The World, As It Is

roseIt has taken me many years to realize how to see. And only now do I realize that I have been partially blind for most of my life. I am not talking about the physical function of my eyes and my brain. I am talking, instead, about something we know intuitively, but have great difficulty explaining.

There is a very great difference between observing and contemplating. It has nothing to do with visual acuity or scientific knowledge of the thing I am looking at. It has nothing to do with daydreaming. It takes time. And in our world—where we are all “so busy” seeking to validate our significance by a continuous snowstorm of activity, projects, hobbies, exercise, and meetings—we simply cannot contemplate. I suspect it is because we are afraid to do so. Afraid, that all the investments of our time and energy will prove for naught. Which, as we know very well, is absolutely true.

Joseph Pieper, in his book Leisure, the Basis for Culture, writes of this distinction between observing and contemplating. Note that he does not even mention “normal looking”—which is the best most of us do: a causal, vaguely disinterested glance at appearances. Does it catch my attention like a bright shiny bauble? If not, then I move on. Pieper wants to talk about something much deeper, and therefore more important:

What happens when we look at a rose? What do we do as we become aware of color and from? Our soul is passive and receptive. We are, to be sure, awake and active, but our attention is not strained; we simply “look”—in so far, that is, as we “contemplate” it and are not already “observing” it (for “observing” implies that we are beginning to count, to measure and to weigh up). Observation is a tense activity; which is what Ernst Jünger meant when he called seeing an “act of aggression”. To contemplate, on the other hand, to “look” in this sense, means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them. There can hardly be any doubt that that, or something like it, is the way we become sensorially aware of a thing. [All quotation marks are Pieper’s]

What Pieper is saying is the same thing that has been said in Scripture for thousands of years. That our eyes function on many different levels: sometime we barely notice the world around us, taking its wonders and mysteries with the same sort of knowing as a pig. Sometimes we rise to the level of our reason: we observe, we analyze, we measure, we calculate, we record data. And sometimes, though all too rarely in our present world, we can contemplate and see the way things really are. This latter ability is rare and, worse, undesired. It is not difficult in the usual sense of that word, since it is obtained by receiving, but it takes time and, most importantly, is takes a certain type of spiritual vision. This spiritual vision is something that we have received from God, but which we usually neglect. We falsely believe that this world is as it appears to be.

In other words, why are we content to live like a pagan?