Perceive the Imperceptible

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Imagine a flower in a vase. Simple, right? You see the shape of the vase, a single or multiple stem, a few leaves, and of course, the flower’s color and variety. Now, erase that, and visualize just the space surrounding a flower in a vase. The exercise immediately becomes less concrete. Conjuring the invisible is not as easy. We generally think in terms of positives and tend to start with what is palpable. This is what we understand. But, seeing completely requires perceiving the imperceptible.

This concept was revealed to me as a young art student. I recall my instructor informing the class there were no lines in nature. She said what defines an object is the space that surrounds it. Our assignment was to draw the unknowable space. And, with that, the lens through which my 14-year-old eyes viewed the world changed forever. In the art world, this concept is called negative, or white space.

I once studied yoga with a deeply spiritual Catholic woman whose Shavasana (the final relaxation, and the best part for me) always included a guided meditation on the gaps between our inhalations and exhalations. She encouraged me to linger in the gaps, to pause for a few seconds between breaths and glimpse the pure and silent “God space” that existed there. It occurred to me that the gaps between my breaths shared the same unknowable space that surrounds all that is visible.

John O’Donohue, the late Celtic poet and author, calls the unknown space “the invisible,” saying it “is one of the huge regions in your life.” He says “when you become aware of the invisible as a live background, you notice how your own body is woven around your invisible soul, how the invisible lives behind the faces of those you love, and how it is always there between you. The invisible is one of the most powerful forms of the unknown.”[1] He goes on to say we tend to be uncomfortable with what we cannot know. It’s true. Don’t many of us try to control the invisible and unknowable gaps in our lives by filling them with pointless activities and noise, often interfering with Holy mystery in order to produce something palpable?

To explain “how it is” with the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells a parable about a seed growing itself (Mark 4:26-29). A man scatters seed on the ground and goes about his daily business. A few days later he sees that it has begun to grow, but does not understand how it happened (without his help). Theologian and author, John Shea, retells the story with a modern twist. In this tale, the man who sowed the seed, not wanting to miss a single moment of its germination, went out to the garden every day and uncovered the seeds to see how things were going. As a result, nothing grew.[2]

It’s so easy to fall into the same trap as the man who interfered with the seed, and it’s hard to permit the unknown, to dwell in the gaps, and to trust the invisible. Nicole Gausseron knows something of this subject. Nicole is the director and co-founder of Compagnons du Partage, a homeless shelter for men in Chartes, France, and the author of The Little Notebook: A Journal of a Contemporary Woman’s Encounters with Jesus, During a six-year period of intense work and prayer, Nicole experienced a deeply personal relationship with Jesus which she recorded in several journals. Many of the entries in her journals focus on the need to allow Jesus to work through her, to hand her worries over, and trust that the seeds of her work with the homeless were growing.

We might not always perceive it, but the world is flush with white space, sacred gaps, and the invisible activity of life. Divine activity occurs quietly, mysteriously. Even though we sometimes get in the way and uncover the seeds, or mess up relationships, or clutter our minds with deadlines, fears, and worries for the future—and leave little or no time for prayer and reflection—God’s work continues. It takes root almost imperceptibly, in the quiet, in the unknown spaces. Do you perceive it?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] O’Donohue, John. 2000. Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong. Reprint edition. New York: Harper Perennial. Page 27-28

[2] STD, John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 151

Photo: 1 Sunday Morning at the Backyard Photolab. ©2015 Robert Cowlishaw

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John O’Donohue (1956 –2008) was an Irish poet, author, priest, and philosopher. He is best known for his written works on Celtic Spirituality, among them the international bestseller, Anam Cara.

John (Jack) Shea is a theologian, storyteller, and prolific author who lectures nationally and internationally on storytelling in world religions, faith-based health care, contemporary spirituality, and the spirit at work movement.

Nicole Gausseron, the director and co-founder of Compagnons du Partage, a homeless shelter for men in Chartes, France, Her first journal was published under the title “The Little Notebook.” Three other journals were later translated and published.

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