Photography as a Spiritual Pursuit

November 20, 2017  •  Leave a Comment




Okay, I guess I ought to say right off the bat that this will probably be about much more than photography and spirituality.


If you are one of the two or three fine folks that have attempted to follow my writing you know that I tend to be all over the place.


While it may be hard to tell from the outside my life has been about the search for an authentic spirituality. This has been a long and sometimes painful journey that has shown no sign of coming to an end or even stasis. I guess that is spirituality, in a nutshell, if you think you have it, it is gone.


Spirit is life and life cannot be contained, forced or coerced it must be free to take its own course.  


Many of us begin the journey into spirituality with some idea of what it is we are going to find and then set about trying to make our experience fit into that model. It won’t so don’t try. Really, you can spend years in this manner and only leave yourself frustrated and depressed or worse, deluded.


Another trap we get into in the west, maybe the east, I really don’t know if it is particular to us or it a human thing or maybe just appeals to a certain type of personality, whatever the case may be it is a trap nonetheless. I am speaking of learning about spirituality.  


Learning about spirituality can for a time satisfy that inner longing that propels us on in the search of that connection a true spirituality offers. True spirituality costs and much of its price our minds are reluctant to part with. Learning gives the mind a bit of control it may not otherwise have, nor is that control conducive to a real spirituality.


An Anglican priest once told me, “The  mind is a great servant but a terrible master.”  I did not see the depth of truth to that statement at the time but it has become abundantly clear over the years many of which I spent serving that terrible master.


I think that the learning however it necessary to a healthy spirituality. A spiritual director is of great help along this path. I have always been a loner and that bent has pressed its character into my spiritual quest for better or worse. So I owe a lot to my education, what I have learned has brought me back from the brink more than once. I have had five great mentors in my life two were spiritual directors in the full sense of the term. Of course, I tended to go my own way until life forced me to see the wisdom in what they told me.


I guess I ought to get this out of the way for those of you who do not know me. I grew up in a wonderful church in a wonderful little town on the Colville Reservation. I attended college, seminary after earning a Bachelors of Psychology, Master's of Divinity I worked for a few years in postgraduate studies in the area of Christian Spiritual Literature. I did not finish my Ph.D. for a couple reasons. First, my mentor passed away and second I found what I was looking for and by this time I knew I would never again work as a pastor or in a church.  This decision is not about any anger or a perceived slight, it really came about because at the end of it all I realized that organized religion was just not for me. Nor do I think it is what I am called to do. Working out a calling is an interesting task especially for someone who does not fit in traditional roles, but it is possible whether or not others understand it.


I did spend over a decade as a Regent on the board of a highly respected Seminary. This is my one lasting bit of traditional Christian ministry and I am very proud of it.  I also will say right here that as one gets into spirituality and for lack of a better term I will use that old, battered and worn out word that is full of baggage which leads many astray of the truth, Mysticism, theologians tend to get nervous, and much of the time rightly so.


I have to admit that I, in a large part do not understand theologians and their spirituality yet it has been to a few that I have turned when the way gets muddled and believe me it does. Their contribution to Christianity cannot be overestimated. 


I don’t think we need spend much time convincing the church that we need theologians, well maybe these days more than ever we might, but I do find that the church has a problem with mystics and that I do understand however they too are important.  I have to admit that I  also have problems with the modern idea of a mystic.  The ones that seem to teach that once you have reached that spiritual plane everything is now easy and there are never any more problems that touch you. They now walk around in a false, floaty superficial faux spiritual act trying to convince themselves and others that they have arrived. Where I have no idea.


The old Zen adage, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water,” is well worth remembering.  


Yes, I have spent a lot of time learning from other spiritual traditions as well as Christianity. I will say this, for one who is grounded in your faith it can be quite enlightening.  While reading writings in Zen, Taoism, Sufism I came to see that the mystics of all the religions I studied, on some level, are saying pretty much the same things. This was a huge eye-opening experience for me. That many of their experiences and ah-ha moments convey similar truths.


I  read, I think, all or least most of the works of Thomas Merton. A brilliant thinker and Trappist monk. He spent years living in a Zen monastery while remaining a monk leaning of the Zen way. He has many very interesting things to say on the matter. One of my mentors was a friend of Merton and had many interesting insights to share about this man.


Lastly, I have studied the Martial Arts for around 50 years. I have studied in Okinawa and Japan and I have spent over a decade studying Chinese internal martial arts. My Sifu, a wonderful Chinese gentleman who is a Christian has taught me so very much about the Spiritual life.


The other thing that will probably make its way into this is white water rafting. There are so many great metaphors to be had on the river it will be hard to resist.  But for the most part, I will use my approach to photography in an attempt to help you understand what I am trying to say.


I certainly do not believe I have THE truth or even much of it. What I do have is the experience that has come from decades of my struggle along this road. It is my way and I am not in any manner trying to say it is the way or even a way, as you will find, your way will open itself up to you as you seek if you are just honest with yourself and willing to admit failure which seems to be the largest prerequisite for growth.


A line from the Desiderata, and yes I am aware this document is not what it claims to be, it is however still worth reading, says, “Beyond a healthy discipline, be gentle with yourself.” Truer words have…


This short parable below, I think, tells more about my journey and what I have found to be true than anything more I could write. I hope you understand it. Spend some time with it, let it speak to you in a way beyond words, in that place my mentor Francis would call, “the deepest determining part of your being.”



From The Madman

By Kahlil Gibran

My soul and I went to the great sea to bathe. And when we reached the shore, we went about looking for a hidden and lonely place.

But as we walked we saw a man sitting on a grey rock taking pinches of salt from a bag and throwing them into the sea. “This is the pessimist .” said my soul, “Let us leave this place. We cannot bathe here.”

We walked on until we reached an inlet. There we saw, standing on a white rock, a man holding a bejeweled box, from which he took sugar and threw it into the sea.

“And this is the optimist.” said my soul. “And he too must not see our naked bodies.”

Further on we walked. And on a beach, we saw a man picking up dead fish and tenderly putting them back into the water.

“And we cannot bathe before him.” said my soul. He is the humane philosophist.”

And we passed on.

Then we came where we saw a man tracing his shadow on the sand. Great waves came and erased it. But he went on tracing it again and again.

“He is the mystic,” said my soul, “Let us leave him.”

And we walked on, till in a quiet cove we saw a man scooping up the foam and putting it into an alabaster bowl.

“He is the idealist,” said my soul. “Surely he must not see our nudity.”

And we walked on.

Suddenly we heard a voice crying. “This is the sea. This is the deep sea. This is the vast and mighty sea.” And when we reached the voice it was a man whose back was turned toward the sea, at his ear he held a shell, listening to its murmur.

And my soul said, “Let us pass on. He is the realist, who turns his back on the whole he cannot grasp, and busies himself with a fragment.”

So we passed on. And in a weedy place among the rocks was a man with his head buried in the sand. And I said to my soul, “We can bathe here for he cannot see us.”

“Nay,” said my soul, “For he is the most deadly of them all. He is the puritan.”

And then a great sadness came over the face of my soul, and into her voice.

“Let us go hence,” she said. “For there is no lonely, hidden place we can bathe. I would not have this wind lift my golden hair, or bare my white bosom in this air, or let the light disclose my sacred nakedness.”

Then we left that sea to search for the Greater Sea.



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