There were once two fathers, one rich and one destitute. The wealthy man took his son to the highest peak in the village and said, “Look. Someday this will all be yours.”
The poor man took his son to the same place and said, “Look.”
Let it sink in before you read on. Who is the rich man in this scenario? The most priceless gift is the ability to see.
The painting that sits above the couch where I write is by famed Lexington artist Carolyn Young Hisel. A reclining woman faces away from the viewer, her buttocks and the curve of one breast barely visible amid the dazzling, colorful bed on which she lies. Izzie is ashamed of it, is embarrassed to ask friends over because there are “gross, naked pictures everywhere.” She’s young; I forgive her ignorance.
Carolyn’s life was an attempt to “capture the holy light.” The phrase pierces me, breaks me in just the right way. Yes. Many scholars say the word religion arises from the Latin religare, meaning to tie, bind or moor, faith as a way to unite what we see and what we feel.
Let my religion be an attempt to capture the holy light, to pay attention with grateful awe, to see.
Capturing the holy light is being awake, living in spiritual alignment with our deepest values, illuminating and stepping into our truths. The holy light is transient, both ever changing and absolutely immutable. We cannot capture it, can only get flashes of insight drawing us ever closer to consciousness. It calls us to be thieving magpies, always searching for the tiny tidbits that assemble a life of wonder, inciting us to focus.
But true sight takes work; interruptions and distractions abound. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence, told his publisher that he wanted his next book to be about focus. His editor replied, “That’s great. Just keep it short.”
What a funny but sad commentary on our times. Neuroscience says that the human attention span has dwindled from 12 seconds to 8 seconds in less than a decade. For perspective, a goldfish will stare at something outside of its bowl for 9 straight seconds before swimming off. We are in an arms race against distraction, quickly losing our ability to focus. In a world that wants to simplify, hack and multitask, sustained concentration is a rarity. Instead of choosing where our attention lies, we allow the world to dictate what we think about it.
Focus is controlled attention guided by intention. We need to wrest back control of our attention if ever we are to capture the holy light. A fun and easy way to start is with art.
What adorns the walls of your home?
Why did you choose each painting, picture or affirmation?
Do aesthetics matter more than the emotions a work evokes?
When was the last time you really looked at those images?
Gazing at art lowers levels of cortisol and balances levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that drives focus and concentration. It builds new neural pathways across the left and right hemispheres of the brain to improve focus.
More importantly, art is a way to seek divine connection. I think of Pope Julius II, how he was criticized in his time for commissioning a huge painting instead of feeding the masses. Yet, more than 500 years after his death, I stare heavenward in awe and reverence at the splendor of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. The Pope’s sacrifice made space for spiritual listening, searching and seeing decades later.
Art as a prayer. Art is a prayer.
What I’m saying is this. You needn’t close your eyes to pray.