Ordinary Things

September 14, 2023

"White and Pink Chrysanthemum" by Eric Rennie

To discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as
in its greatest, is to possess a rare and sublime faith.

             — Jean-Pierre de Caussade

My world has gotten smaller as I’ve gotten older.  This is not uncommon for people my age (I am in my mid-70s at this writing), but it can be a limiting factor if you are a landscape photographer.  I am not likely to go trekking in the wild the days; then again, I never did.  I was already pushing 60 when I became a serious photographer.  Although I have made up for lost time in many ways, that has not included any globe-trotting expeditions.   I am still able to get out and about.  But there is only so far I want to go lugging heavy camera equipment.  And after I took a bad fall while tramping out in the middle of nowhere, my wife made me promise not to venture too far from the beaten path. 

My work these days is mostly been taken close to home; in fact, one of my long-standing projects is to find subjects within walking distance of my house.  A few years back I began photographing wildflowers I found growing by the side of the road when I was out walking.  In some cases, I have exhibited photographs of trees and flowers taken in my own yard.  

My world has gotten smaller in more ways than one.  I would bring back those wildflowers I picked by the side of the road and photograph them in a darkened room under an intense white light. I would use a macro lens, which allows me to get in very close.  The result sometimes is a single blossom that fills the entire frame of a picture.  I take my inspiration from Georgia O’Keefe, who explained that she painted flowers big because it was the only way she could get people to pay attention to them. 

The largest-grossing sci-fi movie in the 1950s was called The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who also wrote episodes of the original Twilight Zone on TV.  The protagonist is a man who is exposed to a strange green mist that causes him slowly to get smaller — much smaller.  As he shrinks, the objects and creatures in his house grow proportionately larger and more menacing.  He is threatened by a household cat now many times his size and fends off a black widow spider with a sewing needle.  His house becomes his prison until he is so small he can pass through the wire mesh of a window screen.  

My macro lens allows me to photograph ordinary objects as they might have appeared to the Incredible Shrinking Man when he was only inches tall.  These lenses do not reveal anything that is not plainly visible to the naked eye.  But they enable you to hover right next to your subject, like a bee buzzing around a flower, making it impossible to ignore what appears in your viewfinder.  You quickly discover you have gained a window into a whole other world nestled inside the one we usually take for granted.  Even at its most granular level, the world that God made is beautiful — not just here and there but seemingly everywhere you look.  God is indeed in the details.

Why do we take it for granted?  I’m reminded of Emily, the young woman in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, who has died in childbirth and is allowed to return to her former life for a day.  She is dismayed at how distracted everyone seems.  "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize,” she laments.  “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"  No, for the most part we do not, and there are sound reasons for this.  In evolutionary terms, we risk our survival if we ignore the pressing business of survival in order to stop and smell the flowers — or photograph them, as the case may be.   And so our minds are always looking down the road to where the next meal is coming from or where a predator might be lurking or where we might find a mate.  Like Emily, we discover too late that people have become so distracted by the humdrum of everyday life they can no longer see what is staring them in the face. 

In the 8th-century BCE, an Israelite prophet named Isaiah had a vision of God seated on his throne. with seraphs (angels) chanting, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  Listen to what those seraphs had to say: the whole world is full of his glory.  We assume that some beatific vision is required to see God’s glory in the world.  But those angels hovering around God’s throne were merely stating facts. They revealed nothing that is not plainly visible by the ordinary light of day.  We just have to pay attention.  

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