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Center for Action and Contemplation
Finding God in the Arts
Finding God in the Arts

Receiving Images

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Finding God in the Arts

Receiving Images
Thursday, August 19, 2021

Artist and author Christine Valters Paintner explores how we might reconsider traditional approaches to photography. Instead of “taking” pictures, she asks us to “receive” images similar to how we might welcome the presence of God in contemplation.

Contemplative practice is a receptive practice. We make ourselves available for grace to break in; we open ourselves to listen and ponder. . . .

We often use the word “take” to describe our relationship with photography. Our culture emphasizes taking time, taking what’s mine, and taking a break. What we are endeavoring to do in this process, however, is to receive (rather than take) the gifts around us, to be present enough so that, when the photographic moment arrives, we are able to receive it fully, with our whole hearts.

“Taking photos” is a common phrase, and changing that perception and process (especially if you use a smartphone, Lomo, or other disposable camera) may be hard to break, but I gently invite you to consider what reframing this process might be like for you and what it evokes in you. I invite you to bring a new awareness to how words and phrases can shape our experience and practices.

Rather than “taking” photos or “shooting” them or even “making” photos, we will practice “receiving” images as gift. The traditional words for photography are possessive and aggressive. Yet the actual mechanism of photography is that light is reflected off of a subject and received by the camera through the lens opening. We can create conditions for a “good” photo, but ultimately we must stand in a posture of receiving and see what actually shows up in the image.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke [1875–1926] writes in one of his poems of “no forcing [and no] holding back.” [1] When we are receptive we let go of our agendas and expectations. We allow ourselves to see beneath preconceived ideas. Rather than going after what we want in life, or “forcing,” we cultivate a contentment with what actually is. Similarly, instead of “holding back” and merely observing life or falling asleep to it, we stay awake and alert, participating fully in its messiness and we keep our eyes open for the holy presence in its midst. Photographing in this way can become an act of revelation. One of the gifts of art in general, and photography in particular, is that the artist can offer others this vision of the graced ordinary moment.

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, “I believe in all that has never yet been spoken,” in Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, rev. ed. (Riverhead Books: 2005), 65.

Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Sorin Books: 2013), 29–31.

Story from Our Community:
In the ’50s my sister attended Mt. St. Joseph College in Cincinnati. She was a music major and I remember being so astonished at the performances—120 women singing four-part harmony—as one voice. The joy or the sorrow in the songs absolutely electrified the audience. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. When I entered the Mount as a freshman a few years later, I knew that I had to be a part of the joy of music, moving people, and spreading the message in one voice. —Gabrielle S.

Image Credit: Arthur Greenberg, In a Field (detail), 1973, photograph, Illinois, National Archives.
Image Inspiration: The texture of this image inspires us to know this grass better by running our hands through and allowing it to tickle our fingertips. Likewise, when we create art, we experience an embodied knowing of God.
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