My Mild Stigmata: the Possibility of a Mystical Modern Life

Congratulations to Spencer Clark French, whose essay “My Mild Stigmata” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2021 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.


Stigmata (singular stigma) in Christian mysticism, bodily marks, scars, or pains corresponding to those of the crucified Jesus Christ…A stigmatic person may temporarily or permanently have one or more of these wound marks… the presence of stigmata is a sign of mystical union with the suffering of Christ.”

—Encyclopedia Britannica


Just a knob of skin. Just a small callous. Just a weird wart burrowed into my palm.

At a time when God’s absence was as obvious as it has ever been, I got a sliver in my right hand—from a shovel handle, if I remember correctly—that was too deep for pliers. I decided to let my body heal it over time. After a week, the surrounding flesh hardened; after two, the swelling and pain relented; after a month, it was inducted into the geography of my hand. But around that same time, I reevaluated and was struck—it occupied the exact center of my palm, the exact center. I tried picking it off, to no avail, so I clenched my hand into a fist for fear that people would see it and ask. In my less vigilant moments, I found myself rubbing the wart with my ring finger over and over—half pseudo-religious practice and half nervous tic.

After three months, I revealed it to my spiritual director (a title which has always seemed like an oversell). He looked at me, then at my hand, then back at me—grinning.


Of course, I had not the hubris to claim a stigma. The most reasonable explanation was that I had a strange growth in my hand—a fact qualifying me for dermatologist, maybe, but hardly anything more. And yet the callous remained, and yet my confusion about it. Questions haunted me, namely: in light of all our secular preoccupations, all our scientific developments, all the well-documented abuses of religious people and institutions, what is a (non-delusional) modern person to do with experiences like this, with the notion of the mystical?


It did not help that the word “mysticism” is a peach pit in the teeth of modern speech. It works well enough when describing historical (read: long-dead) figures, like Rumi or Teresa of Ávila, but the moment it starts referring to the contemporary world, things veer into the fantastical: theword conjures crystal-wearing, tree-talking LSD-gurus or esoteric ceremonies with velvet shawls and, surely, at some point, pig blood. Much like the term “martyr,” mild embarrassment arises when “mystical” is invoked to describe an experience—especially among those who fancy themselves intellectuals. Immediately the furrowed brows, immediately the incredulity. And yet under these reactions, one cannot help but sense a sincere desire for something more than fresh formulations of well-worn doubts—the suspicion of those who desperately want to be proved wrong. There is a reason why the most popular quote of academic theologian Karl Rahner is not about the Trinity or Soteriology, but rather, “the Christian of the future will be a mystic ornot exist at all” (The Practice of Faith).


But how would we speak about such a life? What words would we use? In every age, language—especially religious language—must be reimagined if it is to continue being meaningful. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed to when he wrote from a Nazi jail cell, “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today” (Letters and Papers from Prison). Our American context is saturated with a longing for precise, beneficial spiritual language—language which helps us speak of transcendent experiences while honoring the mystery therein; language which acknowledges the complicity of our words (and selves) in systems of oppression while providing a way for justice and peace; language which negotiates both the wide silence and occasional intrusion of God. What could such mysticism mean for us today?


I. A Catalogue of Strange Happenings


A five-minute walk from my childhood home lived an evangelist who also happened to be my grandfather. He was thin-framed with a belly, energetic and gregarious, and as conviction goes his love of the Detroit Tigers was surpassed only that for Christ. In the 70s he was a missionary in Brazil with his wife and two children; he loved Portuguese—Porrr-TOO-geyz. And, of course, he had stories—this was my favorite:

Because of his father’s new Navy placement, my ten-year-old grandpa, his siblings, and their few possessions were piled into the family’s old, two-door DeSoto. So began a long trek from Michigan to California. It was one of the colder months, December maybe, and they had made it all the way to the Rockies. His father decided to brave a precarious, uphill road despite nightfall and snow, which only grew heavier with altitude. They chugged and jolted up the slope, but the asphalt was slick—too slick—and the car lost traction, swerving into a snowbank on the ledge, which was the only barrier between the road and the darkness that went beyond it. The vehicle teetered. His father commanded all the kids to the safe side of the car, and then, without breaching equilibrium, started lifting them, one by one, out of the driver-side door. My grandpa was among the first evacuated. They were miles away from the nearest city. The snowstorm was blinding. The road had no shoulder—if someone drove through, they would be roadkill; if not, icicles. And that’s assuming that everyone made it out before the car plummeted into the abyss. The blizzard became a room with no doors.

Through the wall of white strode four men shoulder to shoulder. They were all the same height and wore matching leather vests. They walked up to the driver side window. One said, “sir, you need our help.” They picked up the rear of the car and dragged it back to the road, directing his father to turn it around. Pointing him to the nearest city in the valley, one of them drawled, “You need chains on your tires to make it over this mountain.” Everyone piled back into the car and said nothing, still in shock from the cold and the cliff. Those four men walked ahead of them, into the strobing white-black of headlights on a snowy night. When they started down the road a few minutes later, the men had disappeared.

My grandpa spoke nothing of this for years until one random day when he turned to his mother, bashful for having waited so long, and asked, “Mom, on the mountainthose menwere they—” She interrupted, “Those were no men

I believed him entirely. In fact, my young mind added to the leather vests: from then on, all angels wore spurs and wide-brimmed Stetsons. And I believed that they could be anywhere.


But life was more solitude than deus ex machina, more often the quiet sky than the four cowboys.

When I left my Podunk hometown to study ministry, I had been equipped with the certain logic of simple faith—if you come near to God, God will come near to you. Jesus wants a personal relationship with everyone, after all. A clear corollary followed: if God is not near, it is surely because you aren’t near to God. As I prepared to become a pastor, a shadow grew in step with my every attempt at deepening my belief. I went on antidepressants. I read voraciously, hoping to find the reason for my grief or, at least, something to distract me from it. One time, my father intimated that the depression was actually caused by all the books I was reading. There are crazier suggestions.


Poets helped most:


No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

No worst, there is none…, Gerard M. Hopkins


Your children, burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
of wisdom,
carom down this vale of
fear. We cry for you
although we have lost
your name.

Savior, Maya Angelou


Three years into an undergraduate degree in Christian Ministries, the possibility of faith collapsed. I assumed the bitter title, agnostic. I told those closest to me that I could no longer shoulder the weight of belief.

But that fledgling agnosticism did not last, or at least, did not progress unimpeded: peculiar, sporadic moments followed me around—a shooting star tearing across the night in reply to the petition reveal yourself!, the prolonged eye contact of a sparrow, my name appearing on road signs in the midst of a long debate with the sky. Of course, these could be rationalized—coincidence, want of birdseed, confirmation bias, respectively—but my dismissals could not annul the churning inside. They felt more like evasions than explanations. I blamed my grandpa for my fealty to grandest possible interpretation.

But the emptiness remained. I was caught between the darkness in which I lived and the few moments of light that perforated it—which, in most cases, just made the darkness darker. I was a semi-believer on psychotropics who argued with the ether and occasionally talked to birds. Is befuddled a religious category?


The encounters continued:

The day before Yale Divinity School’s application results were published, I went for a run to steady my nerves. It was March in South Bend, Indiana and not warm. After finishing, I crouched down in front of my apartment building to stretch. A couple, who I had never seen before or since, walked by with their pet—a bulldog. My eyes perked, but I steadied myself against any hasty spiritualization. In that same moment, the bulldog turned and stared directly in my eyes. I was admitted the next day. While I’m at it, the rural farm town that I grew up in? Its name is Yale, Michigan. All my life I attended Yale Public Schools. The colors are navy and white; our mascot is a bulldog.

While working at a church—in the midst of my dark half-decade of the soul—a man who struggled with homelessness limped my way, told me that his kneehurt real bad and asked for healing. I tried to signal to one of the more spiritually-equipped staff members, but they were all busy and service was about to start. Wincing, I placed my hand on his knee, so as to not insult decorum, prayed the most generic, qualifier-laden prayer of my life, hurrying away afterwards to veil my shame. When service finished, I tried to slink out a back door unseen, but he found me and bounded over, tears streaming down his face. “It’s better, yes! It’s all better! Thank you, Yes! Thank you, Jesus!”I still see him sometimes. He does not limp.


II. A Faith from the Fragments


In conversations about faith, silence, and the mystical, it’s hard to go too long without Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel showing up. Here he is at his most lucid:

“In every [person’s] life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal… But such experiences or inspirations are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response.”

—Man is Not Alone

Heschel’s conception of faith is dynamic—it maintains traditional content, while removing any expectation of regular access to God; it preserves the notion that God is active in the world, while making space for God’s felt absence. But I find this quote most helpful in how it quietly sketches the mechanics of mystical experience. Heschel distinguishes between a revelatory event and our response to it. In any encounter of transcendence there is something beyond our control (e.g. man with a hurt knee, bulldog) and something in us that responds (e.g. awe, recognition of a coincidence beyond coincidence).


In the rare case that a modern person ventures mystical significance on an encounter, there is a tendency to fixate on the abnormality of events. Think of the careful grammar of the sentence, “the strangest thing happened to me today.” Events are exterior to us and therefore—the subtle logic goes—not marred by our subjective perceptions and desires. For that is what subjectivity does: mars.

One of the clearest examples of this contemporary mistrust of the self comes, ironically, from the 17thcentury clergy-poet, John Donne. In his most famous of the Holy Sonnets, Donne laments his own waywardness so much so that he pleads for an outside force—in this case God—to come and violently save him from himself:

Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

Holy Sonnet X, John Donne

But any attempt to remove the subjective from an experience misses the point. Unless you mutilate a moment into mere facts and dates, events are not objective. And even if you decided to strip them to bare data, what is there left to say of a serendipitous star or a conspicuous callous besides the trivializing— “How bizarre?” The fact of an event does nothing to make meaning of it. We have no testable, scientific meta-framework for determining whether a happening was random or from beyond. How many transcendent moments are interred in the graveyard of coincidence?


This parallels a larger truth: there is enough evidence in this world for anyone to be a rosy-eyed believer or sour-faced atheist. In a very real way, agnosticism is the only rational religious posture, but “rational” in that case surrenders everything up front—assuming that the only way you can have a reasonable religious belief is to acknowledge you cannot. At the end, evidence has never been the issue; interpretation makes apostles or apostates.


 (As cowardly as I’ve called it, I still deem myself agnostic three days a week. It’s like an existential part-time job, but with no benefits and really bad pay.)


In the way of faith, our responses to extraordinary moments are more important than the events that originated them—responses involve agency, and we can choose aspects of our responses. But then there’s that pesky question of extent. It would be gross overstatement to claim that we have absolute jurisdiction over our reactions. Imagine your favorite meal: did you choose to like it? My hunch is that, in most cases, your appreciation for a dish had little to do with your conscious will and almost everything to do with the desires of some unseen aspect of yourself. But what about acquired tastes? That’s exactly my point—the existence of acquired tastes proves that we do have some agency alongside these subterranean parts of our self, but the very fact that the adjective ‘acquired’ has to modify the more common noun ‘tastes’ proves that consciously cultivating one’s palate is not the norm.

Think about all the other areas to which this mechanism applies: do you choose to be struck by a work of art? How many of your tears are chosen? Sure, through study one can procure a deeper love for a painting; yes, people can be socially conditioned to hide emotional responses, even from themselves; but at the end of it all, there is still an other-energy which moves in and through these rare moments, beyond the limits of our will. If there is any evidence for God’s specific action in our lives, I’d bet it’s found there. The Gospel of Mark argues that this doubleness doesn’t just apply to food and art, but also to faith: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24, KJV). Or consider an excerpt from Scott Cairns’ poem in defense of heretics:

Does one always make one’s choices? From what
universal view of utter clarity
might one proceed? Let me know when you have it.”

Adventures in N.T. Greek: Hairésis


I’ve spent a lot of sentences emphasizing transcendent moments and our strange passivity to them, but here I need to turn again to Heschel, lest I outline a faith only for those who converse with small mammals and levitate regularly. When Heschel talks about moments from Beyond, he does not describe them as routine, “[E]vents happen, intermittently, occasionally. The term ‘continuous revelation’ is as logical as the term ‘a round square’” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity).

Faced with the capriciousness of mystical events and with the fact that we cannot regulate a sizable part of our response, it’s important to probe into what we can control. How would someone act if they were to claim that they lived a life open to the mystical?


The mystic, philosopher, social-activist and existential odd-bird, Simone Weil provides a helpful investigation of one answer: attentiveness. In a short essay about, among other things, the studies of school children, Weil contends that the highest motive for schooling should not the acquisition of knowledge but instead to “[increase] the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer” (Waiting on God). She believes that central to the faithful life is the absolute attention on God. She treats it as a rudimentary spiritual skill, like breathing is to basketball—rarely the focus but unthinkable without it.

To live a life open to the mystical, we must train our eyes to look for “intrusions of grace” (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners). We must prime our imaginations for the mysterious, staying ourselves against the safety of skepticism. If there are such things as mystical encounters, which I believe there are, then humans are not the exclusive originators of them, and therefore cannot manifest them readily. (An anti-example: while I was desperately trying to save a sinking relationship, I buoyed my confidence by searching out license plates for my then partner’s initials—for, surely, these were mystical messages from the Lord. I was not well.) Attentiveness requires openness and then patience.


From Weil’s same essay:

“An [Inuit] story explains the origin of light as follows: ‘In the eternal darkness, the crow, unable to find any food, longed for light, and the earth was illuminated.’ If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention… Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.”

While this quote nears a formulaic, work-centric shadow of the faithful life, I share it because of what it illuminates: attention, while passive to the object it attends to, is also an active posture in the world. We can choose what we focus on or what we avoid. We can choose to be inattentive, and our world is happy to aid and abet that self-diversion—commodifying our gaze so they can be sold to the highest big-tech capitalist bidder. In this cultural situation, there must be a great “effort of attention.” A life that is open to the possibility of mystical encounter must also have eyes that are open for those few times it arrives. Furthermore, Weil’s conception refuses to unilaterally blame humans for not experiencing God. She thinks that the spiritually attentive life requires long periods of little fruit, which relieves us of culpability when mystical encounter does not follow prolonged attentiveness. Instead, our focus silently grows our capacity for God or Whatever, even if we do not recognize it at first. But one day the numinous will break through with a flash of realization, like Jacob: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Genesis 28:16).


To be open to the mystical, you must attend to your life, and I do not mean indiscriminately foisting meaning upon every cardinal and traffic cone. You must choose to listen to what is speaking, from within and without, and be patient when silence abounds. And you must find remedies for the distractedness of our marketing-driven culture. One such antidote is poetry—writing and reading. Poetry forces us to listen with focused ears, to look with thorough eyes, which is why poetry is a perennial avenue of spiritual clarity in the world.


The poet Lucille Clifton captures open attentiveness masterfully in her poem when I stand around among the poets. After lamenting the literary establishment’s overwhelming whiteness, maleness, and, worse of all, certainty, she pivots:

i don’t know how to do
what i do in the way
that i do it. it happens
despite me and i pretend

to deserve it.

but i don’t know how to do it.
only sometimes when
something is singing
and so far

i hear.


Heschel helps locate a second arena in which the mystical life works itself out—memory: in his short, scintillating essay The Moment at Sinai, Heschel argues that the Bible is a book of events, not just ideas. He continues, “The root of Jewish faith is, therefore, not a comprehension of abstract principles but an inner attachment to those events; to believe is to remember, not merely to accept the truth of a set of dogmas.” And these memories make claims on the rememberer: “The event must be fulfilled, not only believed in.”

This is a rigorous picture of the faithful life, one that requires more than I have to offer, but as I was preparing to harangue the overstatement of such a conception, a dove landed three feet away and stared at me for half a minute. Stared. It felt like rebuke from Heschel himself. I will have to leave my qualms about biblical historicity and organized religion to the side.


What I can say is this: I believe spiritual events from the past, whether last week or last millennium, can make claims on our present lives; they can change our posture toward the world, if we let them.

This changed posture comes within the dialectic of memory and interpretation: our past experiences inform our perceptions of the present, and our present lives influence our interpretations of the past. One is not lord over the other. Think of the memories that had a fundamental meaning to your life—a childhood conversion, let’s say—only to be excused as folly amid the scrutiny of age. Consider those times that were as quotidian as clouds—a short conversation, a glance—which, later, took their position among the most important moments of your life. This is as good a reason as there is to keep a journal. The first step of deep engagement with spiritual memories is actually remembering.


We are always interpreting and reinterpreting events. But there is a temptation to privilege recent spiritual malaise over a previous divine encounter, at least in my own life. This privileging of the present makes sense: how many months of silence from God must one endure before they begin rethinking the nature of that Being? If the faithful life is nothing more than clinging to a past ecstatic moment while you founder in the spiritual abyss, then mystical instants become nothing more than the religious equivalent of a one-night stand, God being the one who doesn’t call back.


How can we remain loyal to a past mystical event without reducing our lives to a handful of moments? How can we let those moments make claims on us without shunning our present experience? I’ve reached the boundary of what I can answer. I do believe that a person open to the mystical must be faithful to their memories, must allow past moments of transcendence to make claims on their lives. But discerning what kinds of obligations, if any, those experiences require must be made by individuals within their specific spiritual community.

For example, while angels qua cowboys may not have survived the onslaught of my liberal theological education, I still believe my grandpa’s story, which means I believe there are times where goodness does dramatically intervene, which means I must make myself open to endless examples where this doesn’t seem to be the case and all the impossible questions that spawn from them.


If I were to point in the direction of a third aspect of the mystical life, it would undoubtably be a good sense of humor:

Once, during a cheesy Christian meditation, I was asked to invite Jesus into “the living room of my imagination.” Before the deflector shields of cynicism could be deployed, in walked the poet Ross Gay. He sat across from me on a corduroy couch. I offered him imaginary tea, which he graciously accepted.


Any time some shmuck attempts to identify the characteristics of spiritual experience, something in me bares its teeth like a cornered badger; schemas rarely respect the mystery of the thing they try to define. Especially in spiritual matters, the way one chooses to describe something says just as much as what they describe. At my very conservative undergraduate college, there was a formally trained New Testament scholar who had to regularly field inquiries about how to best “apply” the New Testament stories to real life. His response, which I heard on multiple, exasperated occasions: “Asking the question of, ‘How do I apply this narrative to my life?’ is like asking the question ‘How do I bake my grandmother?’ I can give an answer, but it will involve a lot of violence.”

Having listed two (and a half) features of a life open to the mystical could be understood as a brand of this indelicacy, I need to reemphasize the mystery woven into both attention and memory: what made your eye attend to the random person in the crowded room who became your partner? What brought forth the memory of a past joy which imputed the lightness of that time into a current despair? What makes the word on the page stand out, the right word, the word which frees you from a present pain? Even though these situations can be dismissed à la psychological conjecture, I cannot bend to such explanations—I simply love my grandmothers too much.


The only mystical life that I could accept would be one that holds space for fidelity to both the memory of a past divine encounter and the keen godlessness of the rest of life, without diluting either. They must dance together.

To live a life open to the mystical in our modern world, you must be open to the absurd possibility that Whatever is out there loves us—all of us—and wants to interact with us, even “though you have considered all the facts” (Wendell Berry). Even in the face of the massive mistrust and learned hatred of the self, you must accept that you have the potential for contact with the divine, even in the face of the God’s present absence—“God would have us know that we must live as [people] who manage our lives without him” (Bonhoeffer, again). To orient a life with such beliefs would require an open attentiveness to the world around and inside you, as well as a careful loyalty to the memory of the few miraculous experiences that arrive. Such a posture would require a healthy dose of humor for when you are wrong, which would be often, and a community of people with whom you can learn and grow and struggle through our bizarre world. To claim such a life would surely beget the rolled eyes of academics and the worried denunciations of those who are only comfortable with a God who speaks from a page. Let them be. To claim such a life makes you endlessly vulnerable before others, so, because you’ve caught me on a faithful day, I’ll go first:

My name is Spencer and I am a stigmatic.



Spencer Clark French is a poet and essayist hailing from the Midwest. He received his M.A.R. in Religion and Literature from Yale Divinity School and will begin his Ph.D. on the same topic at Notre Dame University in the fall. He currently resides in South Bend, Indiana. You can reach him here at his email:


Be Thou My Vision Therapist

by Mary Barnett

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

                                                                  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.




Mary Barnett is a choreographer and dancer who gradually became more interested in moving words around on a page than in telling dancers what to do.  Her choreography has been performed at Jacob’s Pillow Inside Out Festival, the DIA Art Center, the Cunningham Studio, DTW and the Vineyard Theater in NYC and throughout New England. She established In Good Company and curated a quarterly performance series called Dancing Out Loud in New Haven for 15 years. Currently, she is a student at Yale Divinity School and in the ordination process for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in CT. Her different interests are inspired by the same impulse: to make space, what is invisible, come alive and give testimony. Her work has been published in Tin HouseCommonwealChristian Century and now Letters. She lives in Branford, CT with her husband, three perfect children and two difficult cats.