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Eyes to See, Ears to Hear

Updated: Sep 21

"I want to call my writing my art, but the truth is that I am the art, and my writing is the evidence."

~Emily Freeman


I live in the house of the Lord.

I travel to rooms where no man has tread.

I search for a lightswitch for days in my head.

Days in the dark room and I often find

that the sane part of me begins losing its mind -

an inevitability to which I resign,

to seek out dim hallways, time after time.

Why do I keep visiting these dark quarters?

Could I not settle for a lamplit room?

Or traverse on the side of the house where the moon

lends her pale light through tiny windows above

to cast shadows of fellow trespassers I'd love?

Oh, to find a companion who knows why I've come,

because I myself

have forgotten the reason.

Is my purpose to splash color on these transparent walls?

To make a spectacle of this sacred hall?

Would that not devour its sanctity -

is that the cost of accessibility?

Or perhaps I want it for my own,

this shadowed hall of precious stone.

For any color that I splash

would drape the truth I've found, and mask

it's rightful splendor from the masses

gathered by the door.

And all the color that they see

would be attributed to me -

but as the mob applauds me now,

there I slip out from the crowd.

In lieu of solace,

face of gloom

I seek another empty room.


-Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, November 2006


 

I emerged from the womb hungry for beauty, sensation, timbre, texture - for the mystery that could only be experienced through sound, symbol, and the language of myth. From an early age, I immersed myself unrelentingly in music, listening to certain songs on my cassette deck over and over, crawling inside of the worlds they drew me into. What was I searching for in there? It would be years before I would even begin to understand the questions.


Alone in my room at night, I drew elaborately detailed maps of the places in my imagination, only to keep the pages hidden beneath the mattress or inside of drawers where no one else could find them. What was I hiding? When I was old enough, I sat at my mother's typewriter and began to tap out my inner narrative using borrowed bits from other stories: Cinderella, on her way to the Crystal Castle, was kidnapped by Bowser and imprisoned for seven years, before escaping with Icarus to help Mega Man rescue Princess Zelda from the Jabberwocky at the center of the labyrinth.


Story and metaphor were the substrate of my self-understanding. I knew intuitively that they had the power to communicate what could not otherwise be spoken.


And there was so much that could not be spoken.


At the intersection of beauty and terror lies the unspeakable. This is the crossroads where I have spent much of my intellectual, psychological, and spiritual life. "We live in a terrifying world," writes Don Saliers, "shot full of absence and the perishing of what is held dear. But this same world is filled with immensely beautiful and wondrous things. Side-by-side with despair and senseless loss lays the mystery and the beauty of being." ¹ Experiences of beauty and terror alike render us silent. And silence, it has been said, is God's first language.²


At the intersection of beauty and terror lies the unspeakable.

In The Body Keeps the Score,³ world-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains how the different hemispheres of the brain relate to different arenas of human experience - and in particular, how the language centers of the brain are affected by trauma. You've probably heard of the "left brain" and the "right brain." Back in the 90s, it was popular to speak of "left-brained people" and "right-brained people" - those who were supposedly more analytical by nature, versus those who seemed to have a natural proclivity for the arts. Nowadays, thanks to updated research from the field of cognitive neuroscience, we have a much more comprehensive sense of the big picture.

All human beings utilize both sides of the brain in varying degrees as we navigate different aspects of our daily lives. Our right brain, which is the first to develop in the womb, is preverbal, intuitive, and sensory. It processes information and communicates through nonverbal expressions, images, and sounds. Our left brain develops later, as we begin to understand language and learn how to speak. This is the part of our brain that allows us to distinguish this from that - the basis for all rational and linguistic forms of communication. Our right brain allows us to register somatic information from the felt senses and the emotions as we experience them. Our left brain gives us the ability to name, classify, and compare our experiences across time.


Brain scans have shown that these two hemispheres also manifest in two very distinct forms of conscious self-awareness: one that is largely nonverbal, and is able to register the bodily self in the present moment, and one that is based in language, which allows us to make meaning of our experiences and maintain a coherent sense of identity across time. Because these two ways of knowing are localized in different parts of the brain, they typically remain largely disconnected from one another.


Van der Kolk also explains how psychological trauma effectively shuts down the language centers of the brain. "All trauma is preverbal," he writes. "Even years later, traumatized people often have enormous difficulty telling other people what has happened to them... Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past."


 

This paradox of language, and its limits for expressing the most substantive aspects of our lives, is what lies at the heart of "Thoughts Transfigured." It begins with the premise that theology will always be much closer to the arts than it will ever get to philosophy, science, or reason. Because theology utilizes language to try and name aspects of the human experience that ultimately exist beyond language itself, theology can never be reduced to a mere set of doctrines, belief statements, teachings, or laws.


The language of theology is thus the language of art, which as Julia Cameron writes, is "a wordless language, even when our very art is to chase it with words."


This emphasis on "art" is not meant to downplay the seriousness of the task at hand, nor is it meant to disparage the role of critical analysis, distinctions, and boundaries in our quest for truth, wisdom, and human wholeness. After all, boundaries are an essential feature of all healthy human relationships, as well as all higher forms of ritual, and play. Art is, itself, fundamentally rooted in contrast, and as Orsen Welles once said, "the enemy of art is the absence of limitations."


Art is, itself, fundamentally rooted in contrast.

Even the ancient Hebrew creation story itself can be interpreted as a sheer celebration of the potentialities inherent in linguistic consciousness: Genesis 1 depicts the entire cosmos as coming into being through a series of separations - distinctions between this and that: darkness and light, day and night, earth and sky, air and water, plants and animals, male and female, work and rest. Each new dialectical tension is declared as "good" - for it is only through individuation and diversification that we can participate in the ongoing act of creation through intimacy, relationship, and love.



Conversations about "spirituality" nowadays tend to be dominated by themes like non-duality, unitive consciousness, oneness, and present-moment awareness - teachings and practices that emphasize the functions and frameworks of the brain's right hemisphere. Our cultural and political landscape is likewise increasingly organized around the questioning, testing, altering, and/or dissolving of all binaries and boundaries. This cultural emphasis makes sense when we consider the extent to which right-brain ways of knowing have been devalued and suppressed in Western society during the last several centuries.


Ever since the "Enlightenment," our cultural and religious landscape has been dominated by logic, law, and reason, while the intelligence of the body, the emotions, and the imagination have generally been treated with suspicion, condescension, and cynicism. For much of the modern era, left-brain ways of knowing were considered civilized, refined, and "cultured," while right-brain ways of knowing were considered animalistic, childlike, and "primitive." Driven by the logic of capitalism and colonialism, modernist ideologies of segregation, classification, and social stratification came to serve as justifications for the subjugation of land, women, indigenous people, and people of color all over the planet.


Thankfully, our culture slowly seems to be awakening from this collective trance, as globalization and new technologies have ushered in a post-modern era that has enabled new discoveries in biology, neuroscience, physics, and archaeology, which fundamentally disrupt the "black and white thinking" patterns that characterize the modern Western worldview. These findings from the "hard" sciences are also converging with new perspectives emerging from psychology, social theory, and religious anthropology, rendering many of the old debates between science and religion obsolete.


Somewhere between the pendulum swing of imagination and critical analysis lies the heart of a thought transfigured. It is a hope for a more integrated way forward that honors both the logic of reason and the emotional intelligence of intuitive insight.

 

Today is the "Feast of the Transfiguration" in the Christian tradition - a celebration of what is admittedly one of the strangest moments in the Gospels. Jesus climbs to the top of a mountain with his friends, only to appear suddenly as if he were lit like the sun from within. They begin to pick up on other voices as well, and soon they recognize Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus - two figures who represented the two spheres of Hebrew tradition in the law and the prophets.

"Transfiguration" by Rebecca Merry

In the Gospel of Mark, the transfiguration serves as a significant pivot-point at the literary center of the story. It frames and foreshadows Jesus' role as an integrative figure between the logic of law and the passion of prophetic witness, between justice and mercy, between human and divine, between sacred and mundane, between life and death. Through the transfiguration, Jesus' friends catch a glimpse of the glory of God. In a broad sense, the word "transfiguration" is defined as "a change in form or appearance, into a more beautiful or spiritual state." But in the Gospels, transfiguration is less an actual change in state than it is a shift in perception - one that leads to an awareness of deeper truths that were there all along.


Religious and spiritual teachers often use words like "sacred," "transcendent," "holy," and "heavenly" to describe this deeper kind of seeing. But such elevated language can only seem to widen the perceived chasm between mind and body, head and heart, sacred and secular, heaven and earth. As Parker Palmer writes, "The spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is, stripping away our illusions about ourselves, our world, and the relationship of the two, moving us closer to reality as we do. The process begins with losing the illusion that spirituality will float us above the daily fray."


The spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is.

African American theologian Barbara Holmes describes it in this way: "When you least expect it, during the most mundane daily tasks, a shift of focus occurs. This shift bends us toward the universe within - that cosmos of soul and spirit, bone and flesh, which constantly reaches toward divinity." Transfiguration asks us to bend an ear towards the threshold of our understanding in order to see what resonances we might be able to pick up from just beyond the veil.


In our culture, it is often the artists, the musicians, the writers, and the actors - those who work with the humble, everyday materials of sound, symbol, light, gesture, and earth - who most earnestly and compellingly engage in this sacred act of transfiguration, perceiving the "thin places" where the human and the divine meet, and crafting the appearance of things in ways that lay those deeper truths to bare. Transfigured seeing is always a tightrope walk between story and fact, skepticism and wonder, seriousness and play. But somewhere, hanging in the balance, we catch glimpses of the glory of God.


 

My name is Kristen Leigh Mitchell. I am an independent scholar, spiritual director, and artist, with a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary, and an undergraduate background in social psychology, music, media, and comparative religion. My academic and theological training have given me "eyes to see" and "ears to hear" in ways that cut across multiple disciplines, demographics, and denominations.


That being said, I know that whatever I have to say that is truly worth sharing with the world comes first and foremost from my experiences - the humble circumstances that give context to my life and the relationships, and have shaped me as a human being. I am an academic, an artist, and a child of God, but I am also a daughter, a sister, a dreamer, a lover, a survivor, a traveler, a musician, and a friend. I have struggled with mental illness, addiction, neglect, homelessness, abuse, abandonment, and devastating loss. I have battled mightily with the tensions between order and chaos inside of me, and somehow I've managed to come out the other side singing "thank you, what I became."


"Thoughts Transfigured" is meant to be a journey of exploration, imagination, and integration - a both/and space in which I can share stories from my life, along with some of the insights, knowledge, and resources I've picked up along the way. I hope to post new content at least once or twice a month - sometimes more, sometimes less - but always with the intention of allowing the topics to simmer sufficiently in the wellspring of transfigured thought.


It is my sincerest hope that you will join me in the conversation! Always feel free to leave comments below with your own stories, perspectives, and thoughts transfigured. I look forward to hearing from you, learning from you, and discovering what creative connections we might make together along the way. Cheers!



References

¹ Don Saliers, "Beauty and Terror," Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 2 (2), John's Hopkins University Press, 2002.

² "Silence is God's first language. Everything else is a poor translation." -Thomas Keating

³ Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, New York: Penguin, 2014.

Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, New York: Penguin, 1992.

Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Gravity, Grace, and Getting Old, Oakland: Berrett-Koehler, 2018.

Barbara Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

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