The Lost Art of Beholding

October 21, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Magnolia Blossom, No. 1

We used to "behold" things.  We don't anymore. Somewhere along the way, Behold fell out of our vocabulary and doing it from our practice. Etymologically, it derives from the Old English word bihaldan, which meant to "to give regard to," "to hold fast," or even "to belong to." Behold is an unfashionable word, but more to the point, it is an unfashionable practice in a culture dominated by the busy person's glance, the consumer's looking for, and the Pharisee's stare.

Beholding something requires that we offer it our total attention, that we allow ourselves to be captivated by it in wonder and awe. When we behold something, we encounter it as gift and mystery. When we behold things, they do not so much belong to us as we to them.  Beholding things means lingering over them with a long, loving gaze, running our finger over the sharp edges of their beauty, and swaying to their silent melodies. When we behold, we participate in and even enjoy communion with what stands before us. And when we are done beholding, we release the butterfly that it might fly away.

We are often too busy to behold. The best we can muster is a glance. We pass our eyes over things casually and quickly. We give no regard, grant no honor, perceive no intrinsic value in the things at which we glance. We see casually, lacking mindfulness. In the hustle of modern life, we merely scan over things so we don't bump into them. The glance often grows in the soil of our exhaustion, habit, and apathy.

When we manage to move beyond the glance, it is often to the commodifying gaze of consumerism. This is the gaze of the shopper that looks twice, first at the thing, then at the price tag.  This is seeing as looking for -- looking for a bargain, a sale, or a curio for the living room shelf.  It is the kind of seeing that quantifies, calculates, compares, manages, commodifies, and, in the end, owns.  Such seeing is not really a seeing of the world but a seeing of mere products.

More dangerous still is the Pharisee's stare which meets what stands before it with a condemnatory gaze that is at once disdainful toward but thrilled by the forbidden.  When we stare, we reduce what stands before us to a freak that attracts us even as it is forbidden to us.  When we stare, we see pornographically. We do not participate in communion with the deep goodness of what stands before us. Instead, we watch from the side, emotionally disconnected even as our bodies, in this case our eyes, are aroused. The freak entertains us but does not call forth from us empathy, only disdain tinged with titillation. Fear triumphs over love, objectification over communion, pity over solidarity, judgment over grace, voyeurism over participation.

Beholding is graced seeing. It is an act of love that not only releases what is seen from our grasp but enables us to release our grasp upon ourselves. Beholding changes us for the better. Glancing, looking for bargains, and staring do not. When we behold things we see their glory and splendor, and this gradually remakes us.

Behold, Magnolia Blossom, No. 1.


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