In the sixteenth-century writings of the Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria Safed (1534-72) there is an intriguing creation story known as "The Shattering of the Vessels."
God, the story goes, created the world by pouring primordial, divine light into ten fragile vessels that would become the world. The primordial light -- the bearer of all beauty, goodness, and righteousness -- however, was simply too much for the fragile vessels, and they shattered into many shards, scattering their light into the world as innumerable sparks. These fragments of light are often hidden among the clay shards, held in bondage by the suffering and brokenness of the world. God then created human beings for the purpose of gathering up all the sparks of divine light scattered to the four corners of the earth. The good Jew is called to seek out and liberate the sparks of primordial light that bear God's presence in the world. To do so, is to pursue tikkun olam, "the repair or healing of the world."*
In this Kabbalist tradition, we find a powerful metaphor not only for faithful living but for creative photography. The metaphor suggests at least three things, the first about the object of our interest, the second about the impulse to create, and the third about the power of the beauty ingredient in resplendent light.
Photographic creativity is about searching out the delicate, scattered fragments of light that have already spilled into the world. This beauty is already there. You just have to find it. It's not in the eye of the beholder. It's in the nature of things. A photograph is a good one to the extent that it bears witness to those often overlooked but always given fragments of splendorous light already in the world. Photographs are invitations to liberate these sparks of light from bondage to the stale, habituated, hurried ways of seeing that conceal them from us.
But why do photographers search out these fragments of light? We do so not merely to make a beautiful image that pleases the viewer. We seek something deeper than the viewer's pleasure and approval. Photographs aim at a greater end, "the repair and healing of the world." Creativity is our attempt, often halting and always partial, to touch something real and outside of ourselves and to be healed by it. The creative gesture is also an invitation to others to touch it and be healed as well.
Artistic pursuit is thus not about a tortured artist expressing some fictional inner genius, inflicting the vagaries of her or his tumultuous inner life on the rest of us. Nor is it about creating pretty pieces to hang as ornaments on the wall above the sofa. Rather, the artistic pursuit of beauty reveals a longing for connectedness with the primordial light that is the source and end of all things. Creativity is at once the artist's own attempt and invitation for others to participate in the wholeness, restoration, and healing that lies at the heart of the world. To know the beauty of the light is to experience oneself as part of something much larger and infinitely more interesting than oneself. To experience such beauty, or better, to soak in it over time, is to live proleptically into wholeness, participating in the unifying power that creates, sustains, and directs all that is.
To experience the beauty made possible by resplendent light is both unsettling and liberating, troubling and reassuring. It is unsettling and troubling because having dwelt in its midst, we can no longer casually overlook the brokenness of our world that hides its sparks. We sense the unsettling dissonance between the fragments of light and all that conspires to conceal them. Contemplation flows into action, but an action that always returns again to the contemplation of the liberating, reassuring light that saturates all things.