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The Seen and Unseen

 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what is seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:16-18

One of the human afflictions Jesus addressed was blindness. True, he cured those whose eyes did not work properly, but physical blindness was not his primary concern. Spiritual blindness – a lack of awareness of the unseen realities within and around us – was his primary concern. “You have eyes but do not see,” was a common sentiment. We are blind to vast swaths of reality in our typical day-to-day consciousness. In general, we focus on what is seen and ignore what is unseen. From imaginary playmates as children to the communion of saints guiding us as adults, if it cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled, it cannot be real. A contemplative life expands one’s awareness of what is real and important to include both what is perceived by our senses, as well as that which is not.

When we gaze into the night sky, we see planets, stars, and constellations shining back at us. Some indigenous peoples saw patterns, not in the visible lights of the night sky, but in the dark spaces between them. Indeed, as we ponder the spaces around us – the air, the open areas of our rooms, the distance between my body and yours – we assume there is nothing there. Indeed, there is no thing there if we limit thingness to that which we can see, touch, hear, or smell. In so doing, we perceive only a small and often misleading portion of reality. Yet, even in our limited ability to perceive what is happening around us, we experience much that we cannot see. We cannot see or touch the fragrance of a rose but we know it is real because we smell it. We cannot see the signals from our cellular phones but we know they are real because we communicate over vast distances through them. We consistently underestimate the magnitude and impact of the unseen world around us.

It is an interesting and humbling aspect of our physical senses that we are capable of perceiving only a limited range of the vibratory spectrums making up the world around us. As a child, I remember someone with a dog whistle. I heard nothing when he blew it, but dogs nearby whimpered in misery. The sound of the dog whistle was not real to me, but it was painfully real to dogs. Sound waves exist on an infinite spectrum, but we can only hear a tiny portion of that spectrum. We are continually immersed in sound waves, even when our senses tell us the world is silent. The same is true of what we experience as light. We perceive a very limited range of colors because our eyes only receive a small portion of the infinite range of possibilities. Indeed, modern science has proven that we have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. How did Jesus know?

Through our senses and our early training, we think we are surrounded by mostly empty space in our immediate environment, in the atomic structure making up that environment, and in the galaxies surrounding our planet. The important point is not that we understand the physics behind the reality, but that we recognize the limitations of our senses. The empty space around us is not empty at all but is filled with a reality our senses cannot detect. Even so, these unseen realities impact our life experience as much or more than do the seen realities. Our world is vaster, more mysterious, and more beautiful than we can imagine. When our seen life experience leads us into despair, there is hope and reason for optimism in the unseen world. This is not wishful thinking, but faith-guided trust and surrender.

A contemplative life looks beyond what is seen, trusting that God is at work in all things and all situations, even and especially when God’s work is invisible to us. Such a life does not limit what is real or possible to the tangible information coming through our senses. As we become willing co-participants in God’s work through us, we find joy and purpose in whatever is, and we experience the kingdom of heaven on earth.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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