Finding the Holy in the Secular
“Sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” -BCP
The term sacrament is fairly new to me. Seeking sacrament is not. As an unchurched child, my experiences of God were unavoidably “secular” and undeniably visceral. I met God in the woods and the fields of my father’s farm. God would be there in the mud and rot and dirt under my fingernails after a long day outside. I saw God in the seeds that became shoots that became stalks that became the corn that I would take into my body. There is something sacred in the growing of things, and I felt it deeply. I felt a deep connection to the animals that I saw being birthed. I saw them struggling to live just like me. They were wild and captive at the same time. I could relate. I experienced their lives and the lives of all growing and then dying things as signs of God’s radical grace. Unchurched and hungry for communion, I sought and discovered sacrament in the secular without knowing it.
As a teenager, my longing for God and Christian community led me to my local Southern Baptist Church. There I encountered a tradition that preached the dangers of the secular world. Inside the reinforced doors of this church community we were safe. Outside of those doors was an unholy world waiting and watching for signs of weakness. Segregation and exclusivity were armor against contamination of the spirit. In order to live as Christian, the distinction between Holy and secular was critical. I failed horribly at distinguishing between the two. I could not turn toward church at the expense of the only way I had ever authentically experienced God. So, I turned away.
Photography found me many years later with the birth of my first daughter. Her life and the intensity of our connection whispered of timelessness while also testifying to life’s fragility. Loving so deeply and being connected so completely to another human being felt completely natural and absolutely necessary. On the other hand, it triggered an urgent need to withdraw and self-protect. There may be no greater vulnerability than to love with your whole heart. Photography grounded me in her flesh while revealing moments that can only be described as sacred. Camera in hand, I once again found myself trying to make sense of a world where the secular could not and would not separate fully from the Holy.
As I turned my camera away from my own life and towards the lives of others, I discovered a striking commonality of experience. It was reflected in the tenderness between parent and child. It was present in the details: sticky hands, gap-toothed grins, firm grips and scraped knees. It revealed itself in the shared looks between parents. They were overwhelmingly exhausted and grateful at the same time. I could relate. Just as I met God in the places of my childhood, I met God in the vulnerability of my subjects. Every one of us lives moments that, once gone, are impossible to recreate, breathing importance into otherwise mundane occurrences. Every one of us feels the weight of our own mortality and the mortality of those we hold dear. Human experience is so common, so communal. And yet, it’s so unique, so individual. Behind my camera, I am both a witness to and a participant in this mystery.
The beauty of photography is its ability to make visible the blessedness of each individual and the deep connection between all people. In this way, it mirrors the mystery of our highly personal and yet preciously communal existence. My fingers itch for a camera every time I experience God in the world. I seek sacrament in the secular so that I might photograph it. I photograph it to acknowledge it, to cherish it, and to point to it. Photography is a medium through which I turn my internal experience outward.
My discovery of the Episcopal Church ran parallel to my discovery of photography. In both I met God in flesh. In Christian community, I heard stories of a God who poured himself into the flesh of an infant. From that most vulnerable of beginnings, this God grew into a man who broke bread with sinners, who spit and sat on the dirt of the earth, who touched the untouchable and seemed to value all flesh, and who called us to love God and to love one another. This God blurred lines, dissolved boundaries, and immersed himself in the worldly. This God is a God of radical action. This is the God that I have glimpsed in my photography. Just as Christians are Easter people, I believe this God calls us to be sacramental people. It is because of Jesus that we can not deny that God’s grace can be made visible in even the most unlikely of places.
To embrace a faith rooted in flesh and reflected in the “secular” is not to discount the value of church. Quite the opposite. An expansive faith is difficult, if not impossible, to bear alone. An expansive faith must rest on the shoulders of community. A church community should remind us that we are but one part of the larger body of Christ, which is not limited to our space or our people or our beliefs. A church community should demand we turn outward when we want nothing more than to turn only to them. A church community should teach us what turning outward looks like. A church community should push us out into the world and then accept us back like any good mother with open arms, soothing words, and band-aids if necessary, never letting us rest too long before pushing us out again.
Influential documentary photographer and photojournalist Dorothea Lange suggested that “the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” It strikes me that church should do the same, teach people how to see without church. Each of us is called and equipped to participate deeply in God’s continuing act of creation and reconciliation. What is church for if it does not encourage us to recognize this truth, cultivate our distinct abilities, and turn outward so that we might see and point to Christ at work in the world? So that we might be God’s work in the world? Church should challenge us to blur lines, dissolve boundaries, and discover Jesus in the worldly. Church should facilitate a participative and sacramental faith.
We were but dust turned bones before God breathed into us the breath of life. Photography is one way I attempt to turn that breath breathed into me at the beginning outward. It is how I remind people, and myself, that deep within us is a God-space that cannot be made unclean, that there is a grace that moves between us that cannot be denied, that there is within us still that first breath of God. It is one part of the participative and sacramental faith I feel called to live.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 edition of The Virginia Episcopalian Magazine. See it there: http://www.thediocese.net/News/VirginiaEpiscopalian/