Thursday, February 9th 2017

Learning to see

By Peter Breen

Hello. How are you?

Thank you for the honor of delivering this talk, this homily, or as they say where I came from, this sermon. I give you permission to raise your hand or leave if this feels like a sermon!

I am the Director/Co-Founder of Jugglers Art Space Inc in the Valley and have been there in Brunswick Street since 2002. Just briefly:

  1. We have come to a tipping point with our building there and are putting together a risky and idealistic proposal to offer part ownership for folks who share our ideals and around the arts, community cultural development and of giving a voice to the marginalized.
  2. If that is not possible financially you can support our programs with tax deductible donations and you will be supporting such projects as the Stairwell Project – a very successful program of live music by Qld Conservatorium graduates and staff every week in the cancer outpatients and atriums of the RBWH.

As I prepared for this talk I realised first that I wanted to be cool and convincing.

It didn’t take long for that illusion to fade.

Then I had to face the reality of my own desperation in attempting to avoid atheism.

I need to own that this is the first time I have publically aired my agnosticism or more, my pathway of doubt in these words and with such transparency. Where I have come from the pastor/priest/minister stands up 3 feet above contradiction and is not to confess any sense of struggle. But here, I feel safe, safe enough to be myself and find grace, love and support

Let me put it another way:  I am in a constant state of inquiry and struggle about the reality and presence of god, about my belief in and desire for epiphany and existential connection with god which for me leaves systematic theology for dead. I want to know. I want to know the other and the other from where I have come from is the Judeo-Christian god. I want to experience and know the other as experienced so easily by the ordinary folks in the Christian scriptures. Added to that, as for many of us is that I carry around on my back the mountain of injustice and need in my world, much less the whole world.

So with this as a back drop I was very glad for the Lectionary Readings and for how they lifted me back again into essence and away from the current pathetic and frightening reality show our world is immersed in.

I want us to briefly consider seeing.

How do we see?

How do we learn to see?

  • We wear glasses so that we can see clearly.
  • We have cataract operations so that we can see.
  • We could talk with John Fitzwalter about what it was like for him to suddenly lose his sense of sight after his bicycle accident.
  • I knew of a man in Melbourne in the 70’s who had been blinded in an accident, and then later in life had his sight restored.
  • I knew another friend whose name was the same as mine – Peter Breen – who as a blind man, achieved an MA in piano performance at Uni of Melb.
  • On my morning walk last week I had a moment when I couldn’t see – I had a bug crawling on my glasses - but then my sight returned.

We know that there is seeing and there is seeing.

Some people spend their whole life looking with perfect eyesight but never seem to see.

Some of us take a long time to finally see, to let ourselves see, to embark into the unknown.

But the wonder of that voyage into the unknown to find sight is that every time we see again, we are reborn.

The recent death at 90  of the well known Marxist art critic John Berger taught people about seeing, about how to look at art.

In his classic book : ”Ways of Seeing” he writes:

The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. In the Middle Ages when men believed in the physical existence of Hell the sight of fire must have meant something different from what it means today. Nevertheless their idea of Hell owed a lot to the sight of fire consuming and the ashes remaining - as well as to their experience of the pain of burns.

When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match : a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate.

New movements in art for individuals or eras eg the Expressionist period, happen when someone sees something physically or with their imagination or both, and they begin to experiment a bit  – maybe with a new technique inspired by another technique or another artist who becomes their mentor or in their art school where an art teacher facilitates risk and experiment.

And so for a while they draw and paint and sculpt in this representational way telling their story which is their seeing story. And if we are attentive art seers we will attempt to see what they see, or at least attempt to see an essence of some kind.

But -  artists can get stuck.

Slowly or suddenly seeing goes.

Imagination is shut down.

They go through the motions.

They produce work from the old seeing not their fresh seeing.

And so it is with us whether we are artists or not. 

We get stuck in our old seeing or in our not seeing and can slowly slide back to become blinded by prejudice and narrow mindedness and cold-heartedness and narcissism and ego  - rather than letting ourselves be constantly enlightened by humility and seeking and acting for justice with kindness.

As I was preparing this talk I wondered at the risk of implying that St Mary’s could get stuck. But, St Mary’s and any one of us can get stuck. It is a human condition and even though St Mary’s and many of us see differently we are humans where stuckness is at times part of living.

As John Berger intimates, we become what we have been exposed to, the people we are with, the books, the education, the prevailing ideas.

We can live as seers or as blind lookers.

This is not a new phenomenon. It is a human propensity and why there have been prophets for ever in all secular and religious groups and ages.

In the OT Reading the prophet Isaiah records:

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Here was a plea from the religious people to god for god to do a better job of looking! They were convinced that they were exceptional people before god and that he needed to reward them for their good rituals.

But they didn’t see that they weren’t seeing.

They were invested in ritual and the exercise of religion but had lost their sight and were so blinded in their ritual that they assumed god had the problem, that god was blind.

Isaiah says, as the god mouthpiece, that true religion is seeing the poor, seeing injustice and seeing what needs to be done to bring justice into community, business and nation - and acting on the seeing.

What Berger was talking about in the arts is really what Isaiah and the prophets and the Jesus person was on about:

Seeing has to be maintained, can be maintained and seeing is everything.  

All that the Jesus person wanted people to do was to open the eyes of their understanding and to see god as he did and to be as god as he was and to let that light shine for others to see as he did.

And what his life of seeing and of light amounted to was love – love for god and love for neighbour.

By love for god Jesus meant with emotion and passion and quietness and stillness and intelligence - and for neighbours.  And just in case we thought neighbours are only the ones celebrating the religious rituals next to you in church – and they are them

Jesus made it clear that the neighbour was primarily

The stranger and the enemy! The poor and the marginalised.

The Jewish leaders wanted to eliminate the Jesus person because he threatened their status, power, wealth, entitlement, privilege and dodgy interpretation of the OT law with a simple life that centred on association and solidarity with the wrong people, popularity, public speaking prowess [where he didn’t seem to say much] a regular confrontation with them based on love not power and ego and a knowing experience of god that was for everyone not only the priestly rulers.

Loving like this was carrying god around with you and was being in god whether you were performing your rituals or not.

We are all bearers of god, carriers of god, alive to god but sometimes the glasses need cleaning and adjusting   so that we see again.

So what is seeing:

I would like to suggest that within the context of love for god and action for neighbour, it is an intuitive knowing, an understanding of essence, an energised state, a flow of joy, a vision, a living in another real but different dimension.

How do we see again?

How do we get out of stuckness and see again like this?

How does an artist see and live in their imagination as well as in their technique and chosen medium?

Without wanting to be simplistic, we need a simple plan – almost a daily, weekly, monthly and annual ritual. Ritual is ok if it renews our seeing.

  • We need to be active and
  • We need to be still.

And we need to add one extra catalyst when we are active and when we are still to refresh our seeing and find that never ending rebirthing: We need some kind of reflective practice like mindfulness.

As we engage in loving our neighbour as ourselves and take time to be still it is the mindful reflection on our lives and theirs and the mystery of god that will renew our seeing. 

Here is something from my life:

  • I recently met up again with a graffiti artist I first met at Jugglers through our engagement with the special circumstances court [that was abolished by the former LNP government] He has been homeless, in jail for assaulting a police officer, has been on ice, heroin and marihuana and now has Hodgkins lymphoma. He wanted to come in to Jugglers and do some legal graffiti. So he did. And then we walked down to the Metro together and I bought him lunch. And then he walked back home to his share house. He is an intelligent, hopeful but broken man. And I let myself be with him. This was my attempt that day to see and to be active for justice and kindness and hopefully not in any patronising way.
  • That morning I had gone for my morning walk and to find my sight for the day. I rehearsed the day with a bit of mindfulness and dodged the plovers and felt ready for the day. I could see again.

Picasso Said: Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.