laurens van der Post’s memoir of life with the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa that the most honorable thing one could say to one of them upon meeting was, “I saw you coming from afar.”2
Van der Post, tall and lanky, had no difficulty seeing and being seen by the bushmen. What might this have meant for them? It was a valuation transcending stature, a generous extension of the imagination beyond mere physicality into the realm of kindred spirits. As brothers, they were never entirely absent from each other. Their presence in memory, more often in the flesh, was sought and desired, offered and accepted. In a landscape as trackless and sere as the moon — at least to white people uneasy in its vastness — seeing one another from a distance was reassurance that they were not alone, though separated by miles.
In the forest near our home, where I walk two or three times a week, I am on the lookout for deer. There are three bands that I regularly see, usually in different areas, mothers with their fawns and their teenagers. I watch for them because, to the casual eye, their coloring blends naturally into the grays and browns of the winter trees and shrubs. They know I am there far sooner than I see them, but they seem unconcerned when I come across them near the path. I’ve found that if I stop and stare, they get nervous, but if I continue, walking slowly, they accept my presence as near as five or six feet. I always speak to them, assuring them they won’t get hurt by my hand, asking them if they’ve found enough breakfast, and wishing them well. Occasionally, someone else comes along the path during these monologues and wonders out loud who I’m talking to. When I point them out, we both watch as they move lithely through the underbrush to disappear, white tails lifted like exclamation marks.
There is a watchful serenity about them, a cool tolerance of my babbling, that usually stills my voice after a few moments. The young ones, the fawns, stand on stick legs, googly-eyed and frozen with curiosity at this strange forked creature. Their mothers and cousins are more nonchalant, giving me a pitying glance before returning to their grazing. Neither of us wants to move jaggedly, but if it comes to it they will be gone in a heartbeat.
Their beauty is surely in their form and movement, but also in their demeanor. I am trying to see them, not as objects in the underbrush, but as beings with whom we share the world and whose language we cannot speak. I wish to see our world from inside their consciousness and then to bear testimony to what I have seen.
They remind me of Avatar, James Cameron’s entrancing film of another world parallel to our own, reached only through a mental transport. To know another being in that world, really to know them, is to be connected through the source of their energy, a sacred tree, that in some way sustains them in life and joins their consciousness to one another. The most intimate expression one can say to another person in that world is, “I see you.”
When I go to a museum or a gallery, and I linger before a painting, I am seeking the sacred, that moment in which the artist received, with the eye of imagination, what she then gathered into herself. In time, and with effort, she birthed what she received as a gift, now transformed, and so we go where we can receive it. In receiving it, grateful to have been where the gift entered the world, we let it speak to us and we answer the artist. The painting becomes the visual symbols of sound in our silent conversation — spoken music, we could say. We know the artist through the world she has opened to us. “We feel less alone in face of what we ourselves see each day appearing and disappearing.”3
The world seems so evanescent, solidity fuming up into light and air and disappearing, millions of times a second. To see someone is to gaze at the speed of light as singular particles reflecting color coalesce into the figure of the one we love. We trust the paradox of this coalescence, that what we see is the momentary residue of millions of fragments endlessly generated.
“It was there from the beginning; we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hand; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the word of life. This life was made visible; we have seen it and bear our testimony; we here declare to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we declare to you, so that you and we together may share in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete.” —1 John 1:1-4, NEB
This letter, like the Gospel of John before it, begins with poetry and ends in testimony. There is an incantatory rhythm to it; the phrases invoke in the reader the slanted light falling on a company of friends whose sensual recall of “it” compels the raising of a story. “Our theme is the word of life,” a word that shimmers into being in the muscle memory of their hands, visible, maybe audible, in their memories as they bear their testimony to us.
These people have been drawn and held by something so fleeting and yet so haunting that none of them will ever feel at home again in the old dispensation, clutching their alien gods. They have seen through the “accidents” of appearances to the essence of Jesus, whom they now know as Immanuel, God-in-Christ. Their community flourishes through its collective memory, this “sacred tree” that will sustain them, though the parousia is not yet.4
“The raison d’etré of the visible,” reasons John Berger, “is the eye; the eye evolved and developed where there was enough light for the visible forms of life to become more and more complex and varied.”5 “We have seen it with our own eyes,” they testify. These are people whose memories enable a wider spectrum of light than the rest of us. They have evolved.
To see, and to bear witness to what we have seen, is to testify to an event which is unique, which cannot be repeated, which took place between ourselves and another, which bears value for others “because I hold, as it were, a particle of light, and to keep it to myself would be equivalent to extinguishing it.”6
“The witness always conceives of himself as standing in the presence of someone,”7 says Gabriel Marcel. “What we have seen and heard we declare to you,” says the author of 1 John. Do we bear witness to all the absurdity and horror of this world as well as the nobility and beauty? Those who loved Jesus could not help but see the cruelty and faithlessness of those who turned on him. It was John alone, of the men closest to him, who did not turn away from Jesus in his singular desolation. John willed to stand his ground, though the air was thick with the demons of fear and guilt.
“The value,” says Marcel, “lies in the faithful following, through darkness, of a light by which we have been guided and which is no longer visible to us directly; indeed, it can be said that it is because there is a darkness, an eclipse, that there can be testimony — attestation.”8
Maybe what the author of 1 John was trying to say is that he and the others once had Jesus with them. They could touch him, talk with him, see him. He was everything to them. He was their window to God; in all that he did they could see the living kingdom playing out in the life of a man. And then he was gone — though he promised the Spirit to them.
“What is a likeness?” asks John Berger, in his essay on seeing. “When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person’s likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.”9
Now what we have is each other. Maybe that is the closest we can come to God-among-us, the new order flaming up, here and there, as we see through the appearances to the real within each of us, making visible to each other the likeness of the invisible God, whom we nevertheless will see, coming to us from afar.
“And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete.”
Notes & References:
1. Rilke, Rainer Maria. “The Birth of Christ,” in The Unknown Rilke: Expanded Edition. Translated with an introduction by Franz Wright. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 1990, p. 68.
3. Berger, John. “Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible,” in The Shape of a Pocket. New York, Vintage International, 2001, p. 21
4. I am indebted to my wife, Joy Daquila-Casey, for the analogy.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at [email protected]. His first book, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, is now available.
Photo credit: Aziz Acharki on Unsplash
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