There are times when I wonder about what price we paid as a species when we moved onto the shores of literacy.
In some ways, new worlds were opened up as they became more accessible through the written word, through more refined and exacting symbols. Words and their meanings, in written form, expanded our reach into whatever lay before us and within us. Or at least did so in a different way.
In a pre-literate world, meanings were conveyed through the spoken word, through art, through myth, through communally shared memory as enshrined through religious ritual and societal celebrations. Song and dance gave way to print, to reading, to amassing accounts of the past and doing our best to read into the future.
The shift from oral culture to written culture was enormous. It did not take place without an enormous a price. Something was gained, but much was also lost.
We are so used to using words, language and thought to approach and figure out the Big Mysteries of life. Life and death, God and the human person, are all dissected with the sharpened scalpels of language, penetrating thought, comparative analysis.
At times, it all strikes me as an ongoing autopsy on a corpse whose life-giving spirit has long fled the body. Yet we still slice and examine whatever piece of flesh that may yet be warm, may yet hold some life.
But if the spirit has fled our attempts to capture and hold him with words and meanings, if the spirit cannot be framed in a text, or place in a jar, then where is he?
Perhaps where he has always been and is and always will be.
A previous and preliterate age rejoiced in the natural world. It was believed, and I might add experienced, that God dwelt in creation, in all living things.
The psalms attest to this sense of the mutual indwelling of the divine and the created world. Mountains rejoiced, rivers clapped their hands, streams ran for joy, birds and beasts were revelatory, harbingers of presence and grace.
As science, fueled by literacy and the heady discoveries as to what constituted the "real," deflated and then banished the world of myth, there are some who attest that we then entered a godless horizon. We had arrived, unwittingly, at a place that seemingly no longer had a need for the divine.
It is no small wonder that we are all spiritually parched. We are hard-wired for God, but most of our inner wires are fed by currents that flow unceasingly through currents that link us with satellites, media devices, cellphones, computers. The world may be ours with the press of a button or two or three, but God comes no closer.
Yet God is here. And so are His footprints, His markings, His signatures.
One cannot capture beauty. We can share in its creation, and bask in it, but it is not ours to possess. Beauty is silent in its approach, in the ways that it captivates us and invites us to ponder its source, its ultimate meaning, its capacity to make us cry tears of joy, of awe.
But we can miss it if we are glued to a screen, or plugged with earphones.
Beauty demands that we disconnect, step out of habit and routine and look close at what comes to us through the flow of the ordinary. Jesus did not analyze the natural world. He let it speak. He gave it a voice. And it still speaks.
Martine Franck was a Belgian artist, a photographer whose husband was the late Henri-Cartier Bresson. In speaking of her attraction to photography, she said that, "I realized that photography was an ideal way of telling people what is going on without having to talk."
Her photographs attest to the truth that beauty can impart a sense of the numinous, the spirit that dwells in and through us -- a beauty that lives and breathes, laughs and cries, and, at times, poses before a lens held in the hands of one who wants to see it, and share it.
There is a divine spark within each of us, which is the living and seeking presence of God. Maybe God does not talk like we do. He may even lack ears like ours, for He may have no need of hearing since He is present to all we say, feel, long for, suffer for.
He is larger than our words, our hearing, our hearts -- though he dwells in our hearts and is the life and its very hunger, the silence that is beauty feeds the soul.
A world can be conveyed through something as small and as captivating as a photograph. Photographs do not speak, but they say more than words.
For God is in the picture, inviting us to open our eyes, and trust what we see about us every day of our lives.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.