Eye of the Beholder- Look, See, Pray

Cotswold Landscape

How do we decide what is beautiful? Here are two photographs, one a landscape taken in the Cotswolds. The other- an abstract view of beach huts in Bognor.

Beach Huts in Bognor Regis- rear view.

Which is more beautiful? I have no idea what you will say. Guessing, I think more people probably will prefer the landscape. It is the kind of rural scene that John Constable painted; dramatic skies, big trees, everyday scenes which (almost) idealise the English countryside.

Others may be drawn to the bright mix of colours, geometric shapes, and the abstract viewpoint which makes the onlooker interpret their own meaning in the image.

Things that may influence our choice will be very varied. Background, education, artistic gifting, training, what we expect a picture to be… Or what if colour-blindness affects us?

I discovered I loved John Constable’s paintings when I was about 14. A breakfast cereal company offered tokens: when a certain number were collected, I was sent a copy of “The Haywain.” Loved it! Then I acquired the “Cornfield”. Still the vouchers kept coming (a family of six gets through cereal quickly) and I rashly ventured out in a new artist… Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire.” It was different, yet familiar, and the colours and lighting… well, wow!

My art teacher at school taught us about the Impressionists. Initially, I was underwhelmed. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t recognise what I was looking at! He persevered with our youthful and developing brains, and Monet and Manet and Van Gogh entered our appreciation zone.

Then we came across Picasso. It just seemed WRONG.

Yet friends of mine loved his work. Strange world, odd people… How far can “art” go before it becomes no longer art? Is that even a reasonable question to ask?

Now, I have my preferences and my favourites, and I have learned to appreciate some art that seemed challenging at first. At least I have learned how to look. No doubt we all have different things that make us go “ahhh” and others that get the response “yuk.”

But when we look at a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, a tapestry, we have a moment in which we can learn, we can be stimulated, challenged, and inspired. Similarly we can read, or listen to music, or use our own creativity: that’s wonderful. These are all ways in which we interpret our world and find beauty in living. But why do we bother?

Because “beauty” is a soul-food. Beauty is one of the ways God touches our deep inner being; in nature, art, music, poetry we can experience an other-worldliness, even a transcendent “lifting” of our spirit into a moment of being God-present.

Here is an ancient expression of this: look at something you find beautiful, and read these words: “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens… When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers- the moon and the stars you set in place- what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” (Psalm 8:1, 3-4, NLT)

Journey’s Blessing- Look, See, Pray

Some photographs are planned- some just happen. I waited at Bonehill Rocks above Widecombe-in-the-Moor for the setting sun to break through the cloud: then with little warning, a climber stepped into the light. The traveller was enshrined- his journey over the rocks and wild hills of Dartmoor has been immortalised.

We didn’t speak. He may not even know he was photographed. His evening was all exertion and the warm glow of achievement.

I regard this as a favourite photo. It tells a story- or lets YOU tell a story- about the silhouetted figure against the warm light. Dark clouds and solid granite frame the moment. What does it say to you?

A prayer for all who travel, who make pilgrimage:

“God bless the path you take, and the earth beneath your feet. May God bless your destination.”

May God guide you, protect you, and make your travelling a blessing to others when you arrive.

Ups and Downs- Look, See, Pray

Back where we started… nearly. East Sussex to West Sussex, via the hills of England. As a child, it seemed hilarious that the local hill areas were called “Downs” instead of “Ups.” It’s still quite funny.

Many youthful hours were spent exploring the South Downs. Foredown, Southwick Hill, Truleigh Hill, the Devil’s Dyke, Lancing Clump, and Mount Caburn… There were favourite walks, and other walks when we kids were “persuaded” to enjoy a long hot slog across rural Sussex. We survived; maybe even thrived!

Later more competitive jaunts featured: including one ambitious navigation exercise eastwards from Brighton which proved interesting when a local farmer demolished a barn which was (unknown to him) supposed to be a crucial waymark that weekend. Teams disappeared in various directions as those groups lacking guidance and map-reading skills improvised. That was a long day.

Welsh mountains, the glorious Lake District, the Peaks of Derbyshire, the delights of Dartmoor, sunny Dunstable Downs- and now living in sight of the South Downs again. I have been privileged to live in beautiful places. Do I have favourites? Yes- all of them!

What started out as family walks to keep us occupied and use up our excessive energy gradually changed into a lifetime’s passion. After a while, I began to “read” landscapes. Their shapes and contours, the pathways, and the flora and fauna became a storybook. In time the countryside became a prayer-book: a favoured place to seek God, and to think through the ups and downs of decision-making and (even more important) the ups and downs of my own heart.

Look at the photo. Rounded contours form a shape painted by evening sunlight. Crops are growing, with the trails of tractors weaving patterns that give a sense of both movement and symmetry. Somehow the farmer overcomes the slopes to maintain straight lines. There is purpose in the landscape that rests on the very bones of the Earth. People pass through, changing the surface, but leaving the immense chalk mounds untouched.

How does that reflect our own lives? Our small ambition, even our great purpose, is acted out on a mighty stage. The hills represent the great unchangeable structure of the world- our greatest efforts and achievements, our human history there to be re-written by the next generation.

Climbing these hills is always laborious. The summits are never easily gained! Even the journey down-slope is hard on the knees- but the view from the summit, the sense of attainment, the awe that comes from being a very small creature in a huge, huge planet… THAT is a place for vision, for choices, celebration and encouragement. If you allow, it is a place for worship of the Most High God.

Perhaps, using the photo or your own memories, you can spend some moments of prayerful reflection on your own life, your ups and downs, and your faith. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s favourite “hill” and the promise that humanity WILL come to worship… why not now?

Isaiah 2:2 (New Living Translation) In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s house will be the highest of all— the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.