Buechner Prize Winner: Mary Barnett

 

Be Thou My Vision Therapist

Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the
eye of the heart whereby God may be
 seen.

                                                                  Augustine, Sermon 88.5.5

 

I have glasses for seeing far, glasses for seeing close, glasses for seeing far and close at the same time as long as I look through the right place, contacts for looking good as long as I am absolutely positive I will not need to read anything, reading glasses to wear over the contacts for seeing close up which I can’t ever find because they are usually right here.

I take my glasses on and off constantly. For a while this summer, I had both a pair of reading glasses and sunglasses perched on my head. It sort of worked. I have a big head. This makes life complicated and reduces to separate categories things that should go together. I have developed the habit of shutting my eyes whenever I have a serious decision to make or something important to say to someone. It helps things merge. To see my children, I take my glasses off.

Disturbances in vision while disorienting, prod us to stop taking what we see for granted. When at age 40 I finally realized I wasn’t seeing what everyone else was seeing, I called the doctor. Then, being an Enlightenment creature, I began wondering how vision works in the first place.

We see what we expect to see, until we don’t. We can call the eye doctor (we aren’t seeing things) set up a consult with a psychiatrist (we are seeing things) or try to convince a religious professional, a time-travelling medieval saint or maybe that wild-eyed guy on the street corner, that we’ve had an actual vision. They will all agree at least on this: nobody is seeing exactly what everyone else is seeing.

Since our eyes are not the open windows on the outside world that we experience them to be: if I adjust the clarity and thickness of the panes that I am looking through; if I go out and buy a better pair of glasses, will I finally see what’s really going on out there?

Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan monk illuminates the alternative orthodoxy of the mystic tradition. “Hugh of St. Victor (1078-1141) wrote that humanity was given three different sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first eye was the eye of flesh (the senses), the second was the eye of reason (meditation or intellectual reflection), and the third eye was the eye of true understanding (contemplation). Third-eye seeing is the way mystics see. They do not reject the first eye; the senses matter to them. Nor do they reject the second eye; but they know not to confuse knowledge with depth or mere correct information with the transformation of consciousness itself.”

I eat this stuff up. The italics are mine. But wait a minute, I have two eyes and it turns out even they don’t agree with each other.

Many of my visual frailties are age-related. If you don’t have them, you will. But like my mother and several cousins, I was also born with a mild strabismus. My eyes were slightly crossed. One floated up while the other wandered in. Occasionally they met above my nose and then swam lazily back to their proper posts, facing front. My parents waited for things to straighten themselves out and when they didn’t, they took me, at age 3, to the best eye surgeon in Boston.

Dr. Gunderson wasn’t like Dr. Allen, the pediatrician I saw yearly, who understood the general purpose of doctors appointments: reassuring parents, getting measurements, giving shots. Dr. Gunderson talked to my mother politely but only really warmed up when he asked her about me and they’d speak quietly for a few moments, as if I were an important and serious and somewhat delicate subject and then he’d turn and smile at me so broadly and look so deeply into my eyes that I knew they and I were miraculous and beautiful. My perspective was essential even though my eyes didn’t work right. The way he looked at me, I knew I was really there. The surgery was successful although like much in the late 50’s, the specifics were under-discussed. I launched into life post-surgery with a lingering suspicion that they had messed with other parts of me while they were in there, under the hood so to speak. I appreciated Freud when I got around to him in college.

Nonetheless, I was fine. I merely started nursery school half a year late and wore a black eye patch for a while to strengthen the eye whose muscles had been shortened or tightened or lengthened or whatever it was they did to them. But it wasn’t until I was an adult, and I read “Stereo Sue” by Oliver Sacks in the June 2006 issue of The New Yorker, that I realized that I actually see differently, out of only one eye at a time and they switch back and forth. So I was over 40 years old when I found out that I don’t see depth, I just think I do. Up until then, my illusions had worked just fine.

I’ve had clues. I remember the stereoscopic glasses we put on in fourth grade to look at a wavy photo of a giant millipede. Everyone screamed and in the excitement, I did too. All those little legs! But I finally realized why their screams had that…edge. To me, the bug looked
exactly the same with the glasses off.

It’s a minor disability. Depth perception apparently varies a lot, even within normal ranges. What can this possibly mean? If you experience the millipede projecting up from the page 1.7 inches and someone else perceives the height as a mere .75 inches, what is in the space in between? Is awareness of dimensionality a complex aspect of personality, like intelligence or verve? (Of course, I think, remembering the blockhead who cut me off this morning.) But wait a minute. I’ve got depth. Why can’t I see it?

Our two eyes have slightly different vantage points on the world, strategically located 2.5 inches apart, in most adults. We see to the far left with our left eye and up to 90 degrees to the right with our right. Our eye placement is adaptive, giving us a wide horizontal visual field. We can scan the plains. Watch for tigers in the trees. Merge into traffic. If one eye is impaled by a tree branch or dislodged by a 120 mph tennis serve at Wimbledon, we have a handy spare. Having two slightly different angles on the world has another surprising advantage. Try this and see. Line your fingers up one in front of the other. Now imagine you are a tiger and the front finger is a tree with a rabbit hiding behind it. Shut one eye and the back finger pops into view. (Dinner!)

The triangular area directly in front of our eyes however is shared territory. Our brain receives the images from each eye and fuses them, relying on their similarity and their disparity to generate the sensation of depth. This is the miracle of convergence and I know it’s a miracle because I can’t do it. Depth perception in the sagittal plane separates foreground from background, tree from forest, chameleon from camouflage. It is for catching prey and threading needles or looking (deeply) into someone else’s eyes. Most salient however is the fact that depth perception is embodied. It’s a sensation. It confirms not just what we see but where we feel we are.

When the disparity between the two images from our two eyes is too great however (e.g. when the eyes don’t line up properly or one eye sees better than another) the brain can’t deal with the discrepancy and suppresses one of the images. The eyes alternate, turning on and off in succession although this all happens below the level of consciousness. As a result, depth is deduced following secondary clues (shading, position, motion parallax) instead of perceived. This unconscious maneuvering reminds me of the Clapper, that gadget (for turning lights on and off without getting up from your chair) that used to be only available only on TV. Clap on. Clap off. No need to engage with the switch. No way to see how awareness operates. How unconscious decisions are being made. In a case like this, the first step toward perceiving depth is disorientation. It’s seeing double.

Frustrating and demoralizing as this sometimes is, I’m beginning to see my slight handicap as an unexpected gift. I’ve become aware of what I can’t see and am looking for it. Twice. But effort is only half the battle. To see depth I need to practice religiously the eye stretching exercises my vision therapist has given me. I also need to let go of what I’ve seen before.

Our eyes are not windows. Our vision is not instantaneous or “natural” but unconsciously
processed and projected. An image of the world is developed in our head. And then we walk into it.

Born in 1955 and raised Unitarian in an upper middle class family in Providence RI, I learned that being smart mattered. Your brain was your angle. Your genes were your foundation. In the great grey First Unitarian Church on Benefit Street we learned that Jesus was a great guy, a really great guy in fact, on a par with the Buddha or Krishna or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, all equally Holiday worthy, but not the Son of God. Believing Jesus was the Son of God would mean that you believed you possessed a truth that was not culture bound and relative. This was dumb. No one was chosen except maybe by history or the membership committee of the golf club. My parents fought for causes, eventually left the country club and protected the environment before it was fashionable. There is a brook on our family property in Massachusetts that is one of the few places left in New England where sea brown trout, the salters John Adams fished for, still swim upstream to spawn. In the early 1970’s, my parents convinced the surrounding landowners to protect the land with stringent conservation restrictions. They didn’t see Jesus but they saw trout. They believed in the importance of a future they weren’t in and they didn’t need a resurrection to feel connected to it.

My brother once asked my Boston-centric Brahmin maiden aunt if Unitarians were in fact actually Christian. Aunt Hopie lay propped up in the chaise lounge from which she lived her mysteriously handicapped life on a powerful horizontal. At my brother Jamie’s question, however she sat up. Her eyes glowed a coastal blue. “Of course we’re Christian,” she said. “The real kind.”

Christian mystic, Richard Rohr refers to all brands of religious certainty as dual-consciousness thinking (on/off, either/or instead of both/and), regardless of its theological complexity, political correctness or inclusive values. It doesn’t matter how right our opinions are. “Either-or thinking gives one a false sense of control.” “The small mind works by comparison and judgment; the great mind works by synthesizing and suffering with alternative truths. The ego cannot stand this suffering, and that is exactly why it is so hard for many religious people to grow up.”

Clap on. Clap off. I know I have depth but can I really believe that you do too?

St. Julian of Norwich (c.1342-c.1416), a medieval mystic, had a radical experience of depth within the confines of her anchoress’s cell, in spite of severely restricted vision. The book she wrote Revelations of Divine Love is a classic text of Christian spirituality, the first text in English written by a woman. What she “saw” however still makes many religiously secure people nervous. Can her radical perceptions really be orthodox? It’s a good question. Julian reported seeing beyond the small reality of hell into the greater mystery of God’s merciful love. She saw that sin was necessary or “behovely” rather than merely a limitation. She saw that “all would be well and all manner of things will be well.” She saw Christ as a mother. She saw God as a womb in which we are endlessly being born and out of whom we will never come.

My transformative experience of depth happened in a Friendly’s.

I stopped transfixed in the doorway. Something was different. The waitresses and the booths had receded. A great gulf had opened up. Even my shoes seemed farther away. White block letters launched themselves from the back of the sign above the counter. VANILLA CHOCOLATE PISTACHIO. The expanse of space between me and the ice cream counter was not a nothing, not a lack of something; not a spiritual placeholder for a more material reality, like my address or a desk. It was the actual room I inhabited which also inhabited me. I was marinating in this glorious viscous substance which, now that I became aware of it, took an effort to cross. I had a choice.

True stereopsis, writes researcher Dhanraj Vishwanath in a current issue of “Psychological Review” is the vivid impression of tangible form, immersive space and the compelling sensation of being able to act upon it.

The slim necklace of trim on the back of leatherette banquette. The waitress’s apparent sadness. My feet inside my shoes. The child in the next booth kicking the back of my seat. Everyone matters. We aren’t in a movie.

In other words, depth isn’t just something that happens out there but is also the internal space that opens inside us, creating a visceral sense of the really real.

“The perceptual quality that we hold so dearly as giving us a grasp on reality” continues Vishwanath “is an entirely phenomenal construct-with no external referent.”

Woops, I guess I was wrong. We are in a movie. But we are simultaneously shooting it.

I panic. (Clap on.) Since our vision is manufactured and processed, since our experience of reality is hopelessly tainted with ourselves does this mean that what we see out there is not objectively and verifiably real?

Argh, says my husband, are you just figuring this out? That other people have other points of view? (Clap off.)

I persist. I believe in God and posit something that is not relative; that doesn’t depend on my seeing Him clearly. God as Trinity renders God in three dimensions: height, width, depth; a space I go into rather than an opinion I have. I take my glasses off.

“Theology, says theologian Karl Barth “knows the light which is intrinsically perfect and reveals everything in a flash. Yet, it knows it only in the prism of this act, which however radically it may be understood, is still a human act.”

I open my eyes and go in search of another imperfect pair of glasses.

My new vision therapist has recently added prisms to my prescription to train my eye muscles to relax, to make them let go of how they are used to working so my brain can let go of how it is used to seeing. Augustine recommends something similar in Psalmos 99.5: you must “prepare the means of seeing what you love before you try to see it.” It occurs to me then that to experience God I need a pair of glasses big enough for my whole body. What I really want is a prism suit! I shut my eyes and realize that is exactly what I already have.

For years, anatomists trying to understand the secrets of the body have cut away at the connective tissue that holds our organs in a sticky white web. They scrape away at the fascia to get at what they think is the meat. Meanwhile, a teacher of mine coaches people with spinal cord injuries to apprehend with a different perceptual system. They are learning to try to curl and uncurl their toes. The results though small are not imperceptible. Apparently what was considered useless, what was cut away and discarded, is intelligent beyond our current capacity to understand it. There’s a milky way of intelligence imbedded beneath our skins. When we narrow our bodies, we narrow our world.

“The spiritual wisdom of divine union is first beautifully expressed in Sanskrit in the Vedas (the oldest Hindu text, around three thousand years old) as a ‘grand pronouncement’: Tat Tvam Asi” writes Richard Rohr. “This phrase contains condensed wisdom that could likely be translated in the following ways:

YOU are That!
You ARE what you seek!
THOU art That!
THAT you are!
You are IT!”

Or as Plotinus said, “We are what we desire and what we look at.”

“My body is pin-hole camera, taking snap shots of God which I can’t develop by myself,” I say, scrambling an egg.

Wow, that’s deep, says my husband, unimpressed.

The worm thinks it strange and foolish that man does not eat his books, says Tagore.

Practicing my religion makes me more aware of the all the prisms I look through: my culture, my faith tradition, my assumptions, my numerous pairs of glasses, my naked eyes. I am full of blind spots. Ultimate reality remains hidden behind a veil. Christianity is just another pair of glasses; the kind with prisms in them like my new vision therapist has given me; but that might actually work. Somehow these new potentially cheesy, glory-hallelujah, bargain-rate, Christian glasses bring my body into focus, not just my little eyes or my little pea brain. I see the enormity of the space between me and other people. I’m immersed in it. The world doesn’t impinge on me anymore. It is miles away. We are miles away from each other.

Calvin, that quintessential reformed theologian, quotes the medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux in one of his famous Institutes, reminding me that contrary to the popular imagination, the Protestant tradition is not devoid of mystical imaginings.

“Bernard neatly compares to faithless servants the proud who claim even the slightest thing for their own merits because they wrongly retain the credit for grace that passes through them, as if a wall should say that it gave birth to a sunbeam that it received through a window.”

That’s it, I think, that’s it. I’m here to catch the light. Otherwise it would just keep going. I am the wall!

I am the walrus, says my husband.

This universe dwarfs me way beyond my capacity to imagine it. This makes me feel oddly necessary. It is so much more likely I would never have been here at all.

Meister Eckhart (1290-1327) put it this way in one of his Sermons, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

In the Oliver Sack’s New Yorker article, Susan Barry describes an instance of binocular vision that is revelatory. Stepping out into a snowfall, she experiences being within the world instead of observing it. “Before the snow would have appeared in a flat sheet, on a plane slightly in front of me. But now I felt myself within the snowfall, among the snowflakes. I was overcome with a deep sense of joy. A snowfall can be beautiful, especially when you see it for the first time.”

Several months ago, I was walking by my church in downtown New Haven. I passed a man 20 feet away, lying on the ground. He was badly rumpled. He looked like he might smell. Often men lie on the ground around our church, sleeping off a bender. It was a busy street in the shopping district near Yale, mid-winter, the middle of the day. Many people were passing him by, confirming my assessment of what I was seeing. Now, this isn’t a Christian or a Christmas story about how I suddenly became a good Samaritan. I am not. If I knew for sure what I was seeing I probably would have kept going. But for a split second my mind stopped. I thought: maybe this is not what I think it is. Maybe this is not someone who wants to be left alone. As I was straining to pull him up off the ice, his daughter came running out of Lord and Taylor and took his other arm.

 


Image: He Li, oil on canvas

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