My wife and I own an old farmhouse dating to the 1880s on a small rural road in the foothills of the Catskills. The scenery is beautiful in all seasons, but when we wake now in December around 7 A.M. the house and its surrounding tree-covered hills are still dark. The sky is light, but, because we are in a valley, the sun has not yet touched us. All the leaves are down now, and the muted colors of the bushes and trees add to the darkness. I start a fire in the wood stove and make some tea. We meditate in our own way and wait.
Today I am aware of how still it is. There is no breeze outside. No animals are scurrying about. The fire in the stove has just begun to flame. Suddenly, the first rays of the sun crest the eastern hill and pierce low and quickly through clusters of dense trees, striking the western slope of a hill behind our home. Shadows from the trees appear, patterning and pointing to something, challenging our complacency in what we think we see. Soon a riot of light emerges and blankets the whole hill. The light seems to rest now and wait for our response to this sun-gift.
I wonder if what we feel is in any way like the sense of awe Mary experienced when the Angel Gabriel visited her. Perhaps she asked herself, “What did I see? What did I hear? What does it all mean?” We know her response was the beautiful song of the Magnificat. In medieval paintings Mary is often depicted as waiting, a prayer book in her hands, an attentive stillness in her manner. Are such experiences how we come to understand the wonder of creation, our own existence, and our urge to participate in the beauty of life we all share?
On November 1st our library sponsored an art exhibit with paintings of a local artist, Lillie, a friend of ours. Her paintings play with light. The paintings are deceptively accessible: barns, stores, homes, local scenery, and portraits. Yet she uses her gift to help us see the ordinary in a new way.
Another exhibit we enjoyed recently was by 87-year-old artist David Byrd and was entitled “Seeing What is There.” A friend discovered David living quietly in our midst. He had never exhibited or sold any of his paintings. In his own life he faced many hardships. He had worked as an orderly in a VA hospital for thirty years. He painted many of the patients he cared for with an empathy that recognized the dignity of those who had suffered so much from our culture of war making. With the help of a neighbor and others in the community, his work was exhibited this past spring to great acclaim. Unfortunately, David became sick and died shortly after this event. However, he had the satisfaction of seeing his life’s work validated. And he left us his artwork. Thus we still have the opportunity of seeing something of what he saw.
In times of economic inequality, war, rampant materialism, and political unrest, we need to learn how to find our own way, how to discover our own gifts, how to try to structure our lives in a purposeful way. Living attentively, “Seeing What is There,” might be a good place to start in trying to answer these questions for ourselves.
Jim Haggerty and his wife live in Walton, a small N.Y. rural town in the foothills of the Catskills. They are both retired.Jim worked for the thirty years with Catholic Migration and Refugee Services, United States Catholic Conference and Catholic Legal Immigration Network, CLINIC.