The Only Known Photograph of God

April 14, 2021

"Sky Hook" by Thomas Merton

Trappist monks follow a rule of silence when they enter the monastery, but there is nothing to stop them from taking pictures.  The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, author of the autobiographical Seven Storey Mountain and numerous works on contemplation, acquired a camera in the last decade of his life and learned to incorporate photography into his contemplative practice.  One of his photographs sticks out.  It shows a large metal hook hanging from a rope or cable in the foreground, with open countryside beyond it.  The picture is framed in such a way that it is not possible to tell what the hook is dangling from. The photo is entitled “Sky Hook,” and Merton called it “the only known photograph of God.”

Various commentators have attempted to understand what Merton meant by his comment.  Mostly they have nibbled around the edges of an interpretation.  His reputation as a contemplative is such that they assume he intended something profound.  However, Merton was attracted to photography precisely because “no explanations are necessary.”  He framed the shot so it appeared to be a big hook was hanging from the sky, labeling it “the only known photograph of God.”  He obviously knew how to tell a joke.  

Merton took up what he described as “zen photography” in the early 1960s, around the same time he began a serious inquiry into Eastern spirituality.  In a letter to John C. H. Wu, translator of the Tao Te Ching, he reported that he had grown uncomfortable with “mystical writings.”   Photography gave him a method to express himself directly, without the mediation of words.  “Instead of seeing things and facts as they are we see them as reflections and verifications of the sentences we have previously made up in our minds,” he wrote in Zen and the Birds of Appetite. “We quickly forget how to simply see things and substitute our words and our formulas for the things themselves, manipulating facts so that we see only what conveniently fits our prejudices.” 

Visio divina (Latin for “divine seeing”) is a contemplative practice far older than photography.  Originally it was used to meditate upon some visual object, such as an icon, painting or stained-glass window.  There is a formal process for contemplating an image that is designed to bypass the intellect and appeal directly to one’s inner sense of things.  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself an avid photographer, summarized the method most succinctly when he said, “Don’t think, look.”  His comment was directed at his fellow philosophers rather than at contemplatives, but the same principal applies.  As he explained in his Philosophical Investigations, we must do battle against "the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

As a photographer, I understand why a contemplative like Merton found the medium so alluring.  With a camera in my hand, the visual cortex takes precedence in my mind, and I am less prone to the bewitchment of the intellect that Wittgenstein warned against.  When seen through the viewfinder of a camera, the world becomes nothing but color, shape, texture, light and shadow.  It is a world without names, unframed by any thought.  Such thinking as I might do is purely mechanical: focus, exposure, composition and the like, much of it done almost reflexively.  I find myself on sacred ground.

St. Francis de Sales described contemplation as "a loving, simple and permanent attentiveness of the mind to divine things.”  When we hear the phrase “divine things,” we tend to think of angels and the Hallelujah Chorus.  But we are not in the realm of thinking here.  The writer John Howard Griffin, Merton’s friend and fellow photographer, remarked that Merton would often pass over “superlative” shots on his contact sheets and print seemingly ordinary ones, like the dangling hook.  In his letter to John C.H. Wu, Merton explained that “mysticism flourishes most purely right in the middle of the ordinary.  And such mysticism, in order to flourish, must be quite prompt to renounce all apparent claim to be mystical at all.”

Attentiveness to divine things is less about what you see than how you see it.  St. Paul talked about having “the eyes of our hearts enlightened.”  That sounds highfalutin, but it’s really very simple.  All you need to do is to pay attention.  Instead of thinking you’ve seen it all before, see things as if for the first time, as a newborn would.  If it helps, do as I do and pick up a camera.   I can’t promise you will find God, but you may just discover that you are seeing the world as if through God’s eyes.                             



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