The smudge on the conference room table didn’t really show a lion’s face. But I’ve been drawing lions lately, and have begun to know the pattern of their faces, and so I was predisposed to see eyes and muzzle staring up at me from the dark, burnished wood. I was so taken with it that I got out my sketchbook and drew it, even though I knew I was being rude, and seemed to have checked out from the conversation in the room. And I thought about the woman who saw Jesus’s face in the tortilla. I thought about her without cynicism, because I felt that I understood her. It wasn’t that she needed a miracle. She didn’t need Christ’s face to appear to her in a burn pattern on flat bread. If something miraculous was happening, it was happening inside of her, because she was so focused on Jesus that she could see him everywhere.
We see the things that we’re already concentrated on – they become visible to us in the world. I’ve always loved this tendency towards saliency, our ability to make meaning by narrowing our focus. But these days I’ve become wary of forcing my meanings on the world around me.
I’ve been reading nature poetry, Mary Oliver especially, and I love the turn that her poems take about three quarters of the way through. She’ll be doing nothing more than describing a scene in nature and then, suddenly, she lets insight break in like a break in the clouds. I admire this, but I also wonder about its merits. Should we inflict our insights onto the environment, onto swans and frogs and herons?
I wonder about this because I’ve realized that I’m not a nature poet. I’m not really a poet at all. The focus of my writing is on people. Yesterday morning I was standing in line at Buckeye Donuts. It was early, and the restaurant had that sparse, clear feeling of a well-lit place in the predawn. The man in front of me was deaf, and obviously a regular. He pointed to what he wanted with great precision, and the man behind the counter was fluent in reading his gestures. There was a young black man in a vest and a trilby hat standing against the far wall, waiting for his order to be handed to him. The deaf man gestured at him, and the man responded with words, smiling, because it was a conversation that they’d obviously had many times before. I watched all of this and felt a great inner joy, the same joy that Mary Oliver seems to feel when watching a loon rise from a lake. But I couldn’t say what the meaning was, because the deaf man and the man in the trilby hat have their own meanings, and who am I to superimpose my meanings onto them?
Perhaps its enough to simply observe their gestures. And yet, I have Christ in mind when I do so. An image rooted in my consciousness, a tendency to see His face swimming up to the surface of things. Sometimes its the face of a lion. I will not say that the deaf man and the man in the trilby hat were Christ, the Christ that
plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces. (Hopkins)
They may have been, and Christ’s face may emerge from their own. I will always be watching for it. But I want things, and people, to have their own meanings, too. Maybe it is only a statement about myself, the specificity of my concentration, the direction of my saliency, when I say that I see lions in tables and Jesus in people. Maybe that is enough. And maybe there is something miraculous about it, in a small way, because it points to a change in me, if not the world.