he who sent me is with me, and has not left me to myself
I was on a crowded platform recently, waiting for the tube train. Usually I would read or listen to the mantra. Then I watched intrigued as a woman immortalised herself repeatedly on a selfie. It was quite a performance, as she was determined to get just the right smile and tilt of the head and just the right background. She would pose, smile winningly at herself, then check the result on her screen and try again. She was blissfully absorbed in this operation and wholly unaware that she was standing in the middle of a moving crowd on a narrow platform. When my train arrived she was still aiming for the perfect shot.
As a result of intensive scholarly research on Wikipedia I discovered that the first known selfie was a daguerreotype taken in 1839 and now on the photographer’s tombstone. Lacking a smartphone, he would remove the lens cap, run into shot and stay still for a minute or two, before running back to cover the lens again. A more contemplative selfie. Artists have always liked to paint themselves and mirrors have been around since 6000 BC. We love to see ourselves even when we don’t like what we see.
Like anything relatively harmless in itself, it can become an obsession and shape a whole way of life. To control it, we need to practice other-centredness. To make this a habit alerts us to see when self-fixation is desensitising us to others nearby. It rescues us from entrapment in the self-consuming loop of narcissism. When we embrace the work of other-centredness we glimpse the ultimate dimension enfolding all dimensions, which Jesus called the ‘Father’, his default other-centredness throughout his life. It is the secret of distinguishing between reality and illusion and ‘seeing God’. As I was raised in a city, I have to try hard, when I am out in the country, to read the book of nature. Bonnevaux is teaching me and so have many people who loved this book all their lives.
The English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote some of the most beautiful poems about the natural world. He also used the word ‘self’ as a verb. To destroy beauty (one poem is about cutting down a group of aspen trees) is to ‘unselve’ the world. He saw God selving himself in the countless beauties of the world where ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’. This recalls the Tao Te Ching’s ‘10,000 things rising and falling’, which we can also interpret as endless distraction. What turns distraction into the vision of God selving the world is othercentredness: not what we see but how we see.
Now, with our doors of perception just a bit cleaner after Lent and the polishing of the mantra, what is more intriguing than to see things as the Mind of Christ – playing even on a crowded platform – sees them.