One of my least favourite things in all the world is Kingston traffic, Kingston traffic heading through crossroads at 5pm.
Petrol fumes and burning oil hang on hot, humid air. Cars, buses and pedestrians flooding frustration, pushing, pressing through non-existent lines. Revving engines roar and rage, horns beat out of time to the hollering song of the bus-conductors and taxi-drivers, all competing for the next catch.
It all grates like finger nails down the chalkboard of my senses. I hold my breath and grip the steering wheel of our old Vitara. Our old Vitara, held together with duct tape and prayer; The AC doesn’t work, three of the windows don’t wind up or down and two of the doors don’t shut properly. I arrive everywhere go covered in a layer of sweat and traffic fumes, a layer of anxiety and frustration.
And this is how I often arrived to our kids club in Trench town each week, feeling decidedly uninspired. Did I really want to be there?
Then one day something happened. I wish I could say it happened through a stroke of spiritual revelation or an epiphany of genius, but it wasn’t. It was an afterthought. An afterthought that changed everything after.
One day last year, not long before Christmas I threw our small portable speaker on the front seat before driving to kids club, unassuming it bounced on the passenger chair, a game changer disguised as a beat up speaker box. Without knowing what a difference it would make, I hooked up my phone to it and pressed play on my small collection of Christmas carols and Mercy Me songs, and I turned them up loud. Loud enough to combat the noise of the traffic, the assault of the blare, loud enough to combat the tension in my core and the fingernail scrape of the traffic down my soul.
And then I drove in increasing startled wonder through Liguanea, down Old Hope road and down to Crossroads. As the car travelled the distance on the road my soul travelled a distance within, not away from my heart but towards it, the distance between myself and a realisation. As the little speaker box unfurled its brave refrain the music re-made my eyes to see something unexpected. Where before I had seen only traffic fumes, heat and noise now I saw… life. A buffer of beauty between me and street, had given me the eyes to see the beauty in the street; the people, the colour the life; The man with his cheerfully painted fruit stall, the white teeth smiles of people chatting on the curb, the suffering of the woman selling vegetables. The struggle, the colour, the life, it all looked so different. And to my amazement, when I arrived at kids club that day, I was relaxed and free and alive. More alive than ever after a drive through Kingston traffic.
The noise was all there, the fumes, the heat… but I was there also, my eyes, my heart.
And I began to wonder if my stress in Kingston traffic was less about the traffic and more about the eyes with which I saw it. So much of the anxiety and stress I felt was not caused just by the world that whirled around me, but also by where I was at internally within these encircling circumstances. Where my eyes, my ears, my senses were all looking. Because how my eyes looked impacted what my heart felt, my internal reality; A spiralling sinking of self pity and frustration.
And as these thoughts have expanded in my heart over the past months I find myself stopping and looking through the holes of my life, seeing through the holes to where I was not whole. Moments over the last years that I missed, because I was looking through faulty eyes, eyes coloured by anxiety, frustration, doubt and self pity rather than eyes made brave by faith.
Albert Einstein said ‘Small is the number of people who see with their eyes and think with their minds’. How often have I worn faulty, scratched, fractured lenses and let these lenses warp and colour all I see?
Looking through layered lenses I miss so much. Lenses layered with frustration, anxiety and pride, layers of thanklessness and despair. Layers of partial truths. Layers of everything but light, the pure fresh light of reality, the reality all around me as it really is.
It’s not that what I was seeing before the music was false, because the truth is, Kingston traffic is loud and petrol fumes do suffocate and our car is, well, not the most comfortable ride. But all these truths are not the whole truth. They tell part of a story, they partially paint a picture. And a half truth can become a full deception, providing just enough evidence for eyes to fail to see. One scratch on the lenses of my soul can warp and colour all my sight, convincing me of a reality that is blind to the full picture that is real. I had used my physical discomfort in traffic to allow my eyes, allow my soul to slump into insular lazy self pity.
This is the thing I learned from my unassuming speaker box, meeting traffic onslaught with melodic medicine; my soul can colour my sight, but I can choose to adjust my lens. I can choose to see. It can be a practical choice, like turning on uplifting music, or turning off television. A tuning into beauty and grace and tuning out of self interest and soul junk.
I had thought spiritual sight was like an epiphany, a sudden opening of eyes, a realisation, a spiritual serendipity of sight, a sudden Spirit-fuelled-awakening to truth…and it is all these things. But the keeping of the eyes open… that is another thing. In the old church calendar Epiphany leads to Lent just as seeing must lead to the discipline of living with eyes wide open. Making seeing a habit, a spiritual discipline.
Jesus of Nazareth said “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness.” Luke 11:34
Healthy eyes. Jesus says it, and so many times I’ve read it in bewilderment without understanding it at all. But now I think I begin to see that eyes can be unhealthy. Sight can be spiritually anorexic, completely malnourished by the full light of truth. Blind. And the act of actually exercising the eye to see is a spiritual discipline.
And seeing is a spiritual discipline in two parts. The first part is choosing to see, and that can be the hard part because sometimes it requires a letting go of what we think we see, and what we feel we see, in order for us to fully see, to truly see. There is what I feel, but what I feel waxes and wanes with every hormonal change, every careless remark, every attitude triggered. Unless I choose to see, I will always feel to see, and therefore fail to see, fail to see fully. I needed to recognise that before I have the ability to choose my sight, I need the humility to see I don’t see fully. As the ancient writings in the book of Job say ‘Teach me Lord what I do not see’. Sometimes holding onto what I think I see too tightly can become the very thing that makes me blind to fully seeing. I need to cleanse the lens of my inner eyes so that my mind’s-eye doesn’t become my blind-eye, the eye that blocks my sight.
But the second part, the part that my speaker box experience showed me, is that the spiritual discipline of seeing can be practiced through sight nutrition. As GK Chesterton puts it, ‘Why should the eye be so lazy, let us exercise the eye until it learns to see’.
The gift of sight is there for all of us for the receiving if we truly want it. But sometimes it requires a lifestyle change; a change of diet. It’s often said ‘we are what we eat’, but more so, I suspect, we are how we see. The diet of our eyes is what shapes our souls. Just as a diet of junk food brings on a heart attack, a diet of soul-junk-food brings on a heart failure of a different kind. A failure for our heart to see clearly, to live freely, to live truth.
I cannot change the grind of Kingston traffic. But I can choose the song of my heart within it before I get there… I can exercise my eyes and teach them how to see. Before I turn the key in the ignition I turn the key in my soul, the one that chooses life over frustration and self pity. I choose where my eyes and my heart will focus, I turn up the music and turn down the self pity.
And my children, they daily teach me sight nutrition. They have a whole other way of sight. My two, they lie side by side out on the trampoline for hours into the sunset watching the waving clouds weave in their imaginations boats and space ships and stories unending. And they see… so much. It’s not what they see in the clouds, but the shape of their eyes, their souls, as they gaze. The awe-shaped openness to wonder that make them wide-eyed alive, spiritually open to the light. Of course on one level none of it is really there, and they know, they know it is all a delightful game, but what they experience on another level as they see these things, is joy, deep joy and that joy, it clears their eyes to really experience life. Whole-hearted-joy brimming life.
And there are days when sometimes I wonder if their joy-world with eyes wide open to wonder is more full, more real than my rushing, senseless, sensible, out-of-touch-with-my-senses reality world.
I like the version of Jesus words in Matthew 6:22 – 23 in Eugene Petersons’ ‘The Message’. “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!”
When do our eyes stop seeing the wonder in the clouds? When do our eyes grow cold and creaky shut? Unhealthy. Distracted. Self focused. Is it possible for us to unlearn all our worldly wisdom and relearn how to see? To open the shutters that shut us in and the light out?
Because, this openness to wonder, this is how to live out the spiritual discipline of sight. This is what it looks like; On the tired days, when my soul is feeling thin, when self pity and frustration are loitering by my door, it is these days I know that what I need is sight nutrition and soul nourishment, a diet of joy for my soul. I need to feast my eyes on something more, to feed my soul on soul food, to bask in the love of God and bath in the wonder He has planted all around us.
So I begin to practice sight nutrition. I begin to choose to choose to feed my eyes with wonder, tracing beauty and story in my life like my children do in the clouds. And spiritual discipline becomes like a spiritual treasure hunt, finding the nutrition for my soul and feasting my eyes on healthy soul foods like meaningful music while driving, giving thanks for the smallest moments, laughing and playing with my children, reading with Jesus in the quiet, spending time listening and praying with friends, walking under nature’s canopy looking up, breathing deep after a rainy day. I step outside, outside my self pity, outside my preoccupied rush, and I flood my soul with light.
And my camera, as all these other strategies I find, becomes a lifeline, a lens capturing glory, magnifying awe and I drink it in like I have been thirsty for decades. I hunt for the small and I make it big, I search for the things I have missed and I focus in. My aperture becomes my CPR, making sure I see, making sure I breath in life. I magnify, glory and then I drink deeply. I breathe the life I see before me, small things made big showing off their detail and incredible beauty. Fingerprints of God, everywhere. Things I might have passed by or trodden under foot, now I see. I wonder. I believe.
Ann Voscamp writes ‘The only way to see God manifested in the world around is with the eyes of Jesus within.’ Eyes spiritually nourished by grace are healthy eyes. Eyes that see. And I hear Jesus own words whispering through the ages “When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light.”
And I flop down beside my kids as they trace worlds in the clouds, and they lead me, showing me how to find it… the buried treasure of life lived with eyes wide open. Healthy eyes. Eyes alive in light.