Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A message for our time

This arrived in my email today from Fr. Richard Rohr, a man who has earned my respect over several years. Although he writes from a U.S. perspective, his words seem to me to speak to a much wider audience ...

Center for Action and Contemplation

Some simple but urgent guidance to get us through these next months.

I awoke on Saturday, September 19, with three sources in my mind for guidance: Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943), the young Jewish woman who suffered much more injustice in the concentration camp than we are suffering now; Psalm 62, which must have been written in a time of a major oppression of the Jewish people; and the Irish Poet, W.B.Yeats (1965 – 1939), who wrote his “Second Coming” during the horrors of the World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

These three sources form the core of my invitation. Read each one slowly as your first practice. Let us begin with Etty:

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too … And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.

—Etty Hillesum, Westerbork transit camp

Note her second-person usage, talking to “You, God” quite directly and personally. There is a Presence with her, even as she is surrounded by so much suffering.

Then, the perennial classic wisdom of the Psalms:

In God alone is my soul at rest.
God is the source of my hope.
In God I find shelter, my rock, and my safety.
Men are but a puff of wind,
Men who think themselves important are a delusion.
Put them on a scale,
They are gone in a puff of wind.

—Psalm 62:5–9

What could it mean to find rest like this in a world such as ours? Every day more and more people are facing the catastrophe of extreme weather. The neurotic news cycle is increasingly driven by a single narcissistic leader whose words and deeds incite hatred, sow discord, and amplify the daily chaos. The pandemic that seems to be returning in waves continues to wreak suffering and disorder with no end in sight, and there is no guarantee of the future in an economy designed to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and those subsisting at the margins of society. 

It’s no wonder the mental and emotional health among a large portion of the American population is in tangible decline! We have wholesale abandoned any sense of truth, objectivity, science or religion in civil conversation; we now recognize we are living with the catastrophic results of several centuries of what philosophers call nihilism or post-modernism (nothing means anything, there are no universal patterns).

We are without doubt in an apocalyptic time (the Latin word apocalypsis refers to an urgent unveiling of an ultimate state of affairs). Yeats’ oft-quoted poem “The Second Coming” then feels like a direct prophecy. See if you do not agree:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Somehow our occupation and vocation as believers in this sad time must be to first restore the Divine Center by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. If contemplation means anything, it means that we can “safeguard that little piece of You, God,” as Etty Hillesum describes it. What other power do we have now? All else is tearing us apart, inside and out, no matter who wins the election or who is on the Supreme Court. We cannot abide in such a place for any length of time or it will become our prison.

God cannot abide with us in a place of fear.
God cannot abide with us in a place of ill will or hatred.
God cannot abide with us inside a nonstop volley of claim and counterclaim.
God cannot abide with us in an endless flow of online punditry and analysis.
God cannot speak inside of so much angry noise and conscious deceit.
God cannot be found when all sides are so far from “the Falconer.”
God cannot be born except in a womb of Love.
So offer God that womb.

Stand as a sentry at the door of your senses for these coming months, so “the blood-dimmed tide” cannot make its way into your soul.

If you allow it for too long, it will become who you are, and you will no longer have natural access to the “really deep well” that Etty Hillesum returned to so often and that held so much vitality and freedom for her.

If you will allow, I recommend for your spiritual practice for the next four months that you impose a moratorium on exactly how much news you are subject to—hopefully not more than an hour a day of television, social media, internet news, magazine and newspaper commentary, and/or political discussions. It will only tear you apart and pull you into the dualistic world of opinion and counter-opinion, not Divine Truth, which is always found in a bigger place.

Instead, I suggest that you use this time for some form of public service, volunteerism, mystical reading from the masters, prayer—or, preferably, all of the above.

        You have much to gain now and nothing to lose. Nothing at all. 
        And the world—with you as a stable center—has nothing to lose.
        And everything to gain. 

Richard Rohr, September 19, 2020

Thursday, September 17, 2020


I'm a digital photographer. When it comes to technology, I have always been there waiting with open arms to embrace the new. I think I last shot film about twenty years ago when I started my digital journey with a sub-one-megapixel Kodak camera. But, when someone recently gave me a 1958 Kodak Retina Reflex in working condition, it caused a rethink. Now, some people extol the virtues of film over digital – they like the 'film look' or the experience of developing and printing film. I understand that. And, of course, to use a mechanical camera is to use film; but it wasn't the film that caused my rethink, it was the camera.

Whether mechanical or digital, the fundamental aspects of photography don't change. But, using a mechanical camera again, I realised that digital had distanced me from many of those fundamentals. With a mechanical camera, everything is in your face - from the weight of the camera (heavy) to the need to think carefully about subject, composition, light, juggling f-stops and shutter speeds, and dialling in a good focus. The sheer immersion in the detail of the picture-making process made me feel an integral part of that process – one with the camera and with the act of making a photograph. I had forgotten that feeling.

With digital, if I want, the camera can handle almost everything. My input is only necessary for the occasional circumstance when I needed something quite specific and different from what the camera will automatically provide. What is worse, subject selection and composition – perhaps the most important domain of the photographer -  has been demoted; digital allows me to shoot everything, any way I want, at no marginal cost – choices can be made later. Even Cartier Bresson's "decisive moment" has been reduced to a function of multiple frames per second. In a commercial context, these are all advantages for digital but, for the photographer, they began to look more like separation from the process and a limiter on personal growth and development.

So, this old mechanical film camera requires me to become more a part of the picture-making process - to engage my brain and make several deliberate choices which will either make or break the picture. The pushing of the shutter release is a final commitment to all the choices made, in a way that it seldom is with digital. And I began to wonder if it isn't in the making of all those appropriate choices that a camera-user becomes a photographer? And, if that is the case, then how was digital making me a better photographer? Perhaps it wasn't, and perhaps that is what is behind many photographer's fascination with the next best camera - some of us have needed to get better cameras because our cameras aren't helping us to become better photographers.

I'll keep shooting digital (because, convenience) but I think I might just have found a very good reason to also shoot film, in a camera that requires no batteries. Definitely retro-mechanical.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Feeling constrained

I'm waiting on an old TLR film camera to come from Japan. It's a hark-back to the days when I owned a TLR Rolliecord and I'm expecting to scratch an itch - what would it be like using a camera from my youth, with the addition of fifty years experience?

But, while I am waiting, I thought I would tackle a self-imposed challenge: Our cameras are so versatile these days, that I've read several photographers claiming that setting some artificial constraints is a good way to challenge yourself and help improve your skills. So, this morning, the sun beckoned and I thought it would be fun to push this type of challenge toward the absurd ...


A fish-eye lens, black and white pictures, square format, 12 shots (like 120 film), on foot, 60 mins. Go!


Nothing to hang in an art gallery here, but that's not the point - here's what caught my eye, and here's what got captured in-camera (I used Fujifilm's Acros film simulation with a red filter to darken the sky), split-toning applied later.







When the Ricohflex arrives, perhaps I'll take another 60-minute sprint around the town.
Ricoh RIcohflex Vintage Medium Format TLR Camera Overhauled image 0